War has traditionally been seen as a male-dominated sphere throughout human history, with women’s roles during times of war going largely unnoticed. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’ll highlight some of the most interesting female warriors that you may not have heard of.
These are only a handful of the numerous examples of female martial courage and prowess throughout history. These women stand as figures of strength against all odds and ought to serve as an inspiration to anyone, no matter their gender.
1. Margaret of Anjou
During the initial stages of the Wars of the Roses, the main military successes were on the side of the Lancastrian forces who sought to defend their influence over the King against the rival Yorkist faction. These successes were due in no small part to the ferocity of the English Queen, Margaret of Anjou.
Born in France, Margaret was married to King Henry VI of England in 1445 at only 15 years old. The King was prone to fits of unconsciousness, a weakness that, combined with the embarrassing loss of the Hundred Years War, led to turmoil amongst the English nobility.
The main instigator of this instability was Richard, Duke of York, an ambitious nobleman who sought to clear out the English court of the many corrupt officials that influenced the weak King. Moreover, his claim to the English throne made him a direct competitor to Margaret’s son.
By leveraging her power over her husband, Margaret managed to get York moved from his post in France to Ireland, effectively exiling him from court. But once York returned from Ireland, he began to influence the King and conflict became inevitable.
Margaret took up arms as leader of the Lancastrians, seeking to protect her influence over the King and the succession of her son. While the Lancastrians suffered early defeats, the Yorkists were dealt a stinging blow at the Battle of Wakefield, where York and his son, the Duke of Rutland, were killed.
Despite this, the Lancastrians would be shattered at the Battle of Towton only a year later. Undeterred, Margaret managed to influence the Duke of Warwick, the principal ally of Edward, Duke of York, into turning against the Yorkist leader. But this too was met with failure at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where Warwick and her son were killed and Margaret herself was captured.
Though she was defeated, Margaret of Anjou stands as a figure of struggling against all odds, both as a woman in the male-dominated theatre of Medieval warfare and as a warrior in her own right.
2. Tamar of Georgia
Another Medieval queen who demonstrated great strength against all odds was Tamar of Georgia. Reigning from 1184 to 1213, Tamar is recognised as one of the greatest national figures in Georgian history.
The novelty of Tamar’s rise to the throne is shown in the fact that she was crowned ‘King Tamar’ as the Georgians had no word for a ruling queen. Despite strong opposition, Tamar managed to consolidate her reign and turned her attention to her country’s borders.
Tamar waged war against the Eldiguzids, a Muslim emirate in modern-day Azerbaijan, and established a client state there to secure her borders. She then set about liberating Armenia, drawing the eye of Sultan Suleiman II of Rûm.
Despite the superior strength of the Sultanate of Rûm, Tamar’s generals were able to win stunning victories against the odds, their Queen acting as a stalwart figure of Georgian and Christian strength to inspire her men.
With Armenia and Azerbaijan subdued, Tamar turned her eyes to the crumbling Byzantine Empire. The Fourth Crusade had seen the city of Constantinople sacked and the Empire in ruin. Tamar took the initiative by establishing the Empire of Trebizond as a vassal state.
Tamar’s military exploits allowed Georgia to exist as an independent Kingdom, only falling to the Mongols in the 13th century. Yet even after her death, Tamar lived on as a symbol of Georgian nationalism, a figure of great Christian importance and one of the greatest female rulers of all time.
3. Tomoe Gozen
We now go East to 12th century Japan, during the Genpei War between the Minamoto and Taira clans. One of the most famous warriors of this era was an onna-musha (‘woman warrior’) named Tomoe Gozen.
Much of her life is overshadowed by the legends written about her. What we do know is that she was a warrior in service to Minamoto no Yoshinaka. She was once able to overcome a force of 2,000 enemy warriors with her 300 samurai. She also fought at the doomed Battle of Awazu.
Though the forces of her master were crushed at Awazu, Tomoe fought on and is believed to have beheaded two enemy noblemen in battle.
Tomoe Gozen stands as one of the most famous female warriors in Japanese history and went on to inspire future generations of samurai, becoming a major figure in Japanese military culture.
4. Lilya Litvak
Finally, we have Lilya Litvak, a woman whose exploits in World War II are largely unknown, despite their immensity.
Litvak was a fighter pilot for the Soviet Union during the war. Amidst her country’s desperate struggle for survival against the Nazis, Litvak provided a glimmer of hope from the skies.
She scored her first kills on 13th September 1942, becoming the first female pilot to destroy an enemy aircraft in World War II. Between 1942 and 1943 Litvak shot down between five to twelve enemy aircraft on her own, while sharing in another two to four kills.
Litvak became the first woman to hold the title of an ace pilot. With the aid of brave, talented pilots such as herself, the Soviet Union was able to push the Germans back and win the war.
But in August 1943, Litvak was shot down by a German fighter. It’s not known whether she was captured or killed in action. But what is known is that she was one of the most influential heroes of the Soviet Union.