The Warrior Women Project: An Open-Access Critical and Teaching Edition of Dianne Dugaw’s Historic Catalog of “Warrior Women” Ballads

Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827, British, The Ballad Singers, undated, Watercolor and graphite with pen and black ink on moderately thick, moderately textured, cream laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.367.

Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827, British, The Ballad Singers, undated, Watercolor and graphite with pen and black ink on moderately thick, moderately textured, cream laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.367.

The Warrior Women Project (WWP) is an open-access digital home for the 113 “warrior women” ballads originally cataloged by Dianne Dugaw, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature, University of Oregon, for the index of her dissertation, The Female Warrior Heroine in Anglo-American Balladry (1982).  Professor Dugaw published her dissertation research in her landmark interdisciplinary monograph that revealed the widespread cultural fascination in the long eighteenth century with women who cross dressed as soldiers and sailors as depicted in multiple genres including popular ballads, life writing, and drama:  Warrior Women and Popular Balladry:  1650-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1989; reprinted University of Chicago Press, 1996).

The book was pivotal.  It demonstrated the extent to which gender and sexuality were and are performances historically constructed.  The ballads examined in it, including “Mary Ambree:  The Valorous Acts performed at Gaunt, By the brave Bonny Lass Mary Ambree, who in Revenge of her Loves death, did play her part most gallantly,” are important musical, textual, and visual artifacts that still have much to regale regarding popular and material culture of the long eighteenth century.  However, the ballads themselves, transcribed via typewriter by Professor Dugaw for her dissertation, have gone unpublished—until the WWP’s launch in 2021.

After nearly 40 years, these warrior women ballads are freely available for public and scholarly exploration.  The culmination of a partnership with the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) and a team of students at the Wayne State University English Department led by Professor of English and UCSB graduate Simone Chess, the WWP includes a critical introduction, “‘Dangerous Examples’ Over Four Centuries of Song:  Nevertheless, They Persisted,” written by Professor Dugaw.

These ballads are an important resource for researchers and students interested in the literary, cultural, and historical study of gender, sexuality, and empire in the long eighteenth century.  They are bawdy; they contain sex reveals, marriage plots (thwarted and successful), death scenes, pregnancies, displays of the warrior woman’s military prowess, and acts of violence.  They circulated from lower to upper social ranks (and a large category of the ballads mention class, rank, or status) as they were displayed on the walls of coffee and ale houses, hawked on the streets, and featured in works such as John Gay’s controversial sequel to the Beggar’s Opera (1728), Polly (published by subscription in 1729 and patronized by Catherine “Kitty” Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry and Dover).  Even Eliza Haywood riffed on the warrior woman—in a book dedicated to Douglas—in the Female Spectator, which the WWP is the first to recognize in the mini-edition of that article published on the WWP.   The episode depicts one would-be warrior woman named “Aliena” as a “true” story and as a frequent-enough occurrence to warrant a cautionary tale for the periodical’s readership (as argued in that mini-edition’s critical introduction).

The Ballads:  Catalog, Database, and Critical and Teaching Resources

By contextualizing the ballads alongside such other eighteenth-century contexts as the Female Spectator, their depictions in the Americas and in the Ballad of Mulan, amongst others, the website publishes Professor Dugaw’s scanned index of ballads as a PDF and digitizes and embeds it as a searchable research tool, while foremost presenting it as a historic document in its own right.  The WWP is the first site to exclusively contain each ballad thematically within one searchable, sortable database complete with supplemental editorial apparatus, including critical and background scholarship, teaching resources including in-class and online activities, and background readings—even a playlist of recorded ballads performed by Professor Dugaw herself.

In ways not possible in a traditional, printed book, the WWP allows researchers and students to map, sort, and search the ballads quickly and purposefully, thus enabling fresh critical insights regarding the patterns, keywords, and themes that surface between and among the ballads, which traverse national boundaries and are set in England’s overseas and closer-to-home contingencies such as in India, the West Indies, and Ireland, spanning a truly “long” eighteenth century (you can sort to view ballads pre-1650, 1650-1700, 1700-1800, and 1800-later).

Some of the ballads appear in other online catalogs including the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA), Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), and in the English Short Title Catalog (ESTC).  However, those on EEBO and ECCO were not freely available to those without a subscription.  The WWP team collaboratively located and then linked the 113 ballads across these and other platforms on their “digital home.”  Because every ballad links externally to each known online iteration on EBBA, the ESTC, and others (and provides Gale Document Numbers for EEBO and ECCO ballads), researchers and students can compare multiple ballad copies side by side.  Additionally, the WWP team transcribed and uploaded images of the ballads from the original typewritten document and performed quality assurance checks to assure each ballad is accurate and entirely searchable.

The Team:  Process and Product

This project would not have happened without Professor Dugaw’s catalog and scholarship, and it likewise would not have been possible without her generosity, advice, and shared experience, which inspired the work and guided the team’s editorial and design decisions.  Professor Patricia Fumerton imagined and encouraged the team to do this work.  EBBA Assistant Director Kristen McCants provided invaluable assistance and counsel.  Development work on the project began in Professor Chess’s Fall 2019 graduate course, in which Erika Carbonara, Sarah Chapman, Robert Chapman-Morales, Matthew Jewell, Bernadette Kelly, Lindsay Ragle-Miller, and Kelly Plante (project manager) applied feminist and DH theory and praxis to create and organize the database.  The team conceived of educational and critical resources to contextualize the ballads for scholarly and student audiences.  In a way prescient of the Covid-19 pandemic’s shift to remote learning that would occur just a few months later, Professor Dugaw visited the Detroit classroom via video projection from Oregon and told stories of collecting ballad copies in her father’s truck and traversing the country, singing ballads on back porches.  WSU librarians Clayton Hayes and Alexandra Sarkozy, and WSU alum Professor Andie Silva provided valuable advice, counsel, and education to the team on all things DH.  Professor Judith Moldenhauer (James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State) invited students to learn early-modern ballad printing processes hands-on by co-writing and co-printing the team’s very own warrior women ballad on the WSU Vandercook 325 printing press.  Matthew Holben, then student assistant to Professor Moldenhauer, crafted a custom wood engraving for the team to commemorate their work together.  Five of the original team of graduate students—Carbonara, Chapman, Kelly, Ragle-Miller, and Plante (continuing as project manager)—then built on their work in a Winter 2020 directed study with Professor Chess, creating the website and developing and implementing additional teaching and research resources to supplement the ballads.  Undergraduate and graduate students in ENG 5190—Louie Alkasmikha, Melinda Baker, Emma Brick, Elliot Chammas, Andy Cho, Kay Cirocco, Mackenzie Devine, Michael Dickson, Rachel Felder, Kaitlyn Holt, Noor Jomaa, Drita Juncaj, Diamond Price, Zachary Siteck, Talia Smock, and Katheryn VanRiper—beta tested the site links and content.  They contributed ideas and recommendations for improvement, annotated ballads, and wrote essays—all during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Team members have presented on the WWP at conferences such as the South Central Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (SCSECS 2020), the Wonder Women & Rebel Girls:  Women Warriors in the Media, ca. 1800–present Workshop (Online, Fall 2020), Shakespeare Association of America (SAA 2021), and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS 2021), when Plante’s research essay that built on the WWP received the ASECS Graduate Research Essay prize.


Kelly Plante received her Ph.D. from Wayne State University in Detroit. Passionate about the digital and public humanities, Plante currently serves as reviews editor for Aphra Behn Online (ABO): Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640–1840, associate reader for the Michigan Quarterly Review, and with Karenza Sutton-Bennett as co-editor for the Lady’s Museum Project and co-chair for the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies Digital Humanities Caucus. She has served as project manager for the Warrior Women Project, co-general editor for The Poetry of Gertrude More: Piety and Politics in a Benedictine Convent, and managing editor for Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts. Her writing can be found in Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, ABO, and is forthcoming in Twenty-First Century Digital Editing & Publishing, ed. James O’Sullivan (Scottish Universities Press, 2024).