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The Women of War

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at York U chapter.

November 11th has passed, and we are left to reflect on the brave people who served in wars to protect our freedom. Wars are typically viewed as something male and masculine, but where would they be without the hard work of women? Whether they served as spies or nurses, these battles would be lost without a feminine touch. While there are countless ladies serving or who have served, it’s time to remember just a few of them.

Nancy Wake, “The White Mouse”


Served in the second World War

Guerilla Fighter

Sometimes referred to as “The White Mouse,” Nancy was bold and bigger than life. She and her husband joined the French resistance after France’s surrender to Germany in 1940. They served as couriers for two years, smuggling out Allied servicemen as well as Jewish refugees and contraband supplies. The Gestapo had suspicions and often watched. Eventually Nancy fled France, fearing for her life, but not before gaining a reputation of constantly evading capture, hence her nickname. At one point, she had been put at the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list, dead or alive, and with a reward of five million francs. She was captured once, and refused to give up any of her secrets. In 1943, she made it to Britain, where she was trained in various intelligence and combat programs. She was later remarked to be “a quick learner, a fast shot, and could ‘put all the men to shame.’” After her training, she fought her way to the top, becoming a high-ranking officer in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive. Nancy was responsible for organizing and allocating arms to 7,500 men. She was airdropped back into France to carry out her orders, including carrying out multiple attacks on the Gestapo. She even offered to personally execute a German spy that her men were too frightened to do. Perhaps her most incredible and mind-boggling act was killing an SS guard about to give away her and her crew, shocking even herself, or riding a 380 mile round trip on a bicycle — through German checkpoints, no less — to transfer a message in 72 hours.

Nancy’s bravery came at a cost: she lost her husband, which she didn’t even find out until after, and was imprisoned and interrogated for days at another point. However, she saved the lives of thousands, and was awarded the George Medal, the Medal of Freedom, the Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, the Officier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, the Companion to the Order of Australia, the Croix de Guerre, the Médaille de la Résistance Française, the 1939-1945 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal 1939-1945, and the War Medal 1939-1945. She is also the most decorated servicewoman of the second World War.

Public domain image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial





Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Year of birth approximately 1839 – year of death unknown

Served in American Civil War

Union Spy

Mary was born into racist circumstances, but overcame these barriers to lead a fulfilling life full of courage. She was a slave working on a Virginia plantation owned by a hardware merchant named John Van Lew. When he died, she was freed by Van Lew’s wife and daughter, but continued working for the family as a paid servant following a stint at the Quaker School for Negroes. When the Civil War broke out, Mary was asked by Van Lew’s daughter, Elizabeth, to become a spy for the Union. Interestingly enough, she also was a spy, and was fiercely abolitionist. Mary began working for the Confederate White House as a servant. Due to her race, she was largely ignored and viewed as incompetent. She was able to overhear conversations and memorize them as she performed her duties, as no one really cared enough to censor themselves around her. She was also reported to have read confidential documents left lying around, as she was believed to be illiterate. Towards the end of the war, her employers eventually caught on to her espionage. Mary fled, but not before an unsuccessful attempt to burn down the White House. Unfortunately, little is known about her postwar. She did found a school for former slaves and taught them, but nearly every other record, including her death date, was destroyed by the U.S. government.

It took a long time for Mary’s intelligence and hard work to be properly recognized. She was eventually inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1995.




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Lori Piestawa

Hopi name: Kocha-Hon-Mana

Tribe: Hopi

Birth year debated: 1979/80/81 – 2003

Served in Iraq War


To a modern woman, perhaps Lori is the most relatable on this list, and perhaps the saddest entry. She was young, bright and a mother. Inspired by her veteran father, who had served in the Vietnam War, Lori registered with the U.S. army in 2001 to better provide for her two children. She was placed in the 507th Maintenance Company to help with maintenance and repairs, alongside several other women including Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson. Her company traveled with a convoy through the Iraqi desert, but got lost and drove into an ambush near Nasiriyah. Through a “torrent of fire”, Lori drove one of the company’s Humvees at high speeds, attempting to escape gunfire. They were eventually hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and hurtled into a nearby tractor trailer. While Jessica and Shoshana survived, Lori passed away shortly due to severe head injuries. She was the first American woman to die in Iraq, and the first U.S. Native American woman to be killed in combat.

Lori’s sudden and tragic death was not the end of her legacy. Her courage inspired great change for the Indigenous community. Grassroots movements brought various issues to attention, including changing the mountain Squaw Peak to reflect Lori’s bravery, renaming is Piestawa Peak. Countless memorials have been created in her honor, including a plaque with her name at White Sands Missile Range, and another at Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial. The Grand Canyon State Games organizers now have an annual Lori Piestewa National Native American Games to reflect her love of sports. She was posthumously promoted to Specialist and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal.








Georgina Fane Pope

1862 – 1938

Served in South African War and first World War


Not all women of war are spies and soldiers. It’s a well-known fact that many served as nurses, and Georgina is one of them. Ever since she was young, she expressed her desire to be a military nurse, and was the first in many aspects. She was the first nurse appointed to serve in the South African War, the first non-permanent nurse for the Army, the first permanent nurse for the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC), the first matron for the CAMC, and the first Canadian military nurse to get the Royal Red Cross Class 1 Medal. She served as a “nursing sister” during the South African War with 11 other nurses, and was promoted to “superintendent of the first contingent” and “senior sister” of the third. Her political activism encouraged the CAMC to create a female nursing service, paving the path for future women. Beyond her regular nursing duties, where she served hundreds of ill and wounded soldiers, Georgina also assisted in training civilian nurses for back-ups in case of war. After a bombing of one of a hospital where she worked, she suffered shell shock/neurasthenia (now known as PTSD) and returned to Canada.

Georgina is attributed, along with some of her nursing sisters, in integrating women in the Canadian military as nurses. She lived her life raising women to do their part in the wars, and was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal, the Royal Red Cross Class 1 Medal, the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and has a bust in the Valiants Memorial in Ottawa.




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Cathay Williams

Pseudonym: William Cathay

Birth year debated between 1842 and 1844 – death year debated between 1893 and 1900

Served in American Civil War

Soldier, cook, washer

Cathay, like Mary Bowser, was born a slave. Due to her status, she was forced into the military to serve as cook and washer and traveled all across America, seeing the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Pea Ridge.  What makes Cathay truly incredible was the fact that she re-enlisted in the Army. Instead of relying on others, she decided her best course of action was to provide for herself through the military. At that time, women were prohibited from serving. That didn’t faze her, as she disguised herself as a man and used the name “William Cathay”. She served in the 38th Infantry, which was one of four all-African-American units. For two years, she worked in a garrison despite contracting smallpox shortly after enlisting. Eventually, in 1968, her secret was discovered. The post surgeon, during an examination, found out that William was actually Cathay, and she was discharged due to “disability.”

Cathay wasn’t the only female soldier who dressed as a man. It’s estimated that 400 women followed the same path, but Cathay is the only recorded African-American female soldier during the American Civil War, and the first African-American woman to enlist. She is also the only known female Buffalo Soldier. She has a bust in the Richard Allen Cultural Center and a monument bench at the National Infantry Museum. Cathay wanted to earn a living and support herself, but wound up fighting gendered barriers and making history.





With the reflection of courageous men must come those of the women who were fearless enough to tackle war, even with its gendered barriers. Freedom and liberty would not be the same without them, so it’s crucial to remember their efforts. This Remembrance Day, be sure to take an extra moment to thank all the women of war.


Kaitlin is a bilingual (French and English) writer originating from friendly Thunder Bay. They are in their seventh year at York University, where they study professional writing with an emphasis on journalism. They live with their partner of nine years and their cat, Tessa. They started writing with a passion and a poem that eventually won third in a contest 12 years ago, and started editing not too long after. When not at the keyboard, Kaitlin can be found reading, cooking, playing video games, or holding Tessa. Their favorite movies are scary and their favorite television genre is reality. Kaitlin's passions include copyediting, anything scary or spooky and adding to her collection of dolls, magnets and cups. Their favorite part of writing/editing is giving others a chance to share their story or achieve their dreams and offering insight on "the little things." Some of Kaitlin's favorite topics reflect on their personal life, including health/disabilities, fringe topics and social issues.
Sam is a Cinema & Media Studies student at York University. She is passionate about LGBTQ+ issues, mental health, and intersectional feminism. She loves dogs and grilled cheese and knows way too much about pop culture.