Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present

Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present

by Linda Grant De Pauw
Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present

Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present

by Linda Grant De Pauw

Paperback(Revised ed.)

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In this groundbreaking work, which covers thousands of years and spans the globe, Linda Grant De Pauw depicts women as victims and as warriors; as nurses, spies, sex workers, and wives and mothers of soldiers; as warrior queens leading armies into battle; and as baggage carriers marching in the rear.

Beginning with the earliest archaeological evidence of warfare and ending with the dozens of wars in progress today, Battle Cries and Lullabies demonstrates that warfare has always and everywhere involved women. Following an introductory chapter on the questions raised about women’s participation in warfare, the book presents a documented, chronological survey linked to familiar models of military history.

De Pauw provides historical context for current public policy debates over the role of women in the military. "Whether one applauds or deplores their presence and their actions, women have always been part of war. To ignore this fact grossly distorts our understanding of human history."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806132884
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/15/2000
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.02(d)

About the Author

Linda Grant De Pauw is President of the Minerva Center (an institution dedicated to studies of women in the military) and Professor Emeritus of History at George Washington University. She is the author of Founding Mothers: Women of America in the Revolutionary Era, “Remember the Ladies”: Women in America, 1750-1815, and Seafaring Women.

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Battle Cries and Lullabies

Women in War from Prehistory to the Present

By Linda Grant De Pauw


Copyright © 2000 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4684-3



Definitions and Presuppositions

THE HISTORY OF WOMEN in war is buried beneath centuries of sniggering. The tendency to conflate all women's roles into sexual ones made the presence of women in war zones a natural target for dirty jokes. Many myths and false assumptions about women and their military roles still survive. To keep these from confusing the narrative that follows, they are collected here to be examined systematically at the beginning.


AS I CHOOSE TO use the word, a woman is any human who self-identifies as female, whatever her race, class, behavior, or physical appearance. This is a broader definition than some others have used. In a famous episode in American women's history, the former slave Sojourner Truth spoke up at a women's rights convention. Elizabeth D. Gage, the presiding officer, recorded her statement:

Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles or gibs me any best place! And a'n't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a'n't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief none but Jesus heard me! And a'n't I a woman?

The response of the gentleman was not recorded, but we can be sure he would have answered in the negative. No, this six-foot-tall, gaunt black figure whom Gage described as "almost Amazon" was not what he meant when he spoke of woman. To this day, race and social class as well as behavior and appearance influence perceptions of gender.

Gender is a set of grammatical categories—in English, he, she, and it—related only indirectly to biological characteristics. For instance, it makes sense to say of a new yacht, "She's a beautiful boat," or of a new baby, "It's a boy!" The separation of grammar from biology is even clearer in some other languages. In French, for instance, both men and women have feminine heads and masculine feet.

Recently, individuals embroiled in the public policy debate over women in combat have often fallen into what the sociologist M. C. Devilbiss calls the "yes, but phenomenon":

I have often been struck by the fact that women's contributions—even when thoroughly documented—have been dismissed by many who listen. Women have participated in war, often in central combatant roles, but these contributions are "explained away," viz., "Yes, but that was not in modern times," or "Yes, but that was a combat support not a direct combat role," or "Yes, but, these were defensive combat roles, not offensive ones," or "Yes, but that was a combat training exercise, not a true combat situation," or "Yes, but, they were Russian (or European or African or Central or South American) women, not U.S. citizens," or—perhaps the best one, said of the involvement of U.S. servicewomen in the 1992 Gulf War—"Yes, but that was not a real war."

Less frequently expressed openly, but present in the same public policy debate, is the idea that any female who is a combatant in a real war is not a real woman. Physically or psychologically, she must be either peculiar or perverted because women by nature require male protection. Women are too weak physically and too gentle psychologically to go to war. So women can't have been in war—even if they were.

Binary thinking—the habit of classifying everything as black or white, positive or negative—accepts male and female as categories representing polar opposites. That may make sense as an abstraction, but it clearly does not apply on a physical level. A human female is not the "opposite" of a human male; both are members of the same mammalian species. They have much more in common with each other than either has with a cow or a bull, for example.

Until quite recently, however, even scientists accepted the notion that men and women were "opposite" sexes. A woman who thought like a man or acted like a man was therefore suspected of having some physiological abnormality. Scientists now understand that both physically and psychologically, gender is a continuum. Real human beings, as opposed to symbolic constructs, embody both male and female elements. Some females are taller than some males. Males can be compassionate, and females can be courageous. Furthermore, psychological and physical traits are not directly linked; a small curvaceous female with curly hair and long eyelashes may have an aptitude for car racing while a big, hairy, muscular male may be a sensitive, nurturing parent.

But how about what is under their clothing? In the past it was often assumed that women who cross-dressed and assumed male roles were hermaphrodites. Although that was very rarely the case, humans sometimes do have ambiguous sexual organs. Some females have large clitorises, and some males have small penises. Substantial numbers of babies are born with ambiguous external genitalia. The only way to be sure whether to dress them in pink or in blue is to test their chromosomes, a very recent option. And chromosome testing has problems of its own. Chromosomal abnormalities are twice as common as Down's syndrome, but the individuals affected generally accept a gender role and move in the world as unremarkable males and females. Adult males are not likely to be tested, but female athletes in recent years have been required to prove what they had taken for granted all their lives. And some women with breasts bulging conspicuously under their swimsuits have been told after testing that they were not sufficiently female to compete against others of their sex.

Some female infants have what appears to be complete male plumbing. These children, born with andrenogenital syndrome, have a faulty adrenal gland that secretes large amounts of testosterone, causing embryonic development of a scrotum, penis, and other male accessory reproductive organs. Yet these children carry the XX chromosome and are thus genetically female. Nowadays children with this condition, which occurs in about one in one thousand female births, may have corrective surgery and be raised as girls. In times past, such individuals would have gone through life believing they were male. Historical sources provide no evidence that would identify them, and it would be meaningless to classify them as women even if we now ran tests on exhumed DNA samples.

Biological features have objective reality, but gender identity is a social construct. Children form gender identities very early in life and cling to them even in those cases in which puberty and a new spurt of hormones bring unpleasant surprises. It is extremely rare to find a "mannish" woman who is actually a biological male. As for secondary sexual characteristics and gender markers, having the wrong sort is certainly embarrassing, but humans adapt. A little boy may be teased about his long eyelashes and curly hair, and a little girl may be ashamed of her unusual height or her big feet, but that will not prevent either from developing appropriate gender identity.

Some cultures, notably American Indian cultures, allowed a greater number of gender choices for those who did not easily fit into rigid sex-linked categories. An investigator who did fieldwork on an eastern Navajo reservation originally identified four categories of gender—female/woman, male/man, female/man, and male/woman—but quickly realized that even this was too narrow since the culture recognized at least several dozen subtle gradations between male and female. The dominant cultures of Western nations have, in contrast, been notably intolerant. Difficult as it may have been for some, everyone who could pass as either male or female conformed.


"Dyke" is a derogatory term for "lesbian" as "whore" is a derogatory term for "sex worker." Both lesbian and prostitute activists have embraced the epithets as a means of drawing their power to wound. Still, the ugly words are offensive to most women.

A U.S. Army colonel, now retired, tells of reporting to her first military assignment as a young officer and being told by her boss, "All military women are either whores or dykes." Her experience was uncommon only in that the labeling was so promptly and bluntly presented. In the Western world prior to the twentieth century the stigma was simpler: "All women who follow armies are whores." "Whore" and a host of other derogatory terms such as "slut," "trull," "wench," and "harlot," and some even less polite ones were also applied to females in general, those well past menopause as well as those who had not yet reached puberty.

This loose use of language to stigmatize women conflates all roles women play in war into that of sexual object and makes accurate assessment of their true activity difficult. This book defines the words whore and prostitute narrowly as someone who chooses to provide sexual service for pay—that is, someone who is a "sex worker," to use the term those in the oldest profession apply to themselves today. A prostitute sells her sexual labor as others might sell their muscle as construction workers or brain power as tax consultants. Despite contemporary attitudes that criminalize the activity, commerce in sex has not been universally stigmatized or experienced as degrading. Indeed in many cultures prostitutes and courtesans were highly regarded. Some sex workers still consider themselves healers and therapists, even spiritual mentors to their clients.

The narrow definition of prostitution encompasses all work in what is now called the sex industry, including striptease dancing, sexual massage, and feminine companionship as provided in a chaste form by Japanese geisha or ancient Greek hetaerae. Military prostitution includes women providing sexual services in a civilian business establishment that caters to soldiers or sailors as well as those in facilities supervised directly by military authorities. It also applies to independent entrepreneurs, including those military wives who might turn tricks to supplement their husbands' pay. And it applies to women for whom the role of prostitute is a cover for covert activities such as espionage or sabotage.

A woman forced to have sexual relations, whether through rape or sexual blackmail, however, is not a whore but a victim. Slaves captured as booty are not whores. Girls kidnapped and forced into military brothels are not whores. If a soldier throws a coin or a pack of gum to a woman he has raped, she does not thereby become a whore. Employers of women in both military and civilian environments may demand sexual service as a condition of employment. The upstairs maid and the regimental laundress often discovered that sleeping with "the gentleman" was the only way to keep the paying job. This is prostitution only if the woman negotiates extra pay for extra service. Otherwise it is simply exploitation. Finally, a sweetheart is not a prostitute. Some women fall in love with soldiers and share sex out of affection and for their own pleasure; not all partners of military men require payment.

Sweethearts often become wives. It has been argued by some that marriage is no more than legalized prostitution, that the marriage contract is simply a lifelong arrangement whereby economic support is traded for sex. Marriage is, however, distinct from prostitution even if the wife marries for money, since the responsibilities of marriage partners include mutual obligations encompassing more than sexual activity, in particular, mutual responsibility for offspring. Marriage need not be a legal agreement. In many cultures, as well as in traditional English law, cohabitation for an extended period created a common-law marriage without any other action by the parties. In many cultures soldiers, in fact, have been forbidden to have legal wives or have had to receive permission from their superiors before they could marry their lovers. Military authorities have treated both husband and wife harshly if they bonded without approval. Ralph Dennison, a navy hospital corpsman in Vietnam, recalled that many soldiers married to Vietnamese women were confined in Long Binh Jail for the offense of wanting to stay with their Vietnamese families when the military wanted to ship them home. Despite the contempt with which they have generally been treated, unapproved military wives are not prostitutes.

A mother is not necessarily a whore simply because there is evidence that she has been sexually active. For some, this may be obvious, but contemporary conservative criticism of women with children serving in the military, while it may focus on child care, carries the suggestion that these women are unwed mothers; that is, they are fornicators or prostitutes. Navy ships carrying pregnant sailors are commonly referred to as "love boats." Bearing children is a natural activity for the females of our species. Pregnancy is not a venereal disease or evidence of bad character. Most human cultures have taken it for granted that in addition to carrying on tasks that may be performed by either sex, women will occasionally have babies as well. Although modern gynecologists would not recommend stressful activities, pregnant women have performed all military roles up to and including engaging in hand-to-hand combat while in advanced stages of pregnancy or while lactating.

Of course, significant numbers of women at all times in history have gone through life without ever bearing a child. Even when pressures to bear children have been strongest, not every female is fertile. Furthermore, even those women who bear the largest numbers of offspring spend substantial portions of their lives—the years prior to puberty and after menopause, if they live to that age—neither pregnant nor lactating. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to focus attention on mothers precisely because it is so tempting to focus on women who do not have children. Motherhood, or the potential for motherhood, is the one irreducible difference between men and women. While it is possible for some women to do everything men can do, even use artificial means to begin a pregnancy, no man can ever be a biological mother.

Despite evidence that pregnancy is not a disability, women who are pregnant or nursing strike a discordant note in contemporary military settings. Both women and men in service today refer to pregnant soldiers and sailors as a "problem." Although there were times in the past when women heavy with child strapped on swords to smite the enemies of their people, embedded cultural archetypes make the symbolic union of mother and warrior repellent to many people. During the Gulf War, the spectacle of mothers leaving their infants behind was far more poignant for most civilians than the spectacle of fathers torn from their offspring. Single military women often spoke disparagingly of those who were married: having family obligations that might interfere with deployment or being visibly pregnant appeared to them to be "unprofessional" and to reflect badly on those women intent on their careers who did not use their reproductive potential while in military service. In contrast, the image of a woman holding a baby in one hand and a sword or rifle in the other may be a powerful symbol of patriotism. Indeed, it is a popular symbol in the guerrilla armies of the Third World, where it serves as an inspiration to both soldiers and civilians.

As applied to military women in recent years, "whore" is an epithet used to describe any woman who does or might have a propensity to sleep with men, and "dyke" is the epithet that covers all the rest. The latter term also stretches to cover any woman who is not stereotypically feminine. Thus some use the term "dyke" to describe any woman who wears combat boots or does not use makeup.

By a narrow definition, lesbian would describe a woman who either has sexual relations with another woman or wishes to do so. But perceptions of human sexual activities change dramatically over time and in different cultural contexts. In Western culture prior to the twentieth century, possession of a phallus was believed essential for sexual activities. Consequently, anything women did together was excluded unless one party had an unusually large clitoris. Also, preference for a certain type of sexual activity only recently became part of an individual's self-identification. Male homosexual acts were criminal, but the individuals who committed them were thought to have made a wicked choice rather than to be a special kind of person. An analogy is our current attitude toward food preferences. When a waitress brings a tray to the table and says to one diner, "Are you the rare burger?" and to another "Are you the tofu with sprouts?" neither individual takes the remark personally, even if the tofu eater chooses to feel superior.


Excerpted from Battle Cries and Lullabies by Linda Grant De Pauw. Copyright © 2000 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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