Saturday, July 20, 2019

Pamela D. Toler's "Women Warriors: An Unexpected History"

Armed with a PhD in history, a well-thumbed deck of library cards, and a large bump of curiosity, author, speaker, and historian, Pamela D. Toler translates history for a popular audience. She goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. Toler is the author of eight books of popular history for children and adults, including Women Warriors: An Unexpected History. Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, The Washington Post and

Toler applied the “Page 99 Test” to Women Warriors: An Unexpected History and reported the following:
I went into Women Warriors with a simple definition of women warriors as women for whom battle wasn't a metaphor. It was a nice starting point, but I quickly realized I needed more detailed standards as I sifted through the thousands of possible stories and decided which ones to tell. These were the main criteria that I worked with:
  • Women had to have been part of an army, served as what the modern American military calls a combatant commander, or physically wielded a weapon, even if that meant throwing rocks down from the wall of a besieged city.
  • There had to be some reason to believe a woman actually existed, even if she acquired some mythical elements over time.
  • I wanted women from a variety of time periods, cultures, and social standing. (In other words, not just women from Western Europe and not just queens and their equivalents.)
Twice I consciously chose to fudge on my definitions. To my amusement, page 99 deals with one of those exceptions.

My chapter on warrior queens ended with the story of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who did not lead her forces at the front in World War II even though she had in fact planned to "share the fate of the soldier be the last man to fall in the last ditch." Thwarted in her desire to be a literal warrior queen, she became an emblem of resistance.

I chose to include her story because it illustrates beautifully that the time of warrior queens has largely passed. Wilhelmina took on a new role as queen at the same time that thousands of women had new opportunities to enlist in their countries' military forces as a result of desperate manpower shortages.

Here's Wilhelmina's story as it appears on Page 99:
Informed the army could no longer guarantee her safety, Wilhelmina reluctantly left The Hague and boarded a British destroyer. Once aboard, wearing a life jacket and a steel helmet, she instructed the commander to set his course for Zeeland province, at the southwestern tip of the country, where Dutch and French troops were fighting the Germans. The British commander informed her the sea route to the southwest was too dangerous. His instructions were to go directly to England. She had no choice but to agree. Once she landed, she demanded an immediate return to Holland, and was politely refused. Clutching a gas mask and the steel helmet she had worn on the destroyer, Wilhelmina boarded the train to London.

Unable to join her troops on the battlefield, Wilhelmina found another way to fight. The queen, who had always been separated from her people by custom and her own stiff personality, became the heart of her country’s resistance. Hours after the German attack began, she made her first radio broadcast against the Nazis, declaring over Dutch radio, “I raise a fierce protest against this flagrant violation of good faith, this outrage against all that is decent between civilized states.” She made her next broadcast the day after she arrived in Britain. Every day thereafter, the queen spoke to her people at the start of the Radio Orange program broadcast to the Netherlands by the BBC. Her radio speeches were passionate and personal; with one exception, she wrote them herself. Again and again she told her subjects the war was a struggle between good and evil. There could be no compromise with Hitler and his “gang of war criminals.” She urged her people to resist the invaders and berated the Dutch “scoundrels” who cooperated with the Third Reich. The Dutch joked that the queen’s grandchildren weren’t allowed to listen to her broadcasts from their refuge in Canada because she used such foul language when she talked about the Nazis.

Late in World War II, Winston Churchill quipped, “I fear no man in the world but Queen Wilhelmina.” A ferocious chess player, he recognized the power of a queen in motion.
Visit Pamela D. Toler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue