Terrible and wonderful, the steely Amazons went to battle against Bellerophon, and Homer sang them to eternal fame. Boadicea led her woad-dyed hordes upon the unwary Romans at Londinium. Jeanne d’Arc stormed Orleans, a valorous mystic. Christian Davies of the Scots Greys, swaggered her way through the battle of Ramilies. Brandishing her cutlass, Mary Read joined Captain Rackham’s pirate crew. Théroigné de Méricourt led the pike-bearing furies on Versailles . . . their grandchildren, the Communards, rallied round Louise Michel, “the Red Virgin of Montmartre,” while all the bravura of the Polish Amazons was pitted against Tzarist-Russian oppression.
In the American Civil War, Mme. Velasquez posed as Capt. Harry Burford, with mock-moustachios to aid her alibi. At the battle of Mentana, Mme. Blavatsky abandoned astral preoccupations to fight for Garibaldi. In the October Revolution, the Women’s Battalion held the Winter Palace for Kerensky. Only yesterday, in Spain and China, thousands of unknown women fought bravely, bloodily . . . Terrible and wonderful, the Amazonian spirit lives on, manifest alike through ages of troubadours, whalebone or machinery; the clash of spears and sabres merge into the thunders of modern bombardment.
What is this Amazonian spirit? Is it an expression of abnormality? Of a burning idealism to right wrongs? Of hoyden tomboy-dom? Or is it an extravagant expression of aggression, born of centuries of repression — in short, a desire to “wear the trousers”? Broadly speaking, I think the martial woman must be regarded as abnormal: by that, I mean the woman who goes into battle deliberately, and who fights to kill, as opposed to the legion of so-called Amazons, or Service women in Britain today who, although covered in khaki, uniformed and dragooned, are for the most part, performing strictly non-combatant, if not domestic duties. It is easy enough to dismiss the subject of Amazonian psychology with commercial-traveller’s quips about Lady-Killers, or embittered spinsters killing since they can’t be kissed, (Hell hath no fury, etc), and saying that women, since they have no sporting instincts, and no sense of humour, or proportion either, are the most formidable of all adversaries. But that does not explain the phenomenon of women in battle.
True Amazons can be divided into several categories. That of dedication, such as the ebony army of Dahomey, or those warrior women of legend whose independence of, and indifference to men, (save for annual breeding forays, the fruits of which, if boys, were often slaughtered), argues a Lesbian code. Next, there are the Amazons of inspiration; those of a mystic, exalté, or even pathological order, who killed and were killed, in the name of their God. Jeanne d’Arc and Charlotte Corday typify these sacrificial virgins. Then there are the Amazons of inclination, those rumbustious creatures who long to have been boys and who seek adventure at ail costs. England produces many of this strident muscular type, usually described by mystified foreigners as horsey, or doggy women. Mary Read, the female pirate who ran away to sea, dressed as a boy, was probably such a one, while Mlle de Montpensier, the swashbuckling Generalissimo of the Wars of the Fronde, was another. The eighteenth century was full of women who first “went for a soldier” in search of absconding lovers or husbands and, liking the life, stayed on undetected. Some even died Chelsea Pensioners.
Into the fourth category come those immortal women who do not rank as Amazons, yet whose whole lives were eloquent of a fighting spirit of bravery and high endeavour: women such as Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Mrs. Pankhurst. Lastly, come the Amazons of circumstance, or chance: all those nameless heroines who do not so much take up arms, as have arms thrust upon them: who fight in defence of their children, homes, camps, covered wagons — and lives. American folk songs tell of many such women. In England, the Countess of Derby is remembered for her defence of Latham House, besieged by Roundheads. I myself had an ancestress held her Border home against a marauding horde and clubbed their leader to death with a key.
Today, just a year since the outbreak of war, we face total warfare. The country is a fort. It is probable that every man will become a soldier — and every woman an Amazon. Already, both Service and civilian women have been decorated for valour. More will follow. Women are harsh realists:not for us the palliating sprot idioms by whichthe gentlemen of the press doll up the news. For us Britain is not “batting on a sticky wicket,” “Gentlemen versus the rest,” in “the Greatest Test Match of all.”
No, Britain is fighting for her life: we are all involved and if we must we shall each fight in our own way, variously expressing out common ideal. The battlefields of our country will prove to history just how strong the Amazonian spirit is today. And perish the cynic who says that Hitler’s new secret weapon is will be hordes of mice, to rout us as tanks could never do.
© Lesley Blanch Estate. All rights reserved.