Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

by Pamela D. Toler

Blurb:

Who says women don’t go to war?

From Vikings and African queens to cross-dressing military doctors and WWII Russian fighter pilots, these are the stories of women for whom battle was not a metaphor. The woman warrior is always cast as an anomaly—Joan of Arc, not GI Jane. But women, it turns out, have always gone to war. In this fascinating and lively world history, Pamela Toler not only introduces us to women who took up arms, she also shows why they did it and what happened when they stepped out of their traditional female roles to take on other identities.

My Review

Just as Women’s History Month closes for 2019, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History joins my research bookshelf with a handful of academically rigorous books. These books on “women doing unexpected things” include surveys of warrior queens, music composers, mathematicians and philosophers, as well as dozens of biographies of famous, accomplished women. I have several more popular history books on scandalous women, bad princesses, and overlooked scientists. The latter seem to dominate the marketplace. I enjoy their breezy modern take while introducing the reader to (mostly) forgotten women. (Reviews of those books can be found here.)

Needless to say, this was not an “unexpected history” for me—at lease in terms of the female historical figures. From the mythical Mulan to the female Dahomean King’s Guards (likely inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje personal guards of the Black Panther movie), I was aware of most of Toler’s subjects. What was unexpected—and most welcome!—was the analysis and in-depth research. Unlike most authors of these survey books, Toler is an academic.

Thankfully she doesn’t write like one. Her prose is clear and readable.

Toler organizes her material into eight chapters with titles such as “Don’t Mess with Mama” and “Her Father’s Daughter.” In each chapter she surveys typical women warriors, from across time and cultures, who fit the title. She puts their decision to fight in the context of the times and explores the consequences of taking these dramatic actions. After every two survey chapters, a several-page “Checkpoint” covers a single subject in more detail. Substantial footnotes provide additional information and source references.

Toler concludes her book by asking the question: Are these warrior women “insignificant exceptions”? Most academics and historical military commanders felt so. Modern US military leaders used that to argue against allowing women in combat roles. They argued this at a time when Israeli women were drafted and served with their male counterparts. They argued this long after all female battalions fought in WWI and WWII. They argued this long after Soviet “Night Witches”—an all female bomber squadron (women pilots, navigators, and maintenance crews)—terrorized the Nazis on the Eastern front. Several ex-military women ran for US congress in 2018, highlighting their impressive service records, and many won. The bravery and accomplishments of modern women in combat around the world should forever lay that argument to rest.

Toler answers her own question: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell no!”

Highly recommended. Check out Author Pamela D. Toler talking about her book Women Warriors in the video below.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The details:

  • Title: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
  • Author: Pamela D. Toler
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (February 26, 2019)
  • Available in: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
  • ISBN-10: 0807064327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807064320

Women Warriors cover

About the Author

Armed with a PhD in history, a well-thumbed deck of library cards, and a large bump of curiosity, author, speaker, and historian, Pamela D. Toler translates history for a popular audience. She goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. Toler is the author of eight books of popular history for children and adults.  Her newest book, Women Warriors:  An Unexpected History is due out February, 2019.  Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and Time.com. 

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Book Review: Priestess of Ishana

Book Review: Priestess of Ishana

Priestess of Ishana

by Judith Starkston

 

Blurb:

Priestess of Ishana cover“A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery and jails him under penalty of death. Isolated in prison, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.”

My Review

As readers of this blog know, I have a preference for stories about little-known historical women. I think women have been systematically erased from history over time and it takes a lot of effort to uncover their stories and restore them to their proper place. But let’s face it. Sifting through academic papers and archaeological reports is way beyond what most busy people will sign up for. That’s where the historical novelist comes in. We do the hard work and the public reaps the reward: an exciting story, an introduction to a different culture, and (maybe) some new insight into history and the people who make it. Judith Starkston delivers on all those promises. (more…)

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Book Review: The Princess Diarist

Book Review: The Princess Diarist

Book Review: The Princess Diarist

by Carrie Fisher

The Princess Diarist by Carrie FisherMost of my readers know about my dual fascination with both history and science and my love of fiction in both genres. I mostly blog about the history and science stuff, but also review books or movies about HF and SF/F. The new Star Wars movie is out on the origin story of Han Solo. I haven’t seen it yet, but plan to. I probably won’t do a movie review, but in the spirit of the time, I’ll do my readers one better. I highly recommend reading The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher about the making of the original Star Wars (now “The New Hope-Episode IV” – ACK!) The memoir came out only two months before Fisher’s death in December 2016 and over a year before her last movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi made it to the big screen.

This was a bittersweet read for me. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I saw the original movie in theaters and duly indoctrinated my daughter when she came of age. Between us, we donated over 100 Star Wars books to her high school library when she left for college. Since then she’s been trying to replenish my bookshelves each Christmas with a new Star Wars book and The Princess Diarist was 2017’s entry. (2016 was a cute hard-backed comic book called Vader’s Little Princess by Jeffrey Brown.) (more…)

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Rebecca Solnit: Two Books for Activists

Rebecca Solnit: Two Books for Activists

Rebecca Solnit: Two Books for Activists

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit

Coming out of Women’s History Month, I wanted to share with you a women historian, writer and activist I recently discovered. Rebecca Solnit has been active in social justice movements and writing for nearly forty years. How is it that I just found out about her? She’s the author of twenty or so books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including the books Hope in the Dark and Men Explain Things to Me. She’s written a trilogy of atlases of American cities; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in DisasterA Field Guide to Getting Lost; and River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a columnist at Harper’s and a regular contributor to the Guardian.

That’s her CV. This is how I finally learned about her. Last winter, Bob Garfield, one of the hosts of the NPR radio show “On the Media” was in such despair after the election that he said during a staff phone call that he had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. One of the other people on the call asked, “Have you heard of Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit?” He hadn’t, but contacted Solnit and had her on his show to talk him down. (You can listen to the segment here.)

This was my first introduction to Solnit and I loved what I heard. I immediately bought her books, which did uplift me, and now I want to share. (more…)

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Exceptional Women in History Part II

Exceptional Women in History Part II

Exceptional Women in History Part II:

She Captains, Scientists, and Musicians

Last week in Part I, I introduced you to three books of exceptional women in history which primarily covered royals and aristocrats. This week we look more closely at (un)common women in three books. Readers and writers alike will find inspiration here!

 

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

by Joan Druett

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

This one sat on my TBR shelf for far too long, but finally got its chance. First of all, I’d say the title is misleading. I expected a book of She Captains to be primarily stories of women who captained ships and lead crews. Druett starts off with 78 pages on ancient queens who sailed with their own navies, female Vikings, and actual female pirates. The rest of the book is devoted to women who are captains’ wives or mistresses, victims of pirates, or involved in the business end. Their stories are fascinating and I enjoyed hearing about them, but that is not what I expected.

The writing is a bit dry and some of the stories seem like padding. I could have done without the chapter on women being captured by Barbary pirates and the space given to Lady Hamilton (Admiral Nelson’s paramour), neither of which seem to fit the premise of the book. What did work was the astonishing number of documented women who went to sea as crew disguised as men; or accompanied their husbands on war ships, whalers, or exploratory expeditions. I had no idea that captains regularly took their wives and children with them on long voyages. I’d always suspected that a number of women made their livings from the sea, especially wives, widows and daughters of seaman, fisherman, and shipping magnates; and was glad to have that confirmed. From the chapter on Ice Queens:

“The winters of the last two decades of the nineteenth century regularly discovered a dozen or more whaling vessels snugged up in Pauline Cove at Herschel Island in the western Arctic, all neatly roofed over and with the sides banked up with blocks of snow. Quite a town would be established around these strange residences, for native, intrigued by the exotic community, build their snow houses near by on the ice. Inside the ships, it was cozy and both inside and outside it was sociable…In the 1894-95 season there where no fewer than seven European females at Herschel Island…It was a strangely formal existence, with dances, whist parties, costume balls, concerts (one concert party being called “The Herschel Island Snowflakes”), and amateur theatricals. Dinner parties were staged, complete with amazing menus. One included “Lobster salad & olives, Oyster Pate with French peas” and “Bartlett Pears, with citron & sponge cake” for dessert.”

The book seems well-researched. Druett doesn’t use footnotes or offer a comprehensive bibliography, but does have a sixteen-page chapter by chapter list of bibliographical notes and a thirteen-page index. I’d recommend this book for anyone who needs to have their consciousness raised about women and the sea (it wasn’t just the boys sailing out there!) It’s the kind of book, that doesn’t quite rate as a research book, but can inspire additional research into the stories of the individual women covered.

(more…)

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Exceptional Women in History Part I

Exceptional Women in History Part I

Exceptional Women in History Part I:

Scandalous Women, Bad Princesses

and Female Kings

It’s Women’s History Month and I thought I’d provide readers and writers alike with some resources on exceptional women in history. I have a soft spot for a particular a kind of history book; collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. They generally follow a pattern of one to five page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.Some of these books are little more than gimmicks or novelty books, best known for their wretched research. Usually there are one or two women that I’ve studied or read about extensively. How accurate the author is with that particular woman is my gauge on how well she’s researched the others.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration. In this post, I’ll do quick reviews of three of my favorites. Next week I’ll do three more. (more…)

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