The Warrior Queens

I’m in the midst of re-reading an old friend–Antonia Fraser’s The Warrior Queens: The Legends and the Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations in War. If I were a more patient sort, I would wait to finish and then write a reasoned post with carefully thought out conclusions. But sometimes you just need to talk about a book while you’re reading it.

As a child, I read every biography I could find about women who ignored society’s boundaries and accomplished things. Lucky for me, our school’s revolving library owned a whole series of them. Each week a new one arrived and I snatched it before anyone else could get it, eager to read about Clara Barton, Madame Curie, or Julia Ward Howell. Those books were an inspiration and I remember them with great affection, though I couldn’t give you the name of a single title or author.(1)

I remembered The Warrior Queens with the same affection–as if it were an adult version of those biographies. Well…yes and no. I find that it is informed by the same mindset (sensibility?) that led me to those biographies. Fraser begins the book with an author’s note in which she describes her childhood fascination with Queen Boadicea,(2) met in the form of a biography written for children. She is absolutely clear that part of what fascinated her was that the child’s-history version of Boadicea was a heroine as opposed to a hero–exactly the quality that called to me in those long-ago cherished biographies. Returning to Boadicea’s story, and those of other warrior queens, Fraser returns also to interwoven themes of patriotism and femininity, which she found neither outmoded or irrelevant in 1988–and which seem to me to be neither outmoded nor irrelevant today.

At the same time, The Warrior Queens is not a simple catalog of chicks with sticks.(3) Fraser looks at her warring queens as a whole as well as individually, trying to understand the tropes that [mostly male] historians have used both to make them bigger than life and to demean them as women.(4) In the process of untangling legends from lives, she transforms many of her queens from capital-H Heroines to powerful and often tragic historical figures.

Here are a few things that strike me about The Warrior Queens thus far:

  • I remembered her discussion of Boadicea more clearly than any of the other figures she discusses. I assumed it was because she was the first queen in the book. In fact, Fraser uses her as the pivot for the entire book.
  • There are several variations of Boadicea’s name. The one that is probably “correct” (6), Boudica, resembles several Celtic words for victory. Which means Boudica, as we shall now call her, could also be called Queen Victoria. (Evidently nineteenth century British historians loved this. I don’t blame them. I love it too.)
  • Writing during Margaret Thatcher’s third term as Prime Minister, Fraser ends (7) with a chapter titled “Iron Ladies” that focuses on women leaders of the twentieth century who led their countries to war. India Gandhi, Golda Meir and Thatcher herself.  One of the questions I’m stewing over at the moment is how works of history are relevant to the time in which they are written: what is the hook that says “this is why it matters today”. (8) This big fat hook–which I had totally forgotten–took me by surprise.

So what about you? Have you recently returned to any works of history from your distant past? How did they hold up?


(1) Does this sound familiar to any of you? I know I’m not the only girl-child who was eager for these stories; those books existed for a reason.
(2) Here’s the short version: British ruler who led a revolt against the Roman occupation in 60/61 CE.
(3) I’m not entirely sure this phrase is mine.  If you recognize the source, please let me know so I can give credit where credit is due.
(4) To put this in context, Sidney Hook, in his classic(5)The Hero in History, devotes only eight pages to women, uses almost every trope Fraser identifies to deny the importance of specific women in history,  and accords only one his accolade of “event-making”– Catherine the Great of Russia.
(5) Trying to resist the temptation to make jokes about it being seminal. And failing.
(6) To the extent that spelling can be correct for a name from a non-literate culture.
(7)  What, you never peek ahead?
(8) A topic for a blog post in the future, perhaps

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