When Women Were King

A new film starring Viola Davis reclaims the narrative of the fiercely resistant African “Amazons.”

Amazons of Dahomey, the only documented female army in modern history. (National Museum of World Cultures)

When French colonial soldiers in the 19th century first encountered fierce women on the battlefield in the Kingdom of Dahomey on the West African coast, they were completely bewildered. Their only frame of reference was to recall the all-female armies known as “Amazons” from ancient Greco-Roman myths. Subsequently, the “Dahomey Amazon” label stuck—especially after the women decimated the French army, which underestimated their military prowess and propensity for carnage.

“Women warriors is what I call them,” said Lynne Larsen, assistant professor of art history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who is writing about women-only interior spaces in the Royal Palace of Dahomey. “Amazon is a European name for them because they were so different and strange to the French 19th-century sense of what gender roles should be. But today, people in Abomey still call them L’Amazones, so that’s a generally accepted term.”

As brave as these women warriors were, they were eventually defeated by the greater gun power of the French, who captured Dahomey in 1892 and much later renamed it the Republic of Benin. The female soldiers who survived were paraded in world fairs, most infamously at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. They reenacted battles and appeared with their breasts bare as they were simultaneously described to their fully clothed, predominantly white audiences as being “in full dress”—a stark contrast that was meant to define so-called African primitivism in comparison to the technological progress of Western civilization also on display at the expo.

Such cultural dichotomies supported global and local events of the time: from the West’s imperial “scramble for Africa” to the U.S.’s push for racial segregation and the subjugation of African American progress. Recognizing the racial propaganda of the World’s Columbian Exposition, prominent African American leader Frederick Douglass condemned the “Dahomey Village” exhibition, which he felt was designed to “shame the Negro.”

From such public displays, the Dahomey Amazon grew into a mythical African savage in the popular imagination. Despite these racist and sexist tropes, the Dahomey Amazons eventually became figures for racial uplift: from Black Liberation-era celebrations of their history to radical Black feminists like Audre Lorde praising them as protofeminist models of sisterhood and solidarity.

It is said that while they were on display at the expo in Chicago, they subversively sang in their own language: “If you will come to our country, we will take pleasure in cutting your white throats!”

If any of our narratives, shaped by and reclaimed from colonial myth-making, can recapture the ferocity of these women’s resistance, even in the midst of colonial defeat, then their story will not have been told in vain.

Such is the promise of The Woman King—opening in theaters Sept. 16. A more contemporary mythmaking, Hollywood style, the movie was directed by Love & Basketball filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood and stars award-winning actor Viola Davis, who is also a producer through her JuVee Productions company. Davis has already declared this film her “magnum opus.”

“For so long, Hollywood has only ever framed Africa in stereotypical ways,” said Aje-Ori Agbese, an associate professor of communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who studies African cinema. “So this movie, centered on African women and African history, will generate a conversation. We have Black Panther to thank for that.”

Agbese refers, of course, to the international box-office phenomenon that was the Marvel superhero film Black Panther (2018). Based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, it changed the game in the global marketing of all-Black or predominantly Black movie casts and advanced a fantasy narrative of a fictitious, technologically advanced and uncolonized African utopia called Wakanda.

“I think what Black Panther did for Hollywood was it showed that they could tell positive stories about Africa, even if you had to go deep into the past,” Agbese explains. “Black Panther is fantasy, but it relies very much on pre-colonial African dress, customs and culture.”

Significant to the Black Panther narrative is the all-female royal guard called the Dora Milaje, which protects the titular African king. The women warriors of Dahomey provided the blueprint for this fictitious group, since they too served as bodyguards for the king, officially joining the army during the reign of King Ghezo, who ruled from 1818 to 1859.

Following Black Panther’s success, elements of the Dahomey warriors’ history have surfaced in shows like HBO’s Lovecraft Country and in Smithsonian Channel’s documentary Warrior Women, narrated by Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o, who costarred in Black Panther and was initially set to star in The Woman King before eventually bowing out.

Such developments indicate cultural shifts.

Lupita Nyong’o (left) played Nakia, a member of the all-female royal guard, in Black Panther.

“With the release of Black Panther, African-descended peoples carried themselves with such dignity,” said Nwando Achebe, the Jack and Margaret Sweet endowed professor of history at Michigan State University and the author of Female Monarchs and Merchant Queens in Africa. “When I teach about Africa in the U.S., I always say to my Black students, ‘Own Africa; it’s all yours. It is your birthright.’”

Such “ownership” is not without its controversies, however. Criticisms emerged over Black Panther’s “Wakandafication” of Africa, and similar projects like pop star Beyoncé’s Black Is King (2020) were accused of cultural appropriation and simplistic romanticization of an African past that reflects African American cultural ignorance.

“There can be a disconnect between African Americans and Africans,” Agbese admitted. “A good example is Coming to America, which I found both funny and insulting. The sequel tried to be less stereotypical, but it still has problems. And yet, its impact on Africans is such that when you go to a Nigerian movie that depicts royalty, they will show people throwing flowers! That never happened in any African society, but it happened in Coming to America! I’m more hopeful that Hollywood actors are now wanting to work with African storytellers so we can get more stories from African perspectives.”

Agbese again attributes this possibility to the success of Black Panther, which made African stories from African perspectives more popular and opened the door for movies such as The Woman King and Nigerian-produced (“Nollywood”) films on Netflix—including the release of the historical warrior-queen drama Amina (2021) by filmmaker Izu Ojukwu, which was years in the making.

“As a Black woman, as a Nigerian woman, as an African woman, I cannot tell you how powerful it is to see African women presented in a positive light,” Agbese said, “because Hollywood has not done a good job of representing African women. Even positive films like Queen of Katwe start in a place of poverty and struggle. If you search for African women on Google, all you get are pictures of women who are poor, women who are suffering. Black Panther didn’t do that. It showed you the variety of African women. … It showed the history that was wiped away by Islam, Christianity and colonization.”

If you search for African women on Google, all you get are pictures of women who are poor, women who are suffering. … ‘Black Panther‘ showed the history that was wiped away by Islam, Christianity and colonization.”

Aje-Ori Agbese, professor of communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Achebe concurred, admitting she became a historian of Africa precisely because she wanted to challenge the global image of African women as “beasts of burden.”

“I wanted to tell the history of African women that I knew intimately well,” Achebe said. “The only way to do that was not to get angry about what had been written but to contribute to that canon—to speak back and to talk back with evidence and a very African-centered perspective.”

Part of Achebe’s work is to analyze the role of gender from an African context, a subject often approached from Western perspectives in some of the documented histories on the Dahomey women warriors, perhaps most notably Edna Bay’s Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey (1998). Bay’s book explores the different origin stories for these women warriors, from assertions that they began as an elite group of elephant hunters to a theory that a key female regent, Hangbe, may have instituted the practice of an all-female royal guard when she came into power in the early 18th century.

Art history professor Larsen, who is inspired by Bay’s research, views Hangbe as a feminist.

“It was Hangbe who said, ‘Hey, women can do things that they’re not doing.’ And she set up ways to teach farming and basketry and pottery to women when they had not been doing those things before,” Larsen said. “And then the fact that she was on the battlefield before that was even a thing and had this female guard that she probably developed in a more meaningful way, I think that makes her a feminist.”

To Achebe, however, such gender-defying tactics are more reflective of African ways of complicating sex and gender—which can offer lessons for contemporary feminism and conversations in the West around gender identity. African women rulers have often challenged their gender status: from pharaoh Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, who donned a beard and became the first woman to declare herself pharaoh despite having a male heir, to 17th-century ruler Nzinga of Angola, who insisted on being called “king” while keeping male concubines dressed as women.

“In an African context, you can be born biologically female but be considered a gendered male, or be born biologically male and be considered a gendered female,” Achebe explained. “There is no tension between that at all. It is this flexibility and fluidity of the African gender concept that allows for categories of female husbands, female sons and female kings. King Nzinga essentially became a man, became a king and married women.”

Achebe is careful to assert that these instances of woman-to-woman marriage, which still occur in some African countries, have nothing to do with same-sex desire. “A female husband is not marrying a woman to have sex with her but to have children by her,” she noted, adding that same-sex desire and relationships most certainly existed in precolonial Africa but are not the basis of such marriages, and that criminalization of homosexuality in Africa today stems from draconian European colonial laws.

It is this gender complexity, indigenous to Africa, that gave rise to the development of a powerful all-female army during King Ghezo’s reign. Their military inclusion enhanced a population whose male members had been decimated over the years through numerous wars fought during the era of the transatlantic slave trade.

The legacy of women warriors extends to the Americas as well. Victoria Montou—also called Adbaraya Toya—was believed to have been a Dahomey warrior sold into slavery. She trained the first ruler of the independent Republic of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in military combat, and she is also believed to have participated in the Bois Caïman uprising that sparked Haiti’s revolution. King Ghezo’s mother, Agontimé, may have been sold into slavery in Brazil and is believed to have emerged as a spiritual leader. From this one kingdom various women leaders flourished throughout the diaspora.

Viola Davis as Nanisca, a Dahomey leader, in The Woman King.

The Woman King, based on an actual warrior and leader named Nanisca (played by Davis), is set years before the Dahomey resistance to French colonization. Much of the history of these women is shaped by the kingdom’s lucrative economy in the transatlantic slave trade. This fact disturbed Nyong’o, who began her narration of the Warrior Women documentary in a celebratory mood, searching for the “real Dora Milaje”—only to have that spirit dampened when she discovered these women warriors also captured prisoners of war for the slave trade.

“I think that’s a simplistic understanding,” Achebe said when contemplating the women’s complicity in the trade. “These warrior women were themselves enslaved. They came from Yoruba and were forced into these positions. Indigenous slavery in Africa is very different from the transatlantic slave trade. In Africa, you also have slavery that gave these women opportunities to elevate their social positions. They did military service; religious teachings; they learned to survive in the wild; they took vows of chastity. This is what turned them into the machines that they eventually became.”

This is the training that led to their global reputation when the French first encountered them. They are neither uncomplicated heroes nor cutthroat villains, neither abject victims nor unproblematic feminists. They represent a history about which we have much to learn and from which we must extract hard truths from easy myths.

Cinema often contributes to such myths, but it can also reveal important truths.

“Look at Black Panther,” Larsen said. “Art historians have said for years that museums in the West needed to return art objects back to their place of origin. But it took that scene with Killmonger in the museum, and now there’s this huge movement. It absolutely forced the Met and museums in Paris to repatriate art back to Dahomey. That’s powerful!”

With a new movie like The Woman King, we can only hope the same cinematic power is redirected onto a group of African women who were once the embodiment of resistance.

“My hope is that young African-descended girls and women see themselves in these powerful women,” Achebe said. “I hope they too will aspire for greatness.”

This article originally appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.