LEXINGTON, VA—Upending generations of conventional wisdom about the nature of armed conflict, a new study published Tuesday has found that throughout history, most warfare has been conducted by women who disguised themselves as male soldiers to take the place of fathers too sick to fight themselves.
The groundbreaking study, which appears in the current issue of The Journal Of Military History, examined records from the earliest known wars in ancient Mesopotamia all the way through to the current Syrian Civil War, confirming that nearly 60 percent of enlisted soldiers since the dawn of civilization have actually been women between the ages of 16 and 24 who put on an ill-fitting uniform, took up a weapon used long ago by a father now confined to his sickbed, and left home under cover of darkness to fight on the front lines.
“For thousands of years, human combat has been shaped by strong-willed young women who not only insisted on going to war in their fathers’ stead, but also became highly decorated warriors who turned the tide in many of history’s most pivotal battles,” said study co-author Therese Wilton, noting that the feared armies of ancient Sparta, the early Ottoman Empire, and 19th-century Prussia were all made up of women in drag who fought to save their families and, quite often, wound up finding themselves somewhere along the way. “We found evidence throughout the historical record of teenage daughters roughly chopping off their long hair and lowering their speaking voice by an octave in order to blend in with a band of soldiers.”
“Our research indicates each of these inexperienced yet determined female fighters then had to go about convincing a squad of skeptical men she was worthy of their ranks, usually by performing a feat of bravery or saving one of their lives,” Wilton added.
Historians who contributed to the study examined a vast collection of artifacts—from Egyptian scrolls to Mesoamerican petroglyphs to diaries written in hundreds of languages—and found among them thousands of instances in which a young woman in disguise momentarily failed to answer to her adopted male name during roll call, was nearly recognized by a soldier she knew from her hometown, or was tempted to reveal her true self after developing romantic feelings for a fellow warrior.
Examining groups as diverse as Vikings, Japanese samurai, Huns, Roman centurions, Ashanti warriors, World War I doughboys, Comanche braves, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the study found startlingly similar accounts of women passing as men. Across all cultures, these women soldiers reportedly worked hard to conceal their sex, holding their bladders until they could find a concealed spot to urinate and secretly nursing their own wounds rather than letting themselves be examined by a doctor. The irony, according to researchers, is that they must never have realized the majority of their compatriots were struggling to avoid being exposed as female themselves.
“Interestingly, we discovered that every single participant in the Battle of Waterloo was a woman, including both Napoléon, whose real name was Jeanette Bonaparte, and the Duke of Wellington, who was actually a duchess,” said Wilton, remarking that some of history’s female warriors eventually divulged their identities by dramatically removing their helmets or tricorn hats and then shaking down their long, flowing hair. “Just last year, we unearthed some miraculously preserved linen in southern Mongolia that we believe a young Genghis Khan used to flatten her breasts so she could join a military campaign after her father fell ill and her feckless brothers proved too dimwitted and lazy to pillage and massacre on behalf of the family.”
“We even found a case of sister fighting sister at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War,” Wilton continued, “with both taking the place of their senile father on the side they believed he would have chosen to fight on.”
Though women were not allowed to join the special operations force at the time, researchers confirmed SEAL Team Six was made up entirely of women disguised as men when its members helicoptered into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, who had herself been wearing a false beard since she took over operations of al-Qaeda from her bedridden father in 1987.