Author explores role of female warriors, in history and the imagination

April 05, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Linda Grant De Pauw always had trouble getting her young son Ben to talk. To coax him along, she would spin fanciful yarns for him based on his favorite television show, "Star Trek."

Eventually, she and Ben created a universe of strange creatures and characters. Among them, Maggie Steele, the heroine of Dr. De Pauw's new science fiction novel, "Baptism of Fire."

Dr. DePauw, a Pasadena resident, is the founder of the Minerva Center, an international clearinghouse for information about women and the military. So it should come as no surprise that her novel tells the story of a young woman who graduates from the Naval Academy in 2080 and takes command of a combat ship.

The story challenges the prevailing archetype of the woman warrior, said Dr. De Pauw, who also is a professor of American history at George Washington University.

Women have always participated in war, whether as soldiers, spies, nurses or camp followers, she said. But their exploits have been obscured, "buried under centuries of sniggling."

Most often, women are thought of only as victims of war, she said. Even when their exploits are recalled, they are depicted as "rampaging mothers" or lesbians, she said.

Maggie Steele, an officer on an intergalactic dreadnought defending the Earth from flesh-eating pig creatures, is none of the above, Dr. De Pauw said. Her "world is full of women in the military; it's accepted. This whole story is about whether this particular individual will be able to hack it [war]."

Given the recent Tailhook scandal, involving the sexual harassment of women by male Navy pilots at a convention in Las Vegas, Dr. De Pauw said her novel is a "comfortable fantasy."

The novel is the first by Dr. De Pauw. She is better known for her nonfiction, which explodes myths about women and the military. Her 1983 book, "Seafaring Women," used ships' logs, memoirs and journals to chronicle the lives of women who sailed aboard whaling vessels and commanded privateers.

She is working on another nonfiction book, "Battle Cries and Lullabies: A Brief History of Women in War," to be published next year by William Morrow and Company.

A specialist in American Revolutionary history, she became fascinated with women in the military 20 years ago while doing research on George Washington's Continental army. She became even more interested when she realized it was a field unexplored even by military scholars. "No one knew anything about [the role played by women] other than Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher," she said.

Dr. De Pauw, a native of New York City, said she never met a military woman until after she began publishing articles about the women who served at Valley Forge and in other Revolutionary War campaigns.

"That brought military women out of the woodwork. They all said, 'Tell us more about the women with the muskets,' " said Dr. De Pauw, who earned her doctorate at the Johns Hopkins University.

Caught up by their enthusiasm, she created the Minerva Center -- named after the helmeted Roman goddess of war and wisdom -- in 1983. Its growing archives, a seminar room and the office where she edits the center's quarterly journal and news magazine now occupy much of her Stony Creek bungalow.

The journal, Minerva, is helping to quell the snickering about women and the military, said Linda Enloe, a professor of government at Massachusetts' Clark University.

"I think it has shaped the kinds of informed comments you're now hearing in discussions about Tailhook," she said.

"You wouldn't have that informed voice without Linda and maybe two or three others."

Recent issues of the journal, whose subscribers include the U.S. Naval Academy, have included articles about a black woman who enlisted in the Union Army in 1866, an analysis of pregnant women and single parents in the Navy and a look at women leading the mujahedeen in their rebellion against Iran.

"It probably pushes a feminist agenda in a lot of ways," said retired Marine Col. Paul Roush, a professor at the Naval Academy. "But those not interested in that can still find a lot of useful articles."

"Baptism of Fire" -- which is on sale at the Anne Arundel Community College bookstore -- is the first of many fiction and nonfiction books that Dr. De Pauw hopes the Minerva Center can publish. A second book, a collection of letters written by another woman who served as a Union soldier and edited by a Georgia historian, is due out next year.

Dr. De Pauw said she plans to write other stories involving Maggie Steele, who first appeared in a short story in Minerva in 1985. The character appeals to her, she said, because Maggie is a heroine unlike any she has come across in her historical research.

She is "heroic in human terms rather than gender terms," Dr. De Pauw said.

"She is a female Jean Luc Picard," the mythical star ship captain from the television show "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

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