The Woman King, a new historical action film from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, describes the exploits of the Agojie, an all-female unit within the army of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, a leader of the Agojie who helps defeat a neighbor’s army then leads an attack on European slavers. While The Woman King takes significant liberties with the history of the region, the action is effective and the film contributes to a conversation about the service of women in combat.
Dahomey, a West African kingdom that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries, fielded a segregated female standing combat unit for roughly the last 100 years of its existence. The unit came about for a variety of reasons, including intense competition and the presence of a slave trade that put a premium on the bodies of young men. The all-female unit was reputedly as effective as any other unit in the Dahomey Army, although for most of its existence women made up a small percentage of the overall force.
As an action film The Woman King is effective, with plenty of gory, high-intensity fight scenes. But of course, what makes the Agojie interesting is that all-female military units are extremely rare in pre-modern and early modern armies. Indeed, it is uncommon to find any women at all in such forces. Explanations for this absence usually revolve around two questions: Are female soldiers unusual because of patriarchal social structures? Or are they unusual because they are physically less capable of fighting? The latter we can call the “functional” story, and the former the “patriarchal” story. These discussions continue into the present day, with conservative commentators such as Tucker Carlson arguing that the presence of women in the U.S. military makes it “woke” and weak.
The story offered by Tucker Carlson and other adherents to the functional imperative is simple: Male-only military organizations exist because the use of male bodies allows, or has historically allowed, the optimization of combat effectiveness. Moreover, the functional imperative suggests value trade-offs regarding the inclusion of female bodies in combat formations. Whether because of the characteristics of the bodies themselves, or the difficulties posed by integration, the inclusion of females reduces combat effectiveness, and consequently endangers the state. The logic of patriarchal exclusion is also simple. The combat franchise in the pre-modern world was largely limited to the elite, who could afford weapons and the time spent learning how to use them. Among the classes excluded was women, who in many societies could never command the resources necessary to become a soldier and who were often formally barred from military service.
The two stories aren’t completely exclusive; the functional needs of the military at some point in the past might create institutions that persist down to today. Indeed, this is probably the case. The example of the Agojie notwithstanding, integration of women into combat has followed well behind a technological curve that significantly reduces the importance of upper body strength, but it has followed. However, that the Agojie performed well even in a context when we would not have expected them to opens up the question of whether the functional argument ever made sense.
The Woman King takes this last perspective: that all-women units could perform well under any circumstances, and excluding women from the combat franchise enables other kinds of discrimination. In this sense, The Woman King takes on the hard case for women’s participation in the combat franchise. It would have been better if the film had depicted the Agojie as a disciplined fighting unit rather than as a collection of lethal warriors with a penchant for single combat, but from Hollywood we can only expect so much. With respect to the modern debate, nearly all of the useful questions about whether women can and should serve have already been answered with the widespread participation of women in combat units around the world.
A Source of Inspiration
The Woman King certainly takes liberties with the history and politics of the region. The slave trade was a significant element of Dahomey’s economy, and Dahomey can under no circumstances be regarded as a driver in the end of the trade. There’s little to no evidence of the development of Pan-African sentiments in Dahomey at the time. The specifics of the relationship between Dahomey and its neighbors are weak, as is the development of its relationship to European traders.
On the military side, the film, unfortunately, resorts to Hollywood depictions of pre-modern warfare as a chaotic collection of individual combats rather than a battle between disciplined units. But people regard Braveheart and 300 as inspiring descriptions of struggles against overwhelming odds, and neither of those films are any closer to a real description of historical reality than The Woman King. Plenty of young people take inspiration in Zach Snyder’s description of the Battle of Thermopylae, and as such it would be appalling to suggest that people ought not take inspiration in the story of the Agojie.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.