Julie Wheelwright: Sisters in arms - Warrior women from antiquity to the new millennium

Julie Wheelwright
Ed.Odoya, Città di Castello (PG) 2021
pp. 335

"Women have always taken part in wars, often volunteering for the same reasons that drive men to do so: to protect their country and their comrades." Thus, the author, a professor at the City University of London, introduces her substantial research on a world, that of warrior women, which, thanks to this essay, it turns out they were in the past (and are even more so today) more numerous than one can imagine. Hundreds, in fact, are those known but, thousands, are those "strangers who have taken part in battles but which history has made insignificant, reducing them to sexual anecdotes, ignoring them or silencing them deliberately."

Focusing on the European and North American conflicts, Julie Wheelwright divides female combatants into three categories: that of companions or wives of soldiers, who were already present on the ships when the fighting broke out and took part in it; that of women who have worn men's clothes to be able to enlist; that of women who have been granted exceptionally permission to enlist, both in all male regiments and in other female regiments or, again, in mixed gender units. And, looking at some of the titles of the chapters of the book (enrollment; life among men; the epilogue; back to civil life; inheritance) we understand that there are numerous aspects that the author will deal with in it. .

The Amazons, originally from Scythia, were the founding mothers of the mythical female combatants. If Joan of Arc, who led the French armies against the English in 1429-30, during the Hundred Years War, is known to all, there are many documented cases, from the late XNUMXth century to the end of the XNUMXth century, of female soldiers and sailor who pretended to be men.

In Russia Nadezhda Durova, who fled from her family to join a Cossack regiment, was the most famous woman among those who fought against Napoleon, and had a huge influence on subsequent generations.

Mary Lacy was an English woman who, in the seventeenth century, disguised as a man, enlisted as a sailor. "Of course, not all women in men's clothes joined the army of their own free choice."

Then there were also the famous British pirate women, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. While the Europeans sailed on the high seas, there were women who served as soldiers in North American colonial conflicts. 240 are the documented cases of women who participated, on both sides, in the American Civil War. In Russia, "The most famous warrior of the First World War was Marija Leont'evna Bočckarëva (1889-1920), who enlisted in the Tsar's army before she was given a female battalion as a reward." She was the first Russian woman to command a military unit and never dressed as a man.

Several Russian women took part in the Great War.

"Captain Flora Sandes (1876-1956) was an English nurse who joined the Serbian army to fight for the British Empire."

What prompted a woman to enlist, risking losing her home, reputation, job? "The answers to these questions are as varied as the circumstances of the war, but we know that many women wanted to travel, escape poverty, an abusive husband or a bored, work-only future."

One of the problems women dressed as men faced was sharing intimate physical spaces with their male partners. Sometimes the price to pay was sexual annulment or the abolition of femininity. "Among the powerful incentives to retain the male role were the relatively high-paying jobs, skills and professions that a woman could lose if caught."

The deeds of some of them were immortalized by ballads, musicals or comedies. Others, such as Russian female soldiers, gained international fame during the Great War, but, ironically, left little trace in Soviet history.

In the Second World War there were the first female pilots in Great Britain, part of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary), an organization that included pilots who were not qualified to join the RAF. Although among these was Diana Barnato Walzer, who piloted 80 types of aircraft and, later, was the first British woman to break the sound barrier, they were, however, always considered a step behind their male colleagues. Fifteen of them were killed on active duty. Other women were recruited into the anti-aircraft defense. Winston Churchill argued that in order for these to be successful, "the government had to exorcise the complex of being opposed to a connection between women and high-risk work." American women, on the other hand, participated in the war by enlisting in the nursing corps, as the US proved hesitant in recruiting women into mixed-gender military units.

With the Gulf War things changed and there were female fighters who suddenly became visible on the ground and in the media and who, according to a Pentagon report, drawn up by a team of mental health experts in the military, did not turn out being less able than men to cope with the stressors and challenges of serving in combat. On the other hand, however, "Throughout the Iraqi war, American soldiers continued to express through bullying, harassment and abuse their profound opposition to the fighters, who were more numerous than ever before." In the British armed forces, on the other hand, during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, women, initially excluded from positions in which they could engage and potentially kill the enemy, have been employed, since 2015, also in submarines and since 2016, in the armored troops of the 'army.

"Whatever else can be said of these comrades in arms, they were and remain remarkable. They have much to teach us about how women's bargaining for their right to equality is as old as the graves where Shia warriors lie along the banks of the Black Sea."

Gianlorenzo Capano

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