The “myth” of warrior women

Recently in martial circles there has been a raging debate as to whether women warriors have ever existed. I find this kind of debate frustrating, sexist and reminiscent of the debate that keeps popping up (although less so now) as to whether there are any women geeks.

My Shaolin Gung Fu master, Shi Fu Xing Mu, wrote a great article about this with references to many awesome historical warrior women, and some reasons why the myth is just that. I’m in the process of researching and linking them now, but check it out if you are interested. Short quote from the  article:

Those who are arguing for the myth viewpoint really seem to be winning. Their arguments are logical, well thought out and very reasonable and as a result they are difficult to refute. However, I feel that there is a tiny flaw in their argument that should be addressed, mainly that the entire premise is wrong!

I put my thoughts in the comments of his blog post, and have reposted them below.

I think that the reason many martial arts believe it is a myth, is because, as with religion, many martial arts basically have taken local cultural expectations of the day and enmeshed them into the martial style to maintain the status quo. It is no coincidence that many of the Japanese martial arts don’t recognise women as equals on the battlefield when in Japan itself, some schools still refuse to allow capable and worthy women to attain the black belt. It is no coincidence that many styles (particularly some European ones) only take into account brute strength, because for centuries or millennia the physically strongest _man_ would win. I think one of the strengths of many good martial arts (including many Japanese and European styles, as well as from all around the world), and certainly a strength of Shaolin Gung Fu is that there is an understanding growing that physical strength won’t win you the game. It takes skill, tactics, and overall the ability to know what works for you as an individual both on and off the battlefield. Each person is individual and has different strengths, whether they be male or female, big or small, fast or slow, and a good martial art or good martial artist should be able to easily facilitate anyone to be a great martial artist.

There is nothing masculine about martial arts, as they are fundamentally about knowing yourself completely, and being the best and most harmonious person you can be on the battlefield, but more importantly off the battlefield. With this in mind – plus the overwhelming historical evidence – the fact that there is a debate raging at all shows the utter lack of real understanding of these practitioners and how limited their practise is.

13 thoughts on “The “myth” of warrior women”

  1. You might want to discuss this issue with some security professionals. The bouncers that I’ve discussed this matter with were more concerned about being attacked by a drunk woman than a drunk man. The reason is that it’s generally considered to be acceptable for a bouncer to make a preemptive strike against a man who acts in a hostile manner but not against a woman. When there are bottles and other weapons available if a woman gets the first strike then that might be the end of the battle.

  2. Most males don’t realise martial arts are for evading and escaping not who can take on the entire bar in a fist fight.

    Probably why martial arts like Aikido, Judo, Ju Jitsu and others where physical strength is actually a prohibiter to progressing as circular motion and balance are key skills, therefore very often have larger female percentages in classes.

    Therefore taking an off balanced person kicking or punching by taking their force, adding your own and returning all that with love back to the attacker. I have seen many of the above classes where smaller woman excel because they aren’t trying to outmuscle somebody, as muscle has no practical application in a technique

  3. @Russell, I’m not talking about violence though, and I believe that everyone has capacity for violence, so I’m sure dealing with a drunk violent woman would be a difficult situation as it would be dealing with a drunk violent man. Strikes from such people are just lashing out and not skillful though. I am specifically however speaking about warrior women. The ability to persevere in battle, in which no warrior, male or female would have a hope in dell doing drunk 🙂

    @AlphaG, absolutely, although I’ve never seen a larger percentage of women in a class, and I have been to many schools and tried many styles. I believe that the skillful application of any martial art is found in learning exactly what you have mentioned, which is why the idea that warrior women could be a myth is so frustrating.

    Thanks for your comments everyone.

  4. @Pia: men & women are intrinsically different. To ignore those differences is, basically, stupid. To give those differences positive opportunities to express themselves is almost always brilliant.

    @Russell: domestic violence figures: a female aggressor will, on average, cause FOUR TIMES as much damage as a male. This is put down to a willingness to use surprise & to use weapons.

    (all): the near-universal opinion of family counsellors is that the man is typically the one left holding his head is his hands, confused & dismayed, while the woman is the one bouncing around town, tranferring funds, closing accounts, moving memberships, as she has planned to do for months.

    Those who appear to have thought it through conclude that there’s seldom any specific (polarised) malice involved, it’s more of a reflection of differences in the way men & women think.

    My universal goal here: become aware of those differences, use them constructively rather than falling victim to them, for the best possible results.

  5. Don’t forget the Greek ambassador recorded that the Indian prince Chandragupta Maurya had a group of 700 exclusively female bodyguards that he relied on for his protection.

    There is also this from a blog on India:

    There were shaktikis or female spear bearers according to Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, and women soldiers armed with bows and arrows in the Mauryan army, according to Kautilya’s Arthashastra.

  6. Chris: The blog post you cite doesn’t mention the number of female bodyguards or whether there were also male bodyguards.

    It doesn’t seem plausible that someone would seek the 700 most skilled warriors available and not find a single man who was qualified. So I expect that a man who has such a large group of female “bodyguards” is more interested in image than protection. Royalty traditionally exhibited the standards that we now associate with rap stars.

    1. Hi Russell,

      And yet if it was an army of the 1000 best solders and they were all men, no one would blink an eye or ask how it could possibly be that there wasn’t at least one woman warrior. You may be right that there may have been other reasons, but whether there were or weren’t wouldn’t even come up if it was all men. It is worth considering the subtle double standards that we all reinforce at a basic level that maintains and nourishes the stereotypes we fight so hard to overcome.

      The thing is, it is extremely easy to hurt a person. You don’t need brute strength, or testosterone to be an effective and dangerous warrior. The expectation in people’s mind however is that strong == strength, whereas history has continually shown us that it is the clever and strategically superior side which has won. Thanks for the story and link Chris, yet another example to add to the many historical proofs 🙂

  7. Russell – that’s because the link wasn’t about the bodyguards, and you assume that they were chosen purely on ability – this source says that females were chosen because they were regarded as being “unassailably loyal“.

    Strabo saysThe care of the kings person is entrusted to women” and “When he goes to hunt, it is in a kind of Bacchic procession, surrounded by women who form a circle […] Some of the women are in chariots, some on horseback, some on elephants, fully armed as in war“.

    The Cambridge Shorter History of India says: “He was continually surrounded by a bodyguard of women who were probably, if we may judge from the yavanis of Sanskrit literature, of foreign origin.

    As regards numbers, this site says:

    The crowning achievements of this paranoia were, according to Megasthenes (Seleucid ambassador to Chandragupta), the building of a palace that reportedly contained 1,400 beds that he never slept twice in and the formation of, on the advice of Kautilya, a unit of 700 female bodyguards.

  8. … it just has to be said: If I had the protection of 700 unassailably loyal elite warrior-women bodyguards, I too would not be sleeping in the same bed twice!

  9. There is a very simple reason and compelling reason for having a bodyguard of women warriors, regardless of whether female warriors are superior, equal or even significantly inferior to male warriors.

    Quite simply, there are many examples through history of rulers being assassinated and replaced by their own bodyguards. So much so that any wise ruler must consider methods to prevent this — especially if, like Chandragupta Maurya, he is an upstart whose hold on power is not strongly consolidated. Now if you live in a society in which women are so low in status that there is absolutely no possibility of a woman becoming ruler (something which happened far more rarely in India than it did in European history), and if your bodyguards are female, you clearly have much less to fear from your own guards. Maurya made even surer of his choice of guards by choosing women from distant regions, to ensure none of them were even related to anyone else who might try to make a claim on the throne.

    As such, Maurya’s choice of female bodyguards does not reflect their ability as warriors, it reflects their low status in Indian society. A very similar situation occurred with the Ottoman Janissaries; among other duties, Janissaries provided the sultan’s personal bodyguard, and until the sixteenth century they were actually slaves.

  10. I most likely have not studied the subject as thoroughly as the author (greebo?), but I agree that women warriors was not a myth. Some of them, such as the inventor of the White Crane style sound somewhat suspect, but many others make sense.

    Many martial arts do not require much strength (though being strong allows for more mistakes). The physical aspects of martial arts that are the most important are limb and reaction speed, accuracy (though this is half mental), flexibility and balance.
    Quick limb speed opens up a whole new world of fighting methods, since honed abilities allow people to move arms quicker than the brain will allow the recipient to move. Quick limb speed can also be countered by learning how to read what stances, eye twitches and initial movement are intended to result in.
    Hitting the correct area can make the difference between merely causing minor pain and overloading a cluster of nerves that causes the target to be incapacitated, regardless of how well he/she has trained to resist pain. I have heard doctors phrase it as the body (not mind) panicking (though it would actually be a product of instinct). The average four year old has the strength to crush the average human wind pipe, so learning weak spots would be much more advantageous than pure strength.
    High flexibility allows the use of one’s full strength in any direction. I learned that if my arms were stiff while trying to massage various points around my upper and mid back, I would need to exert a lot more energy to get a comparable result.
    While learning about martial arts from around the world, I discovered that everywhere would have at least one thing in common: the martial artist would always be more flexible than most people of his/her local. This was not only true for all of the far east Asian, southeast Asian and south Asian martial arts, but also Greek, English, Roman, Brazilian, Mexican, Hawaiian, mainland United States, various middle eastern and especially French and Russian. This flexibility trend was likely the case for all of the other places that had martial arts that I failed to list. (I simply have forgotten if the African martial arts that I have seen follow this trend, or I’d have listed the areas.)
    Offsetting an opponent’s balance will disrupt his/her kinetic linking and greatly reduce the possible force he/she can exert. Making an opponent fall forward can make his/her spinal cord an easy target, or increase the force of your front attack. Making an opponent fall backwards can make him/her fall onto, or into something dangerous. If the opponent is not used to ground fighting, it would make him/her very vulnerable. Making an opponent fall to either side would expose his/her kidneys. Striking the kidneys of a person can send them into shock. It can also floor opponents who are used to taking punches to the face and have endured strikes from rattan rods. A floored opponent can be mounted and struck. Such strikes would allow the striker to deliver up to three times the standing impact.

    Nearly every time, anywhere in the world, a new political power rose and oppressed martial arts by outlawing it, it continued to be taught as a dance. Sometimes the dances were linked to ceremonies, sometimes the skills weren’t disguised as dances (though I can’t remember the other thing they would be disguised as).
    There would have be locations that have majorities that discriminate against females, but the idea that none of them around the entire world would teach a woman is unlikely. If nothing else, teaching a woman a martial art disguised as a dance would be more accepted, even if only due to obliviousness.

    Martial art techniques were largely developed in war times and ghettos for the disenfranchised. During the times that females were oppressed, they definitely qualified for this, so they have a reason to try harder to learn martial art techniques. There are (female) street prostitutes in India (or somewhere near there) who all learn martial arts to prevent being harmed when others would not help them.
    It is human nature to help people an individual empathizes with. Male martial artists who have experienced feeling powerless before they learned would have a motivation to teach females, even if it was disliked in that setting. Though obviously the social norms would sometimes win, the martial artist who has built his confidence due to his art would be more likely to think for himself, increasing the chances of him teaching women.
    Many martial arts teach a moral path in addition to fighting techniques. These teachings would also likely encourage them, or at least lessen the barrier to teaching women, even if the thought process of the teaching male was still sexist.

    Fu Hao of the Shang dynasty is confirmed to have been buried with armor and weapons. This burial is the same as other warriors of that setting (not to mention many warriors around the world). Claiming that she was not a warrior would be based merely on assumptions of the way people of her setting thought.

    In times of massive wars, smaller factions would need all of the able-bodied people they could recruit, so it would be likely women warriors could get a start from this. In WWII, women in the United States assumed male roles due to the shortage of men, even though before and after the war, they were mainly confined to the roles one would think of when they hear “female roles”. Considering how briefly the United States participated in relation to the other countries, American women shifted to “male roles” very quickly and seamlessly.

    Many martial arts were tied to either religion, or something similar. Some “martial art dances” actually have roles in religion (and similar practices), so teaching women these roles would not be unlikely, since almost all religions had both men and women in prominent roles. The only ones that I can think of that traditionally did not were the ones that arose from the Middle East, but Christianity only fit that bill in the several hundred years that it dominated Europe. Before and after that, Christianity involved many women in its rituals.
    Another reason religion may have helped women gain the freedom of learning martial arts is that at least half of the religions of the world features goddesses prominently and positively. This is even the trend for many regions that modern people believe to oppress females.

    I believe thinking that Ng Mui was not real is ludicrous. Even if men would not teach women martial arts (which I also believe to be erroneous), there would be situations such as Ng Mui teaching Wing Chun the martial art that was named after her. The Wing Chun style focuses on redirecting opponents’ overly committed force and linking the user’s attacks to quickly break down the opponent. Wing Chun does not hit hard amongst martial arts, but it persists because of its effectiveness. Even Yip Man (Bruce Lee’s first teacher) and Bruce Lee, two of the greatest martial artists, chose to fight like girls.

    Females of other animal species engage in combat often, even if most of it is to protect their offspring. This would likely not have gone unnoticed, at least by the Chinese martial artists who developed martial arts based off of animals. If the only argument for women not being warriors is that it is unintuitive due to human women being smaller than human men, it would be easily refuted by the martial artists observing small animals fight tenaciously (which is the premise of a younger brother developing the Mantis style to defeat his big brother).

    As a big guy myself, it was painfully obvious that strength mainly depends on how active a person is, not how big their muscles are at the moment. When I was in middle school, little guys who were athletic were much stronger than me. I have also seen somewhat skinny guys easily draw a bow that has a 200 (250?) pound draw force requirement. One of the best medieval European long bowmen is a good example of this. Dhani Jones and many other large athletic men who travel the world to compete in ancient athletics for television have been shown up in strength by small men who are only the size of North American women. Women who use their muscles often, such as farmers, would have strength on par with, or superior to the average first world male.

    To the people who think female warriors would be less effective, the topic of this discussion is not how effective they would be, but rather whether they existed at all, or not. (As seen in modern times, female martial artists can be very effective.)

    I do believe the ancient Greek Amazon warriors to be mostly fictional, though based off of various Turkish ideas and practices that are confirmed.

    Side comment: Western martial arts are not all brute force, like many believe. I thought this, too, until I began learning about them. Even medieval English knights in plate armor valued agility, evasiveness and setting one’s opponent off balance. Agility was very possible in armor due to its articulated design, the fact that they trained with that armor from teenage and that it was only 60 pounds while modern day military infantry may be expected to carry over 200 pounds of armor, weapons, medical and survival supplies and other things. Western martial arts that taught offsetting one’s opponent’s balance are usually linked to sword fighting, ship fighting, and Pankration. (No wonder French martial arts put so much emphasis on balance! They fenced, Savate was developed on ships and Greco-Roman was a significant influence in their fighting styles.)

    (I wrote so much because I hate sexism against either side (males get a lot in modern North America, though it’s much harder to quantify, so it’s much harder to advocate).)

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