We’ve all heard of Queen Victoria, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie and so on, but there are so many other badass women who are lost to the annals of history. As to why that is, is a topic for another post. But I wanted to highlight these amazing women and their impact on the world.
These are women who achieved incredible feats. Feats which become more impressive when you realise most of these women lived in societies and times when the home was “where they belonged”.
This article shines a light on some inspirational, badass women from history who broke the norm and refused to be a product of the society they were born into.
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. And even more impressive when you consider that the next female astronaut wouldn’t go into space until 1981.
Valentina Tereshkova didn’t just go up in space; she smashed the whole spacewoman thing out of the water, circling the globe 48 times over a period of 71 hours. In just 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.
After returning to Earth cosmonauts were in high demand, receiving requests to visit many foreign nations and share the stores of space flight. But none so many 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. She moved into politics and became a role model for women worldwide. She was appointed a member of the World Peace Council in 1966 and led the Soviet delegation to the World Conference on Women; as well as becoming a prominent member of multiple Communist parties.
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 were allowed to own property, become shamans, and wives of tribe leaders were even allowed to have an opinion – what luxury. What’s ironic is that’s still more progressive than some countries around the world today.
This article is about one in particular; badass warrior princess Khutulun.
By the time Khutulun turned 20, her father was the most powerful ruler in East Asia. She became known for riding into battle, and for her skills on the field – making her a powerful warrior.
Marco Polo immortalised her skills; writing about his encounter with her, where he described her as a ‘hawk on the battlefield’, swooping onto others horses and riding them away to their deaths. Her prowess and brain for military tactics meant her father often sought her advice – over that of her 14 brothers.
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 as her brother’s fought for the title.
Khutulun was still a victim of her gender, in that she was expected to do the norm – marry, settle down and raise a family – something she purportedly refused to do. 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
Also known as La Pola, Policarpa Salavarrieta was a revolutionary during the Spanish Reconquinista of the Viceroyalty of New Granada – now known today as Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.
La Pola is a huge figure in Columbian consciousness. Her actions gave rise to a day known as the Day of Colombian Women, which takes place annually on the anniversary of her death.
La Pola’s real name and her exploits in Guadas are largely unknown, beyond that she was a recognised revolutionary. By 1817, she and her brother Bibianohad obtained forged passports and entered Bogotá – the capital of New Granada and stronghold of the Reconquista.
Once there, La Pola and her brother lived with guerrilla leader Andrea Ricaurte de Lozano, officially employed as his servants. His house was the revolutionary’s base where the intelligence gathering, planning, and resistance in the capital was planned.
Her Life Bogota – Seamstress Turned Spy
After entering Bogota, La Pola took up work as a seamstress for the royalists. This allowed her to eavesdrop on important conversations, collect intelligence for their plans, and map out who the major royalists were.
She and her brother were also directly responsible for increasing the number of soldiers in the revolution, by secretly recruiting young men to their cause.
All went well for La Pola until the two revolutionary leaders known as the Almeyda brothers were captured with information implicating her; linking her to the revolution and the desertion of soldiers from the Royal Army. There was also a suggestion that she had helped the Almeyda’s escape prison previously and found them refuge in Macheta.
The loyalists strongly suspected La Pola’s treason but were lacking in hard evidence; unluckily for her, they soon found something more substantial. During the arrest of a man named Alejo Sabarain they found a list of Royalists and Patriots; provided to him 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 whole walk to the firing squad, this badass woman cursed the Spanish royalists and predicted the end to their occupation.
When the time came, she defiantly refused to kneel or turn her back on the firing squad (as ordered during an execution for treason). 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
Very little is known about Aphra Behn’s early life – 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 proponents of equality between the sexes.
Not much is known of Aphra Behn’s childhood. We know that by 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 quickly turned sour; Behn soon 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. Funnily enough, after that she wasn’t keen to continue espionage work and vowed to never depend on another human for money again.
Thus, Aphra Behn, 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.
Her plays were full of life, sexuality and scandal – all topics off-limits for the sensibilities of a delicate woman such as herself. Behn’s works focussed on female pleasure with the same voracity as that of a man’s. They were packed full of double entendres that made audiences of the time shriek with laughter – and a degree of outlandish horror.
Aphra Behn was under no illusions that the fact she was a woman impacted 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 writings sexual and scandalous nature, Behn was dogged by crticism her whole career. Scholarly critics and contemporary writers of the day lambasted her work as unfitting for that of a woman,
However, as times change, so too does opinion, and by the 19th century people began to recognise the earliest murmurings of feminism in her work. Appreciation for her shameless disregard for societal rule and instruction led to her becoming 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 journalist in 1885. Her career started controversially when Bly wrote a letter complaining about an article the Pittsburgh Dispatch had run entitled “What are women good for?” The editor-in-chief was so impressed with her writing and sharp tongue that he offered her a job. It turns out, apparently, women are good for some things.
Bly began her career with exposés on women factory workers and their conditions. But soon the owners started to complain, and she was fast regulated 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 that had been rumoured to be more like a torture chamber. To do it, she had to convince authorities and medical experts that she was legitimately insane.
She checked herself into a boarding house for women and proceeded to spend the next few days roaming corridors, muttering incoherently and generally just acting mentally unbalanced. She was successful and soon found herself committed.
After 10 days she was released and proceeded to write an exposé ‘Ten Days in the Mad-House’. Her piece resulted 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’, attempting the journey in reality for the first time. Nellie even met the author himself in France before continuing her journey.
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 came to be known as Lady Death by the Nazi’s who feared her greatly. And this was all by age 25.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko is on this list though, because women weren’t even supposed to be in active combat in WW2, yet she impressed her way in with sheer prowess alone. Also, she was a vocal advocate for women’s rights and used her fame to make that apparent.
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; so she was pushed her towards a job in nursing instead. 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 to be accepted by the Soviets.
Her Wartime Experience
In the space of just a year Pavlichenko achieved a kill count of 309 – 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 until she was forced to by a bombing that resulted in shrapnel to her face.
Even then she continued to make a significant impact on the war effort. She trained dozens of new snipers to take up her mantle.
Her success led her to become deeply feared by the Nazi’s who threatened to “tear her into 309 pieces” – to which Pavlichenko responded with glee “They even knew my score!”
Her Outspoken Feminism and Relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt
Pavlichenko was invited to the White House in 1942– the first Soviet citizen to receive the honour. She and Eleanor Roosevelt got on famously, and Pavlichenko subsequently joined her on a tour of the US to share her story of fighting on the front.
As they toured, Pavlichenko was 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 these questions 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”).
During her tour of the US, she spoke to thousands about how the US needed to commit to fighting the Nazis – and in doing so, also made it clear that she believed women deserved their place on the battleground. And that that place was equal to mans.
And thus, I will leave the story of Palichenko with her own words, calling these people out 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?”
Ching Shih – Female Pirate, Ultimate Badass
Ching Shih was an incredibly badass woman, because 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, even for a pirate, as not only did she command the biggest fleet of any pirate captain ever; but she was so feared and respected she even managed to die in her own bed a free woman. 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 who married Ching I, the leader of the infamous Red Flag Fleet and notorious pirate. Whatever the circumstances of their marriage, we know 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 didn’t hesitate to act. Knowing her tenuous position and the alleged “weakness” of a female head, Ching Shih moved quickly to establish dominance and authority – or risk being overthrown.
Killing two birds with one stone, she quickly 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 they needed to not challenge their fragile masculinity; whilst simultaneously ensuring her position as the true head of the fleet, with a man who was completely and utterly 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. They soon found themselves reduced to using fishing boats in battle as her crew successfully captured the government ships.
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 (at that time), 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.
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