Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly


On her book Beauty or Beast? The Woman Warrior in the German Imagination from the Renaissance to the Present

Cover Interview of December 21, 2010

The wide angle

How I came to write the book was that I was asked about 10 years ago to give a lecture about real women who masqueraded as men and who took part in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) and in other wars in early modern Europe.

It proved very easy to find information about historical women who participated in war in English, French, Dutch, and Spanish-speaking territories from the 16th to the mid-18th centuries—whether ordinary women who masqueraded as men and took part in actual combat or aristocratic women who ‘held the fort’ in their husbands’ absence, commanded troops, or directed sieges.

Finding real German women combatants proved much more difficult—but instead I came on a wealth of artistic depictions.  And then I realised that these depictions did not stop in 1700 but went right up to the present day.

Some of the most famous works in German literature—Friedrich Schiller’s play The Maid of Orleans (1801) or Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea (1806) have warrior women as central figures.  Germania, the personification of the German nation, is depicted as an ever more warlike woman over the course of the 19th century, culminating in the painting from 1914 on the cover of the book.

Not only are these depictions extremely prevalent, but many of them are officially venerated canonical monuments of German culture—for instance Wagner’s Brünnhilde (1856) or Klimt’s famous paintings of Judith (1901 and 1909).  The terrorist Ulrike Meinhof (1934-76) is still today compared to the biblical Judith and the lead singer of the popular German rock band ‘Wir sind Helden’ has the stage name of Judith Holofernes.

The woman warrior is not the same thing as the woman killer.  The warrior does not set out to kill of her own accord nor does she ask others to do her killing for her.  Like any warrior in any age, she bears arms on behalf of a cause, a city, or a country.  She steps out boldly and publicly, holding her weapon.  She is authorized to bear arms by some higher male authority—whether God, a religious leader, the king, her father, her brother, or her (usually absent) husband.  But, though she is fighting for a good cause, and even mandated by God Himself, she is still inherently dangerous.  And this danger goes beyond what one might call the ‘normal’ danger thought to be inherent in all women as forces of chaos and instability.

By taking up arms, the woman warrior is no longer automatically physically weaker than a man and so cannot easily be brought to heel by being made to fear physical or sexual violence.  She has to be tamed and this taming is carried out either by sexual means—by rape or defloration—by death, or both.

Sexual taming and defloration are built into the myths about the Amazons.  Germanic and Nordic myth also tells how the warrior woman Brünhild is deflowered and thereby made submissive.

But this does not mean that the woman who has been tamed can be allowed to live.  An ordinary woman who is merely rebellious can, if brought to heel, be turned into an obedient wife and mother.  But a warrior woman may simply be too strong to tame in this way.  What man wants a woman in his bed who has the potential to kill him while he sleeps, as Judith in the Bible does with Holofernes, and who, perhaps, already has blood on her hands?

So women warriors cannot be given the option of becoming wives—they have to die.  This can happen on the battlefield but much more often the solution adopted is to have the woman carry out the killing herself, which is at once both a particularly exquisite punishment and a neat way to restore order.

Another point is that, when a woman puts on trousers and masquerades as a man, she is doubly dangerous.  How can a man guard against her, if he can’t even see that she is this unnerving thing, a woman?  So the woman warrior remains visible as a woman either by wearing a skirt or by revealing her female body at an opportune moment.

Schiller knew very well that the historical Joan of Arc was a determined cross-dresser.  But he puts her into a skirt—which is also the standard costume for Wagner’s Valkyrie Brünnhilde.

The skirt indicates that the woman’s assumption of the warrior role is limited in time and/or has only come about because of some exceptional circumstance.  And so she can be allowed to die a noble death.  Wearing trousers and masquerading as a man makes her a much more ambivalent and dangerous figure.