The relationship between fierce reputations and women's rights

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

Women & Militaristic Cultures

Throughout history, the more militaristic a culture’s reputation is, the more it tends to value feminine power.

I had this epiphany when a friend and I were discussing how some people – in particular, some readers of fiction – are absolutely convinced that ancient women were treated poorly, with no rights, and spent all of their time barefoot and pregnant popping out babies. Everyone acknowledges a handful of exceptions – Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc – as just that: exceptions.

There is this idea that history is a “march of progress” that authors sometimes run afoul of. I once wrote a bronze-age fantasy novel where I mentioned three-story buildings, and readers were convinced that this was impossible, despite the fact that some of the most ancient buildings we know of – like Sumerian ziggurats – were sometimes upwards of seven stories. The mere mention of a sewage system inspires most readers to assume post-Roman technology, even though Mesopotamians had clay sewer pipes six thousand years ago.

Despite the assumptions of Renaissance thinkers, civilization did not, in fact, begin with Classical Greece and Rome. In fact, the earliest known civilizations began on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, in the Levant region.

I want to avoid spending too much time on this phenomenon, because it’s ubiquitous, and sites like Rejected Princesses and Medieval POC do a more comprehensive job of demonstrating this than I can here. It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into all the ways that history is filled with examples of strong women and cultures that allow women power. Still, it is that phenomenon that inspired my thoughts on the relationship between a warlike culture and female power.

Four Examples

Women in Sparta were so powerful that Athenian Greeks castigated their enemy’s “feminine greed” and prophesied that its powerful women would lead to the city-state’s downfall.

The Norse, through they were certainly a militaristic culture that raided and pillaged, were comparatively unlikely to commit rape. European women lost power as a result of the Renaissance and move away from Feudalism, a system in which “running a household” was a lot closer to “administering the kingdom” than “cooking and cleaning.” While yes, female professionals in Medieval Europe spent a lot of time on child-rearing tasks, as is unavoidable in any society without good access to baby formula and birth control,  they were able to do a lot more than women during the Renaissance. At least, Christian women.

Jewish women like Licoricia of Winchester, by contrast, were comparatively powerful during the Middle Ages.

Even the Tuareg of Africa, a militaristic culture renowned throughout their history as mighty and respected warriors, have matrilineal descent and a history of powerful women.

Oh, and the Amazons? They were real.

Ancient Greece

The militaristic climate in Ancient Sparta led to women having a higher social value than their Athenian counterparts. — The Enigma of Spartan Women

In a lot of ways, the founders deliberately modeled American society on Ancient Athens. My district’s curriculum uses Greece to teach about different forms of government, and it’s always Athens that we teach as the birthplace of democracy (although this is … arguable. The history of democracy is beyond the scope of this post, but there is evidence that pure democracies existed in Latin America before the Columbian era, and some evidence that democracy in Greece didn’t originate in Athens, either.)

When I teach about the Peloponnesian War, I’m supposed to teach my students to compare and contrast egalitarian Athens, with its grand philosophers and golden age, with the Spartan oligarchy by contrast being fairly brutish. When Greece is taught in schools the lessons are, by necessity, vastly oversimplified… and in some ways deliberately manipulated.

The American system of democracy was very deliberately modeled in Athenian government, so as a society we’re mostly unwilling to take a hard look at what life in Athens was like for most people. We hear about the slave revolts in Sparta leading to the Peloponnesian War, but often fail to mention that the Athenians also practiced slavery.

In turns out that Athenian men were happy to force other people to mine the silver they used for trade.

We hear about the brutish training regimen Spartan children underwent (seriously, it’s worse than you think), and how weak Spartan children were left on hillsides to die (although this is probably a myth). Our movies show the harsh values that tell Spartan soldiers to win or die trying. It’s only recently that we’ve started to teach children about how common female infanticide was in ancient Athens. Yet we don’t spend much time thinking about the way Athenian women weren’t educated, the incredible restrictiveness of women’s lives, or Socrates’ terrible relationship with his wife.

The point is not to demonize Athens, but rather provide context for just how radically feminist Sparta seems by contrast.

As part of a distinctly militaristic culture, Spartan men were involved with the military. They served until well into their middle age — retirement was at age 60. As such, Spartan were unable to leave their women to languish, uneducated and underutilized the way Athenian traders did. Spartan educated its girls and boys, though separately. This separation, though, often meant that the girls were more literate, because they spent proportionally less time mastering physical pursuits. Spartan women were, however, expected to exercise and be healthy, because healthy women produced healthy children. Barred from wearing makeup, the Classical world considered them naturally beautiful.

A warrior culture must prioritize health and fitness. Helen of Troy was widely considered one of the most beautiful women in the Classical world. She was also Queen of Sparta.

Because Spartan men were so often off at war, Aristotle reports, 2/5ths of Spartan land was owned outright by women. Spartan women, unlike Athenian women, inherited property from their parents. Spartan women married later than Athenian women, often in their early twenties. Leading Athenian philosophers like Aristotle were convinced that it was the power of its women that would ultimately lead to Sparta’s downfall, because he felt that women are naturally more greedy than men.

In fact, Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War at the height of the Athenian “golden age,” refused to outright destroy Athens despite Corinthian demands, and didn’t fall from power until Thebes allied with Persia and took control of Greece.

Vikings

The friend who inspired this post, Tahereh Safavi, has written a book set in the Viking era of Norse history. It’s the true story of a Frankish princess who killed Viking kings, which means I hear a lot about Scandinavian legal codes from the 900s.

Although a lot of Viking law was handled orally, we do have some written evidence about the era.

Legal codes tell us a lot about a society. For example, unlike many contemporaneous societies, the Norse of this time allowed women to initiate a divorce and required that a man divorced for wrongful conduct pay her alimony. Wrongful conduct in this context was pretty broad, but included physical abuse, abandonment or even cowardice. Norse men were absolutely forbidden from rape, or even giving women milder forms of unwanted attention like kissing without permission. More importantly, there is evidence that sexually harassing behaviors were rare in Norse society despite the militaristic culture, probably rarer than they are even in ours.

Yet Vikings had difficulty finding wives, probably due to a combination of polygamy and female infanticide. Female children were often exposed, probably due to limited resources for dowries. The situation seems to be the opposite of Athens; women were respected in Scandinavia, so why kill infant girls? Resource limitations is the only reason that makes sense to me.

Vikings certainly disrupted the European coasts and waterways in search of loot. Still, it’s no surprise that in a militaristic culture like theirs, men were expected to go armed. They had to be prepared to fight, even the ones who were in a position to focus on farming. Others defended trading caravans or raided for a living. Young men formed “military brotherhoods” (read: gangs) and raided for food, money, and women. Scandinavian men were hardly alone in this, though, and Viking raids weren’t as bad as the Carolingian raids that also occurred frequently at this time in history.

It's just that the early Vikings especially tended to target churches instead of towns. Most of the chroniclers who describe Viking raids were monks. I’m sure this had nothing to do with the Vikings’ bloodthirsty reputation. 🙄

Despite their reputation, though, Vikings were less prone to rape (though they did sometimes kidnap women) and the sorts of destruction one sees in modern sports-related riots.

This isn’t an accident. I suspect that they were more likely to see women as people than the Carolingians. Women in Scandinavia ran businesses, and those who lived in town were often skilled textile workers. Due to the Scandinavian climate, farming involved proportionally more animal husbandry than planting crops. Herding, milking goats, plucking (not shearing) sheep, feeding pigs, and raising chickens are not tasks that require a great deal of strength. Women were left in charge while men went exploring, trading, and raiding — sometimes for years.

There's also biological evidence of relative equality between the genders: teeth enamel and femur lengths were relatively equal between men and women. In less equal societies — like Athens — women get worse food and fewer opportunities for exercise.

Tuareg

The Tuaregs are nomadic Berbers from the Sahara Desert. They are mostly herders and traders, though their reputation is very much that of a militaristic culture. The Fremen of Dune are based on their lives and culture. Many live in Mali, but like the Kurds who serve as America’s allies in the Middle East, and the Basques currently fighting for autonomy in the Pyranees region, they are spread across many countries.

Like Carthage, founded by Elissa of Phoenicia (better known as Dido), the Tuareg originated from a woman leading them to a new homeland. Tin Hinan’s influence and power is not unique to Tuareg history. Inheritance is matrilineal, women choose their own husbands and own their own property that their husbands cannot touch. Though the Tuareg are nominally Muslim, it is common for Tuareg women to have male friends. It is men who take the veil.

Tin Hinan is another great example of a powerful woman leader Western scholars were sure was mythical… until they found her tomb.

Like the Fremen — the single most militaristic culture in the Dune series — the Tuareg are notable warriors. When Imperialism-induced poverty drove young Tuareg men to Libya, the Libyan leader Qaddafi specifically recruited the Tuareg his military. In the modern day, this led to Tuareg men being disproportionately experienced in warfare.

In the pre-Colonial era, the Tuareg dominated Saharan trade. Like the Vikings, they were not beloved by their neighbors; they gained a reputation for robbing the caravans they were supposed to be protecting. Their evident habit of sometimes launching  surprise attacks on their allies led one 1920s scholar to describe them as “mendacious.” If a militaristic culture is aggressive, they certainly count. They were known to be brutal warriors, honorable in their own way and according to their own customs. Baron Rennell, a British Major-General who fought in WWI, reports that Tuareg women were incredibly free not only compared to other North Africans and Muslims, but British women as well.

Scythians

The Scythians (900 BCE – 200 BCE) were, like the Mongols (1206-1368 CE) and the Huns (370-469 CE), horse-based nomads from the central plains of Eurasia. Most of our records about them come from the Greeks, but just because Amazons show up in Greek mythology doesn’t mean that they weren’t real. Though stories may have been exaggerated, archaeologists have a way of proving that history becomes myth.

In the Greek myths, Amazons were respected enough to be considered the equals of even heroes like Achilles.

Although there’s a lot we don’t know about the Scythians, since we haven’t found much in the way of writing or art from them the way archaeologists have evidence of more sedentary, agricultural societies, we do know that they buried women with weapons — and that many of their women bore battle-scars. The thing about subsistence living is that everyone contributes or the tribe can’t survive. When survival is dependent on horses and small, powerful bows, testosterone has a smaller impact on prowess.

Women in the Mongolian Empire had high status compared to their Persian and Chinese counterparts. They could own property and had a voice in politics. Toregene Khatun (the Great Empress) ruled outright and had at least one powerful female advisor and several female governors. This is at least partially because during the time of the Mongol Empire, many men were off at war. But Mandukhai Khatun, who reunited the Mongol Empire in the 1470s, faught even when she was pregnant. It wasn’t just the absence of men that allowed for this.

Unfortunately, modern Mongolian women have it pretty rough. Then again, modern Mongolia isn’t a particularly militaristic culture anymore.

In Our Lives

The American Icon of Rosie the Riveter was born in WWII-era America. While their men were off at war, American women stepped up and did “masculine” work. They excelled — until the men came home. CE Murphy has a great urban fantasy novel set in this era that does a nice job of showing what it must have felt like for a lot of those women — emotions that ultimately led to Second Wave feminism.

Over the century that the Kurds have fought for independence,  the women of Kurdistan have sought equality. Over a third of the Kurdish fighters are female (over twice the percentage of women serving in the American military, despite America’s technological advantages). Kurdish women have been fighting in Middle Eastern wars since at least the 1800s. In autonomous Kurdish regions, gender equality is enshrined in law. There are more women in Kurdish government than in the United Kingdom. This, despite being geographically surrounded by some of the most gender-restricted countries in the world.

Many photos of Kurdish women focus on the warriors, but Kurdish politicians are equally if not more impressive. Lady Adela ruled one of the biggest Kurdish tribes in the 1910s and 1920s.

Misogynists like to crow about their “manliness” and warrior spirit and strength. They imagine that they share something in common with the cultures media tells us have the strongest, most “alpha” men. They are, frankly, ignorant (and awful). From a historical perspective, misogyny is negatively correlated with reputation for battlefield strength.

It’s something to consider the next time I’m developing a fictional warrior culture. Or, you know, talking to a neo-fascist.

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