Thursday, 5 March 2020

Sisters In Arms by Julie Wheelwright

Sisters In Arms: Female warriors from antiquity to the new millennium by Julie Wheelwright
Published in the UK by Osprey Publishing on the 20th February 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A history of female combatants, from those who joined the military disguised as men to the current role of women in the armed forces.

In October 2018, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that all roles in the military would now be open to women. Although this marks a historic shift, officially allowing British women into combat roles, the presence of women on the front lines dates back to antiquity. Beginning with the founding myth of the Amazons--in reality female warriors of a nomadic tribe to whom the Greeks attributed super-heroic powers--Julie Wheelwright explores the history of women in arms. She traces our fascination with these figures, many of whom successfully disguised themselves as men, using primary sources and their own words to bring their experiences vividly to light. Among these forgotten heroines are Christian Davies, Ireland's most famous 18th-century soldier, who received poems from adoring women claiming that she represented a resurgence of "the Amazonian race"; Sarah Edmonds, who left her native Canada and was among hundreds of women to enlist on both sides during the American Civil War; Maria Bochkareva, a private in the Tsar's army and leader of the Women's Battalion of Death in 1917; and Captain Flora Sandes, hero of the Serbian Army, who toured Australia, thrilling her audiences with tales of bravery and patriotism.

The book follows the evolution of women in combat, from the Scythian women who begat the Amazonian myth, to the passing women in the eighteenth century, and on to the re-emergence of women as proud members of the armed forces in various countries in the 20th and 21st centuries. The book also explores the formalization of women's military roles and questions the contemporary relationship between masculinity and combat.

I picked out Sisters In Arms by Julie Wheelwright after reading Roaring Girls by Holly Kyte and The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, both books (one nonfiction, one fiction) which in part explored the idea of female soldiers and the effects living and working in such a male dominated environment had on those women. Sisters In Arms is a well-reseached companion volume which allowed me to view the subject through a wider historical lens. However, while the original Amazons do feature briefly, most of Wheelwright's soldiers are from the 1700s to the present day. I was a little disappointed that older eras didn't feature as strongly, but perhaps sufficient primary sources aren't available. Individual soldiers of colour are also noticeably absent from Sisters In Arms with the majority of of named women by white and from Britain, America or Russia.

Wheelwright themes her chapters around stages in soldiers' careers which meant I got a good understanding of common experiences as well as individual differences. It was interesting to see how the way the women were portrayed in contemporary newspapers and books has changed with the progression of time. Social attitudes to women in combat have fluctuated considerably over the past few centuries and our present-day acceptance of their wide-ranging roles has been a long time coming. Very few women actually had the opportunity to tell their own stories too without a male filter to edit or reshape their experiences. This, obviously, must have hindered Wheelwright's research as the authenticity of accounts cannot be taken for granted.

Unfortunately I wasn't as enamoured of Sisters In Arms as I had hoped when I began reading it. There's certainly a lot of information in its pages, but I found the delivery to be too dry and, sometimes, too repetitive for my tastes.

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  1. I always love reading about the history of women and women who decided to take matters into their own hands and not obey the rules. While it sounds like this one was very informative and knew all its facts, it sounds like it lacked a bit in the enjoyable side of reading :/

    1. Yes, this one was a drier read than, say, Roaring Girls, but still contained a lot of interesting information