“Women Have Always Fought”

“Women Have Always Fought” September 4, 2014

YaraIf you’re anything like me, you’ve been fascinated by the recent articles alleging that as many as half of all Viking warriors may have been women:

Researchers at the University of Western Australia decided to revamp the way they studied Viking remains. Previously, researchers had misidentified skeletons as male simply because they were buried with their swords and shields. (Female remains were identified by their oval brooches, and not much else.) By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons.

Do you know what rankles? The fact that this went unnoticed because researchers assumed that sword and shield meant male. Our modern assumptions about gender and the part women have played in history have led us to create a false history that not just ignores but actively writes out women’s involvement other than as wife and mother. Our assumptions about women in history have shaped that history, and have in turn reinforced our assumptions not only about history but also about women.

And, I might point out, our assumptions are still doing this:

The presence of female warriors also has researchers now wondering just how accurate the stereotypes of raping and pillaging actually are:

Women may have accompanied male Vikings in those early invasions of England, in much greater numbers than scholars earlier supposed, (Researcher) McLeod concludes. Rather than the ravaging rovers of legend, the Vikings arrived as marriage-minded colonists.

Because apparently women can’t rape and pillage. Did you notice that assumption? I’m not saying it couldn’t be the case that the Vikings were “marriage-minded colonists,” but I don’t think “Vikings were marriage-minded colonists” automatically follows from “half of all Viking warriors were female.” There’s a leap being made there, an assumption that should be examined. Have we learned nothing from the original mistake?

I’ve read a number of articles responding to this new research, and want to highlight some of them. First, I was struck by this passage from A Dribble of Ink:

When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.

“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”

He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”

I had no idea what to say to this. I had been nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of the Great Men theory of history. History was full of Great Men. I had to take separate Women’s History courses just to learn about what women were doing while all the men were killing each other.

And here’s an excerpt from an older blog post full of links and information:

[T]here’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-GaposchkinLeise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.

This corrective is important.

I grew up in a conservative religious environment that in many ways simply reflects cultural assumptions about women distilled down into a more extreme (and explicit) form. I learned what the leaders taught—that a woman in combat was a modern invention and part of society turning against God. The same was said of other things as well—women in politics, women in the workforce, and so forth. The past we were taught was one where women stayed home as wives and mothers. Yes, we knew there were a few women rulers—Queen Elizabeth I of England, for instance—but these were treated as rare abnormalities.

Growing up in this milieu, I was given to believe that women had fulfilled their proper roles as wives and mothers for millennia, and that it was only in the past hundred years or so that this had changed. This narrative is actually often present in popular understandings of feminism as well—that before feminism arrived on the scene in the last hundred years, women across region and time were limited to the home, raising children and cooking supper. This narrative is false.

There has never been a time when women did not work outside the home. There has never been a time when women did not participate in government. There has never been a time when women did not fight.

Our understanding of the past matters because it shapes our view of the present.

Note: For a critical look at what the recent study actually says, which does not negate my speech about our assumptions about history but does point to some bad science reporting, see Sorry, but That Viking Study Doesn’t Say Half of Viking Warriors Were Women

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