In the 1970s, arms and armour were a man’s world both in use and study. As a recent graduate in 1977, I was fortunate to get a toe hold on the bottom rung of the curatorial ladder in the Department of Weapons and Antiquities at the National Maritime Museum. The weapons side of the Department was all female, and as my boss had a preference for the uniform collection and had mastered its complicated identification coding, I was more than happy to cut my teeth on the swords ably assisted by a recently published catalogue. Promotion saw me briefly in antiquity but my heart was pledged and I transferred to the Edged Weapons department of the Tower of London Armouries.
Today, diversity is a vital consideration in the museums and heritage sector but the display of arms and armour remains a problematic area. Cultural diversity exists in the weapons and defensive equipment on display as collections become more global, but the fighters stubbornly remain predominantly male.
Weapons are rarely gender-specific and the assumption is that they would be wielded by a man. The only weapon that comes to mind as designed specifically with women in mind is the Japanese ko-naginata – a curved single-edged blade mounted on a haft. However, a longer, heavier version exists used by male samurai, foot-soldiers, and warrior monks (ō-naginata). Longbows used for hunting, sport, and war were adapted to suit their user, so female bows survive – field archery was considered an appropriate sport for Victorian ladies – but the English laws regarding the training in and ownership of bows related only to the men in a household.
Women gave their names to legendary swords and artillery pieces presumably as companions to the men using them. Generally, a woman’s role was supportive – it was the Lady of the Lake who presented King Arthur with Excalibur and reclaimed it and it is Lady Luttrell who hands her husband his helm as he mounts his horse. Arms and armour also provided useful surfaces for ladies to decorate – from blousy Britannias and Victories etched and engraved on sword blades, to scantily clad classical goddesses and nymphs frolicking on any available surface. Armour in portraiture was used to symbolise status well after its working life on the battlefield had ended – and in the 17th century provided an excuse for well-born ladies in the guise of an armoured Minerva to flash the flesh.
There have been female warriors both mythical and real, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Joan of Arc successfully rallied French morale and fortunes against the 15th century English, only to be fatally condemned for her “unfeminine” behaviour. Probably the most famous women warriors were the Amazons of classical mythology, while the African kingdom of Dahomey (the modern day Republic of Benin) had a flourishing group of female warriors,
or “our mothers”, from the 17th to late 19th centuries. Originating as a corps of elephant hunters, by the 1850s they constituted up to a third of the entire Dahomean army. Equipped with clubs, knives, and Danish guns they graduated to Winchester rifles. Capitalising on their opponents’ discomfort in killing women, special units successfully targeted French Officers in the Franco-Dahomean wars of the 1890s. Eventually, Western European technology and might triumphed, Dahomey became a French Protectorate, and the N’Nomiton, although praised for their courage and audacity, were disbanded. Their last surviving member, Nawi, died in 1979 aged over 100.