Ranger School Grads Join Long History of Warrior Women

For more than two millennia, from the Amazons to today, women have fought in combat.

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Army Capt. Kristen Griest completed the harrowing Ranger Course in Fort Benning, Ga., becoming one of the first two women to graduate from Ranger School.

Capt. Kristen Griest and First Lt. Shaye Haver are the first female soldiers to graduate from the Army’s grueling Ranger School, but history is full of women who've fought in armies around the world.

None are more famous—or more misunderstood—than the Amazons.

Fighting Females of the Steppes

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were described as a race of fierce women warriors who lived without men and cut off one breast to make it easier to shoot a bow and arrow. Some said they were man-hating virgins, that they enslaved men, and even that they mutilated male babies.

Like many such tales, the stories are myth. No one ever mutilated themselves or babies. But there is some basis for the legendary female warriors. Fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus even gave a clue of where to look for these women: In his tale, Amazons are taken captive by the Greeks but escape after slaying the crews of the boats on which they were transported. The women eventually settle near the Scythians, a nomadic people of Central Eurasia.

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Amazons and Greeks are depicted in battle on the side of a marble sarcophagus from around 320 B.C., now held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

The Scythians are long gone, but they left behind burial mounds called kurgans in the Altai Mountains of Kazakhstan, Russia, China, and Mongolia. The ancient tombs, preserved intact in permafrost (until now, when climate change is gradually thawing them), hold mummified remains of a tattooed people, horses sacrificed for their graves, and artifacts ranging from saddles to furniture to gold and silver ornaments.

Archaeologists once believed that anyone who had been buried with weaponry was male, but bones and DNA reveal that at least one out of every three or four nomad woman was an active warrior. These are the women who probably inspired the Amazon tales and the drawings on Greek vases.

The Scythian women lived in small tribes where it made sense for everyone to contribute to hunting and defense. And the horses and weapons buried with the Scythians made such contributions possible. “The ‘equalizing’ combination of horseback riding and archery meant that women could be as fast and as deadly as men,” Adrienne Mayor writes in The Amazons. (Read “Amazon Warriors Did Indeed Fight and Die Like Men.”)

The kurgan remains have shown that Scythian women lived like men in many respects. They wore the same trousers and tunics. Their bodies were marked with the wounds of battle and signs of a hard life led on horseback. And both men and women were buried with children and a last meal of horse meat and fermented mare’s milk. This equality in death is a likely sign of equality in life.

“Whether by choice or compelled by circumstances,” Mayor writes, “ordinary women of Scythia could be hunters and warriors without giving up femininity, male companionship, sex, and motherhood.”

Women Take to the Battlefield

Other female fighters followed the Scythians in history, such as the Celtic queen Boudicca, who led an army of men and women against the Romans in Britain, but cultures of the past were not always as welcoming to women who wanted to fight for their people as were the Scythians. While rules and societal conventions may have officially shut women out of combat roles, however, that has never stopped them from joining up.

The Civil War, for instance, is full of stories of women who dressed as men and fought alongside the guys, such as Sarah Emma Edmonds who, as Frank Thompson, served as a foot soldier, mail carrier, stretcher bearer, and a spy. “She didn’t personally know any other female recruits, but she was not alone,” Karen Abbott notes in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. “As many as four hundred women, in both North and South, were posing and fighting as men.”

Women have been officially barred from combat roles in the U.S. military since 1948. Yet many have served—and died—on the battlefield, including some 200 killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military is still struggling to figure out where women such as Griest and Haver fit in. The pair won’t be able to apply to the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, and the Pentagon will not determine which combat roles military women will be allowed to fill until the end of the year. Navy officials announced earlier this week, though, that if women can pass the brutal six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, then there should be no barriers to them joining the ranks of the Navy SEALs.

Follow Sarah Zielinski on Twitter and her website.

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