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Whether women should have a place in combat has long been a controversial topic, yet attitudes are evolving. In the UK and the United States, policies were changed in 2016 to integrate women into combat roles in all branches of the military. Of course, in a few countries, like Israel, this has always been the case (although Israel seems to have restricted women from front lines, due to the emotional reactions of male soldiers when women were wounded). Ireland was the first European country to allow women in all combat roles, after women participated actively in the revolutionary events of 1916.

This makes the myths and legends of female warriors in antiquity all the more fascinating. If warrior women like Aoife and Scáthach ever existed, what social conditions made their roles possible?


Female soldiers of Israel’s 33rd Caracal battalion, formed in 2004 with a view to giving women true combat roles. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Getty Images. Source: NPR.org.

25. High Ideals

On Wednesday night, Tabitha met Mark at the Vault Grill below Bobby Van’s Steakhouse on Wall Street. It was his idea of a nice place to eat. Personally, Tabitha was much fonder of J. P. Morgan’s library than his bank vaults, which had been converted to a restaurant. But she didn’t mind eating there. They served a tasty Niçoise salad, and good cocktails.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” she asked him. “Rúairí says he knows some great Irish pubs in London. There’s a place called Porterhouse in Covent Garden. They brew their own ales.”

“No, I’ve got my Power Pilates sessions to teach on Friday,” Mark said. “You go ahead and have fun.” He sounded distracted and a little on edge.

They ordered, he opting for the steak sandwich and she the Niçoise salad. “Mark, are there any woman warriors in Battle of the Knights?”

“Hmm? No, not yet. They’re talking about a women’s division, but there are a lot of skeptics. Some of us think women don’t belong on a battlefield,” he said, making his own position clear.

“You don’t think women can fight? But I’m sure there are some who can,” Tabitha said. Uncomfortably vivid images of the woman warrior in her dream rose to her mind. That woman had thought nothing of killing her opponents. She had done it without hesitation, methodically slashing at their vitals, ignoring the shocked look in the eyes of those who had just taken a mortal blow, leaving their spasming bodies behind in the dust.

“Oh, women are fine in SCA and Amtgard,” said Mark. “It’s not real fighting. They use foam padded replica weapons —boffers, you know?— and they take every precaution to avoid injury. But no real man wants to fight a woman, even with boffers.” He thought about it some more as their food was set down. “It wouldn’t be chivalrous.”

“What if he didn’t have a choice? What if she attacked him, and she was using deadly force?” In her dream, the warrior woman’s skills were well-matched with the man’s. In fact, the “hero” had resorted to a trick in order to win.

“Deadly force?” Mark shrugged, sounding skeptical. “Then he’d have to try to disarm her without hurting her.”

“But what if she was as good as he, or at least good enough to be a serious threat?”

He looked up from his sandwich. “What’s gotten into you all of a sudden? Are you thinking of getting more involved with battle gaming? It never seemed like you were that interested.” His voice as he said this was slightly petulant, a tone not unfamiliar to her.

“No, I was just curious.” Mark loved it that she was a medievalist, but he didn’t understand why she preferred not to role-play in the Society for Creative Anachronism. The only aspect of SCA that she had found engaging was learning to spin and weave. The group included many women —and a few men— who were expert in the fiber arts. Tabitha’s weaving skills were rudimentary, but she found spinning to be very relaxing. Gran had taught her to knit, and after several lessons at SCA events, she was good enough at spinning to produce and dye her own yarns. Turmeric, grape juice and onion skins all produced pleasing hues, though the rosy tint obtained from beets was, disappointingly, not colorfast.

They continued the meal in silence for a few minutes. Finally Mark drained the rest of his Leffe and said, “Tab, the fact is, I’m not sure we should see each other any more.”

“What?” She was shocked. It was true that they didn’t have a perfect relationship, but their sex life was fine. She hadn’t expected him to end things this way. “But why?”

Mark scowled at his plate, where a few fries lingered. “When I was in Georgia, I had a little fling. With someone.”

“A fling? Well, that’s not the end of the world, Mark. We never discussed whether our relationship was exclusive.”

His head snapped up. “Have you been sleeping with anyone else?”

“No.” She was still trying to process the idea that Mark wasn’t interested in her any more. “This… fling you had in Georgia, this woman. Do you want to keep seeing her?”

Mark shook his head. “No, no. It was a one night stand. But it caused me to do some thinking.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “Tabitha,” he said sadly, “you’re just not my ideal maiden.”

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: In this part of the book, I look at the conflict between traditional gender roles (including the part they play in romantic and sexual attraction) and what happens when real life doesn’t fit these preconceptions. Role-playing groups are especially interesting because they seem to attract men who value traditional gender roles, but also a number of women who want to fight.

Amtgard is a real organization which organizes medieval-style combats. According to an essay by Rafaela di Asturien about women’s experience in the group, “Some women complained that they were treated differently as fighters: some men simply would not fight them, apologized for killing them, or ‘went easy’ on them. Some men admitted to qualms about fighting a woman, even though in the context of battle it is appropriate. Another complaint from some is that women who prefer fighting to other activities are unfairly stereotyped as ‘butch’ or overly masculine in bearing.”


Women using “boffers” in an Amtgard competition. Photo: Melena on AmtWiki.