Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Woman's Inspiration: A Rally Cry

Long have women been on the battlefield in all sorts of roles, whether they were known to be women or not.  One of the most recurring and important roles was that of the inspiration.  From simple imagery and propaganda to color guard/bannerwomen/flag bearer and canon loaders, women participated in battles in pivotal roles that turned the tides of events, rallying troops to win the war.

The Muslim prophet Muhammad had met formidable forces against warrior queens and even had been assisted by his own warrior women, one being his wife.  But one of his enemies was most fearsome.  Hind al-Hunnud, of the Quraysh tribe, traveled with the army as one of fifteen women who sang songs to inspire the men in a battle near Medina.  After the battle, she made an example of the man that had killed her father the year before at the Battle of Badr by eating his liver and making jewelry of his skin and nails.  Gross.  Really gross.  Of course, this is likely an exaggeration by early Muslim writers as a sort of propaganda and entertainment, much like Boudicca was depicted by the Roman historians.

Bronze statue of Fourquet in Beauvais
At 16 years old, Jeanne Fourquet inspired the three hundred defenders of Beauvais on 27 June 1472 when she, with axe in hand, flung herself upon a Burgundian soldier, who planted their flag on the Beauvais battlement.  He tumbled into the moat, and she removed the flag.  Her action revived the tiring and overwhelmed Beauvais.  They ended up successful in fending off Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.  Her action also gave her the nickname of Jeanne Hatchette ("Jean the Hatchet").

As previously discussed in whether Queen Elizabeth I was feminist, she had ridden at the head of her troops before battle, delivered a rousing speech for inspiration, and retreated to nearby tent to watch the battles unfold.  Many women rode at the head of the troops, not just Elizabeth.  It reminded men what they were fighting for, and women were happy to do so, as a way of serving their country.  Often, in doing this, they would also see the blood on their blades.

In 1614, Queen Regent Ketevan of Kakheti, Georgia, offered herself as hostage in an attempt to prevent war on Kakheti.  Her sacrifice was ultimately for naught, though inspiring I'm sure it was, especially after her people found out she was tortured for years and refused to give up her Christianity and adopt the Islamic faith.  She was martyred, but it didn't stop the Safavids of Persia, led by Shah Abbas I, to utterly annihilate the Kakhetis.

The Defence of Saragossa by David Wilkie
In 1808, Agustina Raimunda María Saragossa Domènech, or Agustina de Aragón, AKA "the Maid of Zaragoza," inspired the 220 defenders of the crumbling town of Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Spain.  She was only 22 years old, having been born 4 Mar 1786.  On June 15, 1808, the small army of villagers fended off a 1200-strong French army of General La Fevre.  They had taken a large gash in casualties, and the soldiers abandoned their posts and retreated in panic.  But it was Agustina, in pristine white garb, disheveled hair, a cross necklace, and wild eyes, who marched forward, yelling out, "For so long as the French are near, Zaragoza has one defender!  Victory or death!"  She loaded a cannon, and fired at the French at point-blank range.  The action rallied the men.  They would not leave a woman to do what was their duty by herself.  Rather than deserting their posts, they fought with more courage than they had before.  After a few weeks, the French had retreated after it seemed Zarazoga was lost.  But the French returned, and this time the army of Zaragoza was co-led by Agustina, who also served as a cannoneer, and they, of course, succeeded in fending off the French in a three-month battle.

María Mayor Fernández de Cámara y Pita, born in 1565, stood beside her husband, a captain of the Spanish army, in a battle against the English Armada.  Her husband was struck down with a crossbow bolt to he head, and Pita did what she must and killed an approaching bannerman.  She rallied the soldiers from the ramparts and shouted, "Whoever has honor, follow me!"  And they did.  And they fended off the English with great success.

Cherokee woman Cuhtahlatah, wife of Cherokee chief, took up her fallen husband's tomahawk as her people retreated.  However, she ran forward, yelling, "Kill!  Kill!" and inspired her people to turn and attack with a renewed vigor.  They won the battle.

Depiction of Molly Pitcher
Men and women contributed equally to the development of the United States of America, and women had an important role in the American Revolution.  Women melted precious silver and other metals, brought form the motherland to their new homes, into bullets for their soldiers.  They worked in factories.  They assisted on the battlefield as medics, cooks, soldiers, and cannon loaders.  Margaret Corbin stood beside her husband John at Ft. Washington in 1776.  He fell, and rather than weep in despair, she took his place at the cannon until wounded.  The term "Molly Pitcher" became a name synonymous with all women on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War.  However, the name seems to have derived from water-carrier Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, a German immigrant, who took up cannon arms after her husband William Hays died in the role.

During the U.S. Civil War, Annie Etheridge courageously tended to the wounds of men in the heat of the battlefield, but she inspired men by riding on a pony at the head of the brigade both during march and battle.  She had done her share of fighting, surely.  A soldier wrote of her: "Gen. Berry used to say she had been under as heavy fire as himself."

During the 1876 Battle of the Rosebud, Buffalo Calf Road Woman of the Cheyenne rescued her fleeing brother after his horse was shot.  With the advancing enemy on her and her brother, her people (the northern Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux), led by Crazy Horse, rallied and defeated the U.S. Army, Crow, and Shoshoni, led by George Crook.  Buffalo Calf Road Woman also fought beside her husband in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  She was also the one to deliver the blow to General George Armstrong that knocked him from his horse.  The Comanche women of Texas and Oklahoma also accompanied men on incursions, singing and telling tales to inspire the men.

The legacy of women in early American wars is echoed in WWI, WWII, and Vietnam, as Lady Liberty and Columbia, unstained, ancient, and beautiful, are seen heroically leading troops into bloody battles.  Before Uncle Sam, torch-guiding Lady Liberty and the sword-bearing Columbia were the symbols of freedom, for which Americans fought for so long.  While Lady Liberty and Columbia were propaganda, they were most certainly tools of inspiration, as the real women, both individual and collective, who had come before them were; whereas Uncle Sam is more of a blatant propaganda tool and had been from his creation.  It can be seen in the idea of Rosie the Riveter ("We Can Do It!"), inspiring women to take up men's positions in the workforce.  It was a success.

Not only had the sentiment been echoed throughout U.S. wartime, it was also used in various other countries, such as Great Britain and Italy.  Britannia and Columbia were very much alike, both pristine and mighty, holding a sword and a rallying flag, demanding enlistment, inspiring bravery.  Italia Turrita, Mother Albania, and so many other women are personifications of a country and used in propaganda, but they would not be so without the real women who preceded them.  Now the idea of an inspiring woman, clad in loose-flowing, impractical garb, is moot, considering how many women are serving in the military, from Cuba to Israel to United States.  Women are more than a flag and a pristine dress.  They can do when men can do.


The Official Homepage of the United States Army: "Early Women Soldiers" (

Women Warriors: A History, 1st Edition, by David E. Jones

James Mooney's History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees by James Mooney and George Ellison

Chronology of Women's History by Kirstin Olsen

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