I looked forward to this book with anticipation, and anxiety that it would turn out to be more dry or scholarly or… something, than I hoped.
On the second page of chapter One, I laughed aloud for the first time, and began to entertain and annoy my family by reading bits to them. It is that kind of book. One crazy colorful story after another. Toler’s scholarship is evident, and she writes to entertain, in clear energetic prose, laced with a dry and moderately dark sense of humor.
This is not a topic I’d read about intensively before. I had not heard of even half of these women, in particular the many non-Europeans. I didn’t even know that 800,000 women served in the Red Army in WWII.
Toler writes that although each of these women has been treated as an exception to the feminine rule, they are not all that rare, in fact, she found so many that she had to leave out most of them. “I began with hundreds of examples. I ended with thousands.” The density of so many characters shoulder to shoulder made me slow down to read no more than a dozen pages at a time, rationing it over several days. I’m always on the lookout for books that I can read in short bursts, at those times when I know I’m not likely to get more than fifteen minutes to myself. This is an ideal book for that purpose. A lot is packed into each story, and it worked well for me to read one, or three, and chew them over before dipping in again.
I expected geographical or chronological organization, but instead she loosely sorts them into themed chapters: mothers, daughters, widows, ruling queens, Joan of Arc comparables, cross-dressers. These are interleaved with four “checkpoint” chapters that each feature one woman who for some reason sits outside the more usual narratives. If you do want to read all the Chinese stories (for example) together, there is an excellent index.
All this abundant material overflows into digressive footnotes, often three to a page, some brief humorous asides, some with entire extra stories. Readers who hate footnotes could get away with ignoring them. Those who enjoy them will be well rewarded.
In many cases, Toler found fiction and fact inextricably wound together in her sources. She tells you which is likely to be which. She breaks down the deep-set binary between mothers and warriors, and the demonstrably false ideas that “mothers are natural pacifists,” and ‘if women ran the world there would be no more war.’ She observes many interesting and irritating patterns in how stories of women warriors have been framed and told around the world and through human history, beginning with Tomyris, in 530 BCE (though there is archaeological evidence much older).
For me, these stories provoke an uncomfortable mixture of admiration for the nerve and power of these women, and revulsion at the atrocities and ordinary slaughter of battle. Toler is not a great fan of war itself, and does not gloss over the horrors. Many of her subjects are thoroughly ruthless, and a lot of them do not die in bed.
Full disclosure: I have never met the author, but we are Internet-acquainted from our days working for Shelf Awareness, and since then, on social media, thanks to our many overlapping interests.