Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar: Swedish Corporal

Museum Exhibit featuring Ulrika in uniform.

Museum Exhibit featuring Ulrika in uniform.

Happy Pride Month!

In America, June is celebrated as Gay Pride Month; and so I will spend a few weeks in observance covering women who fall under the LGBT umbrella.

Our first subject is Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar, and right up front, the pronouns are a bit tricky for this one. Ulrika was definitely assigned female gender at birth; but lived in a time which didn’t have very advanced thought regarding transgender individuals. Judging from some of her choices, it’s within the realm of possibility that, had Ulrika lived in the 21st century, she may have identified as a transman. But she said nothing of the sort (that we know of) while she was alive; and I don’t want to retroactively apply an identity to someone without more evidence than what I’ve got. So even though Ulrika might have been a transman, I’m going use the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ (if you have evidence that this isn’t the case, please use the Suggestion Box and let me know!).

Another issue is language: there’s a ton out there about Ulrika… in Swedish. I’ve had to rely on English-language resources, and so some translation errors might have crept across. I apologize in advance for those!

Also, I could find precisely zero pictures of Ulrika; who apparently never sat for a portrait and has not been drawn or depicted in popular media since. I’ve tried to find relevant art, but such was also a bit difficult. So please enjoy this survey of 17th and 18th century Swedish art, which I hope gives you a feel for the time and place in which Ulrika lived!

Okay, enough preamble. Let’s get to this week’s Extraordinary Lady!

Per Stålhammar, family patriarch.

Per Stålhammar, family patriarch.

Ulrika Eleonara Stålhammar was born into a military family in 1688 in Sweden, the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Johan Stålhammar and the grand-daughter of Per Stålhammar, who both enjoyed distinguished military careers. Johan had no sons, and four other daughters along with Ulrika.

As a child, Ulrika disdained domestic, feminine pursuits – while her sisters were content to crochet and embroider, Ulrika preferred to be out in the dirt and sunshine. She particularly enjoyed riding horses, and was reportedly good enough at hunting that more than one person commented how unlucky she was to have been born female.

At age 14, in 1702, Ulrika’s father retired from the military. Unfortunately, a series of bad decisions led the Stålhammar family to near-ruin by the time Johan died in 1711. Though Swedish law at the time allowed for women to inherit property, Johan Stålhammar had died with virtually nothing to pass on to his daughters. They relied for a time on the charity of relatives, but that could not last forever. As a result, Ulrika’s sisters one by one found themselves marrying under financial duress, to men they would not otherwise have chosen, simply for economic security.

Ulrika, witnessing her sisters’ misery, swore she would not share their fates. And in 1713, she raided her father’s old wardrobe, stole a horse, and ran away to join the army under the name Vilhelm Edstedt (sometimes spelled Wilhelm).

17th Century Swedish Dragoons.

17th Century Swedish Dragoons.

At the time, Sweden was a decade into the Great Northern War. The war would last yet another decade, and would determine who got to run Sweden and then-Swedish territories. King Karl XII of Sweden and his allies were facing down none other than Peter the Great and his allies. The war would end with Sweden’s defeat in 1721, but at the time of Ulrika’s enlistment, Sweden was still giving it their all. As a result, the recruitment officers probably didn’t look too hard at this young, eager enlistee.

Interestingly enough, Sweden seems to have an informal tradition of women cross-dressing in order to go to war. Brita Olofsdottr dressed as a man to join the army in the 16th century, and several other women are known to have participated in the Great Northern War dressed as men: Margareta von Ascheberg, Margareta Elisabeth Roos and Anna Jöransdotter, whose story became public in 1714 and foreshadows Ulrika’s.

Ulrika served as an artillerist, which meant she got to shoot the cannons (fun!). By all accounts, she had an admirable military record, serving for 13 years (I really wanted to find out more about what she did during her career, but this is where I ran into the problem of ‘everything’s written in Swedish’).

Margareta von Ascheberg, another woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Great Northern War.

Margareta von Ascheberg, another woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Great Northern War.

In 1716, Ulrika (living as Vilhelm) met a housemaid by the name of Maria Lönnman. The two fell madly in love, and were quickly married after a whirlwind courtship.

By all accounts, Ulrika and Maria made each other very happy. Everyone knows ‘that’ couple – they’ve been together forever, and just seem to get each other. Ulrika and Maria were that couple to their friends and associates.

However, their happiness was not to last. In 1724, one of Ulrika’s sisters, Katarina, learned that her sister was living as a man and had married a woman. Being a devout Christian, she was abjectly horrified and threatened her sister with exposure, imprisonment and damnation.

Possibly out of shame and possibly simply self-preservation, Ulrika swore to Katarina that she would repent, leave the army and confess her sins. Which she did, though it took her awhile to get around to it. She left the army in 1726, and wrote a letter of confession to the Swedish government in 1728. At some point, she revealed her biological sex to Maria. Which might have been shocking to some women, but I suspect Maria had figured out by now what was going on. Maria decided Ulrika’s gender didn’t matter, and she would rather stay with the person she loved.

Ulrika and Maria were called to stand trial. The judges, after consulting their Bibles, eventually charged Ulrika with violating the order of God by living as a man and with making a mockery of the sacrament of marriage by marrying a woman. After Maria swore she did not know Ulrika’s true sex when they married, but still chose to stay with her after discovering the truth, the court decided to charge her with the lesser ‘crime’ of homosexuality. Interestingly enough, no one seemed angry that Ulrika had joined the army under false pretenses – indeed, her military record stood in her favor.

Another Ulrika Eleonora, who was briefly Queen of Sweden during our Ulrika's military service.

Another Ulrika Eleonora, who was briefly Queen of Sweden during our Ulrika’s military service.

Sweden actually had very few laws against homosexuality at the time; though largely because the fear was that speaking publicly about homosexuality would somehow inspire people to want gay sex. While male homosexuality had been a crime in the country since at least the early 1600s, female homosexuality was only outlawed in 1714, when Anna Jöransdotter, mentioned above, was found to have married a woman.

Of especial (and possibly prurient) interest to the judges was whether or not Ulrika and Maria had ever consummated their marriage. Both women denied ever engaging in sexual relations with each other. Maria said she had believed ‘Vilhelm’ to be impotent; and, as she was a rape survivor, was quite content to live without sex.

Yes, it’s possible they were lying – but even if they were, there’s no way to prove it. Ulrika underwent a medical examination as part of the trial, and the physician reported that Ulrika appeared female, except for not having developed breasts. So it’s quite possible that Ulrika suffered from some hormonal condition, a side effect of which meant she did not have a sex drive. Or she was asexual. Or, yes, lying to save herself and the woman she loved.

Ulrika and Maria were able to produce a long parade of witnesses, who testified not only to the couples’ enduring love for each other, but also Ulrika’s devoted service to her country.

A modern female Swedish soldier. Ulrika would be proud!

A modern female Swedish soldier. Ulrika would be proud!

In the end, the judges were inclined towards leniency, in large part because they believed Ulrika and Maria had a chaste relationship. To the judges, the fact that Ulrika and Maria lived without sex made their love a pure, spiritual union – better, in some ways, than a traditional heterosexual marriage. Ulrika was sentenced to one month in prison and Maria to ten days. The king at the time, King Frederick, had taken a personal interest in the case and said that Ulrika did not need to serve her sentence in one of the worse prisons and could enjoy a few comforts.

However, in a very sad turn (as if being put on trial simply for loving someone wasn’t sad enough), the two women were made to live apart from each other. Ulrika lived with relatives at a place called Hultsjö manor; while Maria found work with one of Ulrika’s aunts at another estate. I tried to find out where these manors were, but I couldn’t figure out how far apart the women were made to live. I hope it wasn’t too far, and that they at least got to see each other on occasion. Ulrika and Maria did keep in constant contact via letter; though, and it’s obvious that even distance didn’t dim their devotion to each other.

Ulrika died in 1733, at age 45. Maria would work as a housekeeper until her death in 1761, and I could find no indication she ever married again.

In modernity, Ulrika has become a hero to the Swedish people, particularly those identify along the LGBT spectrum. I found reference to a play which was either titled “The Amazon of Charles XII” or in which Ulrika is called that. But, again, more Swedish.

Today, Sweden welcomes female enlistees into it’s armed forces. In 1995, the country became the third to offer a type of civil union to same-sex couples; and in 2009 formally legalized same-sex marriage. That same year, the Church of Sweden agreed that same-sex weddings could be performed by ordained clergy in their churches.


Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures

Rad History


Mino: The Dahomey Amazons

A Mino

A Mino


Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 3!

Today, we’re going to talk about a group of women often referred as the ‘Dahomey Amazons.’

As hard as I tried, I could not find the personal history of any of the Dahomey Amazons, and found only one or two names. So I’m going to depart a little bit from the format of this blog, and talk about a group of women rather than an individual woman.

The Fon are an ethnic group of Africans, living mostly in what is now Benin and Nigeria (the coastal region along the southwestern curve of Africa). In or around 1600, a Fon leader founded what would eventually become known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. Being situated on the western coast of Africa, Dahomey was uniquely positioned to deal with European slavers. And this they did, becoming both fabulously wealthy and deeply resented by the neighboring African kingdoms.

To meet the demand for slaves, Dahomey developed both a martial culture and an economy largely based on fighting other nations, kidnapping civilians and then selling them to Portuguese, Dutch or English slavers (The fact that Africans participated in the slave trade should in no way be taken as an excuse for slavery as a whole. There’s no justification for slavery, and readers should keep in mind that, as awesome as the Dahomey Amazons were, their lifestyle was made possible by slavery).

Dahomey, in red

Dahomey, in red

Originally, the Dahomey Amazons were called the gbeto, and were dedicated not to war, but instead to hunting elephants. According to legend, they were complimented by King Agaja after a particularly successful hunt; wherein the commander of the gbeto said she appreciated the compliment, but would much rather hunt the most dangerous game. The king was so impressed by both her talent and her boldness that he agreed.

At first, the gbeto worked as palace guards and the personal protectors of the king. Many places in the royal compound were off-limits to men after nightfall, but the gbeto could come and go as they pleased. Around 1708, as the Dahomey military underwent a general expansion, the gbeto evolved into a woman-only squad of crack fighters.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

A Mino with her spear and machete.

At this point, I have to point out, as I often do on this blog, that much of what we know about the Dahomey doesn’t come from these women themselves, but rather from fascinated European traders and missionaries who wrote about their African travels. The parallels between these women and the classical Amazons were obvious to a 17th century European, and so they are often known as the Dahomey Amazons. However, that’s not what they called themselves. A woman who fought for the King of Dahomey called herself a Mino (a Fon word meaning ‘our mothers’ or ‘my mother’), and so that is the word I’ll use from now on.

Mino fought with a variety of weapons, but the most common were the spear, the musket and the machete. These weren’t the basic machetes you can find in a home and garden store – Mino machetes were reported to be three feet long, razor-sharp and required both hands to wield.

The Mino recruited from all quarters – capable-looking women taken in slave raids could become Mino rather than being sold, and a Dahomey man upset with a headstrong wife or daughter could also send her to the Mino.  Some of these headstrong women probably headed their fathers or husbands off at the pass, and went off to join the Mino of their own accord. For their part, the Mino didn’t really care – if you were a woman, if you were strong and if you were willing to fight to the absolute death, they’d take you.

Part of the joining rite for the Mino was a symbolic wedding to the Dahomey king. As a result, the Mino were forbidden to have children or marry another man (if caught with a lover, both of them were destined for a very quick execution). If we take the words of the European men who wrote about them at face value, the majority of the Mino were virgins, but I personally call shenanigans on that. The Mino weren’t a small squad of hand-picked women; at their height, they were thousands. Doubtless most Mino obeyed the order to not have children, but I can’t believe they weren’t as randy as any other group of soldiers. Get six thousand women in an army together, at least a few of them are going to come up with a few creative ways to enjoy sex without risking pregnancy.

A  Mino with the head of a slain enemy.

A Mino with the head of a slain enemy. Note the lack of shoes.

It should be noted that the actual joining rite for the Mino has since been lost to history; but the symbolic marriage aspect and the vows to which the Mino were beholden was something generally known. As such, I feel safe in assuming that, whatever else happened when a young woman became one of the Mino, a symbolic wedding was part of it. As this tradition developed, the Mino also became known as ahosi, meaning ‘king’s wives’ (though the word ‘ahosi‘ in specific can sometimes mean anyone in direct service to the king).

Mino training was not easy, and started as young as eight years old. The Mino understood they would constantly be judged against their male counterparts, and were absolutely determined to surpass them in every way. The Mino were disciplined, rigorous, and brutal. Part of their training exercises consisted of giving weapons to captured enemies, and then literally hunting them through the jungle. To the bloody death. Barefoot.

One missionary describes watching an exhibition, in which a group of fearless Mino run across thorns (still barefoot) and engage in a mock battle. The winning women were given thorn belts, which they wore proudly and with no outward sign of pain. Other writers describe watching teenage Mino recruits perform executions, an exercise intended to desensitize them to violence and killing.

Though the demands of Mino life were difficult, the benefits often made up for it. Mino women were wealthy, sharing in the spoils of war and receiving payment for their service in gold, tobacco, alcohol and even an allotment of slaves. A Mino could walk proudly down the street and expect everyone to get out of her path. Even touching a Mino was dangerous – if she didn’t kill you herself, you may very well face execution for your temerity.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

A group of Mino, having their picture taken during a visit to France.

The Mino motto was Conquer or Die, and they meant it. Only the king himself could order a Mino to retreat from battle; if she ran from the front lines for any other reason, she would be summarily executed by one of her sisters on the spot.

Though some have interpreted the existence of the Mino to indicate that Dahomey culture was markedly gender equitable, other evidence suggests this might not be entirely the case. Dahomey society still had strict gender divisions. Though the Mino enjoyed a high social status, they were forbidden marriage and family life (a rule not imposed on male soldiers). There is some evidence that the Mino did not even consider themselves fully female – often, the Mino would refer to themselves as men. This probably isn’t an indication that the Mino should be considered transmen; but rather that the Mino took a unique approach to gender performativity.


In a nutshell, gender among the Dahomey was progressive in some ways (career options did exist for women) but regressive in others (the career options were limited, women had to choose between career and family). In this way, the Dahomey were much like any other complex society of the time; women had access to some areas but were barred from others.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

Mino demonstrating their skills.

It’s also important to consider the context I mentioned above: Dahomey’s economy relied on slavery. Their practice of conquer-kidnap-sell (which was something all African nations in the region engaged in at the time) meant that not only did the nation of Dahomey constantly need to protect itself from angry neighbors, the entire region dealt with the effects of male depopulation, as millions of men were sold into slavery. These unique pressures created room for the rise of the Mino.

At their height, the Mino were fully half of the Dahomey military strength, and the commander of the Mino directly advised the king on which nation to conquer next.

Unfortunately, though the Mino were unmatched among the other nations of Africa, they could not compete with the military might of 19th century Europe during the Scramble for Africa. In 1890, they tangled with several French settlements. At first, the Mino won several easy victories; as the French soldiers defending the fort were not prepared and had a hard time attacking women. Eventually, however, the French remembered they had Gatling guns and cannonballs, and attacked the Mino from the safety of their gunboats. Despite their overwhelming bravery, the Mino had no hope when it came to such weapons – their military technology was significantly behind Europe’s.

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Mino as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

However, they made the French work for it. All told, Dahomey and France would fight twenty-four battles for Dahomey territory, and only advanced French technology ensured their victory. Had the Mino and their male counterparts been able to meet their opponents with equal weapons, likely the battles would have gone far differently.

But Dahomey fell to France in 1894, and only 50 Mino, out of nearly 4,000, survived. The French even passed strict laws once they achieved control, banning women from military service or even owning weapons. The majority of those women sailed for America, where they ended up joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

As far as we know, the last surviving Mino, a woman named Nawi, died in 1979.

The Mino deserve a unique place in history – for though women have always fought, they’ve often done so while integrated into largely male units. Most female-only military units have been supportive, or last only for the duration of the current conflict. But the Mino existed as a distinct female military tradition of front-line fighters; something which cannot be found anywhere else (The Elk Scraper Society I mentioned in the entry for Buffalo Calf Road Woman is the only thing I’ve found which comes close).

The Mino occassionally show up in pop culture here and there (such as a unit in DLC for the the digital game Empire: Total War), but they have yet to make a significant appearance in fiction, film and TV. However, the rising school of Afro-centrist historical revisionism mentioned last week loves the Mino as much as they love Calafia; so here’s hoping these women get their own property soon!


Amazons of Black Sparta: The Warrior Women of Dahomey

Badass of the Week

From Eve to Dawn: The  Masculine Mystique

Smithsonian Magazine


Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey

Ching Shih: The Pirate Admiral

An 18th century line drawing of Chinese pirates rowing in a small boat to attack a larger ship.

Chinese Pirates!

Last week a feminist ninja, this week, it’s pirates!

Imagine, if you will, Al Capone.

Yes, yes, I know this blog is about ladies. Indulge me.

Imagine Al Capone.

Now imagine that, instead of running Chicago’s Mafia, Capone comes to control most of the criminal gangs operating in America. He destroys or absorbs his rivals, to the point where more gangsters work for him than are enlisted in the US Army. The FBI requests help from Canada, Mexico and Britain to bring him down, but that only results in a bunch of cops either dead or press-ganged into working for the Mob.

Capone wants to retire. And rather than buying a private island, he decides he’d prefer to stay in the US. Instead of dying in jail from syphilis, he works out a deal with the government. He gets a nice mansion in Napa Valley, with a generous pension. Oh, and his children all get cushy government jobs. The sort where they can show up at 10, take a leisurely lunch, leave at 4 and draw down a nice paycheck anyway. Capone spends his retirement tending bar until he passes away quietly of old age, filthy rich.

Awesome, right?

A printing on yellowed paper of a Chinese woman in armor, holding a sword.

Ching Shih

Meet Ching Shih, the most successful pirate captain in the history of ever.

Most of what we know of Ching Shih comes from the accounts of Westerners who were ‘honored guests’ of the Red Flag Fleet. As a result, there are a few gaps in her story – like what her real name was. ‘Ching Shih’ just means she was some dude’s widow. And who cares about that guy? This lady was spectacularly awesome!

(Okay, Wikipedia gives her birth name as ‘Sehk Heonggu’, but the source for that assertion isn’t cited, and every other source admits they don’t know what she was called before ‘Ching Shih.’ So I’ll continue to use that name for her, if only because that’s her most-recognized Anglicized name).

Nothing is known of Ching Shih’s parentage. The first we know of Ching Shih is her appearance in a brothel, so perhaps those were her origins. Or perhaps she found herself turning to sex work as a way to support herself. The only safe assumptions we may make is that Ching Shih’s  childhood imparted her with an iron will and the attitude that the world would give her nothing – whatever she wanted, she would have to take.

A drawing of a Chinese junk on a red backgroundDuring her time as a sex worker, Ching Shih no doubt cultivated several regular visitors – men with whom she had a rapport, and hopefully a mutually enjoyable experience. One of her regulars was Cheng I, a notorious pirate who commanded the Red Flag Fleet, a pirate navy of approximately 400 ships. In fact, Ching Shih was Cheng I’s favorite prostitute; and in 1801, during a raid on Ching Shih’s hometown, he ordered his men to spare her and bring her to his ship. There, they were married.

Cheng I also had an adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai. According to some accounts, Cheng I and Cheung Po Tsai were lovers, and the adoption a convenient cover for their relationship. Even more salacious gossip is that Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai were also lovers – at the very least, we know Ching Shih married Cheung Po Tsai after Cheng I’s death, and even had a son by him when she was 38.

Unfortunately, whatever domestic arrangement which Ching Shih, Cheng I and Cheung Po Tsai came to did not last long – in 1807, Cheng I died in a typhoon off the coast of Vietnam.

Ching Shih moved quickly, securing the loyalty of not only Cheung Po Tsai, but also several other highly ranked members of the Red Flag Fleet. As they acknowledged her as leader, other captains soon fell in line, and Ching Shih found her power consolidated as the admiral of the Red Flag Fleet.

A black and white 18th century drawing of Ching Shih fighting another Chinese pirate with a saber.By 1810, Ching Shih had several thousand vessels under her command. The exact number fluctuates from account to account, but average out to ‘more ships than the Chinese Navy,’ and more than enough to ensure Ching Shih her position as the unquestioned ruler of criminality in South China. She even had land-based spies; government officials who’d happily tip her off when the Navy decided to go pirate-hunting.

Paradoxically enough, the South China sea became one of the safest stretches of ocean under her rule. Merchant ships needed only to pay Ching Shih a tribute in order to peacefully pass through. Towns which paid a similar tribute were also spared the raids which the Red Flag Fleet would occasionally use to get supplies (because why pay for food and water when you’re a pirate?).

Ching Shih maintained her control in part with a brutal code of laws among her crew. Most infractions (abandoning one’s post, raiding or a ship or town current on their protection payments, stealing loot), were punishable with beheading and/or being tossed overboard. Notably, perhaps influenced by her time in a brothel, Ching Shih also outlawed rape – any man so caught would find himself quickly relieved of his head, and both pieces thrown in the ocean. And while attractive captured women were still treated as booty, they were not treated as concubines. Sailors were expected to marry the women so taken, and to treat their wives kindly. I have to wonder how many of these women eventually became pirates themselves.

A Chinese woman looks into the distance, next to a cannon.Absolutely no one could stand against Ching Shih. Two towns, tired of paying tribute, instead put their money towards hiring a group of mercenaries to take her out. Ching Shih responded by killing the mercenaries, then proceeded to sack the offending towns and murder every adult male living there. The record doesn’t state, but considering her favorite method of execution was beheading, I’m betting the phrase ‘pyramid of skulls’ applied at some point. The towns probably should have just kept paying protection money.

In another incident, the Chinese Navy loaded a few ships up with straw, set them on fire, and pointed them in the general direction of the Red Flag Fleet. Her crew simply extinguished the flames, then thanked the government for the gift. Later, the Chinese asked the British, Dutch and Portuguese for help. As a result… well, most of what we know of Ching Shih comes from a few literate European sailors who wrote down their experiences while waiting for the ransom money to arrive.

A still from Singing Behind Screens. The character of Ching Shih wears a red robe and an elaborate Chinese hairstyle. She glances behind her, to other sailors on her ship, dressed very plainly.Around age 35, Ching Shih decided to retire. As part of her retirement package, she negotiated a general amnesty with the Chinese government. A few of the badder apples (100 or so, out of a crew of approximately 100,000), were offered up for execution. The rest were allowed to retire peaceably from pirating, with many even joining the Navy. Cheung Po Tsai was made an admiral himself, and spent the rest of his career hunting… other pirates. Oh, and everyone got to keep their treasure.

Ching Shih spent the rest of her life running a brothel and gambling den in Guangzhou, dying eventually at age 69 – perhaps one of the only pirates to die warm in bed of old age.

In 2003, an Italian film, Cantando dietro i paraventi (Singing Behind Screens) was released, loosely based on a Jorge Luis Borges story which was itself loosely based on the life of Ching Shih. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down this film for either stream or sale – if you know where it can be legally watched (hopefully in English, or at least with English subtitles), please let us know in the comments! She also has a cameo in Assassin’s Creed and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (though the film version of Mistress Ching is anachronistic in more than few ways, it’s still neat to have her acknowledged).Singing_Behind_Screens

Red Flag, a TV minieries starring Maggie Q as Ching Shih, is set to debut later this year! You can also find this handy guide to dressing up like Ching Shih at Take Back Halloween.

And while not explicitly based on Ching Shih, the character of Zamira Drakasha in Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies seems to have been inspired by the pirate admiral. As for me, I used her as inspiration in the LARP Dying Kingdoms, as a notorious pirate commodore from the fictional, Chinese-inspired nation of Xiao. When she shows up, the players know it’s time to get serious!


Badass of the Week

Rejected Princesses

The World of Chinese

Today I Found Out