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Viking Women: What Women Really Did in the Viking Age

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Viking woman standing by ship in the water

Women in the Viking Age enjoyed more equality and freedom than almost all other women of their time. From warriors to farmers, here's the story of the roles of Viking women.

Some recent articles have highlighted gender equality in the Viking Age. But while women did hold a certain level of power, there were still great differences in the roles of men and women.

Women in the Viking Age

Legends of the valkyries and sagas telling of shield maidens have long been doubted by experts. In 2017 a DNA study of a Viking warrior grave claimed the deceased was actually female. Although the study has since been refuted, many still believe the sagas.

 

Today, Norwegian women enjoy positions of power in business and politics, but what exactly were things like during the long history of the Vikings? Most people know the legend of the valkyries and have heard of supposed female Viking warriors known as shield maidens.

Read more: Why Did the Viking Age Start?

But what was life like for Viking women? Did they really join the raids? We've gathered together the latest research, plus the assumptions based on sagas and other records to pull together this guide. All set? Then let's dive into the details.

A Viking ship approaching shore
Did women join Viking battle ships? Most scholars say no.

The Birka warrior: male or female?

Known as Sweden’s first town, Birka has such strong historical and cultural importance that the settlement on Björkö island is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Nowhere can the Norsemen's status as great traders be better seen than on Björkö. Merchants came here from across Europe–and possibly beyond–to trade valuables. Arabic silver, eastern European beads, ceramics, rare fabrics and a glass goblet are the among the items discovered here.

Read more: Viking Funerals

However, Birka became even more famous in 2017, when a DNA study into this 1889 grave excavation was published. Thought to be a male warrior since 1889, the human remains were proven to be female. The study concluded that the items buried with the woman prove she was a high-ranking warrior.

One of the items was a strategic board game related to chess. Researchers thought of this as evidence of her strategic thinking, as such games were usually only found in warrior graves. The Washington Post was among the global media to report on the study: “The warrior was, in fact, female. And not just any female, but a Viking warrior woman, a shieldmaiden, like the ancient Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones.”

Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled "Bj 581" by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden, published 1889
Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled “Bj 581” by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden, published 1889

However, criticism of the study came quickly. Viking studies professor Judith Jesch was a particularly vocal critic. Among other points, she argued that bones from other graves may have been mixed together, and the association of game pieces with warrior status was premature speculation.

She also claimed that researchers did not consider other reasons why the body of a female may have been placed in a warrior's tomb.

Research reveals “remarkable” equality

Most scholars share Jesch's view that the “Viking ethos” means there would have been no female warriors. However, women did share equal rights in many aspects of society. They could own land, initiate divorce proceedings, serve as clergy and run a business. However, their sphere of influence was domestic.

Modern Scandinavian society is known for its march towards gender equality. From laws on parental leave to a high proportion of women in parliaments, the Nordic countries are seen as a template to follow worldwide.

A fashion shoot of a Viking woman with sword

Yet recent research suggests that such a society may not be so modern after all. Viking society may well have promoted gender equality more than one thousand years ago, in a time when boys were “preferred” across much of Europe.

In the journal Economics & Human Biology, researchers argue that men and women of the Viking era experienced “remarkable” equality. They also suggest that this society may even have helped to contribute to the equality in Scandinavia today.

Read more: The Vikings in Norway

Archaeological discoveries helped University of Tubingen researchers trace health and nutritional equality between men and women during the Viking Age. They did this by analysing the teeth and skeletons of human remains dating back more than a millennium.

This data was then compared with others across the continent, using the Global History of Health Project. The Europe-wide dataset includes references to human skeletons from more than 100 sites from the last 2,000 years.

Scientists found that things like teeth enamel and femur lengths were relatively equal between men and women. In an unequal society, they would expect to have found permanent damage to tooth enamel in ill or malnourished children. The condition is known as linear enamel hypoplasia.

Viking woman with horse on a Scandinavian farm

“We hypothesized that if girls and women received less food and care than the male members of society, they would have more such damage. The extent to which values differ between men and women is therefore also a measure of equality within the population,” said researcher Laura Maravall.

What did Viking women wear?

One might think that Viking clothes were made just for practicality, dull and boring, to match the often gloomy and grey lands in which they lived. In fact, experts believe they were from that. It is believed that many of their clothes were bright and colourful.

Clothing was first and foremost functional. The most important factor was warmth. Likely clothing included a base layer of a linen under-dress that stretched from the shoulder down to ankle length. On top, a wool strap dress of a shorter length was most likely worn. The two layers would have been fastened together at the straps by iron or bronze brooches.

Read more: Viking Clothes: What Did The Vikings Wear?

Viking women at home

The University of Tubingen study also suggests a link between rural equality in Viking times and a specialisation in raising animals. Professor Jörg Baten explained that men dealt with crops because of the need for greater physical strength, adding: “raising animals enabled women to contribute a great deal to the family income. That probably raised their position in society.”

The viking farm at Avaldsnes in western Norway
The viking farm at Avaldsnes in western Norway

Women were also just as responsible for their homesteads, often working for months at a time while a community's men were away. The hub of everyday life was the longhouse, a long, single-roomed accommodation with benches for sleeping and seating set around a central fireplace.

Read more: Viking Homes Were Stranger Than Fiction

Typically, the woman's responsibility would have been to care for the house and its residents. This could include elderly relatives, visiting political or business guests, and in many cases, foster-children. Viking women were practised storytellers. In fact, this oral tradition carried on for centuries until the stories were captured in writing in the Icelandic sagas of the Early Middle Ages.

“Such women in the Nordic countries may have led to popular myths about the Valkyries: They were strong, healthy and tall,” says Jörg Baten. But the picture in Scandinavian cities was different. “The Swedish towns of Lund and Sigtuna – on the site of today’s Stockholm – and in Trondheim in Norway, had developed a class system by the Early Middle Ages. Women there did not have the same equality as their sisters in the countryside.”

Women in Viking literature and Norse mythology

So, while women did have many equal rights to men, their influence was mainly domestic. They were unlikely to join men in battle. That being said, why is Norse literature and mythology full of legendary women doing just that?

The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909)
The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909)

The Icelandic sagas, especially the work of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)—an Icelandic writer who turned oral tales into written works—were not made until a few hundred years after the Viking Age. Historians consider them unreliable as they often relate to somewhat mystical events that have no archaeological or other evidence.

Read more: What Does The Word ‘Viking' Really Mean?

However, they do reflect the Norse admiration of strong women who go where they want and get things done.

Valkyries

Of course, it's impossible to talk of Viking women without mentioning the valkyries.

Anyone with a passing interest in Norse mythology is sure to have come across these female figures that choose who makes it to Valhalla upon death.

They are Odin's female helping spirits who are most often depicted as elegant maidens ferrying the slain to Valhalla. Their more sinister side is often overlooked, even though their name means choosers of the slain!

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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52 thoughts on “Viking Women: What Women Really Did in the Viking Age”

    • Many of the people in the series are real. The problem is that their lives span over centuries. Ragnar is real but may have had the exploits of other Vikings attributed to him. Ragnar and brother Rollo are years apart in reality. Ragnar and his son “Snake in the eye” are direct ancestors in my family tree. My opinion is that the sagas may be more accurate than the series “Vikings”. The series also shows a lot of violence, blood and sex to draw in more people. One of my ancestors is Harald Hardrada Sigurdson. Check out his life on Wikipedia. His story could be a book or series by itself.

      Reply
  1. I find the statement about the Valkyrie choosing who lives and who dies a little misleading. Only the Nords know how and when a man is to die, not even The All Father can change that! The Valkyrie choose whom among the dead, died bravely and in so doing then escort them to Valhalla. Bodies would be marked with the valknut by fellow warriors to identify the bravest of the slain to the Valkyrie.

    Reply
    • I was interested in what you said and I looked it up
      “Its name isn’t mentioned in any period sources; valknut is a modern Norwegian compound word that means “knot of those fallen in battle” and was introduced by Norwegians who lived long after the Viking Age”

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  2. Great article. I´ve become more interested in the norse people during the Viking Age, lately. I`m from Norway and over 80% Scandinavian according to a dna-test. Thinking about finding out more about my roots, and my ancestors. 🙂

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  3. Norse women did fight along side their male counter parts. When a village was attack the women would take up arms to defend their families and home. Women going on raids I do not know, but the possibilities are their. We must remember their are always some scientist who would prefer to depict all women as the weaker of the Male/Female life of the times.

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    • No… Women did not go on raids or fought in battles, other than defending. How can people honestly believe that? I have two sisters, aged 23, I’m 26 and male. They have been special forces in the military, they train every single day. They are about the most badass women you can find. I train two times a week for one hour, i never run for training, I like to climb every once in a while (They climb two times a week). I am still much stronger and run faster than them.
      That should tell you all you need to know.
      The only thing they beat me on physically is cardio. They would be fantastic war messengers in the olden times, as they can jog for miles and miles without break.

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      • Okay? And what about you being physically better? Men have always been physically better but women have always been more on long lasting stamina. Your misogynistic mind didn’t prove anything, pal. Only sexism. I’ll tell you something about fighting: ‘techniques are always key, never strength.’

        That’s the problem with Men in our generation, they think if you’re stronger, than you’re better at almost everything. Its called “Toxic Masculinity”

        I’m a Man that did multiple Martial arts and loves archery. And during my practice, there’s a lot of women determine to get strong, but what I love about their way of thinking is that they are incredibly fast learners and would use techniques to win, whilst men (even me sometimes) uses brute force. Thats why our instructors don’t care if the sparring goes Man vs Woman.

        Its a 100% true that men are naturally stronger than women but that doesn’t mean women can’t win battles against men. Your body probably just has natural strength, or your sisters’ are a lot smaller and weaker so in general they would be out strength

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        • There is a lot of re-examination going on about that grave site. Too often we grab scant evidence to “prove” a modern ethos. Very few Viking scholars believe in offensive female warriors. Please name your “records from other contemporary cultures.”

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      • While it probably wasn’t as common for women to go on the raids as we’re led to believe today, it is not unreasonable to believe that some women actually did go on raids. Throughout history there have been famous women who went against the norm and chose to be warriors. It takes a lot more than brute strength to win a battle. It takes good leadership, strategic planning, learning your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing the terrain, cooperation, having an army composed of soldiers with different skill sets…..use of different weapons, how to care for the wounded, making sure there is enough food and safe water for the army, just to name a few.

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        • Yep, I agree there were women brought to to battlefield, someone had to cook, wash clothes clean and sharpen the weapons take care of lonely soldiers and tender the wounded.

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    • Well women are physically weaker than males, especially males of that time who were growing up in societies in which being strong is a neccessity to survive. Females wouldn’t last a second against a battle hardened man.

      Though maybe you have some scientific data on which to base your claims, something that no one else has?

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  4. I have no doubt that Norse women would fight to defend themselves and their children if attacked. Any mother would. Just look around at nature. The depiction of female warriors in the series ‘Vikings’ is more a reflection of current day values of perceived equality than historical accuracy. Also the compression of the true experience of numerous people and generations into a few heroic characters is a fictional device which moves well away from reality. Knowing many of the Sagas, I found this device became more annoying, to the point where I stopped viewing the series.

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    • Nothing was “refuted.” Doubt was cause on the research study. But it was certainly not “refuted.” There are ancient historians from Greece and other places that reported women Viking (or Scandinavians) fighting with the men. So it did happen. This article could have done with an editor.

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      • No it in fact didn’t happen. How stupid are people to actually believe women fought on equal ground alongside men in battle!? I’m blown away by the sheer ignorance of reality… Women has and always will be, physically inferior! Yes there might be one or two freak women here and there that makes men piss their pants but they are about as common as albino moose. Why would the vikings send their women to slaughter??? No. The warriors has always been and always will be, men. Simply because men are superior to women physically.

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        • Did you happen to realise that your sister is 3 years younger than you? I have a twin brother and the only thing he beats me at physically is short distance running.

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        • I completely agree, there might had been women brought to the battlefield as logistic support for the troops, but a woman was more useful cooking, taking care of the wounded or just being there to attend lonely away from home soldiers.
          The problem is that today is politically correct to have women in “power roles” , there is no movie or series that does not have “powerful women” as main characters.
          It does not reflect real life but is a nice fantasy that some take as real and others know it is jus that.
          Women are equal, but not the same as men, they have their strains and weaknesses, but of course that is wrong to say in todays world of so called “equality”.

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      • No it really didnt happen. There has never been a single female warrior body found. Every alleged one was based on extremely bad leaps of logic.
        The ancient Greek historians wrote about the Germanic tribes not the Viking era Scandinavians.
        The only thing close is Saxos writings where he treats the sagas take on Valkyries like literal normal warriors.

        Like the guy above said undoutably some women took up arms to protect the homes . They did not go out on raids or join the various armies.
        Judith Jesch who seems to be the leading expert on viking era womens history even notes there seems to be no evidence of any female warriors of this type

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  5. Love how “historians” refuse to believe in these tales because they were written down years later. Where as they tend to believe in the Bible which the first mention of Jesus was almost a hundred years later and there is NO historical proof of Jesus in any Roman paperwork.

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    • What „historians” believe in Bible? If you are a historian, you are fully aware of Constantine’s edicts and Trident synod. It’s all made up nonsense.

      Also, white Americans whose DNA is somehow “Viking”. Lol. Of course your DNA will match haplogroups common in Norther Europe.

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    • Non-Christian sources used to study and establish the historicity of Jesus include the c. first century Jewish historian Josephus and Roman historian Tacitus. These sources are compared to Christian sources, such as the Pauline letters and synoptic gospels, and are usually independent of each other; that is, the Jewish sources do not draw upon the Roman sources.

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  6. Wow you gotta bring Yeshua up when we are having such great Nordic knowledge being handed out! Let’s face it the true Teutonic men and women of this world would still be worshiping Odin and his sons had not been for missionaries and Catholic priests. To believe in the Son of Man takes the faith of little child not the scribblings of Roman scribe! After 2000 years he is still the Light of World and love is still the answer. May he shine on us all!

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  7. I’d say the real power was with property and divorce rights. After Christianity did it’s thing, this seems to have been changed. It’s one matter to have an interesting discussion on women warriors and equality of rights. It’s a different sort of battle and tragic loss to be stripped of rights and subjugated with words and ideology. Such are the legacies of history with what, among many things, enforced Christianity swept away.

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  8. Just one question, “Who the heck defended the Homestead, Hearth and Village while the rest of the male population was out sea-tripping and a Wiking during the summer months”? In all probability the Women… Women Warriors?

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    • No totally wrong. It was mainly the young men in training, those not yet qualified for battle and also the older men considered not fit to go on raids.

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  9. I guess you are also incorporating the male figure to be defined as superiorly more sensual and desirable for fornication then the woman. I’m a very nicely put together woman but I have always had male dominated careers. Woman can do all that would be usuful and deadly. I swing a pretty good axe and the best shot in my area. I am the exception to the general rule ( mostly Christian terms ) I can keep a home. I will only do my fair share of it though. I am a trucker , mechanic and this isn’t gender bias mostly but growing up on a farm or working one , will greatly improve you strengths in every way. So , I never thought because I’m a woman it stops me to much , I never had gender rules that I thought were the those brought on by societies norm as a rule that was written in stone or not to be broken. Woman are much stronger willed than man. Tell me I’m wrong…?!

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  10. Honestly… I don’t see the contradictions here. Fighting in a raid is not like sports, where only the „best of the best“ reach something like the Ultimate peak. If you include weaker men in your army there will also be a handful of especially strong women with awesome genes, who are at least as good as them. Most people consider this like comparisons in sport, where a female pro soccer team loses against the amateurs. But in the context of raids you would bring the amateurs AND the female pros to fight anyhow. So no, it won‘t be like „half the raiders were women“… but a few somewhere in between … totally plausible. Personal experience with two younger sisters proves nothing. Maybe they are not the genetic miracles.

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  11. Just because someone is not physically strong, does not mean they can’t make great warriors. I have seem 5’2″ 140 lb women take down men twice their size because they were quicker and more skilled at martial arts. When I was in the SCA I saw a woman sword fighter take on a man bigger than her and win because she was able to stay out of swords reach and go in for the “kill” when he wore himself out. I won’t argue that men are stronger than women but that is a ridiculous argument for why shield maidens might not have existed.

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    • I’m a man a nurtured to think that men should be stronger than women but I’m blessed with an absolutely open-mind. Yes, I used to think like those typical man but not anymore a long time ago. And knowing that Men are extremely terrible at handling criticism especially getting told that women are better at this and that (like how women are naturally good shooters) gets this toxic masculinity mind boiling, because men loves gun but women dominants them. Yes, it’s true that men can see longer distance than women but steady and focus = accuracy. What I’m saying here is that men are naturally afraid that women are better at tons of things than women, but men tries to suppress that by using sexist comments and stereotypes.

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  12. If you take a bunch of dogs and breed them with only the largest of the largest, the strongest, the fastest, the smartest… Breed them through many generations (assuming that no inbreeding is being done) you get REALLY smart, strong, giant dogs…so its possible for this to be done with humans as well and if you have a bunch of huge chicks that are as big and as strong as the dudes are, then its pretty much game over simply because women are superior to men mentally.

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  13. I think its plainly silly to think that every man is physically superior to every woman.

    Regardless of the average males larger physical stature, there are now and always have been women who are capable of bettering a man in combat. Perhaps these women were not capable of besting every man on the battle field but it’s obvious that few men could best every adversary that faced them either.

    Similarly the argument that women are mentally superior to men is just as silly. People of either gender have a vast capacity for possessing a brilliant mind. The smartest person in the world at any given time in history may be male or female, there is no definitive way to argue this fact.

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    • Actually there are, it may be silly but its proven true. Men are physically stronger than women, and women are mentally stronger than men. That’s scientifically true. Its might even be true that women are naturally smarter but that couldn’t be proven at the old age because when a woman was smart, they would burn her. Know why? They would think she is a witch. Women didn’t have much rights even when being smart.

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  14. My fathers family is German/Swedish mix. In my ancestral research, I found that men valued strong wives who could run the farm as partners, and keep it going while the men were off for long periods of time, fighting in the multiple wars governments were waging. Women were valued for their physical strength and intelligence and considered partners. And still are. I see that in my farm family relatives today.

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  15. No, the 2017 discovery that the Birka Viking was female has not since been refuted, by the time you wrote this article it was an established fact.
    “The buried person has always carried two X chromosomes, even if this was unknown before our recent work; the occupant of Bj.581 will never be biologically male again.”

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/viking-warrior-women-reassessing-birka-chamber-grave-bj581/7CC691F69FAE51DDE905D27E049FADCD#

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    • Doesn’t make the person a warrior as Judith Jensch has pointed out. The alleged female warriors are never put under the scrutiny of male counterparts and lack the bone and joint damage that would be needed to be considered as such if they were a man

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  16. I too am a direct descendant of Viking kings and Danish royalty. It is interesting to see how these shows interpret life but a better history comes from oral and written which we have some of. I trust it more than extrapolation by entertainment venues.

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  17. Funny how wannabe’s ranting about these great female warriors especially the loser ranting about how quick some pseudo sword fighter beat some guy because he “tired himself out”.

    First of all you can’t dance around in a line battle because it’s a goddamn line battle. Bravehart isn’t real. Hollywood melee is not how armies fought, they used formations. A mass melee would be incredibly rare and if your formation broke you were more thank likely routed and running for your life already.

    But keep lying half wits. That’s why the best female kick boxer in the world got her ass knocked out by some no name unranked Muay Thai fighter.

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  18. Men are physically superior..This is not an opinion. Yes, there’s always exceptions, but this Lefty Propaganda is useless and not helpful to anyone.

    Have a Goodnight.

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  19. On Ancestry.com, I traced my ancestry to Ragnar Lothbrok Sigurdsson through Sigurd Snake in the eye Ragnarsson and then to Harold Gormsson Bluetooth. I am Norwegian and Danish on my mother’s side. I am fascinated with the old Norse. I even obtained some Viking relics. Skol

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  20. My maternal grandmother was first get American, both her parents were born and raised in Sweden. I do believe they were in America for less than two years before my grandmother was born. I have a facination for history in general and have researched my family history.

    Women in general are built differently than men. It is biological, not political or culturally. But it is the cultural element that is troublesome. I am not saying that women in society should not be treated equally. In the far past, unfortunatly they were not. But I believe that they were in Viking society. Where there women worriers? Of course there were. But was it accepted and common? No. Was Scandinavian society the only ancient soviety to treat women as equals? No. Some more than others. But, I believe that women were treated better outside Europe than in Europe.

    And yes I do know my own countries history. We were no better than others in our treatment of women. But I do hope that the world can learn from mistakes made in the past.

    That said I do like the article.

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  21. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. I believe that there was the odd strong woman on the battlefield and raids, but this is the exception rather than the rule, particularly if village populations contained more women. I believe that these women would have to likely prove themselves capable somehow or okayed by the war party leader. Shield Maidens certainly fought to defend the homestead. Most Women likely did all the stereotypical stuff, tend to the sick, feed and cook, mind the children, etc. That was just the way it was, period.

    The ones overly pushing this “equal repesentation” are clouded by the feminist agenda, who want to stretch facts to meet their modern definition of equality and are letting their political point of view alter their perception of true facts. It isn’t “Toxic” it’s simply truth. It is what it is, not simply what you want it to be.

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