'Forget the Gentler Sex': Female Warriors Throughout History

Dec 13, 2017

Most talk about weapons today involves firearms.  But one Milwaukee museum curator wanted to examine how our weaponry even evolved to firearms. Through exploring humans and their behavior, Milwaukee Public Museum Anthropology Collections Curator Dawn Scher Thomae sees the weapon as a tool that has evolved over thousands of years to solve a problem.

The exhibit, Weapons Beyond the Blade, displays over 150 pieces of weaponry from over 50 countries over 10,000 years.  But Scher Thomae says she wanted to not only broaden the conversation about weapons, but about warriors as well.

"When I started working on this exhibit, I really wasn't thinking about gender," she notes. "But as we were exploring the different weapons in the collection, we were finding men and women used the weapons - and I think that's also story that people are not familiar with."

Scher Thomae will talk this Friday at the Milwaukee Public Museum about female warriors throughout history - examining those who took up arms to defend their country, land, freedom, and beliefs; and those who just liked to fight. "So some of the women warriors that (I feature) have made a conscious decision to join the cause, and sometimes they were just in circumstances where their valor sort of brought them out of the shadows of history."

One formidable female highlighted is Julie d'Abigny (1673-1707),  also known as Mademoiselle Maupin, who "packed a lot of life into her 33 years." "She was just such a colorful character. Some of these women were brought up in privileged households and (Maupin) was taught to fence and fight. And even though she was married off to somebody who lived abroad, she decided not to join them," says Scher Thomae.

Instead, Maupin took up with a French fencing master and earned money demonstrating the sport and street fighting. According to Scher Thome, Maupin would often use songs to taunt people in the street and this talent lead her to being asked to perform in the Paris Opera. Maupin would get into many more trying situations and duels related to her affairs with both men and women, she explains, most notably when she burned down a convent to rescue a lover who was sent there by her parents.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez pictured in her Confederate disguise, where she was known by the name Harry T. Buford.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

"Wealthy and rebellious" was a common theme among some of the women warriors, Scher Thomae says. Jumping forward to the American Civil War, Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1842-1923) was a Cuban born woman of wealth who masqueraded as a Confederate solider. "What distinguishes Loreta is that she wrote a memoir that discussed her life, what she did, the battles she was in and how it came to be."

Velazquez's husband joined the Confederate army and forbade her coming with. She decided to disguise herself as a man and took the name Harry T. Beauford and the rank of lieutenant. Eventually Velazquez brought her own regiment to her husband's regiment in Florida. Though, her husband's reaction was not recorded in history, "a few days later, he was killed in a 'shooting accident."

Scher Thomae says that Velazquez was "always afraid of being discovered," and often switched between men and women's clothing - depending on the setting. In fact, upon being discovered as a woman and discharged from the Confederate army, she simply enrolled again at a different location.

Hat pins were sometimes women's only defense during the late 1800s and early 1900s when women started working outside of the home. In 1913, a law was passed in Milwaukee to restrict the length of ladies hat pins because of the rise in purposeful and accidental assaults. The law was finally repealed in 1982 in Milwaukee.
Credit Milwaukee Public Museum

Velazquez participated in some of the biggest battles of the Civil War, such as the Battle of Bull Run, Ball's Bluff, Shiloh, and would also serve as a (female) spy in order to secure Union intelligence. Unfortunately Velazquez's book was denounced as false after she published her accounts and would not be proven accurate by scholars until years later, Scher Thomae adds.

Julie d'Abigny and Loreta Janeta Velazquez are just two of the many women Scher Thomae highlights in her presentation, but she hope that people can think more broadly about what a woman warrior is, "because it's not always physically fighting or using 'real' weapons."

Some women have chosen words as their weapons, or picket signs. "The courage to stand up for what you believe in is one of the bigger messages that I think is crucial," she says. "And if you believe very strongly in something sometimes you do have to fight, but you have to choose what that battle will be and in what form."