cover image Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Pamela D. Toler. Beacon, $28.95 (248p) ISBN 978-0-8070-6432-0

A woman’s place is on the battlefield, according to this rousing if scattershot history of female soldiers throughout history focused on lesser-known figures. Grouping tales into topic-based chapters such as “In Disguise” and “Her Father’s Daughter,” Toler sketches dozens of women who fought or exercised command and were slighted, she contends, by sexist historians who belittle women’s military capabilities. They include Black Agnes, a 14th-century Scottish noblewoman who supposedly mocked an English army that bombarded her castle by having her maids showily dust off the battlements with handkerchiefs; Begum Samru, an Indian ex-prostitute who commanded a mercenary brigade that fought the Duke of Wellington; the 19th-century Chinese pirate admiral Cheng I Sao, who commanded hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors; and Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Cheyenne warrior who battled Custer at the Little Big Horn. There’s as much folklore as history; Toler allows that her sources contain uncertainty, embellishment, and “poetic license,” and she devotes a great deal of space to probably mythical figures—did Tomyris, queen of the Massegatae, really behead the Persian King Cyrus in 530 BCE and use his skull as a goblet? Meanwhile, Toler keeps very brief her accounts of the well-documented exploits of Joan of Arc and more modern figures like WWII Russian sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. The stories here, real or legendary, are sometimes shallow, since details about some of these incidents can be scarce, but they are reliably entertaining and colorful. Photos.[em] (Mar.) [/em]