The Warrior Queens

Although there have been many recorded instances of women warriors in the history of civilization, only a few have captured the imagination of historians. About a very special group of these, those who have achieved the status of leaders by will or by chance and have successfully rallied their subjects about them, British biographer and historian Antonia Fraser (THE WEAKER VESSEL) has fashioned an imaginative study of power and perception. Writing about subjects as diverse in image and reputation as Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, and Golda Meir, Fraser analyses both what her “warrior queens” actually did--as far as this can be determined--and how their actions were remembered, reported, and embellished by posterity.

The inspiration and focus of the book is the nearly legendary Queen Boadicea, who, after her daughters had been raped, led an uprising against the Roman forces occupying Britain. Boadicea embodies the central paradox that surrounds the idea of the woman as military leader. Her real attributes and admirable strategic accomplishments have been less important to those who have written about her than her symbolic role. Depicted both as the incarnation of maternal anger and the chaste embodiment of otherworldly force, she has appeared to every age in a different guise. Even in our own time, women like Boadicea and Margaret Thatcher--the other central figure of the book--tend to be treated as aberrations gaining acceptance only if they fit the definition of what Fraser calls the “honorary male.”

Fraser evokes a full panoply of heroines, many well-known, others--such as Jinga Mbandi of Angola and the nineteenth century Rani of Jhansi--less likely to be familiar to Western readers. Often bold, clear-thinking, and gifted with the kind of political insight usually denied to their sex, these “warrior queens” sometimes used traditional feminine weapons to accomplish their ends. In other cases, they showed such courage and ferocity that male historians could only account for them by reference to legend and myth. In time, they themselves became the source of myth. Boadicea, the spiritual progenitor of Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, two English monarchs who have in common only gender, longevity, and fame, still stands as the symbol of British power.

Fraser’s book is consistently interesting. By holding up for examination the prejudices and ambiguities that have historically distorted our vision of female power and “unfeminine” behavior, she has clarified issues of contemporary concern. She has also uncovered some extraordinary lives.