Soldaderas, Partisanas and Guerilla Girls

[WARNING: For the next few weeks, it’s going to be all women warriors (and occasionally Women Warriors) all the time here at the Margins as we lead up to my publication date of February 26. I’ll try to keep the My Book! My Book! to a minimum and focus on the stories instead, but I may slip now and then because I’m excited.]


Political coups, revolutions, and resistance movements against an occupying army or colonial government created women warriors in many times and places. Some achieved the status of national heroine—think Joan of Arc or the Trung sisters of Vietnam. But for every national heroine, there were hundreds of women warriors whose service to their country or cause is remembered as part of a largely anonymous collective. The resistance. The “guerrilla girls” of Zimbabwe. The “long-haired” army.

Women fought in revolutions against Spanish control throughout Latin America in the early nineteenth century and against internal tyranny in the twentieth century. Female slaves battled for their personal as well as their national independence in the Haitian Revolution of 1802. Partisanas took up arms in the Spanish Civil War and the anti-Nazi resistance movements in France, Greece, Italy, and Yugoslavia during World War II (1) Women fought in the anticolonial wars that followed the Second World War. In Vietnam, members of the so-called “long-hair army” were guerrilla fighters, served in antiaircraft artillery units, and fought in local militia units in Vietcong-controlled areas in South Vietnam. In the 1950s, Kikuyu women served with the forest combat forces of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and Muslim women fought in the Algerian wars for independence. Thousands of women joined the guerrilla armies of the late twentieth-century revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—making up perhaps as much as 30 percent of these forces. (2) Beginning in 2014, between seven thousand and ten thousand Kurdish women joined the ongoing fight against ISIS in the Middle East. That same year, the so-called “invisible battalion” of women in the Ukrainian army became unacknowledged combatants in anti-terrorist operations in the undeclared war with Russia. (3)

Gender, peace and security specialist Nicola Popovic calls them the F-words: female freedom fighters.  And like other F-words, their use is circumscribed by social norms.  Such women are the subject of growing numbers of academic monographs but they tend to get overlooked in big picture accounts of the conflicts in which they serve.  Here’s hoping that changes.


(1)A large percentage of the women involved in resistance movements in World War II were not warriors per se, though their jobs were as dangerous as those of their armed counterparts. Because women could move more freely, they carried out critical activities that allowed the armed resistance movements to function. They acted as couriers, collected intelligence, and arranged for food, supplies, and shelter for armed insurgents and downed Allied pilots. They transported weapons and ammunition and distributed illegal printed materials, sometimes using the trappings of pregnancy and motherhood to help them smuggle contraband under the eyes of German soldiers. Without them, the armed groups could not have carried out their actions, yet historians often describe their work as “passive resistance.” They may not have been warriors by conventional definitions, but they were not passive in any reasonable sense of the term.

(2) Thirty percent seems to be the canonical estimate of the female component of any revolutionary force from the end of the eighteenth century through yesterday—suggesting it may be no more reliable than troop estimates in the ancient world. Perhaps it tells us as much about the desires and perceptions of those who report them as it does about the actual number of female combatants. To put this number in context, according to the White House Project: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, women on active duty made up 14.3 percent of the American military in 2008. The percentages of women in the military in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom for the same year were 14.6, 8.3, and 9.3, respectively.

(3) The “invisible battalions” became somewhat less invisible in 2017, with the release of an eponymous documentary film and companion report funded by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund.


Just a reminder: Pre-order swag for Women Warriors is now available! If you buy the book before February 26 and want women warrior trading cards, a book mark and a signed bookplate, fill out this form:

Just so there’s no confusion:
1. You don’t have to buy the book directly from Beacon: pre-orders from any vendor count
2.  If you already pre-ordered, you can still get the swag.

In addition to swag, you also get my thanks.  Pre-orders matter.

Shin-kickers from History: Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) was one of the most important European writers of the late Middle Ages and the first woman known to make a living as a writer (1).

She was born in Venice. When her father was appointed royal astrologer to the French king Charles V, the family moved to Paris, where she received an education unusual for a woman (or for that matter a man) of her time. Her father insisted that she learn to read and write, as if she were a boy. Then she was given permission to use the royal library, which consisted of more than 900 books. By all accounts she made good use of her access to all those books.

She married when she was fifteen, to a man who seems to have been as supportive of her intellectual interests as her father. When she was 25, her father and husband died, leaving their financial affairs in disarray. De Pizan took up writing as a way to support herself and her three young children, making good use of both her education and her family’s widespread connections in the intellectual world of the time.

Her earliest works were poems of courtly love, the medieval equivalent of romance novels. As her popularity grew, she went on to write biographies of noble patrons. She ultimately used her fame to challenge traditional attitudes about the role of women in society. She is best known today for her pioneering books for and about women, such as The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues.

De Pizan argued in favor of educating girls. Among other things, she instructed noblewomen that they must learn military skills in order to defend their own property: “She ought to have the heart of a man, that is, she ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack, or defend against one” It was good advice. Noblewomen and queens often found themselves leading the defense of a keep, castle, or manor (2)—even if they didn’t have “the heart of a man”.

She knew what she was talking about when it came to military theory. She wrote a textbook for noblemen on how to wage war., titled The Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry. It included a discussion of the morality of war as well as practical information on strategy, tactics, and technology, including one of the few medieval accounts of how to use artillery in war. She wrote it anonymously, assuming, no doubt correctly, that no one would take her military manual seriously if they knew a woman wrote it. (Some things don’t change.) By the mid-fifteenth century, the book was on the shelves of leading French military commanders. It remained a standard work through the end of the century—important enough that King Henry VII had it translated into English.

De Pizan retired to a convent in 1415. The last book she wrote was a praise poem inspired by the victories of Joan of Arc, who was alive and leading troops at the time. In what can only be described as an early Girl Power anthem, she declared “What an honor for the female sex…the whole Kingdom—now received and made safe by a woman.” She appears to have died before Joan of Arc was captured, tried and beheaded. We can only imagine what she would have had to say about that!

(1) With the usual caveat that we can’t really know because so many women’s stories have been erased from history. Not to mention that well-known author, anonymous.
(2)Occasionally, not-so-noble women also found themselves under siege. Margaret Paston (1423–1484), the wife of a wealthy landowner and merchant, defended besieged properties three times against noblemen’s attempts to seize them by force.


Pre-order swag for Women Warriors is now available! If you buy the book before February 26 and want women warrior trading cards, a book mark and a signed bookplate, fill out this form:

Just so there’s no confusion:

1. You don’t have to buy the book directly from Beacon: pre-orders from any vendor count

2.  If you already pre-ordered, you can still get the swag.

In addition to swag, you also get my thanks.  Pre-orders matter.

Queen vs. Queen

At some point while we were strolling through Salzburg, happy as two history buggs can be, My Own True Love said something to the effect of “You should write a blog post about the Merovingians. No one knows who they are.”

I’m not going to write a definitive post about the Merovingians, because that’s not what we do here on the Margins. But I’m delighted to tell you the story of Brunhild (also known as Brunhaut, because why make things easy) and Fredegond, a pair of rivals queens in the sixth century CE who stood at the heart of forty years of internecine warfare among the Merovingian kings. While they are not household words like, say Elizabeth I of England or Joan of Arc, they are unavoidable if you make even the most casual dip into Merovingian history. Which we’re about to do. My Own True Love, this one’s for you.(1)

First, a little background: The Merovingian dynasty were called “the long-haired kings” because (duh) they wore their hair long, unlike the Romans who preceded them. They ruled Gaul (the region that is now France) from roughly 448 through 751 CE.(2) The greatest of the Merovingian rulers, Clovis I (r. 481-511), united most of Gaul north of the Loire,(3) but after his death the kingdom was divided between his four sons. As the brothers died off, their kingdoms were reabsorbed into the whole until the Merovingian principalities were briefly united again under the rule of the last surviving brother, Chlotar I, in 558. (The whole thing feels like a giant tontine bet.) Evidently the Merovingians were slow learners; after Chlotar’s death in 561, the kingdom was divided once again between his four sons—Charibert I, Guntram, Sigebert, and Chilperic. That’s where our story begins.

Brunhild and her sister Galswintha were daughters of a Visigoth king. (4) In 567, Brunhild married Sigebert, who ruled the eastern Merovingian kingdom of Austrasia. (5) That same year, her sister married Chilperic, who ruled the western Merovingian kingdom of Neustria.(6)

You would think this kind of fraternal double wedding would reduce the internecine struggles between the two kingdoms, but you would be wrong. Chilperic’s concubine, Fredegond, was the power behind the throne in Neustria. She had previously convinced Chilperic to set his first wife aside and she was violently opposed to his subsequent marriage to Galswintha. At Fredegond’s urging, Galswintha was strangled in her bed soon after the wedding.(7) A few days later, Chilperic married Fredegond and made her his queen.

Brunhild and Sigebert’s next action may answer the question of why Chilperic bothered to marry Galswintha in the first place: they seized Galswintha’s not insubstantial marriage settlement, which included the regions of Bordeaux, Limoges, Quercy, Bérn and Bigorre. (8) The brothers were at war until 575, when Fredegond hired assassins to kill Sigebert. Brunhild was subsequently imprisoned in Rouen. Chiperic was murdered nine years later—a death for which at least five different people are accused in the chronicles, including both Brunhild and Fredegond.

Brunhild’s escape from prison is one of those stranger than fiction stories that could only happen in a medieval royal family. (And it may not be true. Both Brunhild and Fredegond suffer from the tendency of medieval chroniclers to distort the story to fit their own political biases, which often included a strong streak of monastic bias against politically active women.) Merovech, Chilperic’s son by his first wife married Brunhild, and helped her escape. This is often presented as a love story. In fact, Merovech may well have had an eye on Sigebert’s share of the Merovingian principalities. Chilperic rapidly had the marriage annulled on the grounds that Merovech was Brunhild’s nephew—a legal technicality since they were not in fact related by blood.

Out of prison and unmarried again, Brunhild spent the thirty-eight years after the murder of her husband fighting to defend his kingdom for her own sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons—sometimes acting against one on behalf of another. She would pick and chose between them depending on how likely she was to remain in control.

On the other side of the feud, Fredegonde was actively involved in the political and military affairs of Neustria, with a predilection for political assassination. Among other things, she was known for devising a tactic in which a front line of soldiers disguised themselves with branches and foliage. This camouflaged the Neustrian army’s movement with a “moving wood,”and allowed them to take their enemies by surprise.(9)

If anything, the chroniclers, often writing long after the fact, paint an even darker picture of Fredegond than they do of Brunhild. She was accused of murdering not only her stepsons but possibly her husband, of multiple counts of adultery, of raiding the royal treasury after Chilperic’s death, and of witchcraft, that old staple of discrediting women.

Fredegond died in 597, thirteen years after his husband, but her heirs continued the long feud with Brunhild. The final act of their long feud occurred in 613. Fredegond’s son, Clothar II, captured Brunhild and her great-grandsons. The young men were immediately strangled. Brunhilde was charged with the murder of ten kings. (Clothar was responsible for some of those murders himself. After being tortured for several days, she was tied to the tail of an untamed stallion and dragged to her death.

Bottom line: Nothing about their lives can be twisted to turn either Fredegond or Brunhild into role models. That doesn’t make it any less important to remember their stories.

(1) Actually, they’re all for you. xoxo
(2) To give you some context for your context: The western Roman Empire officially “fell” in 476 CE, when the Germanic leader Odacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus. (And while it has nothing to do with today’s story, it’s worth remembering that the eastern Roman Empire, aka Byzantium, survived, and even thrived, for another thousand years. Rome did not fall so much as crumble along the edges.)
(3) He was also the first of the Frankish rulers to convert to Christianity, around 500 CE. This is not relevant to the story of Brunhild and Fredegonde, but it is worth reminding ourselves now and then that Europe’s adoption of Christianity was slow and later than you might think. In fact, Christianity did not make inroads into Scandinavia until the twelfth century. But I digress.
(4) And yet more context: The Visigoths entered the Roman scene in the 4th century from Romania. After the requisite rampaging through the failing empire, they set themselves up in a number of small kingdoms in Spain and France.
(5) Which autocorrect desperately wants to change to Australia.
(6) Which autocorrect wants to change to Nutria—which I believe is a kind of rodent. Obviously autocorrect is sadly ignorant about medieval history.
(7) That use of the passive voice is deliberate. It’s unclear to me whether Chilperic or Fredegond ordered the murder.
(8) A big step up from a blender and a set of cooking knives.
(9) Sound familiar? See Macbeth.