The idea of a woman with the potential to kill causes deep unease

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

This book examines the huge number of artistic representations of women warriors that exist in German from the Renaissance to the present—on the stage, in the opera house, on the page, and in paintings and prints. Some of these depict historical figures, but in most cases they are re-imaginings of women warriors to be found in mythology, ancient and medieval history, and the Bible.

These ancient sources of western culture tell stories about the woman warrior because she is, by definition, a transgressive and therefore frightening figure. She leaves her proper female sphere, takes up a weapon, goes to war and, in some cases, even kills. She may be doing this from the best of motives, she may be mandated by God, the gods, or her own people. But the idea of a woman with the potential to kill causes deep unease.

The woman with the sword, whether Amazon, Judith, Valkyrie, or heroic maiden, plays a central role in German cultural consciousness from at least the 15th up to the first half of the 20th century. It would be possible to show that many of those imaginings are just as numerous in the Middle Ages.

These representations of the woman warrior are of women by men and so convey male desires and male fears.

The male fear of a woman who is as strong as a man, who cannot be tamed because she is holding a weapon, who has the power to kill and who perhaps has already killed is very deep-seated. At the same time, she is deeply fascinating—provided the man can tame her. She is both the embodiment of beauty and an object of desire. And she is beastly, the personification of temptation, of duplicity, and of crazed violence, the object of fear and loathing.

“Wearing a 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.”

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.

December 22, 2010

A close-up

There is one woman warrior of ancient provenance who kills the general of the foreign army who is threatening her people, helps to raise a siege and bring about a signal victory against vastly superior odds, and who exceptionally does not die. This woman is the Old Testament figure of Judith.

Judith bravely leaves the besieged city of Bethulia when the men are too cowardly to do so. She uses her beauty to ensnare the enemy general Holofernes, and then decapitates him, bringing his head back as a trophy. She lives on to a ripe old age, a chaste widow.

This story already exercised great fascination in the Middle Ages, but takes on new life with the Reformation. From that point up to today Judith is constantly present to the German imagination, presenting the problem of what to do with a female member of society who has killed a man. From the 16th to the 18th century, Judith was thought of as God’s instrument. The idea was that, in a crisis, God can and will use even such a weak instrument as a woman to carry out his plan and save his chosen people.

But how did Holofernes fall into such a deep sleep that he never noticed Judith taking his sword off the bedpost? What happened between them in the tent?

The Bible and the early modern dramatists gloss over this point. The 19th century, however, was convinced that the pair had had sex before she killed him. A favourite fantasy of the 19th century was that the widow Judith had remained a virgin: she beheads and castrates Holofernes because he has raped her. According to the playwright Friedrich Hebbel the heroine of his play Judith (1840) desired the rape and is probably pregnant as a result.

“Women themselves only begin to have their say on representations of them from the second half of the 18th century—which is when secular literature in German by women began to be produced in quantity.”


And lastly we come to Freud. Freud was convinced that women are castrated beings who realize as young girls that they lack a penis and then spend the rest of their lives longing for this organ. They can only achieve wholeness with the help of a being who has a penis, a man, and only when this being is kind enough to give them a child.

Freud reveals the source of his supposed knowledge about women in his famous lecture on ‘Femininity’. He ends it by telling his listeners how to learn more about women: ‘If you want to know more about femininity, then question your own experiences in life or else turn to the poets’.

Freud was interested in literature and, like any German-speaking intellectual of his day, was acquainted with a wide sweep of the German texts I write about. Schiller, whose Joan of Arc is the model for many 19th century portrayals, was Freud’s favourite German author. And Schiller, like Kleist and Hebbel, did indeed think that women were inferior beings, that they should tend the hearth and stay in the nursery and not enter into the public sphere, that they could never rise to genius and were not capable of running their own affairs.

In the early modern period, with its one-sex model of the human being, it was perfectly possible for women to execute exceptional deeds of physical bravery and emotional toughness. The viragos were exceptions to the rule of female inferiority. But from the 18th century on, it is impossible for women to rise up the sliding scale closer to the perfection of the man.

From the 18th century on, women are of their nature different, weaker, passive, receptive, not creative, irrational, emotional, etc. In other words, just as Freud believed, women are beings who lack something. Freud uses Hebbel’s play Judith as an example in his 1918 essay on ‘The Taboo of Virginity’. Reading him in his place in the chronology of German literature, art, and thought, you cannot avoid the conclusion that Freud did indeed get many of his ideas about women from literature.

At the end of the long line of late 18th- and 19th-century literature and art, women are made whole and complete beings for a brief span by taking up the sword and becoming phallic women—but, becoming phallic, they have to die.

Women themselves only begin to have their say on the representations of them from the second half of the 18th century—which is when secular literature in German by women began to be produced in quantity.

They do not at this early date engage with male imaginings about Amazons, Joan of Arc or Judith. Instead, they invent fictional women who take part in wars in the real world. Late 18th century women imagine a space for themselves in which they can think the unthinkable, even if they sometimes feel impelled ultimately to reinforce patriarchal norms. They use the relatively new form of the novel to imagine women putting on trousers and taking part in war and revolution, acting in a way that society would never allow a virtuous woman to act in real life.

It is only when women have achieved some measure of emancipation at the end of the 19th century that they begin to examine such figures as Judith and the Amazons for themselves—moving beyond the beauty-or-beast dichotomy, and wringing some emancipatory potential out of the figures of the woman warrior.

© 2010 Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly
Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly Beauty or Beast? The Woman Warrior in the German Imagination from the Renaissance to the Present Oxford University Press 264 pages, 9 1/4 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0199558230

Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly is Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Besides Beauty or Beast?, featured in her Rorotoko interview, her books include Melancholie und die melancholische Landschaft (1978), Triumphal Shews. Tournaments at German-Speaking Courts in their European Context 1560-1730 (1992), and Court Culture in Dresden from Renaissance to Baroque (2002). She is also the editor of The Cambridge History of German Literature (1997), co-editor of Spectaculum Europaeum. Theatre and Spectacle in Europe, (1580-1750) (with Pierre Béhar, 1999) and of Europa Triumphans. Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe (with J.R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, 2004).

Cover Interview of
December 22, 2010