Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Between Amazons and Sabines: a historical approach to women and war


Today, war is still perceived as being the prerogative of men only. Women are generally excluded from the debate on belligerence, except as passive victims of the brutality inflicted on them by their masculine contemporaries. Yet history shows that through the ages, women have also played a role in armed hostilities, and have sometimes even been the main protagonists. In the present article, the long history and the multiple facets of women's involvement in war are recounted from two angles: women at war (participating in war) and women in war (affected by war). The merit of a gender-based division of roles in war is then examined with reference to the ancestral practice of armed violence.

Hide All

1 Guilaine Jean and Zammit Jean, Le sentier de la guerre: Visages de la violence préhistorique, Le Seuil, Paris, 2000; Lawrence Keeley, War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996; Pierre Clastres, Archéologie de la violence: La guerre dans les sociétés primitives, Éditions de l'Aube, La Tour d'Aigues, 2005.

2 A custom that struck fear into the first European visitors – see Jean de Léry, Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre de Brésil, Le livre de poche, Paris, 1994; see also Harris Marvin, Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture, Vintage, New York, 1977, pp. 4764.

3 Emmanuel Reynaud, Les femmes, la violence et l'armée, Fondation pour les études de défense nationale, Paris, 1988.

4 Tabet Paola, La construction sociale de l'inégalité des sexes: Des outils et des corps, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2000.

5 The British Museum, The Tomb of Lady Fu Hao, available at (visited 19 November 2009).

6 History UK, Boudica – Britain's Warrior Queen, available at (visited 19 November 2009).

7 Sartre Maurice, D'Alexandre à Zénobie: Histoire du Levant antique, Fayard, Paris, 2001.

8 Georges and Andrée Duby, Les procès de Jeanne d'Arc, Gallimard, Folio Histoire, Paris, 1995.

9 Her story is the subject of a novel, La Bouboulina, by Michel De Grèce (Pocket, Paris, 2003).

10 Lan David, Guns and Rain: Guerillas and Spirit Medium in Zimbabwe, University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 1985.

11 Heike Behrend, La guerre des esprits en Ouganda: Le Mouvement du Saint-Esprit d'Alice Lakwena (19851996), L'Harmattan, Paris, 2000.

12 Florus, Epitome rerum Romanarum, III, IV, partim.

13 This was when the famous educationist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was appointed director of the orphanage in Stans (the chief city of the canton), where the many children who were orphaned in the revolt and the ensuing suppression were looked after.

14 Goldstein Joshua S., War and Gender, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 6064.

15 Reynaud, above note 3, p. 20.

16 In France, on the other hand, the resistance networks largely excluded women from any active combat.

17 Goldstein, above note 14, p. 82.

18 Ibid., p. 83.

19 This fact indicates a need for women combatants to be taken into account in demobilization processes and measures for reintegration into civilian society – at present, these are generally geared only towards men.

20 Reynaud, above note 3, p. 21.

21 Claude Quétel, Femmes dans la guerre, 19391945, Larousse, Paris, 2004, pp. 77ff.

22 Ibid., p.136.

23 Renée Lelandais, ‘Les Filles de la Charité sur les champs de bataille, 1847–1863’, Préludes et pionniers: Les précurseurs de la Croix-Rouge, 18401860, Henry Dunant Society, Geneva, 1991, pp. 299–319.

24 Gruber Walter, ‘La grande-duchesse Héléna Pavlowna et ses auxiliaires en Crimée’, Préludes et pionniers, above note 23, pp. 119129.

25 In the Fiji Islands, for example, women were frequently deployed as scouts or lookouts who subsequently passed on information to the combatants – see Under the Protection of the Palm: Wars of Dignity in the Pacific, ICRC, 2009, p. 16.

26 Shipman Pat, Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, William Morrow & Company, New York, 2007.

27 Quétel, above note 21, pp. 110–111.

28 Reynaud, above note 3, p. 22.

29 ICRC Archives, C SC, France 1945, Camps US C.C.E. 29, Chalon-sur-Saône, Subcamp no. 1, Château de Loyère, Report of the visit of 18–20 July 1945, p. 4.

30 ICRC Archives, B G 25/40, Femmes polonaises de l'Armée du Général Bor-Komorowsky, P.G. en Allemagne.

31 ICRC Archives, B G 25/40, Appel aux gouvernements, letter from President Burckhardt to Anthony Eden, 9 January 1945.

32 Meredith Martin, Diamonds, Gold and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, Public Affairs, New York, p. 457.

33 Even when woman are combatants, this does not necessarily protect them in practice from sexual assault.

34 Beevor Anthony, Berlin: The Downfall, Viking, London, 2002, p. 414.

35 For practices in France, see Fabrice Virgili, La France ‘virile’: Des femmes tondues à la Libération, Payot, Paris, 2003.

36 In Sodome et Gomorrhe, Grasset, Paris, 1943, p. 130. Own translation.

37 Goldstein, above note 14, p. 7.

38 Ibid., p. 10.

39 Margaret Mead, ‘A national service system as a solution to a variety of national problems’, in M. Anderson (ed), The Military Draft: Selected Readings on Conscription, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 1982, p. 441 (original edn 1967, paper reprinted by permission of the publisher from The Draft: A Handbook of Facts and Alternatives, edited by Sol Tax, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1967).

41 This hypothesis is further supported by the fact that joining in hostilities has very often been the only chance for women – most of whom had no political rights at all until the end of World War II – to help shape the national destiny.

42 On the participation of German nurses in the euthanasia programme launched by the Third Reich, see Rebekhah Bronwyn McFarland-Icke, Nurses in Nazi Germany, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999.

43 Dara Kay Cohen, ‘The role of female combatants in armed groups: Women and wartime rape in Sierra Leone (1991–2002)’, communication presented at the international colloquium on ‘Rape in Wartime: A History to be Written’, Paris, 11–13 May 2009.

* The views expressed in this article reflect only the authors' opinions.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Review of the Red Cross
  • ISSN: 1816-3831
  • EISSN: 1607-5889
  • URL: /core/journals/international-review-of-the-red-cross
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 5
Total number of PDF views: 72 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 141 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.