Minerva and Vesta: Women's Roles During Times of War

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Minerva and Vesta: Women's Roles During Times of War

Mar Doyle

Minerva and Vesta:

Women's Roles During Times of War

With the prevalence of war goddesses in most traditions from China to Greece to Ireland, women have been separated from the front lines of war for centuries. The goddesses, the divine representations of women in the ideal, are torn between dual roles: that of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and just war, and that of Vesta, goddess of hearth and home. These two roles, warrior and mother, are not necessarily as very different as they might appear at first glance. Western tradition claims that women are not made for war, but for household work: sewing, cleaning, cooking, and looking after children. Society told women to carry brooms in lieu of swords; to collect firewood instead of ammunition, and to keep house rather than protect a nation. Yet, for centuries, women have fought their peoples' wars, even if they never lifted a sword or fired a rifle.

Yet, in Virginia Woolf's book, Three Guineas, she claims that women do not actively participate in war. She tells the reader, "To fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's" (Virginia Woolf, 6). She proceeds to explain that women have been set in a world apart from men. According to Woolf, men and women exist in separate worlds, coexisting, but not interacting. Women live outside of the masculine spectrum of official schooling, professions, and, of course, war making. I beg to differ. Women have always interacted with men and live in the same world as their masculine counterparts even when it comes to schooling and professions, but especially when it comes to war. Women have always joined their brothers in the trade of war making and to deny their efforts and victories is to deny a great portion of history and a profession that was, and is, almost always open to women, even when they could not share in the careers of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers.

We rarely hear of these women, though, because they were not on the front line. The AAS Online Exhibitions claims, "The term "war hero" usually refers to a man who unselfishly risks his life to fight" (AAS Online Exhibitions). In many ways this is true. War heroes, especially of wars that were fought earlier than the twentieth century, are almost invariably men. In schools throughout the United States, primary school students learn the names of heroes of various American wars: George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee; but rarely do they learn about the women who helped these heroes: Molly Pitcher, Belle Boyd, and Elizabeth van Lew. Women learned to sacrifice their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers for the same causes for which these men sacrificed their lives.

The first United States war in which women fought was the American Revolution: the war that allowed their country to be formed. While their husbands cleaned their hunting rifles and readied their clothing, American women fought the British in their own way. The most prominent form of battle, especially in Boston and New England, was the boycott on tea. It sounds like a simple thing, boycotting tea, but the English imported it to the Colonies and made a great deal of money on the tariffs. When New England housewives ceased to purchase tea, some going so far as to brewing herbal teas with raspberry leaves, the British knew a revolution was in the process. Women boycotted other goods and did their best to support their soldiers (Boston Tea Party). Some women were forced to host British soldiers, known as Red Coats, in their homes (Women of the American Revolution), but they forbore and awaited the end of the war and the return of their husbands and sons as free, independent men.

These women fought the British Empire on their own terms. They were forced to house foreign soldiers and cater to the very men who were preparing to kill their fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers. Women lost the rights to their own houses and were rendered helpless by the law when it came to protecting their property (Women of the American Revolution). This did not hold well with the American women, many of whom desired a free country as much as their masculine counterparts. Some women, such as Phillis Wheatly and Susana Haswell Rowen, loudly voiced their complaints in print, partially shielded by the very same gender that kept them off of the front lines. Other women, such as Eliza Wilkinson, literally fought the British who encroached upon their land. Wilkinson took a decidedly fierce position upon women and war, saying "None were greater politicians than the several knots of ladies who met together" (Women of the American Revolution). These women knew how to fight a war without ever leaving their houses and lands.

Other Revolutionary War women chose to leave behind the comforts of their homes behind and join the men at war. It was rare for women to take up arms and fight as soldiers, but they did as best they could, given their strict social roles. A prime example of this is Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, better known as Molly Pitcher. She followed her soldier husband as he fought. Molly Pitcher earned her title at the Battle of Monmouth when she brought water to the fallen soldiers on the field (Molly Pitcher). Women were so taken with following the soldiers' camp that the Women of the American Revolution calls the Camp-Followers "one of Washington's head-aches" (Women of the American Revolution). These Camp-Followers were a thorn in the side of the commanders because they wanted women to retain their traditional roles as mothers and housewives. Yet these women defied their leaders, taking precedence from their European forebears, and aided their husbands, sons, and brothers on the battlefield.

On page 31 of Three Guineas, Woolf states, "If we help an educated man's daughter to go to Cambridge, are we not forcing her to think not about education but about war?" Clearly, women think about war whether or not they attend Cambridge because Woolf, who was denied the privilege of being educated at Cambridge, is thinking about war throughout her book. In the American Colonies, most men were denied such an education, save those who were intending to enter the priesthood or were quite wealthy. It would be nearly unheard of for a woman to be educated at such an institution. Yet, these uneducated masses managed to wage a war against the most powerful empire since Rome, the British Empire of the eighteenth century, and win. They put their minds to war, without translating Latin texts or memorizing Shakespeare. The Americans won the war without diplomas from Oxford and Cambridge, defying Woolf's belief that the desire and knowledge to make war is intrinsic to education. Instead, the proof implies that this desire and knowledge is intrinsic to humanity. If they perceive a danger or an oppressor, then the instinctive reaction is to fight it. This is seen in lower order animals and often referred to as the 'fight or flight' reaction.

As was traditional during times of war, women took over their husbands' roles during the American Revolution. Women learned to manage businesses, schools, and farms. They boarded enemy soldiers, taught schools, conducted letter writing campaigns, and enacted political activity. Yet, all of this came to a halt when the Americans won the war and the British retreated. The rights these brave women had gained during wartime were once again returned to the men (Women of the American Revolution). Men were declared the heroes of the hour and much was, and still is, made of their considerable sacrifices and bravery, but it was done at the expense of the women.

The dual roles of women during wartime recurred during the American Civil War. The same people who wore corsets and hoop skirts, who had fainting spells, and were expected to live in high society were given control as men took up guns and uniforms. Once again, women learned to fight a war without taking up arms. They were forced to take over men's lives and men's work when the men were no longer around to fulfill these necessary duties. Farms still needed to be tended and businesses still needed to be run. For a war to continue, the economy must continue. A change from their Revolutionary War mothers, the women of the Civil War took on two true professions as the nation was divided into two: espionage and nursing.

Nursing, of course, was considered a more respectable way to support the soldiers and the war. Most of the Civil War nurses, as with the heroines of the Revolution, remained anonymous, but were a bastion of the war effort. These women left their homes and children to save a country. Florence Nightingale, a British citizen herself, pioneered this career choice during the Crimean Wars, working with other British women to heal the British soldiers injured in battle. Learning lessons from their European sister, the women of the Confederacy and the Union helped to heal wounded soldiers, on both sides of the war, and became known for reading letters from home to the injured soldiers, undoubtedly improving morale (AAS Online Exhibitions).

The art of espionage was open to women in both the Union and the Confederate States. An advantage of a female spy was her gender: neither side of the war would execute a woman, even on point of treason (Hearts at Home: Spies). Famous Confederate spies include Belle Boyd, who carried important information across borders and is known for saving Confederate captains from Union troops, and Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who helped win the Battle of Bull Run by leaking important information to Confederate troops (Rose O'Neal Greenhow Papers). Some Union spies were women firmly ensconced in Confederate society, such as Elizabeth van Lew and Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Van Lew helped prisoners of war and watched important Confederate political figures while Bowser was a maid in the Confederate White House itself (Female Spies for the Union).

Despite the fact that women were still not allowed on the front line and could not carry arms with their brothers and husbands, during the American Civil War, women came closer to the battlefields than they had during the American Revolution. They learned to play on the traditional gender roles through espionage. They could aid their causes without risking life and limb with the same recklessness as a male spy. While the men fought and killed, wounded and were wounded, the women of the Union and Confederacy learned to be nurses and to read and write.

In Three Guineas, Woolf makes the claim that "scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman's rifle" (Woolf, 6). History itself refutes this claim. If we look at soldiers in war alone, ignoring female hunters and women defending their homes, there is evidence to decry Woolf's claim. Women have been in the business of espionage since Roman times and earlier. Women have dressed as men and fought on the field as soldiers, many even in Woolf's native Britain. Women fought in Crusades during the Middle Ages and women fight today for the United States army. Women have carried swords, guns, and poisons during the intervening years. Violence, Woolf's words imply, is not natural to women. This is an untruth. Women commit acts of violence on a daily basis, one only needs to read the newspapers or watch the evening news to understand this simple fact.

These two wars, the American Revolution of 1776 and the American Civil War, were fought by men with horses, muskets, rifles, ships, and cannons. It was men who stood on the front line and faced down the enemy, offering their lives for their country. Men fought, died, and bled in these wars. But what is so often forgotten when we remember war heroes are the women. The women may not have taken up arms and led armies with a battle cry, but they offered as much as their brothers did. When the rebels of the colonies hosted British soldiers, they knew that if they spoke their mind, it meant death or imprisonment. The women of the revolution went without necessities in the hopes that it would help with the war effort. As the ladies of the Civil War nursed the injured soldiers back to health, they ran the risk of contracting the solders' illnesses and dying themselves. When they worked as spies for their governments, they knew that their enemies considered them traitors and would gladly imprison them. It is a sad thing indeed when these women's contributions to the nation are forgotten in the shadows of their larger-than-life brethren.

Clearly history itself contradicts Woolf's claims. Three Guineas was published in 1938 and is, without a doubt, a product of its time. Certainly, today, women have access to many of the commodities that Woolf's generation was denied. But the women and the wars I have referenced in my papers lived and occurred long before Woolf's time. If she so chose, she could have found this self same information, albeit it would have been a bit harder without the use of extensive libraries and modern technology. Even had she not searched for female soldiers and fighters from the United States, Woolf could have looked to European tradition. Saint Joan of Arc may be one of the most famous female soldiers of the modern era, leading the entire army of France against Britain, something no British male or female would be soon to forget. Or, reaching further back in time, Woolf might have remembered from Greek and Roman mythology the tales of the Amazons, a tribe of wild women, all warriors and nearly undefeatable. She was clearly a woman of means who was well educated, especially for her time period and gender; how else could she have written the sheer number of published pieces that she has? She had undeniable access to this information.

It is an indisputable fact that women are a part of war and a part of the man's world. In fact, it is a misnomer to call it a man's world, this existence belongs equally to women as it does to men. Women may have a differing social history from men and there may be a different culture for women with separate expectations, but women of the world live in it. To deny their hold on the world is to deny their responsibility to the world. Women have their place in war, as they have a place everywhere else. They are as accountable for war as men are. They ought not to use men as their scapegoat in this arena. Women, especially in the armies of Western nations today, join men on the battlefield. They always have. I think they always will. It is a time honored tradition. But with the privilege of living in this world and fighting its battles comes the responsibility of waging a war, considering the ethics of waging war, creating laws and rules regarding battle conduct, and accepting the fact that, inevitably, who ever wins the battle or the war, people will be lost. This weight falls on the shoulders of all of humanity and it is unjust to divide the species by gender in this aspect just as we cannot say that only Caucasians or only Asians have ever made war.

Warmongering seems to ignore class, gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and education. Woolf, in her writing, seems near obsessed with the idea that women can separate themselves from war by separating themselves from men. I think this is an interesting theory, but, in the end, implausible. By creating another dividing line regarding war, adding to social status and nationality among many and sundry other dividers, we would only create more incentive for war. If one has weighed the ethics and choices of war and decided, as Woolf did, that war is a poor choice, isolating what might have been powerful allies is a poor decision indeed, especially when those very allies appear to be the controlling force behind the war making.

In conclusion, Woolf's ideas in Three Guineas, regarding women and war, prove to be false. The records of women and war, regarding the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, openly disregard her theories. War transcends the artificial social barriers humanity has created over time. To claim that women take no part in war is to put women far away and on an idealized pedestal that they, and no one, truly do not deserve. Women may or may not be the same as men, but both genders live in the same world and face the same problems of that world. It would be better for men and women to face these troubles side by side and together rather than as two separate peoples who happen to exist near to one another. It is as Benjamin Franklin said of the American Revolution: Better that we all hang together for we will surely hang alone.


"AAS Online Exhibitions: A Woman's Work is Never Done." 2004. Cited 22 November 2004.

"Boston Tea Party: ...drinking to independence." 1996. Cited 22 November 2004.

"Female Spies for the Union." Cited 22 November 2004.

"Hearts at Home: Spies." 1997. Cited 22 November 2004.

"Molly Pitcher (Valley Forge Frequently Asked Questions)." 1998 2004. Cited 22 November 2004.

"Rose O'Neal Greenhow Papers." May 1996. Cited 22 November 2004.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938, 1966. Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, Florida.

Zarro, Alexis. "Women of the American Revolution." Cited 22 November 2004.


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