Smithsonian has a neat feature on the Dahomey "Amazons"—an elite troop of female soldiers who fought in the 18th and 19th century for the independent African country of Dahomey (it's now Benin).
Historian Robin Law, of the University of Stirling, who has made a study of the subject, dismisses the idea that the Fon viewed men and women as equals in any meaningful sense; women fully trained as warriors, he points out, were thought to “become” men, usually at the moment they disemboweled their first enemy. Perhaps the most persuasive possibility is that the Fon were so badly outnumbered by the enemies who encircled them that Dahomey’s kings were forced to conscript women. The Yoruba alone were about ten times as numerous as the Fon.
... Recruiting women into the Dahomean army was not especially difficult, despite the requirement to climb thorn hedges and risk life and limb in battle. Most West African women lived lives of forced drudgery. Gezo’s female troops lived in his compound and were kept well supplied with tobacco, alcohol and slaves–as many as 50 to each warrior, according to the noted traveler Sir Richard Burton, who visited Dahomey in the 1860s. And “when amazons walked out of the palace,” notes Alpern, “they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.” To even touch these women meant death.
... new female recruits were put through extensive training. The scaling of vicious thorn hedges was intended to foster the stoical acceptance of pain, and the women also wrestled one another and undertook survival training, being sent into the forest for up to nine days with minimal rations.
It was this fierceness that most unnerved Western observers, and indeed Dahomey’s African enemies. Not everyone agreed on the quality of the Dahomeans’ military preparedness—European observers were disdainful of the way in which the women handled their ancient flintlock muskets, most firing from the hip rather than aiming from the shoulder, but even the French agreed that they “excelled at hand-to-hand combat” and “handled [knives] admirably.”
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.