Military History Women in the Military
Reina Pennington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0067


Women have played a variety of military roles throughout history, although many historians overlooked those roles until recently. Other disciplines, such as anthropology and sociology, have sometimes paid more attention to the experiences of women in the military. Fortunately, historians have begun to devote more attention to the subject. In order to understand women’s military roles today, we must know what women have done in the past. It is essential to study women’s military experiences and their participation in war throughout history in order to provide context and evidence to current assessments and debates. Beyond that, no historical understanding of war can be complete without awareness of the actual context in which war occurred, and knowledge of all groups that have been part of military institutions. In historical terms, women’s military participation has generally been either at the highest or lowest levels. Female leaders, from Boudicca to Golda Meir, played important roles in military history. But the majority of women served in the lower ranks, often informally or in disguise. The resulting lack of documentary sources means that the history of women’s military activity is prone to mythologizing (both positive and negative) and argument unsupported by evidence. Scholarly works that use a range of corroborating sources and critically examine those sources are still relatively rare. Works on the modern era have a stronger documentary base than those on earlier times, but good scholars can ask the right questions and offer sound interpretations for any time period.

General Overviews

There are few overviews of women in military history. Most available overviews are popular works that are inadequately documented at best, and misleading and uncritical at worst. Good scholarly works are desperately needed. Linda Grant De Pauw almost singlehandedly kept women’s military history alive in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s through her writing and through founding the Minerva Center. De Pauw 1998 was the first attempt by a scholar to provide a single-volume narrative history of women and war, synthesizing work to that date, and is still the best (in some ways, the only) starting point for general knowledge and research. The H-Minerva discussion list is the go-to resource for researchers to post questions or discuss their work. The Minerva Center website offers a few resources for research. Segal 1995 is an essential theoretical essay that provides a viable framework for historical analysis. Aside from these few sources, researchers should start with sources listed under Reference Works and Anthologies.

  • De Pauw, Linda Grant. Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

    NNNThis broad overview, intended for a general audience, lays out key questions, issues, and events in women’s military history. Coverage is sometimes superficial, but De Pauw makes a good case that “women have always and everywhere been inextricably involved in war” and achieves her purpose: “to illustrate the variety of research possibilities.” Good for classroom use.

  • H-Minerva.

    NNNH-Minerva is a discussion list, part of H-Net and affiliated with the Minerva Center, “devoted to the study of women and war and women in the military, worldwide and in all historical areas.” Scholars participate in the discussions, and it is an excellent resource for researchers seeking to post questions or discuss their work. An important source of book reviews.

  • The Minerva Center.

    NNNThe Minerva Center, founded in 1983 by Linda Grant De Pauw, is a nonprofit organization devoted to the study of women and war. It offers bibliographies, a roster of scholars, and other useful resources for research.

  • Segal, Mady Wechsler. “Women’s Military Roles Cross-Nationally: Past, Present, and Future.” Gender & Society 9.6 (1995): 757–775.

    DOI: 10.1177/089124395009006008

    NNNNot an overview in the strictest sense, but this article presents a framework for analysis of women’s military roles that is extremely useful for historians and sociologists alike. Every scholar should read this article as an example of ways to structure and analyze information on this topic.

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