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Tomoe Gozen Killing Uchida Ieyoshi at Battle of Awazu

8 fearsome female warriors from history 

These women stand as figures of strength against all odds and ought to serve as an inspiration to anyone, no matter their gender.

Image: Depiction of Tomoe Gozen killing Uchida Ieyoshi at Battle of Awazu | Public Domain

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.

5. Zenobia

Septimia Zenobia is a lesser-known, but still very formidable opponent of the Roman Empire. Zenobia became Queen Regent of Palmyra (in modern-day Syria) on the coronation of her son, Vaballathus, in 267 AD. But while her child wore the crown, it was Zenobia who held true power.

In 269, while Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus was busy defending the Balkans from Germanic incursions, Zenobia took the initiative to assert her authority over the region, expanding into Bosra and Antioch. However, she justified these invasions as a consolidation of her province in service to the Roman emperor, not an act of rebellion against him.

But Zenobia’s ambitions didn’t stop there. Later in the year, she sent 70,000 troops into Roman Egypt under the leadership of Palmyrene general Zabdas, destroying the armies stationed there and taking control of the province. After securing Egypt, Zenobia sent Zabdas to invade Asia Minor (in modern-day Turkey) with some success, bringing the Palmyrene Empire to its greatest extent.

Zenobia was able to unite the various cultures of her Empire, styling herself as a Hellenistic, Semitic and Roman Queen, leading many of her subjects to support her cause for independence.

But this dream was not to last. Out of the Crisis of the Third Century, one man rose to the occasion, destroying many of Rome’s enemies and ascending to the Imperial throne. His name was Aurelian. With the barbarians suppressed, Aurelian set his sights on the East.

After a crushing defeat at Immae in May 272 at the hands of Aurelian, Zenobia retreated with her army to Emesa. The two forces met again and initially the heavy Palmyrene cavalry devastated the lighter Roman cavalry and forced them to flee. However, caught up in the thrill of the chase, the Palmyrenes broke ranks in pursuit of the Romans and were massacred by the Roman infantry.

The battle spelled the end of Zenobia’s reign. She was forced to flee to Palmyrene which came under siege by the Romans. She was then captured attempting to flee to the Persian court for aid. Most historians agree she was then marched through the streets of Rome in Aurelian’s triumph and humiliated publicly. After that, both Zenobia and the Palmyrene Empire faded into obscurity.

Zenobia’s rebellion is seen as an opportunistic power grab by some and a heroic act of independence by others. But what is indisputable is that this ferocious queen posed a serious threat to the Romans and was stopped only by the genius of one of Rome’s greatest generals.

6. Fu Hao

There are many legends in Chinese folklore about warrior women. However, there was one Chinese female warrior who was much more than just fiction.

Fu Hao was one of 64 wives of King Wu Dang of the Shang Dynasty from around 1200 BC. Refusing to stay content as an object of negotiation between the King and her tribe, Fu Hao decided to lead men into battle.

Throughout her life, Fu Hao expanded the borders of her kingdom. The Shang had fought a long and drawn-out war against the Tufang people of North West China, yet Fu Hao was able to swiftly and decisively defeat the Tufang and subjugate them.

Fu Hao commanded the largest army in China at the time, around 13,000 people, and is credited with setting up the largest-scale ambush in Chinese history against the Ba people. It’s worth noting that in this period of Chinese history, many women served in the army, which demonstrates how attitudes towards women in the military can fluctuate over time.

Many of Fu Hao’s achievements have been lost to time, but she still stands as one of the most powerful female warriors in history.

7. Ebba Stenbock

Ebba Stenbock was a Swedish noblewoman who lived from 1550 to 1614. She was the wife of Klaus Fleming, a nobleman loyal to King Sigismund Vasa. Sigismund reigned as King of Sweden and Poland and sought to unify the two into one Catholic Kingdom, until he was deposed as Swedish King by a Protestant rebellion led by his uncle, Charles IX, in 1599.

Fleming died in 1597, the same year that forces of Charles IX invaded Finland where Stenbock’s seat of power, Turku, was located. Despite her husband’s death and many calls from the enemy for her to surrender, Stenbock remained firm, keeping the morale of her men high during the siege.

As it became apparent that no help was coming, Stenbock was forced to face the inevitable and she conceded the castle to Charles after a lengthy siege.

When Charles pulled the beard of the corpse of her husband, saying, ‘If you had been alive, your head would not have been safe’, Stenbock bravely responded, ‘If my late husband was alive, Your Grace would never have been here.’

Stenbock fought against the odds, and though she lost, her bravery has cemented her name in history.

8. Avantibai

While many are remembered in history for their bravery, very few are ingrained into a country’s folklore and culture for their acts of heroism. But Avantibai is one such figure.

Avantibai was born into the Lodhi, an agricultural caste in India who claimed to have Royal ancestry and had gained significant influence by the time of Avantibai’s childhood. This position allowed Avantibai to be married to Prince Vikramaditya Singh Lodhi of Ramgarh.

But Avantibai wasn’t content to merely play second fiddle to a powerful man and when the British decreed that her region would come under the administration of Sheikh Sarbarahkar in 1850, she took action.

First Avantibai told the peasantry not to obey the British. She then spent the next few years conspiring to rebel against the British, imploring the Kings and nobles of the surrounding states to defend their country. In 1857, the revolt broke out.

Avantibai led 4,000 men against the British, defeating Deputy Commissioner Waddington at Mandla. However, the British maintained a strong position and, supported by some Indian Kings and nobles, burned Ramgarh to the ground, chasing Avantibai into the hills. Here Avantibai used guerilla tactics, but once battle became inevitable, so did her defeat.

Rather than face humiliation as a prisoner, Avantibai ran herself through with her sword on the 20th March 1858. While Avantibai’s revolt was defeated, the spirit of rebellion in India was not. Avantibai lives on in folklore as a symbol of Indian resistance to British occupation.