The Myth of the Warrior Woman

I was part of a conversation the other day discussing the ‘myth’ of the competent female warrior. In certain circles, on the net, there is a bit of an argument raging for and against this point on what appears to be a very one sided debate.

Those who are arguing for the myth viewpoint really seem to be winning. Their arguments are logical, well thought out and very reasonable and as a result they are difficult to refute. However, I feel that there is a tiny flaw in their argument that should be addressed, mainly that the entire premise is wrong!

Firstly, warrior women are not a myth they are a matter of historical fact. You can argue as to why they can’t exist due to athletic disadvantage in light of MMA as much as you like, but there they are.

Below is a small list of some of the women recorded as matter of historical fact who could be called “warrior women”.

Wong Cong Er, Boudica, Isabella I of Castile, Maria De Estrada, Lilliard, Grace O’Malley, Amaron and Kenau Hasselaar, Marguerite Delaye, Dona Catalina de Erauso, Vishpla, Aahhotep I, Zabibi, Samsi, Tomyris, Himoko, Jingo Kogo, Mavia, Saimei and Dihya al-Kahina. Trung Trac, Trung Nhi, Tran Thi Doan, Phung Thi Chinh and Trieu Thi Trinh. Medb (Maeve) of Ireland, Aife (Aoife) of Alba (Scotland), and Queen Scathach of Skye. Queen Aethelburgh, Queen Thyra of Denmark, Hetha, Visna and Vebiorg , Sela and Alvid , Emma Countess of Norfolk, Matilda Countess of Tuscany (and her mother), Sichelgaita Princess of Lombardy, Urraca Queen of Aragon, and Teresa of Portugal.
Aristocratic ladies who led troops in seige and battle included Alrude Countess of Bertinoro, Eleanor of Castile, Queen Urraca of Aragon, Marguerite de Provence, Florine of Denmark and Berengaria of Navarre, Queen Tamara of Georgia and the Empress Maud (also known as Matilda, Empress of Germany, Countess of Anjou, Domina Anglorum, Lady of the English, Matilda Augusta and Matilda the Good). Maude de Valerie was a Welsh revolutionary. Nicola de la Haye, daughter of the castellan of Lincoln defended the town against several raids and was made sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1216.
Jeanne of Navarre led her army against that of the Count de Bar. Isobel MacDuff Countess of Buchan, Jeanne de Danpierre Countess de Montfort (also known as Jane, Countess of Montfort), Isabelle of England, Christian Lady Bruce, Marjory Bruce, Mary Bruce, Phillipa of Hainault, Lady Agnes Randolph (also known as Black Agnes), Agnes Hotot of Dudley, Adelaide Ponthiey, Jeanne de Belleville, Margaret of Denmark , Jacqueline of Bavaria (Countess of Holland, Hainault and Zealand), Jehanne la Pucelle (Joan of Arc), Isabella of Lorraine, Maire o Ciaragain, Mother Ross, Mme de Saint Baslemont de Neuville and La Maupin Lady Ann Cummingham, Blanche the Countess of Arundel, Brilliana the Countess of Harley, Alyona of Russia, Anne Chamberlyne and Anne Marie Louise d’Orleans Montpensier. Duellists included Mademoiselle La Maupin, Mademoiselle de Guignes, Mademoiselle d’Aiguillon, Mademoiselle Leverrier, Lady Almeria Braddock, Mrs Elphinstone, Comptesse de Polignac and Marquise de Nesle, and the nuns of the Yong Tai Temple.

This is a very small list of the countless women who have been recorded as taking the field, taking to pirating or who duelled with a blatant disregard for impossibility of the matter.

Now as difficult as this may be for the average martial artist to understand (both male and female) it is important to note that battle has realities that modern (often sports based) practice can never cope with but that is ok because modern martial arts are not intended to. The women in this list did understand those realities and history marks them as having done what modern sports based practitioners are debating as impossible myth. It is awfully reminiscent of the old saying that “those who say something is impossible should not interfere with those who are doing it”!

It isn’t really surprising that this kind of argument can rage, fuelled in no small part by martial artists, as most people think that martial arts can offer some qualified training. Unfortunately most martial artists don’t know the difference between sport and battle. Perhaps the easiest way to describe the difference between sport and battle is that sport is about being fair and battle is about being unfair. If we believe in the fair fight then we obviously don’t understand fighting. There is nothing fair about fighting at all. There is a statement in the Sun Tzu Bing Fa (Art of War) that says that “the Commanders of old did not demonstrate valour”. This means that they didn’t like a challenge. They got the win where they could by seeking out opportunities for when the enemy was at their weakest or by deliberately seeking out weaker opponents to attack. This is skilful war. Anything else is too risky to be a choice and although there are many instances of valour in war, these occur (in most cases) out of necessity. Individuals found themselves in unfair situations and chose to risk all so as to endure.

When women are forced into these positions there is another important element that the vast majority of martial arts and self defence training seems to ignore and that is what happens when you lose.

In sport if you lose you go home disappointed. In a brawl you might have some superficial damage like a black eye, bleeding nose or missing teeth. In a real fight injuries can be far more serious but in battle you will probably be maimed or killed. Add to this that a man may be tortured or enslaved. But for women, throughout history, they can expect to be raped, mutilated, enslaved (so that this abuse can continue) and/or killed. In battle, women cannot afford to risk losing and so they must understand their limitations far more then men. They must remain professional in their approach and avoid relying on aggression and intimidation in the way sport teaches you. How to injure or kill a man in such a way that his body doesn’t fall on you and pin you, how to prevent him from using his (supposed) physical advantage (because its only an advantage if he can use it), how to prevent capture, how to use his rage, lust or bloodlust to your advantage and most importantly how to fight like a woman and not like a little man. These skills are completely alien to the vast majority of martial artists, male and female but they are vital for a “warrior woman”.

I love martial arts, but it’s a man’s world. I really don’t think that the majority of women involved in martial arts practice are getting a good deal or even an adequate one. Perhaps instead of arguing over ‘myths’ a better topic for discussion would be ‘How to avoid dis-empowering women in martial arts training’!

Stay tuned.

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