Queen Victoria, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie are all household names. But what about the many other badass women lost to the annals of history?
These are women who achieved incredible feats, yet whose names have been forgotten. Achievements which are even more impressive when placed in the context of the periods they live in.
This list shines a light on inspirational, badass women from history who broke the norm.
7. Valentina Tereshkova – First Woman in Space
Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, Alan Shephard was the first American. They have become household names. But I bet very few of you have heard of the first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova.
It’s particularly impressive that she achieved this in 1963, just 2 years after the first man in space. It’s even more impressive when you learn the next female astronuat didn’t go into space until 1981.
Valentina Tereshkova didn’t just go up in space; she circled the globe an unheard of 48 times over a period of 71 hours. In one go she logged more flight time than the combined times of all the American astronauts before her. Plus, to this day, she remains the only woman to have gone out in space solo.
Back on Earth cosmonauts were in high demand, visiting foreign nations and sharing the stories of space flight. But none so much as Tereshkova, who spent the rest of 1963 visiting countries all over the world.
Tereshkova never flew in space again but continued to be a prominent figure both in and out of Soviet Russia. In 1966, she became a member of the World Peace Council and led the Soviet delegation to the World Conference on Women.
When asked in 2011 if she’d go into space again, she replied she would like to go to Mars, even if it was a one-way trip.
6. Khutulun – Mongolian Warrior, The Wrestling Princess
Women in the 13th century Mongolian empire didn’t have it too badly all things considered. They owned property, became shamans, and held positions of power and influence in their communities. Ironically holding more rights than women in some countries around the world today.
This is about one in particular; badass woman/warrior princess Khutulun.
By the time Khutulun turned 20, her father was the most powerful ruler in East Asia and she herself recognised as a great warrior. Her prowess and aptitude for military tactics meant her father often sought her advice, over that of her 14 brothers.
When Marco Polo encountered Khutulun, he forever immortalised her skills in his works. Describing her as a “hawk on the battlefield” he told of how she swooped onto others horses, riding her victims away to their deaths.
If that wasn’t enough to rank her in the top tier of badass women, some accounts go further. There is evidence to suggest that her father Kaidu tried to name her his successor; but was unsuccessful due to her brother’s wrath.
Khutulun was still a victim of her gender, in that she was expected to do the norm – marry, settle down and raise a family. Instead, she declared the only man she’d marry is one who could beat her in a wrestling match, and any losers were to bequeath her his horses.
Soon, she had 10,000.
History doesn’t know what became of Khutulun, beyond that she died young just 5 years after her father, in 1306. Several accounts suggested she did eventually marry; but not to a man who beat her in a wrestling match.
5. Policarpa Salavarrieta – Columbian Revolutionary
Known as La Pola, Salavarrieta was a revolutionary during the Spanish Reconquinista of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Her work against the Spanish Royalists was instrumental in Colombian independence.
La Pola remains a huge figure in Colombian consciousness. She is celebrated annually on the anniversary of her death, on a day known as the Day of Colombian Women.
There is much we don’t know about La Pola. Her real name and early exploits in her childhood home of Guadas have been lost to history.
Her Life in Bogota – Seamstress Turned Spy
In 1817 she and her brother entered Bogota, the Reconquinista stronghold and Capital of New Granada.
They lived in the revolutionary’s base, “employed” as servants in the house of guerrilla leader Andrea Ricaurte de Lozano. It was here intelligence gathering, planning and resistance in the capital took place.
La Pola and her brother were tasked with recruiting young men to the revolution and increasing their numbers. She also took up work as a seamstress for the royalists, allowing her to eavesdrop, and collect intelligence on the Spanish forces.
All was well until the two revolutionary leaders known as the Almeyda brothers were captured. Information they were carrying implicated La Pola in the revolution and desertion of soldiers from the Royal Army. It was also suggested she had helped the Almeyda’s escape prison before and found them refuge in Macheta.
Whilst the loyalists were now suspicious of La Pola, they lacked hard evidence to accuse her outright. Unfortunately they soon found something more substantial when arresting fellow revolutionary, Alejo Sabarain. Upon his person they found a list of Royalists and Patriots, provided by La Pola herself. She was soon arrested.
The Death of a Badass Female Revolutionary
On November 14th, 1817, La Pola was executed alongside 6 other revolutionaries in Bogota’s main square. She did not go quietly.
Her walk to the firing squad, was punctuated with curses aimed at the Spanish Royalists and predictions of the end of their occupation.
When the time came, she defiantly refused to kneel or turn her back on the firing squad. Her last words rang through the air and became a rallying cry for the revolutionaries:
“I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more. Do not forget my example.”
Today, La Pola is the only female figure to have appeared on Colombian currency – and is still on the 10,000 peso note. Her statue stands in Guada’s Main Square, and each year women recognise and commemorate her bravery in the Day of Colombian Women.
4. Aphra Behn – Spy, writer and one of the first known feminists
Aphra Behn’s early life is almost completely unknown – including her maiden name. However, she certainly made a name for herself in her own right. First, as a spy to Charles II, then as the first known female novelist and one of the first advocates of gender equality.
When sources catch up with Behn in 1665 she was approximately in her mid-20’s, her husband had died (or they had separated), and that she was now in employment of Charles II. Code name, Astrea, she was tasked with travelling to the Netherlands as a spy. Her mission was to find an exiled soldier named William Scot and convince him to turn spy for the King.
Unfortunately, things soon turned sour. Behn found herself running out of money, and the crown refused to give her any more. It meant she had to fund her own travel home; forcing her to sell off possessions to pay her way back. After that she left espionage work and vowed to never depend on another human for money again.
Thus, the first female paid novelist was born. And she was scandalous.
Aphra Behn – the Author
Poet, playwright and author – she quickly made a name for herself – a feat in and of itself in a society that had little interest in women.
Behn’s plays were full of life, sexuality and scandal, all topics considered inappropriate for the sensibilities of a delicate woman. Her works focussed on female pleasure with the same voracity as that of a man’s and were full of double entendres. Audiences of the time regarded her plays with both amusement and a degree of outlandish horror.
Aphra Behn was under no illusions that the fact she was a woman affected how her plays were perceived, arguing if written by a man, nothing would be said.
“The play had no other misfortune but that of coming out for a woman’s: had it been owned by a man, though the most dull, unthinking, rascally scribbler in town, it had been a most admirable play.”
Due to her work’s sexual and scandalous nature, Behn was dogged by crticism her whole career. Scholarly critics and contemporary writers of the day lambasted her writings as inappropriate for a woman.
As times change though, so too does opinion. The public began to appreciate the shameless disregard for societal rule and expectations in Behn’s work. Scholars recognised the earliest murmurings of feminism in her work and recognised her as one of the first known female authors.
In fact, in the words of Virginia Woolf:
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
3. Nellie Bly – Investigative Journalist, real-life Phineas Fogg
Nellie Bly was a United States journalist whose career started controversially. In 1885 she wrote a letter of complaint to the Pittsburgh Dispatch in response to their article “What are women good for?” The editor-in-chief was so impressed with her writing and sharp tongue that he offered her a job.
Bly began her career with exposés on women factory workers and their conditions, but the owners soon complained it was unbefitting a female writer. She was quickly relegated to what was known as the “women’s pages” – fashion, housekeeping, child-rearing etc.
That wasn’t enough for Nellie Bly. She soon left to work for The World, as one of only a handful of female reporters in New York. Age 23, she was determined to do something no woman had done before and leave her mark on journalism and the world.
So, she did, by taking on one of the most difficult jobs on offer – an undercover stint in a brutal insane asylum. She had to convince authorities and medical experts that she was legitimately insane in order to succeed.
As part of her act, Bly checked herself into a boarding house for women. She spent the next few days roaming corridors, muttering incoherently and generally acting mentally unbalanced. It didn’t take longer for her to find herself committed.
10 days later, she was released from the asylum and proceeded to write an exposé ‘Ten Days in the Mad-House’. Her work was instrumental in asylum reform and catapulted Bly to fame as the mother of detective journalism.
Not content with being one of the pioneers of women in journalism, Nellie Bly continued to live her life spectacularly.
The next year, in 1888 she began a trip inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. It was the first attempt of the journey outside of fiction and along the way, Nellie even met Verne himself in France.
She beat the author’s novel and completed her journey in 72 days, setting a world record.
Nellie Bly died aged 57, but before she did so, she registered 2 patents, ran an (albeit unsuccessful) industrial company and was the first woman to enter – and cover – the war zone between Austria and Serbia in World War One.
2. Lyudmila Pavlichenko – Deadliest Female Sniper in History
Lyudmila Pavlichenko might be an odd choice for this list, at the end of the day, she was a killer – a deadly one. In fact, she was known as Lady Death by the Nazi’s who feared her greatly. And this was all by age 25.
Women weren’t even supposed to be in active combat in World War II, yet Pavlichenko impressed her way in with sheer prowess alone. She later used her fame to become a vocal advocate for women’s rights, and draw attention to issues women faced.
Pavlichenko began training in sharpshooting at a young age, spurned on by her life-long belief that she would not be outdone by a boy in anything.
“When a neighbor’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range, I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot.”
Pavlichenko speaking to a crowd during her 1942 US tour with Eleanor Roosevelt
When war broke out, she was quick to volunteer her efforts. Unfortunately, she had the pesky issue of being born with a vagina, and so was pushed towards a job in nursing. It took a lot of balls, and proof of her talent for them to relent and accept her into the Red Army. She was one of only 2,000 women during WW2 that the Soviets allowed into active combat.
Her Wartime Experience
In the space of a year Pavlichenko achieved a kill count of 309. It remains one of the highest on record, and the highest ever recorded by a woman. During this period, she was also wounded 4 times and suffered from shellshock. Nevertheless, Pavlichenko didn’t withdraw from active combat until forced to by a bombing that resulted in a shrapnel injury on her face.
Even then she continued to make a significant impact on the war effort, training dozens of new snipers to take up her mantle.
The Nazis soon regarded her with fear, threatening to “tear her into 309 pieces” – to which Pavlichenko responded gleefully, “They even knew my score!”
Her Outspoken Feminism and Relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt
In 1942, Pavlichenko became the first Soviet citizen to be invited to the White House. She and Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly got along famously and subsequently went on a joint tour of the US to share her story of fighting on the front.
During her tour, Pavlichenko found herself subject to the same ridiculous questions women in power still deal with today. Was she allowed to wear makeup when fighting? And did she curl her hair? She fast grew tired of this and the American perspective of women. In her country, Pavlichenko claimed, she was seen foremost “as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country”.
She used her talks to emphasize that women deserved their place on the battlefield, and that that place was equal to a mans.
And thus, I will leave the story of Palichenko with her own words, calling out these people in the most badass way possible:
“Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”
1. Ching Shih – Female Pirate, Ultimate Badass
Ching Shih was an incredibly badass and inspirational woman. Not only was she a female pirate, but she’s also considered the most successful pirate in history.
Pirates are cool. Ching Shih was extremely cool, hailing as the commander of the biggest fleet of any pirate captain in history. She was so feared and respected she even died in her own bed a free woman – unheard of for a pirate captain. That’s right, even the Chinese government (which was not particularly known for its leniency) left her the hell alone.
Becoming a Pirate
In her early life, Ching Shih was a wealthy and powerful prostitute. She married Ching I, the leader of the infamous Red Flag Fleet and notorious pirate. The circumstances of the union are unknown but sources show that Ching Shih owned 50% of everything her husband had control of. Let me assure you – this was not a normal thing for women in the 1800’s.
In 1807, Ching I died and Ching Shih’s position immediately became tenuous. The alleged weakness of a female head meant she had to fast establish dominance and authority – or risk being overthrown.
Killing two birds with one stone, she took her adopted son as her lover (weird) and established him as the figurehead of her fleet. She had provided the men with the male figure that would not challenge their fragile masculinity; whilst simultaneously ensuring her position as the true head of the fleet, with a man who was completely loyal and devoted to her.
It’s predicted that Ching Shih controlled over 70,000 pirates across 300 ships. She had a strict set of rules and did not follow the usual “rape and pillage” storyline pirates are known for. Any pirate who took a wife was bound to be faithful to her, and if any in her crew dared rape a female captor then they’d be swiftly put to death.
In 1808, the Chinese officials decided to do something about Ching Shih’s reign, and set sail against her. But it was not to be for the government. As her crew successfully captured government ships they soon found themselves forced to battle in fishing boats.
Eventually (probably because they couldn’t afford to lose any more ships); the Chinese Government gave in. They offered amnesty to Ching Shih and her crew; with less than 1000 out of her 17,000 strong, facing any consequences at all for their crimes.
Ching Shih retired, went on to own a gambling house, give birth to two children and died in her own bed surrounded by family at 69.
Not bad for Queen of the Pirates.
Did you enjoy this article? I got inspiration from this book: Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World. A snapshot of 100 powerful women whose names we should already know.
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