The best books about women in war

Pamela D. Toler Author Of Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
By Pamela D. Toler

Who am I?

I've been fascinated by the concept of women warriors ever since I was a nerdy kid who read every biography of famous women I could get my hands—and I've been collecting their stories almost as long. Today I write historical non-fiction that puts women back into the story, whether it's women warriors, civil war nurses, or groundbreaking journalists. The impact of this can be profound. When we re-introduce overlooked populations into history, we get a very different story.


I wrote...

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

By Pamela D. Toler,

Book cover of Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

What is my book about?

In Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, historian Pamela Toler tells the stories of historical women for whom battle was not a metaphor, using both well-known and obscure examples, drawn from the ancient world through the twentieth century and from Asia and Africa as well as from the West. Looking at specific examples of historical women warriors, she considers why they went to war, the ways in which their presence on the ramparts or the battlefield has been erased from history, and the patterns and parallels that emerge when we look at similar stories across historical periods and geographical boundaries.

Women warriors are often assumed to be historical anomalies—Joan of Arc, not G.I. Jane. By comparing the stories of individual women across historical periods and geographical boundaries, Toler uncovers a different story. Women have always fought, not in spite of being women but because they are women.

The books I picked & why

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Warrior Queens: The Legends and the Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations to War

By Antonia Fraser,

Book cover of Warrior Queens: The Legends and the Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations to War

Why this book?

In many ways, Antonia Fraser's Warrior Queens spurred my long-term interest in women warriors. Fraser not only introduced me to historical women I had never heard of, but to the idea that women had fought as a normal part of the army in far more epochs and far more civilizations than is normally appreciated. Fraser looks at her warring queens as a group as well as individually, trying to understand the tropes that (mostly male) historians have used both to make them bigger than life and to demean them as women. A fascinating read that has held up well over time.


The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

By Adrienne Mayor,

Book cover of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

Why this book?

Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons is a breathtaking exploration of women warriors of the ancient world.  Working with myth, ancient historical sources, and modern archeological finds, Mayor draws links between story and history, making a strong argument for the nomadic armed horsewomen of the ancient steppes as a model for the Amazons of myth. She ends the book with a quick look at ancient women warriors across the Eurasian steppes from the Caucasus, through Central Asia, and into China. The Amazons is both scholarly and readable—not as easy to pull off as you might think.


Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman's Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front

By Mary Jennings Hegar,

Book cover of Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman's Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front

Why this book?

In 2012, former Air National Guard pilot and Purple Heart recipient Mary Jennings Hegar joined forces with the ACLU to challenge the ban that kept American women out of ground combat units. In Shoot Like A Girl, Hegar tells the story of the career that led her to that point.

Hegar’s love for flying, her commitment to her job, and her bonds with teammates are vividly portrayed. The incident for which she received the Purple Heart–her helicopter shot down in Afghanistan with wounded men aboard—is gripping. But the heart of the book is the systemic sexism Hegar faced throughout her career. This is a powerful account of one woman's determination to serve in the face of acts of casual prejudice, active hazing, sexual assault—and institutional cover-ups.


Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe

By John A. Lynn II,

Book cover of Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe

Why this book?

This is one of the first scholarly studies of women in and around the battlefield. It is notable for its depiction of women who were active in warfare who were not queens or larger-than-life heroines. It also includes what I think is hands-down the best discussion of the uncomfortable relationship between military history and gender studies that plagues all attempts to write about women in war.


The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women

By Nancy Marie Brown,

Book cover of The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women

Why this book?

In 2017, Swedish bioarchaeologists announced the discovery that an iconic Viking warrior known as the Birka man was in fact the Birka woman. In The Real Valkyrie, Nancy Marie Brown takes the reader on a deeply researched and richly imagined exploration of what life might have been like for the Birka woman, whom she names Hervor. She asks new questions of sagas, chronicles, and archeological sources—and leads the reader through what those sources can tell us. She introduces us to a broader version of the Viking world, and to many powerful Viking women who have been previously dismissed as fiction. In the process, she upends much of what we have traditionally believed about Viking women.  This is a complex, important, and delightful read.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in women, vikings, and Afghanistan War?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about women, vikings, and Afghanistan War.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, Women in the Viking Age, and Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army if you like this list.