“If you men will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight! We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”
These were the words of Yaa Asantewaa, an Asante woman in what is modern Ghana calling on the men and women of Asante to fight British colonial forces at the turn of the 20th Century.
History is full of stories of such great women in combat — more than most people think.
Also read: ‘You’re really pretty for being in the army’
Women led armies and nations, won battles, and fought wars to their very end. From Boudica’s repeated victories over Roman legions and Joan of Arc’s relief of Orléans to Mary Walker joining Sherman’s March to the Sea, women have a military legacy as old and storied as any. Here are a few modern women who stood up when the call came.
1. Margarita Neri – Mexico
Neri was a soldadera, a female soldier of the Mexican Revolution who traveled alongside the men. Most of the soldaderas only traveled with their husbands and didn’t fight, instead tending to the needs of their husbands. Margarita Neri was not one of these women.
She commanded more than 1,000 women in 1910 as her unit swept through Tabasco and Chiapas looting, burning, and killing. These were not unusual events in such a war, except this group’s commander was a woman who carried a bloody machete and vowed to decapitate longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz.
After a while, her bloody reputation would come to precede her. The ruthless nature of that reputation prompted the governor of Guerrero to smuggle himself out of town once he heard she was approaching.
After the war ended, the soldaderas returned to their homes without recognition of their contributions or pensions for the veterans. Many died homeless and destitute.
2. Marie Marvingt – France
If ever there were a Jane Of All Trades, it was Marie Marvingt. Raised in the Lorraine area of France, she was a champion shooter, athlete, and aviation pioneer. She is the godmother of aeromedical evacuation, developing the concept of air ambulances before World War I.
When World War I broke out, she disguised herself as a man and served as a front line soldier in France. After being discovered and sent home, she was requested by Marshal Ferdinand Foch to join an Italian mountain regiment in the Southern Alps.
In 1915, she became the first female combat pilot ever when she began flying bombing missions on German bases and in German-held territory. The interwar years saw her working as a journalist and war correspondent. While in Morocco, she invented a metal ski method for landing airplanes on sand.
During WWII, she formed a nurses parachute unit, who would drop nurses into combat zones when weather wouldn’t permit air ambulances to land. When France fell, she became a member of the Maquis – the core of the French Resistance.
3. Sabiha Gökçen – Turkey
Gökçen was the first Turkish female combat pilot, and some believe she was the first female combat pilot, though that claim is disputed. What isn’t disputed is her childhood as one of eight adopted children of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey.
As such, she was able to learn to fly in Russia. Though she was not able to attend the Turkish War College, Kemal, as her patron, ensured she received an education in combat operations anyway at the Turkish Military Aviation Academy.
Gökçen later wrote “Atatürk tested her by asking her to press a gun against her head and pull the trigger” and “she did not flinch.” It was this unflinching devotion which put her in the Easter regions of the country. She provided close air support to Turkish troops suppressing what would come to be called the Dersim Rebellion. Gökçen personally bombed the home of the insurgent leader, killing him and many of his lieutenants.
She would spend much of her career training pilots as an officer in the Turkish Air Force.
4. Lyudmila Pavlichenko – Soviet Union (Ukraine)
Hell hath no fury like a Ukrainian woman scorned by Nazis. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, a senior at Kiev University volunteered to join the Red Army infantry, declined being placed as a nurse, and opted to be a sniper instead, despite the staggering 75 percent loss rate for female snipers.
In her audition to be a sniper, she had to target two Romanians aiding Germans on a hill near the front. After she picked the two off, she was accepted, but did not tally the Romanians into her final kill count because “they were test shots.”
By the end of 1942, Pavilchenko had 309 confirmed kills, including 36 counter-sniper wins. She was wounded four times, including shrapnel wounds to the face. She was so successful, the Germans tried to bribe her with chocolate and a commission to defect and join the German army. When that didn’t work, they threatened to tear her to 309 pieces.
She wasn’t afraid. Pavilchenko was elated to know the Germans were keeping track. On a tour in the US to foster public opinion for the allies opening a second European front, Pavilchenko described her feelings on her daily life as a sniper as “uncomplicated,” remarking: “dead Germans are harmless.”