Throughout history women have taken up arms for all kinds of reasons. Here are the stories of eight who went to war—and why
General Fu Hao (ca. 1200 BCE)
Fu Hao, who fought to defend the Shang dynasty in Bronze Age China, is the earliest woman warrior whose name and history we know. She was a royal consort of the emperor Wu Ding and a successful military commander who directed her own troops, served as the ancient version of a task force commander, and took part in virtually every important military campaign of Wu Ding’s reign. She led Shang armies against four waves of invaders: the Tu Fang from the north, the armed horseman of the Qiang Fang in the northwest, the Yi Fang in the southeast and southwest, and, in joint command with Wu Ding, the Ba Fung in the southeast.
Fu Hao was not the only woman who fought in ancient China: At least a hundred other women were active in the Shang military campaigns.
Trung Trac and Trung Nhi (14–43 CE)
In 39 CE the Trung sisters, the daughters of a chieftain in the Son Tay region of Vietnam, led a revolt against the Chinese Empire, which had ruled their country for 150 years. The sisters entered the historical record when a new and oppressive governor, To Dinh, arrived in their province and immediately raised taxes and demanded payments from subjects who needed decisions from the government. Trung Trac and her husband, Thi Sach, mobilized the local aristocracy to revolt. To Dinh arrested and executed Thi Sach, assuming he led the conspiracy.
But To Dinh’s efforts to quash the rebellion backfired. The sisters raised an untrained army—most soldiers were young and many were women. (Some accounts say the their elderly mother was one of the officers.) The Trungs drove the Chinese out of Vietnam and created an independent kingdom. They ruled for two years until the Chinese emperor sent one of his best generals to reconquer Vietnam.
Centuries later, when Vietnamese nationalists struggled for independence, first against Chinese rule and later against the French, anticolonial writers praised the Trung sisters as examples of courage. Today they are honored as national heroines in Vietnam and the traditional anniversary of their deaths is celebrated as a holiday.
Matilda of Canossa (1046–1115)
The name Matilda means “mighty in war,” and Matilda of Canossa, countess of Tuscany, certainly lived up to her name in becoming one of the most formidable military leaders of her time.
The death of her parents and older siblings left Matilda the sole heir to the family’s extensive holdings in the area between northern Italy and Rome. When the Investiture Controversy—a longstanding dispute between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire—led Emperor Henry IV to invade Italy, Matilda was right in the middle of things. The location of her territories meant that she controlled travel across the Apennine Mountains. As a lifelong advocate of church reform, she provided the main military support for Pope Gregory VII and his successors in their struggles with the emperor for the next 20 years.
Historians don’t know whether Matilda literally fought with sword in hand, but she planned strategy, gave orders, and in at least one case actively commanded her troops. In addition to waging defensive campaigns against the Holy Roman Emperor, Matilda protected her own lands against external and internal threats over some 40 years. She fielded her last military action in 1114 (less than a year before her death), putting down a revolt in the city of Mantua.
Joan of Arc (1412–1431)
Joan of Arc may be the most famous woman warrior in history, but she was perhaps the least typical. In 1429, at age 17, she approached local military commander Robert de Baudricourt with the claim that Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, long since dead, had told her it was her mission to put the dauphin on the throne and save France from the English. She convinced first de Baudricourt and later the dauphin of the truth of her claims.
On May 8, 1429, transformed from a peasant girl in a red dress to an armored knight, Joan led the French army to victory at the siege of Orleans. A month later she escorted the Dauphin to Reims, where he was crowned king of France. She was so successful the English offered a reward for her capture.
Despite her spectacular victories, and her posthumous fame, Joan’s career as a warrior lasted less than two years—13 months of which she spent in captivity. England’s Burgundian allies captured her in May 1430 and sold her to the English for a reward. When the French failed to ransom her, the English turned her over to the Inquisition, which tried her on charges of witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was burned as a heretic on May 30, 1431.
Juana Azurduy de Padilla (1780–1862)
Mestiza warrior Juana Azurduy de Padilla fought in at least 16 major battles in the Latin American wars of independence in the early 19th century. She and her husband, Manuel Padilla, raised a guerrilla army of rebels that attacked Spanish forces and kept the road between Chuquisaca, Bolivia, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, open for republican troops.
After her husband’s death in 1816, Padilla joined forces with insurgent leader Martin Güemes. That same year the revolutionary government awarded her the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Today, both Bolivia and Argentina claim her as a national heroine.
Nadezhda Durova (1783–1866)
In September 1806 Nadezhda Durova disguised herself as a man, sneaked out of her parents’ home, and joined the Russian cavalry, which was desperate for new recruits to fight against Napoleon. Durova saw combat for the first time on May 22, 1807, in the Battle of Guttstadt-Deppen. Over the next month, she went on to fight against the French Imperial I Corps of Marshal Michel Ney at Passarge, Heilsberg, and Friedland, where half her regiment fell to the enemy.
After Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I signed the first Treaty of Tilsit on July 7, 1807, creating a temporary peace between France and Russia, Durova received orders to report to Saint Petersburg. Once there, she found herself in an audience with the tsar, who, curious about rumors that he had heard, asked Durova if she was a cavalrywoman in disguise. When Durova admitted the truth, Alexander praised her courage in battle and, because she had saved the life of a valuable officer, awarded her the Cross of Saint George. Then the tsar informed her that he had received a letter from her father asking him to find her and send her home. Durova flung herself at his feet and begged to be sent back to the front. The tsar agreed on the condition that she continue to hide her identity and gender.
Durova remained with the Russian army until 1816, when her father demanded that she return home and care for him in his old age. For the next 50 years Durova wore men’s clothing, referred to herself as a man, and insisted others do the same. She published a memoir, The Cavalry Maiden, in 1836, followed by four novels. Durova died at age 83 and was buried in her uniform with military honors.
Cathy Williams (ca. 1844–1892)
Cathy Williams, the first African American woman known to have served in the U.S. Army, was born a slave near Independence, Missouri. When Union troops commanded by Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon captured Jefferson City, the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry claimed Williams and other slaves as contraband of war. Thereafter she traveled with the regiment, working as a laundress.
With the end of the war Williams was free, but without a family, home, or job. She probably decided to enlist in the Union army because she could earn more as a private than as a laundress. In November 1866 she signed up for a three-year term of service under the name “William Cathay.”
As Cathay, she served in the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment—one of six all-black regiments of “Buffalo Soldiers” created in August 1866—but never saw combat. She was ill for most of her time in the military. Although she was hospitalized five times in two years, nothing in her record suggests that she was discovered to be a woman. She was discharged from the army on medical grounds on October 14, 1868. Her application for an invalid pension was rejected on the grounds that no disability existed, not on the grounds that she was a woman and ineligible for service.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman (1850–1879)
The Cheyenne warrior Buffalo Calf Road Woman earned her reputation at the Battle of the Rosebud, known to Cheyenne as the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother, in the Montana Territory. In 1876 she and her brother rode out as part of a Cheyenne war party against Brigadier General George Crook, who led a small force against them as part of the U.S. Army’s three-pronged campaign to drive the Cheyenne and Lakota out of their treaty territory in the Black Hills. During the battle her brother’s horse was shot down in front of Crook’s infantry line. She charged through enemy gunfire to rescue him, he mounted behind her, and she carried him to safety.
Eight days later Buffalo Calf Road Woman fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When male Cheyenne storytellers broke their silence about the battle in 2005, they credited Buffalo Calf Road Woman with the blow that knocked Custer off his horse.
Milunka Savić (1892–1973)
Milunka Savić served continuously for seven years through three wars. She is believed to be the most decorated woman soldier in history.
Enlisting in the Serbian army as a man, Savić served in the First and Second Balkan Wars, earning her first medal for bravery and a promotion to corporal in 1913 at the Battle of Bregalnica. Doctors discovered Savić’s true gender when she was hospitalized after being hit by a Bulgarian grenade. Unlike other women whose disguises failed, however, she refused to leave the service and stayed in the army through World War I, first under Serbian command and later under the French. She received two Karodore Stars with Swords, the highest Serbian military honor—one for single-handedly capturing 20 German soldiers and the other for capturing 23 Bulgarians. She also received the Légion de Honneur (twice), the Croix de Guerre, the Russian Cross of Saint George, Britain’s Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael, and Serbia’s Miloš Oblić medal.
Savić died in Belgrade in 1973 and was buried with military honors.
Lemdha Pachen (1933–2002)
Ani Pachen, a Tibetan nun, inherited her father’s position as clan chieftain and led her people in armed rebellion against Chinese rule.
Unwilling to accept her father’s plans for an arranged marriage, she fled to a Buddhist monastery. When he abandoned the marriage plans, she reluctantly agreed to return to learn her duties as a chieftain’s heir. After the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, those duties included making plans for armed resistance.
When her father died in 1958, Pachen became the chieftain of the Lemdha clan. She continued her father’s work of organizing Tibetans to fight, village by village. In 1959 Pachen led 600 resistance fighters from her clan in guerrilla warfare against the Chinese. She was captured in 1960 and spent 21 years in Chinese prisons. After being released in 1981, she fled to India and continued to advocate for Tibetan freedom until her death. MHQ
Pamela D. Toler, who writes about history and the arts, is the author of several books, including Women Warriors: An Unexpected History (Beacon Press, 2019).
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: War List | Wonder Women
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