A lot of modern women like to think that they invented the tough, independent, take-charge lady in charge. The truth is that women – and, surprisingly often, girls – have been kicking ass for most of recorded history. There have been female gangsters, military leaders, queens, warriors, and pirates since all of those things existed. Some of the most notable warriors have been women, all the way from ancient Egypt to the World War Two era Soviet snipers, right up to our own US Marine Corps fighter pilots.
Yes, the very indomitable quality that led to the suffragette movement and the push for workplace equality has always been with the fairer sex. Only it seems that spirit used to manifest not as a huffy attitude or a fixation on who opens doors, but as the bloody end of a sword. And wherever these vanquishing heroines of history cut a bloody, conquering swath, they left enduring legends.
What is it about the warrior woman that so readily captures our imaginations? Is it the contrast between the stereotype of the nurturing, gentle sex and the rough and tumble world of the fighter? Is it an affection for a sort of mother bear? The longing for an aggressive, exciting lover? Or is it just the admiration for someone who has triumphed in a world where they were, by default, relegated to a lower station? Whatever the case, these five women made their mark on a man’s world by dominating a part of it.
Nakano Takeko (1847 – 1868)
Nakano Takeko is an example of a class of Japanese women warriors that are falsely remembered as Samurai Wives. This caste – the Onna Bugeisha – were a group of women, mostly nobles, who were notable for skewering their enemies with a pole arm.
What’s a pole arm you ask? Oh, basically a sword with a spear on the end. In Japanese it’s called a Naginata, and it’s length and girth made up for a woman’s basic shortcoming against men. Their reach and strength were generally less than the men they’d have to defend their homes, children and honor against, and so they made up for it with a long, vicious weapon.
Nakano was noteworthy even amongst these courageous women. Born the daughter of a government official, she took up martial arts instead of sewing and flower arranging. She must have done well, because her sensei adopted her. And that’s a good thing, as there was a war on and Nakano wanted to fight in it. And fight she did, leading a corp of all female warriors that were instrumental in the battle of Boshin.
Nakano’s life ended when she led a charge against better armed imperial troops. Wielding her naginata, she was no match for riflemen, and was felled by a bullet to the chest. In romantic Samurai style, she had her sister cut off her head and bury it under a pine tree rather than let it fall into enemy hands.
Every year, Japanese women celebrate this heroine by dressing in traditional garb and wearing a white headband.
Joan Of Arc
If you haven’t heard of Joan of Arc – who we will call Jeanne – then, hello, welcome back from your coma. The basics of Jeanne’s story are quite well known. Born a peasant, very devout christian, a sweet young girl who begged the dauphin of France for the right to save France from defeat by the English. And she succeeded! And then she was repaid for her strength, courage and vision by being showered with jewels and perfumes and bathed by beautiful servants. Psych! They burned her alive!
What you may not know is just how incredibly brave Joan really was.
To be frank, 15th century France was absolute shit. The English had been doing this whole, ‘lets burn every bit of this country to the ground’ thing. It was total war. Wherever the English fought, they would leave desolation. It was in this country, a country with no economy to speak of, with a population still recovering from the plague, a war-torn landscape and a completely demoralized army of losers, that Jeanne was born and raised.
Now you may laugh and say the French military were always losers but that’s not so. The French military is historically one of the most successful of all time. In hundreds of years of war they’d suffered very few losses. The English invasions of the hundred years war changed all that. France felt like defeat was virtually inevitable. But not Jeanne. She looked at all this horror and saw something any 14 year old prophet of the lord could fix.
And that’s what she claimed to be. She said that saints and an archangel told her to guide France to victory. Was she nuts? Many great warriors have that touch of crazy – it’s not a sane person that runs towards danger. Sane or nutso, Jeanne managed to convince the dauphin that she was god’s answer to his prayers when she successfully predicted that Orleans – a very important city – was about to have problems. English problems. When the siege of Orleans started to turn in favor of the English, the dauphin sent this little peasant girl with no military training to act as a morale boost. She became a standard bearer.
So, there was Jeanne, in the middle of a siege of big, burly, bloodthirsty warriors in the fury of battle. Not the situation where you want to draw a lot of attention to your little self. Unless you’re Jeanne, in which case you wave a giant freaking flag around and scream a lot and lead charges. And then you get shot in the neck with an arrow.
And then you come back out the very next day to do it again. Think you’re tough because you got a hangnail and kept doing your homework? Held in a #2 on a long flight? A fourteen year old country girl got shot and was only out of commission for a little nap before leading an attack on an English stronghold.
Anne Bonny (early 1700s)
Anne Bonny is not a heroine. She is nobody’s idea of a good person. She was a killer, a cold-blooded, hot-headed rampaging thief. She was a pirate, very likely a psychopath, and probably a lot tougher than you. She was sort of the Kill Bill’s Bebe Kiddo of the age of piracy, and you may know her from the video game Assassin’s Creed IV. But I bet you didn’t know she started out a badass around the same age as Jeanne D’arc.
At age thirteen the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner decided she was going to up and shank a bitch. And a shankin’ she did go. It’s not recorded what the servant girl did to upset Anne Bonny, but whatever it was it warranted a carving knife up to the hilt. This might have been the first time that young Anne drew blood, but it wouldn’t be the last. Evidently she liked it. And she was good at it.
Anne was born to wealth and privilege. She was expected to marry a similar husband and make nice aristocratic children. This was not in her plans, however, and she married a poor sailor. It might have been for adventure, or it might have been because she could control her poor husband with her inheritance. Either way when she met the pirate Calico Jack she ran off with him and became his wife and second in command. Calico, Bonny and their new friend Mary Read stole a ship – the Revenge – and had a successful piracy career. Bonny was known to be a harsh leader, but fair, and loved by her crew. She didn’t hide the fact she was a woman and fought right alongside her male crew, swinging a sword and everything.
Alas it was an incredibly rare pirate that ever retired, and Anne Bonny was captured along with her Jack and Mary. Mary let it be known where she placed the responsibility for their dilemma, yelling at her husband that if he’d fought like a man he’d not have to hang like a dog. Now there was a woman with balls.
Anne, along with Mary, however, would not hang for their piracy. The claimed they were pregnant and eventually went free. It’s not known if Anne Bonny went back to the pirates’ life or settled down to be a mother. I like the think the latter – having a pirate for a mom? Too awesome.
Trung Sisters (1st century AD)
The Trung sisters are Vietnamese national heroes, and incredibly accomplished warriors by any nation’s measure. At the time that the Trung Sisters came into prominence Vietnam had been under control for one hundred and fifty one years. Imagine that you lived under the yoke of an oppressive, technologically superior, highly organized and ruthless regime for not only your entire life, but for four generations. Very few people would have the guts to stand up to such authority at all, let alone lead a revolt. But that’s just what the Trung Sisters did. And they did pretty well, too.
The Trung Sisters were daughters of a powerful Vietnamese lord. At the time that one of them married, the rule of the Chinese emperor was so rough that many historians believe that Vietnam may have ceased to exist if not for an uprising. And rise up is what they did when Thi Sach, husband of Trung Trac, was killed for not being Chinese enough. One thing you do not do is kill a Trung’s husband. Because they get up on top of elephants and straight up rampage on your ass.
Within a few months it’s said that the Trung sisters and the troops they inspired to fight against the harsh Chinese rule had razed sixty five Chinese citadels. Even one victory is amazing, given the Chinese army was a sophisticated and disciplined military machine; 65 is downright amazing.
The Trung sisters couldn’t keep the momentum going, unfortunately, and fell to a retaliatory force just three years into their rule. There isn’t much a small country like Vietnam can do, conventionally, when faced with an overwhelming number of enemies and the Chinese had nothing if not the force of numbers. In what is becoming a theme regarding the Asians on this list, the sisters decided to commit suicide instead of being taken captive or live under Chinese rule. They drowned themselves in the river.
It was 247 years since the Chinese began taking control of Vietnam. Thanks to the Trung sisters Vietnam still has a national identity of some kind. They’re celebrated as heroes, almost as saints, in their native land.
Zenobia (240 – 275 BC)
Evidently nothing pisses off ancient women like killing their male family members, and Zenobia of Syria was no exception. Zenobia is the prototypical warrior women. One of the first and most enduring examples of a conquering heroine, she has been the subject of operas and novels and films in one form or another. And you have no idea who she was, do you? Let’s fix that.
Zenobia was the queen of a little place called Palmyra that was destined to get a bit bigger under her rule. Her husband and stepson were assassinated – possibly due to her own machinations – leaving her in charge. Understand that hers was a kingdom that owed tribute to Rome. What that means is that they weren’t really independent. They could rule as they wished as long as they gave to Rome every year. Basically, Rome was the mafia and Palmyra was your local neighborhood pizza shop. If they didn’t pay the protection money they’d get burnt to the ground or, more likely, killed and replaced. So Zenobia did the sensible thing.
She went out and conquered all of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
In theory these lands now enriched Rome, but in practice they made Zenobia much more powerful. Powerful enough to conquer Egypt. Egypt, which was already under Roman rule. Rome, the USA of its time, was a force to be reckoned with and not fucked with. Zenobia felt the exact opposite way. When a Roman prefect came to take back Egypt, she had him beheaded.
Sadly her young empire was not to last, and Zenobia was defeated by a force led by emperor Aurelian himself. He moved his forces out of Gaul just to deal with her in the middle east. But, for a time, she was the most powerful woman on the planet and one of the most powerful people. Legend has it that, after she was spared by the emperor, she went on to found a bloodline that survives to this day.