Since ancient times, although men have predominated in leading and fighting in wars, women and children have been involved as well.
Since ancient times, although men have predominated in leading and fighting in wars, women and children have been involved as well. Women have participated in war as leaders and combatants. They have formulated strategies and have supported militaries by providing services as scavengers, cooks, seamstresses, laundresses, informants, vendors, prostitutes, clerks, nurses and doctors, technicians, pilots, and morale boosters, among other roles. They have been casualties of war, suffering abduction, sexual assault, injury, and death. Children, even the very young, have accompanied armies, have served in support roles and as soldiers, and have been bounty and victims of war.
A young boy learns about how to use a ration book during World War II.
Portrayals of men in historical and recent accounts as the principal actors in war have tended to minimize women’s and children’s participation. With few exceptions, women and children have appeared in depictions of war primarily as relatives who remained at home when male soldiers departed for combat, and as victims of war atrocities, subjected to capture, rape, and murder. Influenced by women’s movements in the latter half of the twentieth century and efforts by scholars to uncover the histories of and give voice to groups that previously received little attention, scholarship published in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has broadened the scope of women’s and children’s involvement in wars beyond the roles of exceptional women and child leaders and warriors, families left behind when armies go on campaign, and victims of war. While such accounts recognize war in most societies over the ages as a predominantly masculine activity, largely entailing combat between adult males, they demonstrate that wars have relied heavily on women and children for justification, services, and morale. Such studies increase the understanding of why and how wars are waged, and of the effects of war beyond official combatants.
Ancient writings and artifacts provide evidence of women and children accompanying militaries and being involved in wars. However, the scarcity of written records, embellishments and other alterations in later accounts, and the challenges of analyzing archaeological objects can make it difficult to determine women’s and children’s activities with certainty. For example, the Egyptian queen
Near-contemporaneous Greek and Roman writers left accounts of women’s and children’s involvement in wars and relationships with soldiers. Scholars in later ages have used these writings as well as other evidence in their studies of this topic. Ancient
Roman authors also described women who fought on the side of the Romans’ opponents.
As in previous ages, women and children in medieval times assisted soldiers, accompanied militaries in their travels, and played various roles in supporting wars. Combat remained chiefly a male domain, although exceptional girls and women engaged in warfare. The best known of these is
Red Cross nurses arrive in Athens during the Greco-Turkish War (1897).
In Europe and other regions, women and children less renowned than Joan of Arc played roles in preparing for, participating in, and supporting wars. Women and children accompanied men in the
Christine de Pizan articulated the assumptions of many of her predecessors and contemporaries, that women were weak and, along with children and aged men, of little use in warfare, even in defense during the siege of a fortress (although she did suggest that women might aid in boiling water to pour on would-be invaders). In an imagined discussion with an expert on matters of warfare, Christine de Pizan’s interlocutor observed that “those who follow the military custom” should be “ashamed to imprison women, children, helpless and old people.” As to the question of whether it would be just for an enemy to hold a child for ransom, the response was that “reason does not agree that innocence should be trifled with; for it is evident that the child is innocent and not guilty in anything connected with war.” Thus, like other scholars before, during, and after the Middle Ages, Christine de Pizan’s depiction of warfare as essentially constituting conflict between men obscured the roles played by women and children and positioned them mainly as encumbrances and victims.
Although in modern times males continued to dominate in waging war, occasionally women led armies or, as heads of state, saw their countries through war. Queen
A woman works as a riveter at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California.
According to the eminent military scholar Barton Hacker, “During the decades that spanned the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, Western armies became almost exclusively male, perhaps for the first time in history.” Women still provided crucial support for professional Western militaries, but they were physically more separated from male soldiers than in previous eras, when they had lived and worked with them in close proximity. In independence and revolutionary movements in various parts of the world, however, women participated as combatants as well as in support roles, as in uprisings against colonial governments in Latin America in the early 1800’s and China’s Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).
In a now-famous World War II poster, Rosie the Riveter enjoins women to support the war effort.
Allison, Penelope M. “Engendering Roman Spaces.” In Space and Spatial Analysis in Archeology, edited by Elizabeth C. Robertson et al. Calgary, Alta., Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2006. This article illustrates the challenge of using archaeological evidence to ascertain and evaluate the presence of women and children at Roman sites. De Pauw, Linda Grant. Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. A detailed, wide-ranging, and highly informative examination of women’s (and, to a lesser extent, children’s) support of militaries and involvement in wars around the globe and across millennia. Filipovi , Zlata, and Melanie Challenger, eds. Stolen Voices: Young People’s War Diaries from World War I to Iraq. Foreword by Olara A. Otunnu. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Firsthand accounts from adolescents and young adults who experienced the effects of war in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States. Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. A history of exceptional women rulers in wars from antiquity through the late twentieth century. Hacker, Barton C., and Margaret Vining, eds. A Companion to Women’s Military History. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2010. Edited by historians at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., this collection of essays examines women’s support of militaries and engagement in warfare, from the European medieval era through the early twenty-first century. Li, Xiaolin. “Chinese Women Soldiers: A History of Five Thousand Years.” Social Education 58, no. 2 (1994): 67-71. A summary of Chinese women’s military roles from ancient to modern times. Li shows that although Chinese women led militaries as long ago as c. 1200 b.c.e., fought in defense of homes and in uprisings, and performed vital work for armies, the modern Chinese military remains male-dominated, and women do not serve in combat positions. Marten, James, ed. Children and War: A Historical Anthology. New York: New York University Press, 2002. This collection consists of twenty-one topical essays by scholars of history, psychology, and other academic disciplines on children’s experiences of war, cultural beliefs regarding children and war, and teaching children about wars. Rosen, David M. Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Rosen, an anthropologist and legal scholar, scrutinizes the complex subject of child soldiering by considering perplexing questions such as whether a universal age of adulthood can be established and the extent to which children exercise self-determination in serving as soldiers. Chapters on Jewish child partisans in World War II, child soldiers in Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2001), and Palestinian children’s militant opposition to Israel illuminate the experiences, perspectives, and problems of child soldiers.
Civilian Labor and Warfare
Education, Textbooks, and War
The Press and War
Revolt, Rebellion, and Insurgency
War’s Impact on Economies