Lately, it seems everyone has an opinion on the role of women in combat. Recently two female officers passed Army Ranger training and the Marines completed a study on gender integration, and some government officials are upset about all of it. But the notion of women in combat is not new. They’ve been in the thick of it for centuries, and not just as camp followers and nurses.
With a few exceptions, women in leadership and direct combat roles were (forcefully) restricted by men (unless God tells a sixteen-year-old French girl how to beat the English. But, of course, that doesn’t count because God is a dude, right?).
God’s mansplaining of how to win the Hundred Years’ War aside, in the days when armies would forage food and supplies, officially licensed small business people known as “sutlers” or “vivandiers” would follow the armies to sell tobacco, food, and drinks.
The Napoleonic Wars and the wars of Napoleon III brought the rise of the vivandière, often the daughters and wives of those enterprising businesses. They came to battle with a tonnelet (a small barrel) of brandy to give soldiers as they fought in a battle.
They would deliver much-needed shots to the wounded and would even carry them back to aid stations in the rear during the entire course of a battle. The vivandière marched with the troops everywhere they went and endured the same weather and combat conditions as the armies they followed. Some even carried a musket and fought in the battle. Unsurprisingly, the troops loved them for their bravery and generosity. The loss of a vivandière in battle was a loss to the entire army.
Paintings were made about them, and operas were composed, like Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. (Don’t say We Are the Mighty doesn’t expose its readership to high art. We at Team Mighty love this sh*t.)
The vivandière caught on overseas. During the American Civil War, they served with both Confederate and Union armies during battles, where their tradition of bravery continued. The U.S. Army calls them “the Forgotten Women of the Civil War” who “deserve to be remembered.” Women continued this role well into WWI, but were no longer allowed to go into combat.
The troops love for their vivandières goes beyond the normal desire a man has for women. Though some troops did marry their vivandière, the bond between these women and their regiments was more akin to the bonds people form after serving in combat with one another. Songs were written about the women who could handle themselves around love-struck men, like this song about a woman named Madelon (translated from French):
“A corporal in fancy cap
Went one morning to find Madelon
And, mad with love, told her she was beautiful
And he came to ask for her hand
Madelon, not stupid, after all,
He replied with a smile:
‘And why would I take one man
When I love a whole regiment?
Your friends will come. You shall have my hand
I have too need to pour their wine! ”