Warrior women and their contribution to the military through the ages


Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has observed that it seems to be an almost universal assumption across time and global cultures that warfare is and should be a male arena.

And indeed, for most of human history, war was seen as men fighting men. Women have had to carve out a space for themselves in many professional industries, and the military has been no exception.

In the 19th century, conscription was often called 'the school of manliness'. Traditionally, since it has been one of the most male-dominated spheres, being a woman in the Armed Forces was either impossible in many countries, or, until recently, very difficult.

However, this began to change in more recent history.

The demands of the world wars of the 20th Century meant that women were necessary to the war effort during both conflicts, so they had to be let into the Armed Forces.

Most performed support roles away from combat, although during the Second World War some British women did provide support within anti-aircraft batteries, and Britain's then-ally, the Soviet Union, even allowed some women to take part directly in the fighting against the Nazis.

Thus, leaving aside the disbandment of female units between the wars in Britain, women have been a formal part of the military for more than 100 years now.

Furthermore, although the British government only officially lifted the ban on women serving in ground close combat roles across the whole of the military in 2018, women have performed in combat roles in a support capacity, such as in artillery, engineering, medical, intelligence, logistics and admin positions, for longer than that. Women served with distinction in the Ulster Defence Regiment since 1973, and in the Home Service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment since its formation in 1992, including in the infantry Rifle company role.

The RAF Regiment, meanwhile, has permitted women to serve directly among its front-line infantry since 2017, and the RAF has also had female pilots going back several decades. Its first female fast-jet pilot was Jo Salter, who began serving in this role in 1992.

However, women have actually participated in warfare in less formal capacities for far longer.

There are historical examples of women sometimes disguising themselves as men to fight alongside them, and women have also been members of special female battalions and legendary warrior societies.

What follows is a look at some of these historical female warriors, and the military women who succeeded them.

War goddesses, warrior queens and the Amazons

From Boudicca, the British Queen who fought the Roman invaders in the first century AD, to Zenobia, the Queen of Syria's Palmyrene Empire who took Egypt from the Romans in the third century – examples of courageous female fighters can be found throughout history.

One such historical figure, Rani of Jhansi, even fought against the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Warrior women have also been represented throughout time by a pantheon of female goddesses, such as those of the Norse Valkyrie, the Hindu goddess of ultimate power Kali, the Ancient Greek goddess of war Athena, or her Roman equivalent Minerva.

Stories of legendary female warriors such as the Amazons are also plentiful. They have been represented in myth and popular culture as a society of exclusively man-hating lesbian warriors who flattened their chests and crippled their male children. This may seem fanciful, although, as it turns out, the Amazons were not entirely mythical. 

The Amazon myth originated with the Ancient Greeks and, according to Adrienne Mayor, author of 'The Amazons', it was very likely female fighters from Scythia that inspired the legend.

The Scythians came from the Eurasian Steppe, from which they raided surrounding areas on horseback, which led to them encountering the Greeks.  

To be clear, this real-life nomadic warrior culture was not composed exclusively of female warriors, like the Amazons of legend. It was, however, a society consisting of many female warriors.

Since it has been possible for archaeologists to determine the sex of skeletons, a lot of Scythian graves it was previously believed to contain male warriors have instead turned out to hold female fighters.

Archaeological evidence from these burial mounds indicates that perhaps one-third of Scythian women were warriors. 

Women also made up a third of the king's forces in the African Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin).

The Victorian traveller Richard Burton visited in 1863 and was struck by the ferocity of the elite corps of women.

Legend has it that in the early 1700s, the ruler was short of men, so he dressed women in uniform to deceive his enemies.

The women proved themselves to be disciplined palace guards and, armed with muskets, and later rifles, they were effective combat troops.

In fact, they were so ferocious and disciplined that they were reported to have been better fighters than the men.

According to a French marine, the women were remarkable for their courage, and threw themselves against the French bayonets "with prodigious bravery".

Dahomey was, however, conquered by the French in 1894 and incorporated into French West Africa. The king's women fighters fought until the bitter end.

Boudicea leading an attack against the Roaman's
Queen Boudicca leading an attack against the Romans (Picture: Alamy).

The art of disguise and war

Women have been present in or near war zones for quite some time, in their assigned roles as soldier's wives, or as cooks, seamstresses or prostitutes. If they wanted to fight, however, they had to pretend to be men.

During the Civil Wars in Britain, so many women wanted to join the war effort that King Charles I issued a law banning women from wearing military uniforms.

Evidently, this did not prevent women from eventually ending up in uniform, since women fighters were discovered among the dead after the Battle of Waterloo more than 150 years later. 

Furthermore, it was not just the Army that women secretly joined. While none of the 250-plus female applicants to today's Royal Marines has yet become a fully-fledged commando, it is worth bearing in mind that as and when a woman does break this particular glass ceiling, she may not really be the first ever British Marine. 

That honour likely belongs instead to Hannah Snell, who was born in 1723. She disguised herself as a man and, going by the pseudonym James Gray, she first joined the Army.

However, after two years of service, she came across an old neighbour who she feared would recognise her and out her as a woman, so she ran away to Portsmouth where she enlisted in the Marines – known at that point only as 'marines', since the 'royal' would not be added until 1802.

From there, she set sail for the East Indies aboard HMS Swallow, where she managed to keep up her disguise, even after being shot in the groin.

Hannah later revealed her secret in a pub surrounded by fellow marines. In 'The Female Soldier', Robert Walker says she declared the following:

"Why gentlemen, James Gray will cast off his skin like a snake and become a new creature.

"In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell." 

The trailblazer later recounted her story on stage and ran a tavern named either The Widow in Masquerade, or The Female Warrior.

The Royal Chelsea Hospital later recognised her service and she was even granted a military pension.

British WW2 poster showing member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. (Picture: Alamy)
British WW2 poster showing a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (Picture: Alamy).

The world wars

The outbreak of the First World War drastically changed the position of women outside the home.

Despite the obvious need for women to be integrated into the war effort, suffragettes still had to persuade the authorities to widen women's roles, and a much larger number signed up than was anticipated.

By the end of the war, more than 100,000 women in Britain had enrolled in various military support organisations.

One of these was the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which was formed to carry out support duties in France and Belgium in 1917. It was headed by Controller Alexandra Chalmers Watson.

The WAAC was disbanded in 1921, although a successor organisation known as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was established in 1938 and allowed women to perform similar roles during the Second World War.

The ATS consisted of women serving as radar operators, ammunition inspectors, telephone operators, and as members of anti-aircraft gun batteries, although women were not actually the ones firing the guns.

The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) were also established, as was the Women's Land Army – also re-established from its First World War forerunner – and women worked in factories, just as they had done during the First World War.

By the end of the Second World War, the number of women in the military had risen exponentially from the previous conflict.

The WAAF and the WRNS had 182,000 and 74,000 members by 1943, respectively, while the ATS had 190,000 women in its ranks by VE Day.

One of them was Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II), who trained at Aldershot as a mechanic and lorry driver.

In many ways, she can be thought of as having established a kind of bridge back to the first Queen Elizabeth, who showed such great resolve against the Spanish Armada's attempted invasion of England in 1588.

While the first Elizabeth led the country as a brave head of state, the second Elizabeth set an example to women in general before becoming Queen herself.

Women in other nations also contributed significantly to the war effort. Thousands of women took part in partisan activities against the fascist regime in Italy, with many dying in the conflict.

Their mere participation in the war could be thought of as a form of resistance since a central pillar of fascist ideology was strict adherence to traditional gender roles. Mussolini once declared:

"War is to men what maternity is to women."

The attitude of the Nazis was very similar. Hitler's right-hand man and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels said that: 

“Man should be trained as warrior and woman as recreation for the warrior."

Yet, despite their ideological convictions that a woman's sphere was Kinder, Kucher, Kirche (children, kitchen, church), the Nazis found that they eventually had to mobilise women, just as the Allies were, and by the end of the war there were half a million women serving in support roles within the German Armed Forces.

Women were also an integral part of the French Resistance, although, here too, they were mostly limited to supporting roles.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, allowed some women to serve along with men in the infantry, as tank drivers, and as bomber pilots.

The Soviet air force even had three dedicated female units, the most famous one being a bomber regiment that the Germans named the 'night witches'.

Due to their strict views on gender roles, the Nazis had a policy of executing captured female combatants, and sometimes women were sexually assaulted before being killed. For this reason, many female Soviet combatants committed suicide when faced with imminent capture.

The use of women as combatants by the Soviets actually had a precursor in the First World War. In 1917, the post-Revolution Provisional Government aimed to establish 16 Women's Battalions, using them to both inspire and shame the by-then war-weary Russian men into continuing to fight.

In the event, only two of the battalions were actually deployed on the Eastern Front, although it was still a unique development in the history of women and warfare. 

Watch: The Ukrainian women taking the fight to Russia.

Women and the future of the military

Whereas Russia was unique in having official female combatants during the world wars, today Ukraine is one of the leading countries when it comes to the percentage of women in its armed forces. It has also recently allowed them to take up combat roles. 

Its Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Mailiar has reported that there are currently 38,000 women in the Ukrainian military, or around 50,000 if civilian workers within the military are taken into account.

The number of women increased in 2014 and 2022, in step with Russian military expansion into Ukrainian territory. 

This means Ukrainian women make up somewhere between 19 and 25% of the country's 200,000 military personnel, with 15% being the oft-cited figure.

This number dates to 2019 and allows for comparison with official NATO figures at that point, which show that only Greece and Hungary had women making up the same or higher percentages of their armed forces – 19% and 20%, respectively.

For its part, the UK figure for women across the military was 11%, both in 2019 and in 2021, which comes to more than 16,000 women out of more than 150,000 total personnel. However, that figure is for UK regular forces.

Women make up an even higher percentage of reservists – 15%, or 5,650 women, as of April 2021, out of a total reserve pool of more than 37,000 personnel. 

Given that the UK is not at war like Ukraine, it is perhaps not surprising that women make up a smaller proportion of the British Armed Forces.

Had Russia invaded Britain and forced a suspension of normal life, it seems quite possible that a higher proportion of women would have joined up in response. 

However, even though the UK's present peacetime military figures contain a higher proportion of women than there has ever been in the British Armed Forces, several NATO member countries have higher levels of women personnel.

Going by 2019 figures, a few examples include Germany, which has women making up 12% of its forces, Canada, which has 16%, and the US, which has 17% of its overall force levels being made up by women.

According to a report ordered by the House of Commons, the Ministry of Defence and Services are also failing to help female personnel achieve their full potential.

More than 3,000 servicewomen and female veterans reported that female service personnel face additional challenges, and despite all roles in the military becoming open to women, it could take a long time before there is equality at the top of the command structure.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has even said it may take decades — possibly more than 300 years — to improve women's presence among senior officers.

The history of women fighters like Hannah Snell and Scythian warrioresses, as well as female leaders like Elizabeth I and Boudica, shows that women have and can make significant contributions to the fighting forces of their societies.

Today's military women also serve as great examples, and will no doubt continue to do so as the military carries on its efforts to improve the situation for its female personnel.