Women’s History Month: From the Desk of Mary Elizabeth Ailes

Mary Elizabeth Ailes is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She is the author of Courage and Grief: Women and Sweden’s Thirty Years’ War (Nebraska, 2018) and Military Migration and State Formation: The British Military Community in Seventeenth-Century Sweden (Nebraska, 2002).

Military history usually has focused upon men’s experiences. How rulers waged war, the leadership and tactical decisions of officers, and the soldiers’ experiences of the battlefield have all been central issues in this field. Particularly with regard to studying the pre-modern era, many historians in the past assumed that since women did not serve in armies, there was little to say about their connection to the battlefield. Over the years as I conducted research on various topics related to early modern European history, however, I ran across numerous examples of women and their connections to the era’s warfare. Women who helped supply and support armies on campaign, women who provided emotional support to their male relatives in the midst of a conflict, women who created another place in their families for children whose parents had been killed in the fighting, and women who took over the management and running of family farms and estates when their male relatives marched off to fight overseas. These discoveries provided a challenge to traditional historical interpretations of warfare and suggested that these issues were more complex than had previously been portrayed.

In my book Courage and Grief: Women and Sweden’s Thirty Years’ War, I decided to investigate these complexities in order to address the crucial roles that women played in seventeenth-century European military systems and the impact of warfare upon their lives. The book discusses the thousands of women who followed armies on campaign to provide vital domestic services as well as the experiences of women on the home front who were left behind to maintain the economy.

On campaign, women provided support services to troops. In the early seventeenth century, no European government possessed the administrative or financial structures to consistently supply and care for armies in the field. To fill these essential needs, soldiers and officers brought female relatives with them, or picked up women along the way. The women fulfilled responsibilities such as acquiring and preparing food, washing and mending clothes, carrying and safeguarding their male relatives’ possessions, and maintaining households. These women experienced opportunities to acquire wealth through plunder, see new places, and manage their families’ affairs. At the same time, they also experienced all the difficulties of life on campaign. Many died from diseases that ran rampant through military camps, others were injured or killed when they were swept into the fighting, and some became prisoners of war when enemy forces captured them.

Women also played critical roles in supporting the military effort on the home front. In the case of the Swedish kingdom, the army consisted of soldiers conscripted from the peasantry that were supplemented with mercenaries hired from abroad. As the countryside was depleted of men who were conscripted into the army, peasant women took on heavier and heavier responsibilities to run their family farms, and to meet the crown’s ever increasing demand for taxes and resources to support the war. Officers’ wives also were impacted by the war as some stayed at home to manage their families’ affairs and lands. This situation provided these women with new opportunities and responsibilities to exert financial independence and to fulfill roles as the head of their households. Many women asserted these new responsibilities through petitioning the crown to acquire land promised to their husbands, to gain access to their husbands’ back pay and pensions, and to receive reimbursement of their husbands’ unpaid military expenses. These petitions served as a basis for policies that the crown created regarding military compensation and support for military dependents.

While women in early modern Europe did not serve in the military, they played central roles in sustaining troops on the battlefield, and in maintaining the state’s economic base on the home front. In celebration of Women’s History Month, I think it is important to remember that women’s history is tied closely into even the most traditionally male oriented fields such as military history. Women’s experiences should not be seen in isolation, but instead as part of a coherent whole. Studying women’s involvement in warfare helps us to gain a better understanding of how wars were fought and how leaders throughout time have depended upon the support of all of their people (both male and female) to support and play roles in their states’ military agendas.

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