The Fighting ‘Fair Sex’

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent announcement to overturn official US military policy which banned female service members from artillery, armour, infantry and other combat roles has caused much comment.

Frankly, I don’t quite understand this reluctance on the part of some governments when it comes to committing women to battle. History is littered with examples of women who have taken up arms for their country.

A previous article on this site showed the vital role played by female spies during the American Civil War. When it comes to actual combat there are still plenty of examples of women putting their lives on the lines to engage the enemy.

Here, with the help of, are some of the more memorable members of the ‘fair sex’ who gave as good as they got on the battlefield.

Amazons:  Legend has it that the Greek hero Heracles led an expedition to the Black Sea region to capture the girdle of the Amazonian queen, Hippolyte. He is then said to have expelled the Amazonians from the area. But are the Amazons purely myth?

According to, burial grounds used by ancient nomads known as the Sauromatians have yielded skeletons of women buried with weapons including iron swords or daggers and bronze arrowheads. The Sauromatians were said to be descendants of the Amazons and the Scythians, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C.

Boudicca: Queen Boudicca led her Iceni warriors in a rebellion against the Roman Empire in A.D. 60. Her army wreaked havoc in Roman Britain, defeating the Roman Ninth Legion and destroying the capital at Colchester, as well as Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London). When her army was finally defeated, Boudicca allegedly took poison rather than face capture.

Vikings: Viking women are believed to have accompanied their men on their raids in Britain and Ireland in the ninth and tenth centuries. Almost half of the bodies found in an examination of 14 Viking burial grounds in Britain belonged to women, and some were buried with the swords and shields they presumably used when alive.

Joan of Arc: The Maid of Orleans was born a peasant girl. Believing God had chosen her to save her country during the Hundred Years’ War, she commanded the French army in its victory over English forces at Orleans in 1429. Captured by her enemies and tried for witchcraft and heresy, she was burned at the stake. She is the patron saint of France.

Grace O’Malley: Also known as Gráinne O’Malley and Granuaile amongst others, she was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and a pirate in 16th century Ireland.

Her exploits ranged from outright piracy to kidnapping and attacking neighbouring strongholds. She even met Elizabeth I and is said not to have bowed before her as O’Malley did not recognise her as the Queen of Ireland. At a time when women were more often seen than heard, she was clearly an exceptional person.

Countess Constance Markievcz: Accounts vary, but it is believed that she shot a Dublin Metropolitan Police officer dead at Dublin Castle during Ireland’s 1916 Rising. She was second-in-command at Stephen’s Green, under Michael Mallin, where she supervised the setting up of defences and held out with her men for six days.

Other members of Cumann na MBan were present at key sites during the rising, and acted as messengers between the various strongholds. Only at Boland’s Mill, where Eamon De Valera (later President of Ireland) commanded were women prohibited from standing shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades.

Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko
Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko
Countess Constance Markievicz

Countess Constance Markievicz

Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko:  In June 1941, 24-year old Pavlichenko elisted and was assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division.

In one of the battles, Pavlichenko replaced the batallion commander killed during the fight and was later wounded but refused to leave the battlefield.

Lieutenant Pavlichenko participated in battles in Moldavia and Odessa. Her total confirmed kills during World War II was 309, including 36 enemy snipers. She later became an instructor and trained Soviet snipers until the war’s end.

The 20th century and beyond:

In World War I, thousands of Russian female volunteers saw action in the Women’s Battallion fighting against the Germans. In World War II, Soviet female soldiers served as snipers and fighter pilots.

England temporarily eased their restrictions as well, recruiting thousands of women to operate anti-aircraft guns during the Battle of Britain.

These days, fewer than a dozen countries allow women to participate in active combat roles. Those which do, include Canada, Denmark, Italy, Germany and Sweden.

In Israel, where universal military service is required of all Israelis, women make up a large portion of the army and nearly all positions are open to female candidates; although nowadays they must only serve in same-sex units.

New Zealand allows women to serve in all military units, and in 1995, Norway became the first country to permit women to serve on submarines.

It’s quite clear that ‘the fair sex’ should be taken very seriouslly when it comes to fighting.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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6 Responses to The Fighting ‘Fair Sex’

  1. carolervin says:

    Good job, putting this together. Thanks from the girls!

  2. Thanks for recognizing the women who serve, David! Your respect for the roles women play is evident in your writing.

  3. I’ve written an historical novel about a woman who served in battle, dressed as a man. As you point out, there are many examples in history of this. Most who do so, are desperate for a good living, not desperate to kill.

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