Women in War

August 21, 2015

In recent decades, there has been a lot of discussion about female participation in the military. The truth is, however, that women have always participated in war efforts, even when not on front lines. Sir James George Frazer offers an anthropological view of some of the roles of women in ancient times in his book The Golden Bough. His data offers a lot of insight into the structure of society itself.

Frazer investigated small, remote populations in hopes of better understanding human nature. Frazer focused on the influence of magic and ritual, ibut he includes a very enlightening description of women's war rituals. Most people are probably familiar with Penelope who weaved (and unweaved) a tapestry while Odysseus was away, and played hostess to a bunch of bored bachelors. Compare this idea, or the legendary Joan of Arc, to the following examples from various cultures.

Most cultures were worried about safety of their wives and sisters and/or unfaithful tendencies while men were away, so many of these groups established traditions to protect from those specific issues. In addition to these, however, it is very important to note how compelling the mere idea of home and female was to the traveling men. Their sought-after pride and accomplishment became much more powerful when celebrating with family in general, and wives specifically. Honor is born from difficult deeds accomplished and celebrated by a tribe or group.

Likewise, the women participated in gaining honor for the family by creating rituals meant to aid the warriors. Frazer writes, “[W]e need not wonder that above everything else war, with its stern yet stirring appeal to some of the deepest and tenderest of human emotions, should quicken in the anxious relations left behind a desire to turn the sympathetic bond to the utmost account for the benefit of the dear ones who may at any moment be fighting and dying far away. Hence, to secure an end so natural and laudable, friends at home are apt to resort to devices which will strike us as pathetic or ludicrous, according as we consider their object or the means adopted to effect it. Thus in some districts of Borneo, when a Dyak is out head-hunting, his wife, or if he is unmarried, his sister must wear a sword day and night in order that he may always be thinking of his weapons; and she may not sleep during the day nor go to bed before two in the morning, lest her husband or brother should thereby be surprised in his sleep by an enemy.” From there, the rituals become more elaborate. While the Dyak men are away, the women adhere to a rigorous schedule filling each section of the day with tasks dedicated to the men's success. These rituals were thought to transfer energy to their male counterparts. If the women dozed mid-day, however, they might risk making the men weary and, therefore, risk the entire mission.

In ancient times, battles were often fought very close to the communities themselves. In the Kei Islands, the women set out fruit and stones to assist the fighting men. When the women would hear bullets or fighting, they stood up to shout in the direction of fighting all the while waving fans in an attempt to redirect the bullets. They continue in this dance for the length of the battle.

Frazer then discusses a group of women from Madagascar who dance the entirety of time that the men are gone. He writes, “An old historian of Madagascar informs us that 'while the men are at the wars, and until their return, the women and girls cease not day and night to dance, and neither lie down nor take food in their own houses....They believe that by dancing they impart strength, courage, and good fortune to their husbands; accordingly during such times they give themselves no rest, and this custom they observe very religiously.'” All of the women's actions were metaphoric, not actively aggressive, but more important to note, the women were also very physically active for the duration of battle.

While the women in these groups did not actively fight, they clearly believed that their actions affected outcomes. Therefore, they taught their strict code of conduct to young ones and demonstrated virtuous actions by adhering to these expected actions. Another example, from West Africa, has the women sweeping while the men were at war, in an attempt to 'sweep their enemies off the face of the earth'. Likewise, the women of the Yuki tribe in California dance and chant continually while the men are away. They claim that if the women can dance, then the men will not tire.

Dancing and carrying weapons or images of weapons (like a broom or fan) is a common theme. It is unknown whether the men are involved in or know about the female rituals. The women do not demonstrate these rituals to the men who have gone away. Once the men return, the women stop dancing and put away any weapons of ritual. Yet both the men and women of these cultures hold strong beliefs about the influence that both sexes have on the completion of a war-like mission. Frazer notes that these women play very important roles in the war efforts of the men and of the success of the community in general.

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