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Robert B. Edgerton. Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War. Boulder, Col: Westview Press, 2000. 216 pages. Photos, notes, bibliography, index. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8133-3711-9.

Reviewed by Alfred S. Bradford, John Saxon Professor of Ancient History, Department of History, University of Oklahoma.
Published by H-MINERVA (March, 2001)

A Case Study of Women as Combatants

Robert B. Edgerton is a professor of anthropology at UCLA. His book about the warrior women of Dahomey (in Africa) and the "nature of war" is divided into five chapters. Chapter One concerns the women warriors themselves, why they were chosen, how they were trained, and what their role in warfare was. Chapter Two gives a short history of Dahomey society and a description of the structure of the society, particularly the traditional place of woman in that society. Chapter Three describes the means used by the king to create a sense of majesty and autocracy. Chapter Four describes the known military campaigns. Chapter Five discusses women warriors in general and the wider implications of the "Amazons." The book is thin (155 pages of text) and the discussion of the Amazons themselves is confined to Chapters One and Four (of necessity, since good, primary evidence for the women warriors of Dahomey is scarce). Although the first three chapters are interesting, I concentrate here on the last two chapters, on the fourth chapter because it provides the evidence upon which the speculations of the fifth chapter depend.

Chapter Four describes the action of the women warriors in detail, in a war between Dahomey and Egba over the slave trade, an 1851 attack on the Egba capital of Abeokuta (a failure), another attack in 1864 (and another failure and a rout), and, finally, the campaign against the French in the 1890's (about which the good news is that we have more details, because the French kept records, but the bad news is that the Amazons by then had been recruited from a different social group). The French, armed with the most modern weapons -- machine guns and artillery -- met the Dahomey army at Zogbo in 1890 and for the next two years, reinforced by the French Foreign Legion, campaigned against the Dahomey king and his army. In a series of campaigns the French forced the Dahomey army back on its capital and broke it. Casualties were about ten to one (in France's favor). The French have left us anecdotes of the ferocity and courage of the Amazons, but as far as we can tell, they did not interview their captives nor gain insight into their lives. We should rather blame the French than the author that the fourth chapter leaves the reader dissatisfied at the amount of information about the women in action.

Chapter Five tries to arrive at some truths about gender roles and women at war. The author speculates on possible reasons why King Gezo created the Amazon corps -- the freer role of women in Dahomey society, the prohibition on men entering the palace, the need for bodyguards, the shortage of men -- and then to these particular speculations he adds a free-ranging discussion of gender roles in different human societies, among chimpansees, male chauvinist anthropologists, new feminism, culture determinism, ferocious women geographically and historically (other women warriors in Africa, Celtic women fighting for their homes, women in the Israeli army). Here the author, in my opinion, would have been better served to have turned to classical history's Greek tyrants and Roman emperors, who were obsessed with recruiting effective and trustworthy bodyguards, seeking, in short, the characteristics of King Gezo's captive women, who owed everything to their king, had no outside loyalties, and, for that reason, were completely trustworthy.

Insofar as this book becomes a discussion of the future role of women in combat, particularly in the United States, the example of the Dahomey women at war is not particularly apt. First, the founder of the Amazons, King Gezo, used them primarily to secure his position against his own people and to overawe any opposition. From the evidence presented in this book we must conclude that the women, while courageous and even ferocious, were not a decisive factor in battle. Secondly, we must ask whether we could form an elite female unit on the Gezo model, that is, recruit only the strongest women, segregate them from men, give them drugs to prevent pregnancy and repress menstruation, train then continually, and provide rewards no other women in our society could hope to acquire?

The author should have emphasized the social background to the "Amazons" rather than the ferocity of women. Plato had it right in the Republic: women will serve in combat only when they are fully integrated into society, because the military reflects society; no society, until now, has allowed women as much personal choice as the United States. The real question is not women's ferocity, but society's view of women.

I recommend this book, first, for its interesting subject and, secondly, as a starting point for a discussion of the issues it raises.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 21/03/2001
S D Stein

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