Some had to disguise themselves to join the fight; others led armies as commanders. Meet some of history’s most famous female warriors.
Artemisia I, 5th century BC
Queen of Halicarnassus (in modern Turkey) within the Persian Empire, Artemisia commanded five ships under Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Impressed by her bravery and skill, the ruler said: “My men have turned into women, my women into men.”
Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, 1st century AD
When Chinese occupiers killed Trung Trac’s husband, a petty nobleman in Vietnam, she and sister Nhi raised an army—including many women generals—and drove out the Chinese. Hundreds of years later, their story inspired the thousands of women fighters of the Vietnam War.
Zenobia, 3rd century
She became ruler of the Roman colony of Palmyra (in present-day Syria) after the assassination of her husband, a prince and general. Rebelling against the Roman overlords, she seized Egypt and much of Asia Minor, commanding troops from horseback. Rome soon captured the renegade queen, who remained in Rome until her death.
Umm ’Umara, 7th century
A devout Arab Muslim, she joined her husband and two sons to fight alongside Muhammad in several of the prophet’s early battles in what is now Saudi Arabia. “I never looked to the right nor to the left without seeing Umm ’Umara fighting to defend me,” he said after one battle.
Matilda of Canossa, 1046–1115
A noble who inherited power and vast lands in northern Italy following the death of her mother and stepfather in 1076, Matilda became a staunch military ally of Pope Gregory VII and his successors in conflicts with European rulers over church appointments. In 1087, she led an army that marched on Rome to oust a rival installed as an antipope by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1122–1204
Wife of French king Louis VII, Eleanor rode on the Second Crusade as the leader of the forces from her home province. Though she did not directly command forces, she participated in military councils and reportedly clashed with her husband.
Tomoe Gozen, ca. 1157–1247
The 12th-century epic Tale of the Heike describes Tomoe Gozen as a samurai so skillful with “the sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors.”
Joan of Arc, 1412–1431
The famous French patriot claimed divine inspiration. She was only 17 when she raised and inspired an army that in 1429 relieved the city of Orléans from an English siege during the Hundred Years’ War. She commanded troops for more than a year before her capture, after which she was burned at the stake.
Lakshmi Bai, ca. 1834–1858
As the widowed ruler of the Jhansi principality in India, she assembled and led an army that fought British annexation—the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857–1858. Shot and killed, she became a symbol of independence for the country—“the best and the bravest of the rebel leaders,” according to a British officer.
The Agojie of Dahomey, Ca. 17th–19th centuries
Dubbed “Amazons” by European colonizers, this band of elite female warriors from present-day Benin are the real-life basis for the Hollywood film “The Woman King” and the Dora Milaje of Marvel’s “Black Panther” franchise. The Agojie were 6,000 strong at their peak, attacking at night and taking the heads of enemies as trophies.
Deborah Samson, 1760–1827
Dressed as a man and calling herself Robert Shurtleff, Samson joined the American Revolutionary War army, fighting more than a year before being found out and sent to General George Washington, who may have personally discharged her. A few accounts suggest she maintained her disguise despite being wounded several times; in one, she pulls a musket ball from her thigh to avoid a doctor’s treatment and potential discovery.
Nadezhda Durova, 1783–1866
The daughter of a Russian cavalry officer, Durova masqueraded as a man for the better part of a decade as she fought Napoleon’s Grande Armée, notably at the Guttstadt-Deppen (1807). Tsar Alexander I discovered her identity but awarded her the Cross of St. George for bravery and allowed her to stay in the army, albeit still in disguise.
Annie Etheridge, 1844–1913
A Civil War battlefield medic, Etheridge became a Union hero after rallying retreating troops at Spotsylvania in 1864. She also served at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and the Battle of the Wilderness; wrote one soldier, “When danger threatens, she never cringes.”
Flora Sandes, 1876–1956
Though British, Sandes joined the Serbian army during World War I after serving on the front lines as a medical worker. Serbs welcomed her as a sign of Britain’s support. She stayed with the Serb military after the war, rising to the rank of captain.
Maria Bochkareva, 1889–1920
Born into serfdom and abused by her father, she persuaded the Russian army to let her fight in World War I, where she was wounded and decorated for bravery. In mid-1917, she created a women-only “battalion of death”—shock troops to counter desertion. But the unit—a few hundred women who shaved their heads—saw little action; male deserters turned against them and killed many.
Lina Odena, ca. 1911–1936
A Communist Party activist, she fought for the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War against, leading militia units and eventually dying in the field.
Marina Raskova, 1912–1943
Part of a three-woman air crew that broke the Russian transcontinental air record before the war, Raskova is believed to have persuaded Stalin to create three regiments of all-female fighter pilots. Before she could fly her first mission, however, she crash-landed during a storm and died.
Mariia Vasil’ievna Oktiabrskaya, ca. 1902–1944
After her husband, parents, and two children were killed in 1943, she gave her savings to the military to pay for a tank she could drive. Short and in her 40s, she distinguished herself in her combat debut, in Belarus, as the first tanker to break through enemy lines. She was mortally wounded in early 1944, not long after joining her unit.
Netiva Ben-Yehuda, 1928–2011
At 18, Ben-Yehuda joined the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Jewish army that fought the 1948 Israeli War for Independence. A demolitions expert, spy, and field commander, she earned the nickname “Blonde Devil” among Arabs.
Celia Sánchez, 1920–1980
An early backer of Fidel Castro’s rebellion against Cuba’s Batista regime in the 1950s, she recruited and organized peasant fighters and eventually became a rebel commander and one of Castro’s most trusted deputies.
Nguyen Thi Dinh, 1920–1992
A Vietnamese peasant, she led rebel forces against the French in the mid-1940s and against the South Vietnamese and Americans in the 1960s. She was famed for her guerrilla tactics and her recruitment of women to what became known as the “long-haired army.”
Ann E. Dunwoody, 1953–
Retired after a 38-year military career, Dunwoody was the first woman to command a battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division and the first female four-star general. “Today, women are in combat,” she said upon her retirement. “That is just a reality.”
Karakal Battalion, 2000–
Under pressure to open up combat positions to women, the Israel Defense Forces created this mixed-gender unit, which is assigned to the border with Egypt to stop smuggling and terrorism.
GET HISTORY’S GREATEST TALES—RIGHT IN YOUR INBOX
Subscribe to our HistoryNet Now! newsletter for the best of the past, delivered every Monday and Thursday.