Relatively speaking, feudal society in Japan was fairly liberal in terms of how women were perceived and what rights they were entitled to. More often than not, they could inherit estates, manage businesses (de jure) and voice their opinion about social affairs without borrowing a man’s throat or needing his permission.
During the Kamakura and Heian Period, it could be argued that these were the ‘most favorable’ of times for female warriors to come along and get ahead in their respective armies.
Much of warring was still very formal and ritualized.
Skirmishes occurred between small numbers of professional warriors but the skirmishing itself adhered to a huge number of ritualistic rules and stringent traditions. Fighters from the one side would name a specific individual opponent and demand they come forward to face them.
This was utterly different from the brutal and drastic clashes that delineated the total war of the Sengoku Era, when armies were a mix of draftees, professional fighters, and Samurai. The Sengoku era is where you could see thousands of bodies and corpses pressing against each other in the chaos of the battleground.
During the Kamakura and the Heian, it is not hard to imagine the Onna-Bugeisha could distinguish themselves on a battlefield, especially when not all effronts were meant to wipe out the other side. The raging, pitiless confrontation and bulk sale killing of the Sengoku Era had not become the favored method of warfare yet.
During these earlier years, the bow was still the weapon of choice for respectable Japanese fighters for both campaign and competition. Women could be just as proficient with a bow as any man.
Woman with Naginata -Legend of the Five Rings
The Naginata was only adopted as a ‘Noblewoman’s Samurai Sword’ during the Edo Period, known for its comparatively long lasting peace of centuries, long after all the conflicts were done with. This image of the naginata being a women’s tool was also promoted during WWII as most citizens of the Empire received military training as a part of their general education.
Japanese women throughout history had various levels of independence and standing in society but in general, were given fairly inferior roles compared to men. Women who became Onna-Bugeisha were not exempt from this. That being said, they sometimes enjoyed a great deal of independence and legal rights compared to other societies of the time
BUT one should not make the mistake that Japanese women lived in an egalitarian society. Warrior women might have found prestige and popularity with some but it is almost undoubtedly that many had contempt for those who took women in their squadrons, as well as men who were revolted at the thought of fighting alongside or fronting a woman.
Tomoe Gozen is the only individul Japanese female warrior to get any notable description in a Japanese account (she was described in the Heike Monogatari, a history of the Gempei war of 1180-1185). This work also gives insight how they were looked upon during that time: Kiso Yoshinaka, the samurai that she served, had resolved himself to death in a desperate situation and commanded her to leave, not because he fretted for her life so much as he didn’t want the ‘dishonor’ of dying alongside a woman..
She was portrayed as a master rider with transcendent skill with both bow and sword, and was said to have attained “matchless renown in clashes with the bravest captains” and was “a match for a thousand warriors”. During Yoshinaka’s last fight she was one of the remnant seven who stood their ground to the end. In spite of Yoshinaka’s order, she stayed long enough to fight the captain of a group of thirty that assaulted them, grappling him and cutting his head off before retreating as commanded.
There are a number of remarkable tales about women’s exploits in war, such as the account of Miyagino and Shinobu, sisters who worked together to take revenge on the Samurai that has killed their father. The warrior women of Aizu is another remarkable exception; during the Boshin War (1868-1869) many women participated in the strife against the forces of the emperor. The women of Aizu were tutored in the use of the naginata, and while they were never expected to have to, they could. The accounts of the last stand that happened in Aizu mentions of women who fought to the death alongside the male soldiers.