Most women fought in wars because they decided to, not because someone let them. The modern armed services can be seen as a concatenation of one law and reg after another to keep women out of combat, where they would otherwise go, until the 21st C unwound this.
“The first history”, Herodotus’, includes the record of woman warriors. There is Tomyris of the Massagetae, a horse tribe of the Sea of Grass, who defeated and killed Cyrus the Great (Kurush), and Artemisia I of Halikarnassos, queen regnant and satrap for Xerxes, who was so effectual the Hellenes had a huge bounty on her head even before Salamis.
You can find a lot of female warleaders, from Æthelflæd of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, to Countess Matilda of Tuscany. (You can find them in, say, Tim Newark’s Woman Warlords) But instead, let’s talk about cultures where women “were allowed combat roles” – cultures where woman warriors were not considered odd. Then we’ll discuss cultures that couldn’t stop the women.
Woman warriors were completely normal among the Sarmatians/Scythians/Sakas who left their kurgan burials across the steppes. A large number of skeletons that could be sexed as female by the pelvis were buried with weapons. Normally weapon burials are assumed to be male. In modern days, a number of “assumed male” burials have been reconsidered, notably the Golden Prince. ( Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Chieftain or Warrior Priestess?” in Archaeology, Sep/Oct 1997) The female headdress should have been a tip-off, but weapons meant it just couldn’t be a girl! So in this culture one in five provably female burials were warriors, including the one buried with a young male across her feet for a good time in the afterlife. (Sulimirski, The Sarmatians) That these people lived where the classical Greeks said the Amazons did seems a bit beyond coincidence, no matter how the Greeks warped their stories later.
Frankish women sometimes led their own warband (scara). A notable one was Perhalta, modernized as Bertha of the Big Foot, mother of Charlemagne.
Irish women were warriors when they wanted to be, and a big push by Christian missionaries was to get them banned from the battlefield.
A number of women fought in the armies of Mohammed’s wars and those of his successors.
It was pretty normal for young women of the Norse to go viking with their brothers. We find this mentioned off-hand in the Volsunga Saga. Shield maidens are scattered through the different sagas, and the reports of foreigners like Saxo Grammaticus.
The later Icelandic law limiting women from warrior roles obviously would not be necessary if they weren’t taking up the sword. Rather, the Christian Grey Goose laws meant to restrict them to only being avengers when there were no brothers to take up the feud, and never warriors because they just wished to be.
In The Encyclopedia of Amazons, Salmonson notes in different articles when women going to war seems to be popular. She says there were a large number of “pucelles” fighting in the Hundred Years Wars, of which Joan of Arc is only the best remembered. “Viragos” fought in the English Civil War, and she lists many Chinese examples besides the Trung sisters of Vietnam. She notes the Kalakeshetra sari drape developed bifurcation so women could ride horses to war, and more easily mount the ladder to a howdah on a war elephant.
Woman warriors were notably common among the Shan of Burma. They had a number of strong queens from the 11th C forward, but the British often refered to “Shan Amazons.”
“Women took to the battlefield in early military encounters with British colonialists. At the time of the First Burma War in 1824, the courage of ethnic Shan women won the admiration of a British officer, Major Snodgrass, who wrote about the 1825 battle of Wethtikan in his book Narrative of the Burmese War: “These warrior women wore armor and as they rode their horses bravely, spoke words of encouragement to the soldiers…one of the fair Amazons also received a fatal bullet in the breast.” (http://www2.irrawaddy.org/print_article.php?art_id=8907)
Colonialists also had to deal with the amazon units in Dahomey, which they said were as brave and effective as any West African warriors. When they got guns they were usually the best shots.
Do we even have to mention the common weapon training of Japanese samurai women so they could defend their homes while the men were away? They, too, had their professional warriors, of whom the best known was Tomoe Goezen.
Samoan villages still have a young woman “greeter” who in instances still carries a war club until she ascertains who the strangers are and their intentions. Hawai’ian chiefesses would lead their own warriors, especially in defensive actions.
In North America, women could generally be warriors if they wished. My favorite is Buffalo Calf Road Woman of the Cheyenne (as told in Sweet Medicine).
Then there’s the warriors in travesty.
A number served in the Napoleonic Wars, like Nadezhda Durova, daughter of Gen. Durov, as Alexander Alexandrovich, later with the personal approval of the tsar (her autobiography was translated into English as The Cavalry Maiden). Some, like Mme Sans-Gêne, served openly as women after their disguise fell through.
There’s a whole book, Patriots in Disguise, about women who served in uniform during the American Civil War, on both sides. These range from “Daughters of the Regiment” who did sharp-shooting to those only discovered in the 20th C when their battlefield graves were excavated – besides those who left memoirs.
Salmonson also remarks that young women in America, like young men, ran away to join the Army in the Mexican-American War in 1848 to heal a broken heart. Since men could still be modest about bodily functions and there were no “short arm inspections,” it wasn’t too hard to pass.
The Great War seems to have been the last stand of the secret amazon, like one whose grave can only note that she fought in the uniform of an Austrian officer.
In WW2, women fought for the USSR openly, and amid the various Resistance groups.
So, please, don’t believe anyone who says there were never really any woman warriors. There are hundreds whose stories have survived or surfaced. We can only conjecture how many thousands or tens of thousands lived happily violent lives only to never be recorded for posterity.