Although they’re harder to find, history does have its share of female heroines. From allied spies to swordfighting opera singers, women have lived rip-roaring, action-movie lives since the beginning of our species. The only problem is the suppression of these stories.
Women typically weren’t allowed to serve in armies, but several of them did disguise themselves as men and saunter into battle anyway. The rule of countries was often left to men, but when women were called upon to take the reins they did so, often with legendary results.
So, here it is: from an Allied spy to a swordfighting opera singer to a pair of pirates who had more fortitude than all the men on their ship combined, here are the ten most kickass women that history has ever seen.
12. Julie d’Aubigny
The life of Julie d’Aubigny is the very definition of “You can’t make this up.” Her father was the secretary to King Louis XIV’s horseman, and she grew up learning to swordfight with the other palace tykes, although she was the only girl. After beginning an affair with her dad’s boss, she was married off but promptly ran away in order to duel her way through the French countryside. After that, she joined the opera.
A few highlights: She began courting a merchant’s daughter, whose father tried to separate them by sending the girl to a convent, which Julie promptly joined…and burned down while escaping. On another occasion, three courtiers were moving in on the same girl, but Julie jumped in and stole the show, kissing her in front of everybody. The courtiers challenged her to a duel, and she beat all three of them. Even though dueling was forbidden at court, Louis XIV was so amused that he gave her a pass, stating that the rule technically only applied to men. She also ended a duel with a nobleman by shoving a blade through his shoulder. When she went to see if he was okay, she found out that he was the son of a duke and they became lovers.
11. Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Two of the most famous female pirates in history, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were known for their ferocity and ruthlessness. Anne left a weak husband and joined the crew of Captain Jack Rackham, a famous pirate, to become his lover. When her ship sacked the vessel upon which Mary Read, after a childhood of cross-dressing, was employed, Mary joined Captain Jack’s crew and she and Mary became fast friends.
Their fame is rooted in their last event: when Captain Jack’s ship was overtaken by the British navy, most of the drunken crew hid below deck, but Anne and Mary stayed to defend the ship by themselves. The ship was captured and all the male members of the crew were sentenced to hang, but since Anne and Mary were both pregnant they were granted a temporary pardon. Anne, when visiting her lover in his cell before her execution, uttered her most famous words: “Had you fought like a man, you need not be hanged like a dog.” The ultimate fate of both women is unknown.
10. Nzinga Mbande
Nzinga Mbande was the sister of a Mbundu king, and when her brother sent her to negotiate with the Portugese, she was not given a chair and was instead expected to sit on the floor. Nzinga promptly ordered one of her servants to get down on her hands and knees and she used the girl as a chair instead. She ended up converting to Christianity and urged her people to do the same. When her brother committed suicide because of the increasing Portugese threat, Nzinga became Queen of the Mbundu and waged a thirty-year long battle against the invaders. At sixty years old she was still personally leading troops into battle. In 1647, she finally defeated the Portugese army. Although this did not end the kingdom’s attempts to invade her land, she was the motivation for the resistance effort even after her death.
9. Catalina de Erauso
Called the “Lieutenant Nun”, Catalina de Erauso did not let a convent upbringing stop her from living a life of adventure. Adventure, of course, meaning murder. She escaped the convent at 15, dressed as a man, and a few years later she started to run into trouble. She killed someone who threatened her with his sword and dashed to a church, where she was forbidden from being arrested. When she finally emerged, she joined the army. She was under the command of her brother, but since she was in disguise he did not recognize her, and Catalina apparently took this as an opportunity to have a three-year long affair with his mistress.
She continued to slice people up – one of her victims was a judge – and to flirt with the mistresses of her bosses. She was even engaged to two women at the same time, although she was able to escape both marriages. In a nighttime duel she accidentally killed her brother, and in the period after that several police officers. When she finally confessed to a bishop that she was actually a woman, she ended up meeting the Pope, who (after finding that she was a virgin) gave her special dispensation to continue dressing as a man, but warned her to stop killing people. This time, she actually listened.
8. Naziq Al-Abid
Master of five languages, Naziq Al-Abid was exiled from Syria four times, mostly for starting political organizations or getting on the bad side of influential politicians. Usually both at the same time. She created a women’s rights organization and spoke out against Ottoman rule in Syria, which landed her the first exile. She also began the Syrian Red Crescent, which was similar to the Red Cross. She served in the Syrian army as possibly the only woman and was the sole Syrian survivor of a bloody battle against the French. In exile because of her resistance to French rule, she founded another women’s society and concentrated on humanitarian rights for the rest of her life.
One of Egypt’s last great thinkers, according to some. Also, according to some, skinned alive with oyster shells. Hypatia was involved with many fields of science and math, including astronomy and linear algebra. If you hated high school math, you might place some of the blame on her for her discoveries, although since none of her work remains, it is unclear exactly what she contributed. Many of her pupils went on to become famous scholars, though. Hypatia became tangled up in a religious feud between two powerful men and was murdered by a mob.
If you think the award for “First One to Scare the Living Daylights Out of Romans” belongs to the Visigoths, think again. Boudicca became queen of a British tribe called the Iceni after her father died, leaving half of his money to her and the other half to his allies the Romans. However, the Romans swaggered in and tried to take her money, flogging her and raping her daughters in the process.
The Romans did not realize how big a mistake this was until she and 120,000 soldiers were turning a quiet Roman retirement town into a blazing mess. Her army doubled, killing an entire legion and 70,000 civilians in a massacre that involved plentiful decapitation and mutilation.
The Romans, who used giant penises as street markers, were both horrified by the killings and offended that they had been headed by a woman. The Romans were finally able to beat Boudicca, and she died either by poison or in battle, but not without creating a massive headache for her powerful enemies.
5. La Jaguarina
Flip-flopping between Broadway and sword-fighting, La Jaguarina (Ella Hattan) became one of the most notable names of her time. In fencing, even though she only fought against men, she was undefeated – both on foot and in the saddle. Nineteenth-century spectators were swooning at the idea of modernized jousting, and one of the new sport’s inventors packed his bags and turned tail when challenged by La Jaguarina.
After a while, she had a difficult time finding opponents; at one point she even put out an ad for $5,000 (quite a sum at that time) for someone to fight her, and her plea was forever unanswered. She eventually went back to the stage, starring in a Broadway production and waiting patiently for someone to finally challenge her again. Nobody did.
4. Noor Inayat Khan
Fulfilling one of the most dangerous but important non-military jobs during World War II, Noor Inayat Khan was a radio operator in Nazi-occupied Paris. In her first week on the job, her radio (read: spy) network was infiltrated and she was asked to retire from her position for her safety. She refused, however, beginning a five-month long career in a profession where most people lasted only six weeks. She was eventually betrayed by a Frenchwoman and captured by the Gestapo, who tortured her repeatedly, but she revealed nothing. She was eventually shot at Dachau concentration camp.
3. Petra Ruiz
Yet another woman who disguised her sex to join the military. Petra, however, was raped by soldiers when she was young, which affected her into her adult life: As a lieutenant, she broke up a squabble between several soldiers vying for the right to rape a young woman and demanded to be the lucky winner. She rode off with the seventeen-year-old girl, revealed that she too was a woman, and left her somewhere safe. When she and her troops were greeted by the new Mexican President, she openly declared herself to be a woman, cementing her fame in the history of the Mexican Revolution.
2. Mariya Oktyabrskaya
Mariya Oktyabrskaya was made of pure rage. When Nazis invaded her home and killed her husband during World War II, Mariya did what any sensible wife would do: she collected her life savings and wrote to Stalin asking him to let her buy a tank and name it “Fighting Girlfriend.” She was given permission, however doubtful, and promptly proved her abilities by driving the tank in front of a line of Germans and cleaning house. Several times she actually got out of the tank mid-battle to fix it, something which was incredibly daring and would eventually cost her her life.
When Hatshepsut’s husband the Pharaoh died, leaving an infant son as heir, the Egyptian Queen began a decades-long rule. She ushered in a reign of economic prosperity, choosing to focus on commissioning art instead of conquering new lands, which made it very difficult when her successor Thutmose III attempted to completely eradicate her memory. While this was a political rather than sexist move, it remains true that Hatshepsut’s legacy lived on nevertheless: She was Egypt’s first female Pharaoh.
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