Women, Children, and War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Since ancient times, although men have predominated in leading and fighting in wars, women and children have been involved as well.

Overview

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.Women;in warfare[warfare]ChildrenWomen;in warfare[warfare]Children

A young boy learns about how to use a ration book during World War II.

(National Archives)

In Children;definition ofstudying wars and children, it is necessary to keep in mind that the definition of what constituted a “child” as distinct from an “adult” has differed across cultures and over time. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defined a “child” as “below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”

Significance

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.

History of Women, Children, and WarAncient World

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 HatshepsutHatshepsut (Egyptian queen)Hatshepsut (c. 1503-1458 b.c.e.), who also ruled as a king and coregent with her stepson, might have led a military campaign to Nubia (now Sudan), but this remains speculation, even in the light of recently discovered evidence.China;women warriorsChinese writings and artifacts tell of women soldiers and military leaders, among them the general Fu HaoFu HaoFu Hao (c. 1200 b.c.e.) and Wei Hua HuWei Hua HuWei Hua Hu (also known as Hua MulanHua MulanHua Mulan, c. third century c.e.). Greek and Roman historians wrote of legendary events, passed down from oral accounts, said to have occurred centuries before they were transcribed. The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth centuryb.c.e.) wrote of Sammu-ramatSammu-ramat (Neo-Assyrian queen)[Sammuramat]Sammu-ramat, queen mother of Neo-Assyria in the ninth century b.c.e., conducting military campaigns against Babylonia and India. Modern scholarship, however, asserts that it is not possible to verify reports of Sammu-ramat’s military exploits and notes that she and other Neo-Assyrian queens wielded power only through male relatives.

The Bible;women warriorsOld Testament contains numerous stories of women and children’s involvement in wars, as collaborators with male enemies, plunder, defenders, and fighters. One story is that after attacking the Midianites, the Israelite leader and prophet MosesMoses (biblical figure)Moses (c. 1250 b.c.e.) allowed soldiers to keep thousands of virgin girls as spoils of war but ordered all boys and women to be killed. A famous biblical story is that of DeborahDeborah (biblical figure)Deborah (twelfth century b.c.e.), an Israelite judge, prophet, and military leader who helped to plan and conduct an attack against the Canaanites. One must bear in mind that the historical authenticity of biblical figures and events often has been difficult to ascertain. That said, biblical accounts can offer insight into how earlier peoples conceived of roles of, as well as restrictions on, women and children in warfare.

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 Greece;women warriorsGreeks told of women warriors and of women defending their towns when attacked by outside armies. Roman officers could marry and were allowed to bring families to forts, archaeological evidence for which exists, for example, from the Vetera I fortVetera I fort in the Lower Rhine region (c. first century c.e.). It was not until c. 197 c.e. that ordinary Rome;women warriorsRoman soldiers could enter into legal marriage, although before then many maintained households with women and children. The evidence from Vetera I also raises the possibility of women and children at commercial sites at the fort, perhaps as vendors catering to the Roman army. Greek and Roman leaders complained of large numbers of women (including prostitutes) and children encumbering the travel of armies, but some also expressed the view that family members motivated male soldiers to fight.

Roman authors also described women who fought on the side of the Romans’ opponents. PlutarchPlutarchPlutarch (46-c. 119 c.e.) described a battle between the Romans and the invading Cimbri womenCimbri (believed to be a Germanic or Celtic people) in France in 102 b.c.e. in which Cimbri women fiercely defended themselves against Roman attackers. Another historian, []Tacitus Cornelius (Roman historian)Tacitus (c. 56-120 c.e.), wrote of Germanic women exhorting their men to fight the Romans.

Medieval World

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 Joan of ArcJoan of ArcJoan of Arc (c. 1412-1431), a French farmer’s daughter who during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) claimed that Christian saints had come to her in visions instructing her to aid in ousting the English from France. At approximately age seventeen, dressed in armor, she led French soldiers in the Orléans, Battle of (1429)Battle of Orléans (1429), driving the English from the city. However, in 1430 the Burgundians captured Joan and sold her to the English, who accused her of witchcraft and heresy and also condemned her for wearing men’s clothes. In 1431, the English burned her at the stake in Rouen. In 1920, the Catholic Church made Joan of Arc a saint.

Red Cross nurses arrive in Athens during the Greco-Turkish War (1897).

(F. R. Niglutsch)

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 Crusades;women and children inCrusades, between the late eleventh and thirteenth centuries, to remove Muslims from power and establish Christianity in Jerusalem and other sites in Palestine considered holy to Christians, as well as to convert non-Christians to Christianity. In the Crusades and other wars, women and children performed arduous labor for armies, carrying heavy supplies, digging ditches, collecting wood for fires, and washing garments and linens.

In Christine de PizanChristine de PizanBook of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry, The (Christine de Pizan) Le Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410; The Book of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry, 1489), the Venice-born writer Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-c. 1430), who spent most of her life in France, examined tactics and rules of warfare. Among the topics she discussed was training the children of knights and common people in the use of arms and in other skills so that they would be able to fight effectively and defend against invaders. Indeed, adults considered children’s playing at war and with fencing swords, and hunting, as training for combat.

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.

Modern World

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 Njinga MbandeNjinga Mbande (queen of Angola)Njinga Mbande of Angola (1582-1663) led her military against Portuguese slave traders. The rani of the Indian district of Jhansi, Bai, LakshmiBai, LakshmiLakshmi Bai (born c. 1830), who previously had cooperated with British officials, in 1858 led battles in a rebellion against them, losing her life. Despite the complexity of her relationship with the British, she became an enduring symbol of Indian resistance to colonial rule. Meir, GoldaMeir, GoldaGolda Meir (1898-1978) served as prime minister of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (1973)Arab-Israeli wars;of 1973[1973]Arab-Israeli War, which began when Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day. In 1982, when Argentina attempted to reclaim the Falkland Islands War (1982)Falkland Islands, a British territory located in the Southern Hemisphere, British prime minister Thatcher, MargaretThatcher, MargaretMargaret Thatcher (born 1925) oversaw the dispatch of United Kingdom forces to the archipelago and succeeded in retaining it.

A woman works as a riveter at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California.

(National Archives)

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 Drafts;womenthe latter part of the twentieth century, women in numerous countries attained official status as soldiers in their nations’ armed forces, among them the United States (1948), the United Kingdom (1949), Canada (1951), Germany (1975), Norway (1977), the Netherlands (1979), and Spain (1988). Most countries did not draft women or allow them into direct combat. As of 2006, the countries that did draft women were China, Eritrea, Israel, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Peru, and Taiwan. In some societies, the inclusion of women as official members of the armed forces resulted from recognition of their effectiveness in World War II and from evolving views of gender equality. Besides serving as official members of armed forces, women in the twentieth century participated in wars as resistance fighters and guerrillas–for instance, against the Germans in World War II and in anticolonial and civil wars in Africa and Asia.

In a now-famous World War II poster, Rosie the Riveter enjoins women to support the war effort.

(NARA)

Although Sexual assaultssexual assaults against women and children, and sometimes against men, had occurred in wars since ancient times, the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998)Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court declared that rape, forced pregnancy, and other forms of sexual violence constituted crimes against humanity and war crimes. These weapons of war had been recently used against girls and women, many of them Muslim, in conflicts in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s, and against Tutsi girls and women in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In Children;rightsmodern times, changing attitudes about childhood and about protecting children from warfare gained traction in many countries. Children’s advocates sought the protection of children in international and civil wars from conscription, dislocation, hunger, disease, poverty, torture, sexual assault, psychological trauma, land mines, and other risks to their well-being. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child declared that states could not recruit children under the age of fifteen years into their armed forces. However, boys and girls served as soldiers into the early twenty-first century in Burma, Colombia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan, and more than a dozen other countries. Australia, Canada, the United States, and several European countries allowed seventeen-year-olds to serve in their militaries in noncombat roles.Women;in warfare[warfare]Children

Books and Articles
  • 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

Counterinsurgency

Education, Textbooks, and War

Paramilitary Organizations

The Press and War

Propaganda

Revolt, Rebellion, and Insurgency

War’s Impact on Economies

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