19th century army of women proves every sexist stereotype wrong

History can teach us many lessons, often from surprising places and people who were ahead of their time. Here's one from 19th century sub-Saharan Africa, the kingdom of Dahomey — present-day Benin.

King Behanzin surrounded himself with hundreds of bare-breasted women, but not for the reason you might imagine: they constituted an elite army of soldiers, known to be even more cruel and violent than their male counterparts.

 

These astonishing warriors acted as the king's personal guard, a close-knit group who also lived with him. Only women were allowed to be in the palace after dark. They were required to take a vow of chastity, devoting themselves entirely to protecting the king. (He had no sexual relations with his soldiers: while serving they weren’t to have children.) 

 

Some women applied for this service of their own accord. Others were forced to enroll (after their husbands complained of them being "out of control") or recruited as children. 

 

However they got there, the 6,000-strong unit comprised one third of Dahomey's army.

 

Their training was as tough and brutal as any modern army's. They learned to ignore pain, they spent weeks by themselves in the jungle with only a machete, and if they couldn't pass the final test — shoving a prisoner off a cliff to kill him — they were sent home. 

 

After the months of preparation they became exceptionally skilled fighters, feared throughout the region. They felt the same pressure women feel today, albeit in less dangerous fields: they had to fight twice as hard as men to prove their skill and ferocity. The unit's ethos demanded fighting to the death. Defeat was not an option.

 

Their status became almost holy. When they left the palace they would be preceded by a slave woman ringing a bell to alert people to get out of the road — and men to look away.

 

European witnesses described them again and again as superior to men while fighting. A horrified member of the French military later wrote about a battle where women soldiers chopped off their opponents' heads and penises with their machetes, bringing the body parts back home as trophies.

 

While they faced extraordinary violence, Dahomey's women warriors did escape the backbreaking domestic and field work most women were made to do at the time (and in many places still today). Due to the status they gained, their army experience became a form of emancipation. And they were legendary — with artwork created in their honor, depicting their feats.

 

In an era when women are still fighting for equality in their paychecks, their access to healthcare, and often simply physical safety, we today can look back to examples like the "Amazons" of Dahomey as evidence: ideas of women's "proper role" and male superiority are socially constructed. 

When a society decides to do things differently and gives women the opportunity — even to fight in battle, putting their physical strength and survival on the line — women prove their equal competence. Let's hope we'll have lots of new Amazons, this time in offices, boardrooms, governments, universities, labs, on the street and in the home!

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