Mary Ambree and Female Warriors

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of writers of fantasy talk about historical female warriors—the historicity of women marching into battle alongside men—and there’s obviously value in looking at history, because there are plenty of dumbasses out there who will be quick to say something stupid like, “But women didn’t march into battle! That’s dumb!” There will be nitwits who will say it’s feminist claptrap, or unbelievable, or implausible, or whatever.

(I mean, I suppose we should spend time correcting such ignorance and stupidity when we encounter it, at least occasionally, right? So: yes, it is plausible. There definitely were societies where women fought, and some where women actively participated in military battles on a regular basis.)

Still, to me, it seems like maybe if we’re looking at fictional female warriors in modern (English-language) fantasy and SF, it might be worth looking at the history of fictional female warriors in the English language. And hey, guess what? I can tell you where to look. I’ve even written up a bunch of notes on the subject, and now seems an appropriate to post this, given the he-knickers-in-a-twist silliness that various internet man-children are engaged in over their horrible horrible feelings about the upcoming Wonder Woman movie.

First, a brief note on why I’m even looking into this. Well, for one thing: this was a massive part of English popular culture. This was a major part of the English imagination for an important part of our cultural history. That ought to be enough reason.

But no, there’s more: in the novel I’m working on, half the major characters are women. Not just women, but women living in Early Georgian England. They’re also a group of political radicals involved in a struggle that they themselves frame as being a “war” that they’re “fighting”; the fact they’re political radicals (they’d probably be called “terrorists” in alarmist, 21st century terms, and maybe rightly so). That’s a pretty strange premise for 1736, but hey, that’s why you read science fiction, right?

Of course, it’s a strange premise not because they’re women, but because they’re not Jacobites. I mean, if you were a political radical in 1736 London, you were almost certainly some kind of Jacobite, and that movement involved significant involvement by women. They didn’t necessarily all swing swords: some of them, instead, propagandized, organized marriages within families, allocated household resources, and networked with various governments for the cause. (Here’s a podcast where Dr Nicola Cowmeadow discusses one such woman, a Scottish woman named Lady Nairne.) Now, by 1720s in London, you could be a Jacobite and not really give damn about the Stuart line, of course: plenty of English Jacobites mainly just despised the Hanoverian  Kings George and identified that way because they understood Jacobitism as a kind of umbrella opposition movement.

The March of the Guards to Finchley, by William Hogarth. Hogarth wasn’t a Jacobite, but he was certainly capable of mocking those in power, like many others of the day.

But these women in my book? While they’re political radicals, they’re simply not Jacobites at all. Rather, they’re political radicals of a different sort, for which there isn’t a word in 18th century London. By our terms, we’d call them “proto-feminists”—emphasis on the proto—but that term (and the values associated with feminism as it exists in its various modern forms) would have baffled them. Still, if I can take the other kinds of liberties I’m taking with the world of the story—and it’s speculative fiction, so I’m taking significant liberties—I sure as hell can have a group of women who get political and see themselves as warriors in a figurative sense… and draw inspiration from the ubiquitous figure of the female warrior in the pop culture that surrounded them. I can have them fight in a metaphorical sense, while drawing inspiration, in part, from songs about women who literally fought with steel.

And that’s how I ended up being interested in how the idea of female warriors was handled in early Georgian London.

So guess what? A bunch of them—in songs, and in real life too—apparently went out and literally fought with steel. And people didn’t think it was bad, they kind of thought it was cool until sometime in the 19th century. They also didn’t think it was unusual, because they didn’t really believe women were all that fragile. Smaller, sure, and maybe weaker on average—sexual dimorphism didn’t escape their notice—but in terms of rigor, bravery, and ability to kill people with sharp, pointy things? They might have thought it was a masculine thing to do, but that didn’t mean women couldn’t masculinize themselves and do it. They kind of dug it when women did that.

And that’s sort of what Dugaw’s excellent book is all about, really. It’s a bit academic, but fascinating all the same. And the great thing is, the first half of the book is basically about popular songs in the Tudor and Georgian eras. They’re fascinating songs. Here’s one of the songs my female revolutionary characters sing most often, by the way—and it’s a real historical song; they belt it out a couple of times (a few times as a group, and once, by an individual who uses it as a coded message of sorts) in the book:

You probably don’t know the song (and may want to read the unabridged lyrics of one version, which you can do here), since it’s been largely forgotten in the last couple of centuries—and it surely wasn’t paired with a folksy, American-sounding guitar accompaniment back in the day—but this was basically a pop hit in the streets of London from the late 1500s into the 1700s.

You saw that right: this was a hit song for two hundred (200!) years.

It also wasn’t the only such song: ballads about female warriors enjoyed massive popularity throughout the period, many of them imitations of the tale of Mary Ambree—who indeed seems to have been a real figure, like many of the other women featuring in these songs.

The singer in the above video, Dianne Dugaw, put out an album collecting many such songs, and titled it Dangerous Examples—Fighting & Sailing Women in Song. (That’s a link t a Youtube playlist containing all the songs, most of them just as enjoyable as the one about Mary Ambree, though I’m very partial to the a cappella “The Female Sailor Bold.”)

Dugaw is also a scholar, and in fact, I was surprised she’d recorded a collection of songs, because my acquaintance with her was though her book on the subject, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850. I haven’t finished it, but I’m talking about it already because it’s that interesting. Dugaw tells the story of how she came to study this subject in this interview:

Long story short, she had a collection of ballad sheets, and while going through them she noticed a lot of songs about sailing and fighting women, wondered what was up with that, and pursued it till she discovered a massive chunk of popular culture that we collectively just kind of forgot about.

Well, not all of us perhaps: those in the 19950s and 1960s who were reading Swift and other authors of the time, as well as later authors, must have wondered what all the references to this Mary Ambree character were about, and maybe a few here and there caught it… but by and large, the massive, culture-wide popularity of stories about such women warriors had by then been long-lost on most of us. Even by the time Kipling titled his novel Captains Courageous—from the first line of the song about Mary Ambree—probably very few people got the reference.

And yet Mary Ambree is still with us, isn’t she? There are countless examples: Katniss Everdeen; Eowyn and Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth; Starbuck from (ugh) Battlestar Galactica; Selene from the Underworld movies; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Princess Leia; Black Widow and Wonder Woman; Ellen Ripley; Michonne from The Walking Dead; The Bride (and many of her victims) from Kill Bill… the list goes ever on.

Michonne (Danai Gurira) – The Walking Dead – Season 3, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Here’s what’s interesting about the Mary Ambree of the song—the fictionalized Mary Ambree—in the form of a list of traits she shares (to differing degrees) with the characters mentioned above:

  • She cross-dresses: she dons the clothing and armor of a man, and her enemies don’t even realize she’s a woman until she’s killed a bunch of them.
  • She uses her female status selectively: she doesn’t let it stop her from wading into battle, but she does reveal her sex to get out of being punished for her role in the war. In other words, she sort of skates over the line between “masculine” and “feminine” as people in her culture understood it, depending on what suited her at the moment. This was celebrated, rather than being seen as objectionable.
  • Her valor is seen as praiseworthy and attractive by the men who witness it. (She even gets proposed to by one of her enemies when he realizes what a kickass warrior she is.)
  • She “does it all for love”: she fights because her lover was slain and she wants to avenge his death.
  • Her outcome nonetheless isn’t “womanish” in the end: she rejects a proposal of marriage and sails home.

Dugaw goes on at some length about this: how Mary Ambree’s feminine status isn’t erased or overcome by her actions, but rather comes into play selectively. Being motivated by love, in a 17th-18th century context, would be a feminizing distinction; so would her revelation of her sex to avoid punishment. But cross-dressing and displaying real valour on the battlefield would be traditionally masculine traits, unexpected in women—which is why it’s depicted as remarkable in the song. That Ambree rejects a marriage proposal from one of the most powerful men in Europe, again, is something that doesn’t really code as feminine for the time period, from what I can tell; yes, a woman could refuse a suitor, but she seems to be expected to accept the proposal by all present, and her refusal seems to be seen as remarkable and laudable, rather than normal or usual.

Not all of this maps onto all such songs, of course. Dugaw goes to some length to suss out the underlying structure that runs through the genre, and finds that often women are depicted as returning to a feminine role… though that’s not always construed or understood to be a necessarily permanent return. The line having been shown to be permeable, it can be crossed again, and some songs end with a hint that the brave female protagonist may well decide to head back into battle in service of Queen or King, country, or love.

(According to Dugaw, not all ballad-writers were so interested in this ambiguity. Some warrior women—and, if I recall right, even some versions of Mary Ambree—were straightforwardly warriors who happened to be women. In other cases, the warriorhood acts almost as a temporary suppression of womanhood, which is switched off and then back on like a light. There’s a range in the examples I mention above, too: romantic relationships are deeply connected to the battles Selene and Buffy fight; Leia doesn’t cross-dress; Arya Stark is a girl-child, so not yet a woman anyway; Ellen Ripley doesn’t seem to have romantic relationships of any consequence in the story (though the maternal thread in Aliens is arguably a stand-in for that).

What’s interesting to me about this is that the story of Mary Ambree—and of women like her—feels as if it’s an attempt to figure out how exactly to present a woman warrior character who is still a woman warrior. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the question I’m still working out in my own book: how to present women warriors who don’t actually suit up in armor and charge about cutting enemies in half with swords, but still engage in battle of another kind. Women warriors who, while broadly embracing their 18th century culture and what they felt made them authentic women within that culture, nonetheless deciding to fight along lines they themselves see as realistically possible, for goals they see (however idealistically) as realistically plausible. Well, and in fact within their group there’s some debate as to whether even fighting for any change at all is realistically plausible, for that matter. Not all stories about women fighting for something—and certainly not all the best ones—necessarily involve women using a sword to do so… and I think it’s likely, if one is writing historical fiction, that more often one finds oneself confronted with women who fought along other lines, against tremendous constraint.

After all, women might just cross-dress and wander with a weapon to maneuver themselves into the marriage they want, as in the American tune “Dog and Gun,” which anyone who’s heard the priceless Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music will remember:

I’m half-convinced this song is a later American modification of the Georgian tune “William and Harriet”: the melody’s contours feel roughly similar, there’s weird similarities to the story (with “Dog and Gun” often weirdly inverting “William and Harriet”) and the lyrics match up very closely, rhythmically speaking. In both cases, the battle these women fight in male garb is a battle for self-determination: the fight to choose their husbands for themselves.

Of course, if you read the Dugaw book all the way through, you’ll learn more history than you realized. For example, you’ll learn about the formulaic structure of such ballads—yes, there’s a great diagram or two—and you’ll learn just how common such ballads were.

But the second part of the book is where Dugaw really kicks things into gear. She starts with the question of how and why people in the 17th and 18th centuries took for granted the idea of women (often cross-dressed) going off to war, serving on sailing ships, and things like that, since that seems to be the question most apparent to modern people encountering these early modern narratives.

The answer, Dugaw suggests, is something along the lines of, “Of course they took that for granted, and the fact you don’t (and that find it surprising) tells us more about you and about the intervening history, than it ever does about them.” Specifically, she notes that women (like children) did serve on naval ships in those early days before the regularization and centralization of military systems. Some women served in roles like the children onboard—for example, carrying gunpowder to the cannons during battles, or working in a supporting role to crucial staff on the ship. (An instance of a gunner’s wife giving the gunner drinks of wine between cannon blasts is credited—by a fellow male sailor—with helping in the winning of a battle, for example.) Some women clearly also played domestic roles or served as companions to male sailors, right up to the point of being onboard ships throughout their pregnancies and even delivering children onboard. Others fought, sometimes valiantly enough even to be recommended for official honours and awards (though they did not always receive those awards from the naval administration). And of course, there were plenty of women who did (like Mary Ambree) cross-dress and sign up for the navy or army… and those tasked with getting enlistees weren’t particularly interested in reducing the numbers of bodies they procured for their employers. Some even ended up as pirates (or pirate captains, like the literary figure Charlotte de Berry).

In other domains, the presence of women also seems to have been taken for granted as normal and natural: matches between female boxers, for example, seem to have been advertised with no greater fanfare than matches between men (unlike how they were advertised in later eras). As with female sailors and soldiers, there may have been some recognition of certain abstract and generalized limitations imposed by sexual dimorphism (average size differences being sometimes important in battle) but there doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of a sense of heightened delicacy or fragility in women, because after all any working or middle class woman who survived daily life would have been far from delicate or fragile.

The other thing to remember is that this was an era of cross-dressing. Masquerades were all the fashion in the 17th century and into the 18th, and people cross-dressed for those. Visitors to London in the early 1700s explicitly noted how women were “hermaphroditic” riding clothing—they essentially cross-dressed in men’s outfits for horseback riding—and were seen tearing up and down the streets of the city. Meanwhile, men also cross-dressed, often to avoid a whole host of dangers ranging naval impressment or arrest by bailiffs. Indeed, luddites and other protesters and saboteurs often cross-dressed as a kind of insurance against the most serious possible repercussions for their acts. American readers will also recall the transvestite and transracial costumes used by those who carried out the Boston Tea Party, as well, one of which (the Indian costume) survived among the those used by the famous Village People:

The point here is that people in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to Dugaw, seem to have had a deep fascination with—and, she argues, an almost magical view of costume and dress, and its effects on the individual.1

(Also, though Dugaw doesn’t really get into this, those who’ve read anything about mollies, such as in Rictor Norton’s work on the Georgian Underworld (or his work on the emerging gay subculture in that milieu) will be aware of how transvestite dress, roleplay. and ceremony played an important part in the social fabric of the emerging gay subculture of late 17th and early 18th century London, as it developed in proto-gay clubs in which homosexual men met not only for sex but also for group cross-dressing and transgendered role-playing involving marriage and childbirth ceremonies.)

A scene from the molly house featured in the recent (and excellent) BBC series TABOO.

None of this is to say that there weren’t gender-specific codes in the 17th and 18th centuries, of course: Dugaw’s very far from claiming that, and anyone looking carefully at the Female Warrior songs—or even just taking note of the fact they were a genre of song in themselves—will see that there were gender codes. The thing is that there was more fluidity for moving between them in the early modern era than in, say, the Victorian age.

Dugaw argues, at the end of one chapter, that this is in part because by the end of the Georgian era, the French Revolution had made enough waves for the upper-class to be very nervous about the collective power of the working and middle classes: if women were prone to thinking they could suit up and swing swords around, things were just that much more perilous, especially given the role of women in previous uprisings in France, as well as the revolution itself. (Women may not have benefitted much from the revolution—something paralleled by women’s groups who were cajoled into backing the overall, male-led Independence Movement in Japanese-occupied Korea—but they nontheless played an important role in the struggle.)

As far as the English upper class was concerned, Dugaw suggests, one way of defanging the so-called “scums”—the common rabble—was to defang the women, reducing the collective military power and strength of the commoners by half.

(Surely there was more to it than that: the Victorian ideology is a full-fledged complex of ideas that are complexly interacting—a memeplex, to use Susan Blackmore’s term—in which Christian morality, sexual conservativism, and a rigorousness about things like gender and age roles were coextensive and supported one another. Which leads to another parallel with Korea: the Victorian ideology feels a bit, to me, like the ideology of Neo-Confucianism that took root in Joseon Dynasty-era Korea before, but especially following the Imjin War: as I understand it, following that attempted invasion by Japan, there was an acceleration in the  belt-tightening that had preceded it, spanning religious repression, gender roles, conservative language reforms, and more; the changes had been going on since earlier, but an acceleration seems—from what little I’ve read, and I’m not an expert—to have been triggered by the horrors of a military conflagration.)

This on-purpose defanging, Dugaw argues, was carried out in a number of ways: there were literary attacks on women authors—Mary Wollstonecraft among them—and there was a concentrated effort to “reform the manners” of the commoners. But there was also a conscious, concerted effort to replace the popular ballads and broadside publications of the preceding centuries (including the genre of songs about women warriors) with more “proper” fare: stories in which women less often embarked on adventures, less often got into gunfights and boxing matches, and less often dressed up as men to set sail or march into war… with the belief (and it was apparently correct) that not only did the literature of the streets reflect the values of the common folk, but it also shaped their collective values. This, in place of “Mary Ambree” and “Polly and the Female Sailor Bold,” songs told of women who were more frail, more delicate and motivated by love not to brandish steel, but instead to weep, to wait tearfully for their lovers to return, and to forgive sweethearts who betrayed them or stayed away too long. Essentially, the late Georgian and Victorian reformers took away the Katniss Everdeens and replaced them with dependent, helpless, beleaguered governesses and servants… and not just in songs, but also in real life.

(And at the same time, it should be added, reformers tried to sideline a lot of other stuff that appeals to us today, such as ghastly tales of murder and crime and ghostly apparitions. Not that they managed it: that stuff all persisted, and we know it was a staple of the pulp literature of the Victorian era—so-called penny dreadfuls and the like—as well as in Gothic literature, but the Female Warrior, it seems, took a bit longer to make her comeback. In Victorian narratives, the murders and horrors often were ramped up in emotional force explicitly by putting defanged “fragile” women in fictional peril. Or at least that’s my impression: I’m less well-read than I’d like, and maybe there’s a whole genre of tough-women fiction from the Victorian era I don’t know about, but I do know the dominant trope is of women imperiled, rather than of women-saving-the-day.)

In this reform, they seem to have succeeded tremendously: 19th- and 20th-century critics seem to have been baffled by the generally positive view that people the 17th and 18th centuries had of the female warrior figure; they seem to have tied themselves in knots either to explain her presence, or the regard that authors so often seem to have for her. “Why,” they asked constantly, “would such a figure garner praise, rather than condemnation?” seems to be a common question.

This seems, in part, because while so many in the 19th and 20th centuries held the Victorian view of gender as binary and exclusive, it seems that for people in the 17th and 18th century, manliness and womanliness were not mutually exclusive propositions. As Dugaw notes, the female warrior was not “unwomanly”: Mary Ambree and many others of her ilk had feminine traits that survived their costumed and professional metamorphosis to soldiers and sailors. Rather, it’s that the older view seemed to embrace a more ambiguous, liminal zone in which masculinity and femininity could be melded and coexist in a kind of artificial suspension, enacted not only by clothing but by self-presentation: that gender, being something literally performed, could thus be ambiguous and muddled together into an interesting, and even a heroic, ambiguous melding of traits.

It’s also worth noting that the codes of masculinity that are familiar to us—and which were in part alien to people before the 19th century—were also foisted upon Victorians by these same reformers. Men in Female Warrior ballads wept hot tears of sorrow at being separated from their lovers, and occasionally needed to be saved by their female warrior lovers. Dugaw suggests that this is a degree of “ambidextrous” ambiguity when it comes to gender codes, but I’m not so sure. In Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” we see the weeping of hot tears as a manly and virtuous act, after all: Dugaw may have a point, the weeping of countless men in Female Warrior ballads is less convincing than the recurring trope of the male lover needing rescue: men seem to have stopped weeping those hot tears in the same reformist Victorian literature in which women stopped brandishing steel, from what I can tell.

Dugaw also touches briefly on two interesting points: one, that both in real-life cases of cross-dressing by women, and in fictional narratives, sexual attraction seems ambiguously tied to biological sex. Both types of accounts feature, from time to time, a woman in man’s dress approached by both women and men who are attracted to her, and in some female sailor ballads cases where a fellow “male” soldier is described as being attracted to the women who, at the time, is masquerading successfully as male. This probably has something to do with the Victorian horror at the trope, as much as the second point Dugaw touches upon: that a woman who has gone off into the male world as a warrior once, can always do so again. The ambiguity and fluidity—and the power entailed by it to transcend social limitations—becomes a permanent and even a celebrated feature of the world in these ballads.

Dugaw’s interrogation goes deeper than all this, of course—she delves into how the female warrior is in fact a lower-class manifestation of the social and literary elite’s wrangling over the Hic-Mulier. A punning term for the female empowered by her transverstite masquerading as a man, the “Hic Mulier” was a figure found not only in social debates—for example, in The Female Husband, a text I discussed here a while back—but also in in the works of many of the major English authors of the day, from Spenser and Shakespeare to Sidney and beyond. Dugaw also discusses who transvestite performance in stage drama was common—including women frequently playing no less roguish and manly a role than John Gay’s rogue leading man MacHeath in The Beggars Opera—and how transvestite figures were also deeply popular in stage drama, including the less-well-known (and suppressed) sequel to The Beggars Opera, the ballad opera Polly. 

It is a close reading of Polly (text available here, among other places) is carried out in the last major chapter of Dugaw’s book. (Some of that went over my head, as I have yet to read that latter work by John Gay—and I suppose I will never see a production of it, unpopular as it is and likely still more controversial given some of its contents—but it seems to hinge on the metamorphic power of disguise (transvestite in Polly’s case, and transracial in the case of MacHeath’s (yes, controversial) blackface disguise) as a critique of overreaching codes of race and gender as ideologies of enslavement, and, ultimately, as a declaration of the failure of European culture itself. That sounds pretty profound, if that’s what John Gay was indeed up to. While I wouldn’t be surprised, I’d need to give Polly a look before buying the claim.)

Anyway, that’s a quick run through the highlights of Dugaw’s book. Plenty of fascinating stuff there, even if her claims deserve more following up and consideration—how creditable all her claims are, I don’t know, but then my point in this post is really to share my notes on her book and the thoughts springboarded off it, rather than a deep and thorough analysis of their validity. For anyone interested in the cultural and literary history of the trope of the Female Warrior, it’s a very worthwhile jumping-off point with tons of possible leads strung througout.

  1. This reminds me of the limited gender-fluidity evident in certain Scandinavian epics, as discussed by Carol J. Clover in “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe.” It’s a great paper, very much worth checking out if this stuff interests you and you haven’t seen it already.

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