Women of the Revolution: The Female Image in Revolutionary Propaganda

The woman warrior and the female image — sometimes mythological — have long played a significant role in stirring men to action, both in ancient tribal society and the modern era.


The ancient Norse, for example, believed that the Valvyrie (choosers of the slain) decided which warriors were to live, and which were to dies, in battle. The Valkyrie — beautiful maidens, generally depicted as wearing armor and descending on horseback from the sky — would take the fallen warriors to Valhalla (the Hall of the Dead), presided over the supreme god, Odin. Hence, in the medieval Icelandic text The Poetic Edda, it is said:

Three times nine girls, but one girl rode ahead,
white-skinned under her helmet;
the horses were trembling, from their manes
dew fell into the deep valleys… 

When the painter Eugène Delacroix commemorated the July Revolution of 1830, he chose to personify liberty as a female, goddess-type figure. In the painting, she is seen leading male rebels forward over the bodies of the dead, her clothing having slipped to expose her breasts. It is comedic, and, yet, at some level it draws on obvious pre-Christian religious mythology.

Joan of Arc and blonde Valkyrie.
Women warriors: Detail of Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais (left) and detail of the Valkyrie by Emil Doepler (right).

Perhaps the most famous example of the female warrior, is Joan of Arc — who was made a saint after her death. Having begun hearing voices (which she believed to be from God) at the age of 13, Joan later received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine, who instructed her actively support Charles VII’s fight to rid France of the English invaders.

At around the age of 16, in 1428 A.D., she left her peasant family, and made her way to Vaucouleurs, where she attracted a small band of followers, who believed that she might be the virgin that legend said would save France. She also received the blessings of Charles, along with a small army. The following year, Joan made her way to Orleans, which had been under siege for months. Appearing in battle in white armor, and riding a white horse — and thus very recognizable, and almost mythic in the symbolism — Joan attacked the English, turning the situation around in nine days. She then went on to defeat the English in other battles, freeing France from the invaders.

Not entirely differently, the mythological female figure — or, more exactly, the Hindu goddess — was used in India in its struggle for independence from Britain. Signifying India’s long history, religious culture, and strength, posters depicted the country as “Mother India”, or the goddess Durga fending off marauders. “Kali” Cigarettes were even manufactured and sold to raise funds for the struggle against the British colonizers.

Indian anti-colonial propaganda.
Power of the Goddess: an ad for Kali Cigarettes (1905), sold to support the Indian independence cause (left) and a Mother India poster used for the cover of Sumathi Ramaswamy’s book The Goddess and the Nation, which traces the evolution of the idea of Bharat Mata (Mother India), (right).

The Perversion of the Noble

Perplexing to many in the West, over the last few months, observers of the Middle East and Europe have noted the hundreds of thousands of single, fighting-age men — “refugees” — who have fled Syria, while battalions of women remain there fighting against ISIS (or the “Islamic State”), which has captured much of Iraq and Syria, enslaving, raping, and selling — in modern day slave markets — women and girls.

This is the negative and perverse use of the female image. One that seeks not to elevate men to protect women, but one that entices the worst of men — and the worst in men — to rape, and to take by force what they could not get through merit.

The use of pornography as propaganda first appeared prior to the French Revolution, and, to a large extent, paved the way for it. The amount of anti-monarchy porn, portraying Queen of France Marie Antoinette engaging in orgies, lesbianism, and so on, was immense, running to thousands of publications.

Other political movements have attempted to abuse women for their cause. The first ever female suicide bombing, was carried out by a member of the Syrian Social National Party. Founded by Antun Saadeh in 1932, the secular SSNP borrowed some of the trappings of the Nazi Party in Germany, including the “swastika” flag, which it stylized as a red “whirlwind.” This very minor party, which believes in creating a “Greater Syria.” It has tended to use young and attractive women for suicide missions, and to make much of their image afterward.

Patty Hearst and a female Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) suicide bomber.
Stockholm Syndrome: Patty Hearst posing for Symbionese Liberation Army propaganda (left), and a female SSNP “martyr” (right)

Not entirely different, in 1974, the Left-wing terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patricia Hearst. From a wealthy family, Hearst was living Berkeley, California when she was abducted. She was kept prisoner by the “army” for 19 months, during which time she was repeatedly raped, and brainwashed into becoming an active member of the group, and the central figure of its propaganda.

This, we must make clear, is entirely different from the all-volunteer, all-female battalions fighting ISIS today, and that we occasionally find in history, such as cases of female Viking warriors.

Rape, political porn, and so on, are perversions that appeal to the base individual. Though fleeing from war is, we suppose, relatively normal, leaving women to do the fighting provokes an uneasy sense in us that it is neither natural or noble. The image of the female fighter normally causes healthy men to believe in the fight, and to want to fight for such women, who appear more than worthy of defending.

Suicide Girls

Still, the female image — as an emblem of the culture or values being fought for — has become a part of modern warfare and revolution. We can think, immediately, for example, of the pin-up girls of Alberto Vargas that were reproduced on the noses of US warplanes.

However, leaving aside the pin-ups, woman sometimes appears as an almost archetypal figure in modern propaganda. Powerful, sometimes crass, armed with military weapons or sheer physical force, she is the embodiment of a raw power that is normally associated with masculinity, or, as in Hinduism, with terrifying goddesses. As such, it is tempting to see the female figure as a kind of mythical icon or talisman, willing men onward toward the battlefield as a place of total meaning — the meeting point of the spiritual and material.

Nazbol girls
Strike a pose: National Bolshevik women in Russia.

A more recent example of the use of the female image is the Left-wing, anti-religious and feminist group Femen, which has attracted much attention with its own guerrilla propaganda stunts, often involving stripping or going topless, and offending religious sensibilities (especially Christian and Islamic).

Almost at the other end of the political spectrum, the Russian National Bolshevik Party has also put its attractive, young female recruits at the front of its propaganda. While some of their imagery is of young women marching and waving their fists at “Nazbol” rallies, other imagery includes scantily clad women, wearing — in a somewhat fetishistic fashion — armbands with the party emblem.


Men might wage war. But without the female image, it seems, there can be no revolution.

It is obviously true, of course, that men will defend the honor of women they regard as being in their camp. But it seems that the female image is one that embodies a complex set of ideas. She is both hope for the future, but also an almost mystical power at the root of one’s own being, or one’s own tribe. The female revolutionary figure embodies typically male power (might, fighting prowess), but she is, at the same time, a feminine and almost otherworldly presence (e.g. Joan of Arc) in the struggle. Shattering the norms, breaking the rules, turning the tide, perhaps there can be no victory without her.

Angel MillarAngel Millar is the author of The Crescent and the Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism, and Revolution in the Modern Age as well as other books on Freemasonry, symbolism, and spirituality. His writing has also been published in New Dawn magazine, The Journal of Indo-European Studies, and at Disinfo dot com, among others.

One Reply to “Women of the Revolution: The Female Image in Revolutionary Propaganda”

  1. […] I wrote recently, men may fight wars, but without the female image, there can be no revolution. Here I want […]

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