The Writer’s Guide to Women in Combat

Writers have had a fascination with women warriors for centuries. The ancient Greeks wrote about the Amazons, a fierce tribe of female fighters. The main event in many Roman gladiatorial games were the gladiatrices, female gladiators. In our modern stories, we have quite the league of combat heroines, such as Eowyn, Arya, Katniss, and Wonder Woman.

Yet there has been criticism of depictions of women in combat. Today, I will cover the challenges of writing female fighters, especially in historical settings, and ways to sidestep them. Over the next weeks, I will explore women in single combat and on the battlefield, as well as highlighting several female warriors.

As always, magic is the exception to the rule. Because magic.

Why Are Women Warriors Rare in History?

When we look to history, the ranks of female fighters are thin. There were several factors that either discouraged women from fighting or likely caused military commanders to exclude them.

Cultural

Many world cultures strongly encouraged women to focus on marriage and child rearing. Often, this was necessary to ensure the survival of the group. If too many women die in combat, there are fewer children born. If the birth rates drop too low, the group will eventually die out. Populations can absorb the death of a significant number of men more easily than the death of a large group of women. This is because of the ability of one man to impregnate multiple women, leading to the birth of several children. This reasoning is why hunting and fishing targets the males of a species, to ensure its continuation. Due to this biological fact, many world cultures have cemented the expectations for women to be that of wife and mother.

There are some cultures that are more accepting of female fighters, such as the Vikings. Often these cultures exist in harsh environments and need “all hands on deck” to survive. They are often egalitarian in other areas of their culture and commonly give women more rights and freedoms than other restrictive societies.

Traditional gender roles: a man going off to war while the woman stays behind. “God Speed” by Edmund Leighton. Photo source.

Menstrual Cycles, Pregnancy, and Childbirth

A woman’s menstrual cycle could limit her effectiveness in combat, especially if she is experiencing pain. Of course, not all women are debilitated during menstruation. There are female athletes who have won gold medals during their cycles.

Another challenge is pregnancy. If an army is a mixture of men and women, even if they are segregated into different units, there will probably be sexual activity. When putting young healthy people together, it’s almost inevitable. Obviously, being pregnant, especially in the second and third trimester, makes a soldier unfit for combat. Not that a heavily pregnant woman could not fight, but it would endanger the success of a military engagement and a commander would probably be reluctant to use pregnant soldiers or those that could become pregnant.

There is also the danger of dying in childbirth, which was unfortunately all too common during much of human history. The possibility of losing a soldier that you have invested time in training would give many military commanders pause.

Childbirth in the 16th century. Photo source.

Physical Ability

A biological reality is that the average woman is physically weaker than the average man, with 5-50% less upper body strength. [2] Women’s bones are less dense, making them more likely to break [3] However, athletic records show that most women have more endurance than men. So, female soldiers could be better than long marches than their male counterparts, but would likely be at a disadvantage in physically taxing combat. Of course, there are several other factors at play, such as weapons used, training, skill, size, reach, and luck. In fact, we know of several women in history who were deadly swordsmen.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Overcoming These Challenges

As writers, we have several ways to overcome the challenges faced by our badass female protagonists. This is especially true if magic and technology are in the mix.

Menstrual pain could be minimized or eliminated with a spell or an herb. There are several real-world plants that minimize cramping such as ginger, nettle, fennel, and raspberry leaf. Pregnancy can be prevented the same way, with magic or herbology. In fact, the ancient Romans had a plant, silphium, that acted as effective natural birth control. Unfortunately, it is now extinct. [1]

A weaker character can be strengthened using magic or technology, like a power suit. Also, female fighters can focus on ranged attacks, such as archery.

An ancient coin showing a stalk of silphium. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Did the ancient Romans use a natural herb for birth control?, The Straight Dope, October 13, 2006
[2] "Women in Combat: Frequently Asked Questions". Center for Military Readiness. 22 November 2004. Archived from the original on 20 December 2004.
[3] "Effect of Isokinetic Strength Training and Deconditioning on Bone Stiffness, Bone Density and Bone Turnover in Military-Aged Women". Archived from the original on 2013-06-26. Retrieved 2013-05-26.

3 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Women in Combat”

  1. Pingback: The Writer’s Guide to Women in Single Combat | Rebecca Shedd - Author

  2. Pingback: The Writer’s Guide to Women on the Battlefield | Rebecca Shedd - Author

  3. Nice post. I learn something more challenging on different blogs everyday. It will always be stimulating to read content from other writers and practice a little something from their store. I’d prefer to use some with the content on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll give you a link on your web blog. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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