Margaret Dilloway, American Housewife

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Tomoe Gozen

Forgotten Samurai Women

Forgotten Samurai Women by Margaret Dilloway

One day, my dad told me, “You know your mother was from a samurai family, right?”

Um, no, didn’t know that. That kind of information is good to know!My mom had said only that her family had been the royal seal-bearers (which I guess, though it doesn’t sound as exciting as samurai, is ranked above samurai).

Then I wondered: were there any female samurai?

To my surprise, there were. There’s even a book (albeit slender) about them.

I’d never been interested in samurai in my life. Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom had a set of samurai dolls, a man and a woman. The woman had silk robes and real human hair and a detailed kimono costume, right down to the knife she kept in the sleeve.

I always thought that was cool.

I got a book about samurai which had a family tree of notable samurai families. I found my mom’s family and discovered that it is an offshoot of the Minamoto branch.
Then I got the samurai women book.

Women fought in a variety of ways. There was Empress Jingu, who was said to lead her army into war while she was heavily pregnant. Other women trained to defend their homes while the men were away.

And then there was Tomoe Gozen.

Lady Tomoe was said to be the most beautiful bad-ass woman who ever lived, who was the best archer (from horseback) and best swordsman (she fought with a man’s sword). She fought alongside a general named Yoshinaka Minamoto during the 12th century.

Tomoe Gozen. Women didn’t actually paint their faces for battle, but re-enactors often do, a practice that probably stems from kabuki traditions.

Minamoto! That’s where my mom’s family came from.

Yoshinaka was an interesting character. Her parents had rescued him as an infant from an intra-family feud, and he grew up with Tomoe and her brothers. He was said to be a brilliant military tactician, who won several battles with like a quarter as many troops, but a horrible politician. His nickname was, “Kiso,” or “hillbilly,” because he was from the northern mountain area (in what is now Nagano).

Some people think that Tomoe wasn’t real, that she was invented to discredit Yoshinaka by saying he was a wimp for fighting with a female captain. She’s mentioned briefly in The Heike, a mostly true account of the Genpei War, where the Minamoto fought the Taira for the shogunate at the beginning of the shogun era. (One part said she ripped a tree out of the ground. Probably an exaggeration).

Oh, and Tomoe was also Yoshinaka’s concubine.

AND…Yoshinaka also had a legal wife, Yamabuki, as well as probably another concubine, Aoi.


Did the women get along? How did Tomoe become a warrior? What did the other women think of her role?

You can see why I had to write about Tomoe.

I did a lot of research, but most of the English language books on the subject didn’t have all the info I needed. I reached out to the folks at the Samurai Archives. Randy Schadel (aka “jidaigeki legend”); and Dr. Ayame Chiba, a member of the Minami-ku (Kyoto) Historical Reenactment Society) read an early draft and pointed out errors and made a lot of great suggestions (I’m thanking them in my acknowledgements, too, of course).

One of the most important things Randy told me is that “samurai” actually means male warrior, so you can’t say “female samurai.” The term is, “onnamusha,” or “woman warrior.” For simplicity, I’ll probably just say female samurai so people know what I’m talking about, but explain the distinction later.

Translating the life of a 12th century warrior woman into modern day women’s fiction proved challenging. Life then, as Thomas Hobbes would say several centuries later, was, “Nasty, brutish, and short.”

Ultimately, I decided to excerpt Tomoe’s story into my contemporary story, sort of like I did with the fiction “American Housewife book” in How to Be an American Housewife. Each samurai section is no more than 5 pages and thematically informs the modern day story.

But although I’m not a “historical” author, I couldn’t bear to leave the rest of Tomoe on the cutting room.

So I took all my historical sections and made them into a separate book, which will be available as a supplemental e-book when SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW publishes.



Around Halloween, there are plenty of princess-bashing articles floating around because of all the princess costumes and hoopla. The general idea is that having Cinderella or Snow White as a role model isn’t great, when you should be steering your girls toward warrior princesses like Mulan or Merida from Brave.  The other princesses, people argue, set back feminism by a hundred years.

I’ve got nothing against warriors. I’m in the middle of a book about a real-life female samurai, Tomoe Gozen. But if I’ve learned anything from writing a historical novel, it’s that sometimes women’s choices were limited, and they had to do the best with the choices they did have.

Also, not everyone is athletic and physically strong. If your male child was more artistic than athletic, would you cajole him to abandon his paints for football? I feel like that’s part of what’s driving the princess-dissing—you’re supposed to want to be strong and tough, and that might be an aspiration more than a reality. It’s not necessarily possible for every individual. Nor is physical resistance always the best response (Gandhi, anyone?).

I, for instance, consider myself to have a strong spirit, but I bruise easily. If I had to fight, I’d have to do it offensively and with skill and determination, or I’d have to run really fast. Frankly, one of my reasons for choosing my husband is because he’s a lot physically stronger than I am, and he will use his Special Ops training to protect us during the zombie apocalypse or the downfall of the U.S. government. I don’t feel bad about my lack of physical prowess, because I can only change it to a certain extent (working out, practicing sports, etc). I’ll never be shaped like my husband (which I think he prefers). It’s just how it is.

We should value and celebrate emotional strength as well as the physical. My Tomoe Gozen book also has a contemporary part, with contemporary women—it’s difficult to write about a warrior who’s battling people to the death; and then have the same emotional resonance going on for a woman who’s not battling to the death, but has deep psychological issues she must address. Battles are not always of a physical nature.

Also consider that these stories took place during eras when choices for women were very limited. Women used to be property, you know. In some places, even in the United States, they still are. I think the princesses did the best they could, given their physical and historical-era limitations. There are always exceptions, like Tomoe Gozen, who lived during the 12th century. Yet even she, a captain in an army, was still considered property despite her mad sword and arrow skills.

Here’s my take on some of the Disney princesses, and why they’re not all that bad.



Poor Belle. She’s being forced into marriage by the town bigwig douche, Gaston. Everyone loves Gaston except Belle. Belle loves her books and has higher aspirations. At the time this film takes place, it’s highly likely that Belle would have been told to marry Gaston no matter how she felt about it.

Her father, a good-hearted but failed and doddering inventor, gets lost on a trip. Upon meeting the Beast, Belle’s father has promised to spend the rest of his life imprisoned there. So Belle nobly volunteers to serve in his stead.

Exactly how is it weak to volunteer to be imprisoned for the rest of your life with a monster? To save your father’s life with your own?

Additionally, she probably didn’t even go to school—girls weren’t regularly educated in Europe until when, the 20th century? This film takes place at least a hundred years earlier, right?—and Belle lived in the countryside– so she had to teach herself to read all those books. Possibly her father taught her. Nevertheless, that shows some damn initiative.

She also dresses down the Beast for his lack of manners. She might not be able to kill the Beast with her bare hands, but she’s definitely brave.



Ariel’s only 16, and already people are talking about her marriage, her need to grow up, her impending responsibilities. Because people used to get married young.

Ariel wishes she could go ashore like a human. So when Ariel falls in love with Erik, which also feeds her desire to go on land, she’s got to make a hard choice. Her undersea world, or the uncertainty of the dry world and the loss of her voice.

Ariel must display courage in leaving her known world for the unknown, the untested, where she could die much more easily. That doesn’t seem to me to be an easy thing. Besides, what the hell else is Ariel going to do? Marry some boring Mer-Man that King Triton chooses for her and start popping out babies?

You could argue, I suppose, that she shouldn’t be throwing her life away for a boy. But Ariel always wanted to leave the sea anyway. Plus, every great love story that feels like it’s destined to happen has elements of sacrifice and tragedy and oh-my-god-I-found-my-soulmate.  In Casablanca, do you choose your love, or helping the Allies win the war? In Wuthering Heights, Catherine declares, “I am Heathcliff,” pointing to how strongly they’re, well, kind of one person. You know I could go on forever.


Next is Cinderella, whose dad died and left her in the worst possible situation, with a stepmother and stepsisters who make Cinderella into their servant. Except she’s not—I’m sure they’re not paying her a salary. She’s a slave, being kept against her will.

Now, what else could Cinderella do? Escape the house, but where would she go, with no family, during that time? She couldn’t get a job at Burger King and work her way through community college. No, she’d be singing, “I Dream a Dream” with Anne Hathaway in prostitute alley.

Instead of succumbing to her miserable fortunes, Cinderella manages to keep a somewhat sunny disposition most of the time, befriending the mice (the mice!) to keep her company. That’s some fucking ingenuity.

 Snow White

Snow White is the most annoyingly Goody Two Shoes princess. She’s kind of has no personality, a cipher. She’s just got that squeaky voice and an innocence where she seems to not notice all the bad shit going on around her. She’s not particularly clever, Snow White, but can I hold it against someone like her? Like Cinderella, Snow White’s stepmother forces her into labor. How intelligent and funny can you be when you’ve been kept in a castle and forced to scrub floors for most of your life? You’ve got to admit that would take a psychological toll on anyone.

But Snow White manages to keep her cheery attitude and even trains animals to come to her (in modern-day world, she’d make a fortune as a pet trainer). She sings, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” true; but perhaps we can interpret that song to really mean, “Someday My Life Will Not Suck So Much, because I’ll be dead or an army will overtake the palace and things must always change.” Keeping her hopes up.

After the queen convinces a huntsman to murder Snow White and bring back her heart, he takes pity on her. I guess she could have armored up, gathered an army, and taken over the castle—except that a) We’ve already established Snow White’s limitations and b) her stepmother’s a fucking sorceress who tried to cut out her heart.

So then Snow White, naïve Snow White, flees into the forest where she lives with seven random miners. Now, if my mother had just hired a hit-man to kill me and I fled into the forest, and I came upon seven men who said I could live with them, I would keep on walking. Even if they seemed totally on-the-level. Because I’m cynical and that seems might suspicious. But I’m not Snow White, and Snow White is not modern-day me. Snow White makes the best of it by seeing that they need some order and straightening their beds and whatnot. Again, where the hell else would Snow White go? Her stepmother’s the damn queen. Somebody would rat her out for some gold.


The qualities these princesses embody—resilience, courage, integrity, optimism—are not the worst things ever to pass onto your daughters. You can point out how shitty it used to be for women and how these had no real say in the course of their lives and did the best they could, and how freakin’ lucky we are because we get to do whatever we please.

What else would we say the princesses could have done, in their plots? “Belle should have stolen a sword and killed the Beast and taken his castle,” or “Cinderella should have poisoned the soup,” or, “Snow White should have been practicing jiu-jitsu this whole time.”

We don’t want to say, “The only good princesses are the ones who can kick somebody’s ass.” Because then what you’re really saying is, “You’re only worthwhile if you too can kick somebody’s ass.” And that’s sort of devaluing these other qualities I mentioned above, or at least ignoring the other qualities.

It’s just not possible for everyone, or in everyone’s personality, to be good at hand-to-hand combat. We shouldn’t pigeonhole the sexes into roles, tell a non-tomboy that she’s GOT TO LOVE SPORTS, just as you wouldn’t tell a tomboy to wear a pink dress.

As for my own daughters, I have one who liked to dress in Scooby Doo shirts when she was little (only available in the boys’ section) and never really cared for princesses or baby dolls. She loved the villains. That was fine. My other daughter liked princesses and wanted princess everything—but she also enjoyed using random objects as weapons (we have a great photo of her wielding a toy stroller in a Christmastime battle against her older relatives). My son’s not particularly into sports, but though we encourage physical activity for the sake of health, we don’t shame him or force him to participate in group sports.

My children may not be the strongest physical warriors, but I’ve witnessed all three of my kids speaking up for other children who are being bullied or shunned.

Strength of spirit comes into play far more often than physical strength. I’ve only been challenged to an actual physical fight a couple of times. However, on a daily basis, all of us have to enact these other character virtues. And if I want to do it all while wearing a frilly ballgown and a tiara, then I will.

Secrets Your Lit Professor Wouldn’t Tell You

Breaking the hearts of English and Lit teachers everywhere, I have to admit a secret.


Book clubs often ask me this question, or a variation on this question: “We noticed the theme of XYZ in your book. Did you include ABC to support that theme?”


Usually, it’s an incredibly perceptive observation, and I always want to say, “Yes, of course! It was entirely planned out and not at all a happy accident that my subconscious somehow dreamed up!”

Really, the answer is usually no. Not on purpose. But I think it still counts.


My friend, the editor Jane Cavolina (formerly at Penguin, now freelance, helped me with Housewife), once told me that if a scene is in the novel, she thinks it’s there for a reason; and it’s up to us to figure out why and make it work.

I think it has to do with associative thinking, even if you don’t realize what you’re doing is associative thinking because you’re just typing out what’s popping into your head, not analyzing it. That comes later.


Some things I do include on purpose. In Housewife, I was researching Japan and came across an item about the untouchables, or burakumin. I thought, It’d be interesting to include an untouchable character, and then, before I knew it, that rascally character took on a much bigger role than I’d intended.


With Roses, I came up with the idea for a person with kidney dialysis who was a rose breeder. Why? ‘Cause my sister in law had three kidney transplants. No other reason. I didn’t know why it was important she should be on dialysis, except that this was an interesting obstacle for a character to overcome. One where her irascible nature could perhaps be forgiven.


Later, I realized perhaps I picked rose-growing to mirror the character’s life. In rose growing, there are different seasons.  There is dormancy and pruning, when the rose looks dead; seasons of growth; seasons of bloom. It’s that sense of faith in the natural progression of things that keeps her going.


I’m finding that happening now in my WIP, which is about a samurai woman, Tomoe Gozen, who might be in my family tree and a contemporary story about two biracial sisters. The difficulty in this story is the historical part is basically sticking to how things were. Tomoe was a concubine; I didn’t make her the legal wife.


But my contemporary fiction thread is mirroring the Tomoe story in subtle ways I hadn’t planned out beforehand. Of course, this is what I had HOPED would happen (and was wracked with anxiety that it wouldn’t) so I’m really happy. I can’t tell you much more about it.


Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama...
Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama no Shigetada. :Context: Tomoe Gozen was a rare female samurai. At Battle of Awazu in 1184, she is known for killing Uchida Ieyoshi and for escaping capture by Hatakeyama Shigetada -- Henri L. Joly. (1967). Legend in Japanese Art, p. 540. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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