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AMAZONS

The following is taken from the text by Professor John Archer which accompanied an exhibition at Kulturforum Rheine and Beckum City Museum , Germany , 2002.

Only the human animal has the capacity for armed and organised conflicts. While most people lament the consequences of war, its destruction, cruelty, death and injuries, armed conflicts form the backbone of history, the substance of great literature, and the subject of mass entertainment. We are both repelled and fascinated by violence, provided it is kept at arm's length. One very obvious feature stands out from all reports of warfare past or present: Nearly all those who wage war are men. Men also commit most crimes of violence, particularly towards other men. In the western world, homicides involving victims of the same sex are 97% male. Throughout the world, boys are more likely than girls to fight one another. This begins as early as social interactions can be observed, and it persists into adulthood. These and other observations support the view that the maleness of violence is part of human nature, paralleling sex differences found in other animals, and a product of evolutionary history.

Whilst undoubtedly true, characterising of human violence as solely male provides a one-dimensional view. Besides demonising all men, it characterises all women as passive and non-aggressive. This concern led psychologists Jacqueline White and Robin Kowalski to refer to the "myth of the non-aggressive woman". Across a broad range of societies, women show a variety of aggressive acts, including damaging property and physically attacking others. In western cultures, women form a considerable proportion of those who hit, kick or otherwise hurt their partners, and this seems to be associated with the relatively greater power women have in these societies. Anne Campbell and others have documented hostility and physical aggression shown by young women when they are competing for the attentions of a relatively few worthwhile men. And, of course, women can kill - usually a husband or lover.

The Amazons are therefore not a unique group of women from a far-off time and place. Many contemporary women are capable of physical aggression, even killing. Can they also be warriors, trained to fight and kill alongside other women or men? Recorded history tells us that this is very unusual. But it also tells us that women have consistently been actively excluded from taking part in warfare. There are many cases of individual women fighters participating in wars as effectively as men have. They usually had to disguise themselves as men, and when discovered, were excluded from further fighting. We also know that women can lead men into war. There are a number of examples besides such familiar historical cases as Joan of Arc and Boadicea. Women serve alongside men in modern state armies, but typically not in the front-line of combat. Twentieth century guerrilla movements have used women, but as a temporary expedient. The image of a woman holding a gun in one hand and a baby in the other is found in guerrilla movements across the third world. If their war is successful, her former male comrades expect her to put down the gun and return home. The life of the woman warrior is subject to both the tug of biology in the form of motherhood, and the force of patriarchy in the form of men's political control. The same applies to any independent woman - those who are Amazons at heart.

The original Amazons of Greek mythology were an all-women society of warriors, who became pregnant by men from neighbouring societies. Battles with Amazons are depicted in Greek art, and detailed stories of their rulers and their battles were recorded by Herodotus in the fifth century BC, some 700 years after the events supposedly occurred. Archeological finds from that time showing women buried with horses and spears provide some evidence of women warriors, but these are greatly outnumbered by male warriors at the same sites. Reports of Amazons from South America and other parts of the world are again difficult to verify. In his excellent book War and Gender, Joshua Goldstein suggests that Amazon myths show women warriors coming from "a foreign, topsy-turvy world", and therefore were used to reinforce men's sense of masculinity and order. Their eventual defeat and integration into a patriarchal society supports this view. Amazons provide both a feminist symbol of the potential power of women, and a cautionary tale of what eventually happens when women become too powerful and independent.

According to Goldstein, the one clear historical example of women-only combat units comes from the West African state of Dahomey , which was founded on the slave-trade in the sixteenth century. The "Amazon corps" started when Dahomey faced a military crisis in 1827, and grew to several thousand by around 1850. They were armed with swords and muskets, looked like men in dress and activity, and were fit, strong and fast, with a reputation for courage and cruelty. To achieve this, they became in other ways like nuns, being completely segregated from men, and technically brides of the king. Men had to move away before they came past. Giving up the feminine side of nature to become strong warriors is a common theme applied to powerful women. Lady Macbeth said: "Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, /And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty!" (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene V).

Like the original Amazons, Christine Kowal Post's figures do not share this denial of their sex, in order to become powerful women. They may wear the metal helmets of warriors, yet they menstruate, give birth, and they care for their children. They are the contemporary post-feminist women who do not have to deny their femininity to enter a man's world. Yet, like the original Amazons, there is always the danger of defeat. The needs and pressures of motherhood and child rearing may consume a woman's time and attention, so that her conscious desires may be frustrated by her biology. The physical attributes of an athletic young woman may be eroticised, and turned into a commodity for men. Educated young women may be sent back to the bedroom and the kitchen to conform to religious ideology. Forces of liberation, exploitation and reaction exist side by side in the modern world, requiring present-day Amazons to be ever wary and watchful.

John Archer

Professor of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire

author of Male Violence 1994, The Nature of Grief 1999, and (with Barbara Lloyd) Sex and Gender 1985 and 2002

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