Women in history. How often do we hear about them? Most heroes and rulers we study in our history classes are men, and it has long been accepted that women, for the most part, have been erased from our historical records. Those that manage to squeeze their way in are remembered as beautiful women, or virtuous women, or sometimes, horrible women who used their feminine wiles to get what they want, and struck down those who were in their way with a fury only a woman scorned would know. Women who challenged the role of a woman, women who went against the typical notions of femininity, have often been left out of history books.
We've all heard of powerful females such as Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Queen Anne Boleyn, Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth I Tudor. However, there are plenty more powerful women who deserve their time in the historical spotlight. Whether you love reading about women's history or just enjoy learning about bada** ladies, then you definitely need to check out our list of the 15 kicka** women in history that you've never heard about.
15 Cleopatra Selene II
Cleopatra Selene II was the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony. She had an older brother named Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed Caesarion), a twin brother named Alexander Helios and a younger brother named Ptolemy Philadelphus.
After Selene’s parents committed suicide when their enemy, Octavian (eventually known as Augustus), invaded Egypt, he had Caesarion killed because Octavian was Julius Caesar’s adopted son and considered Caesar’s biological son to be a threat. He brought Selene, Alexander and Philadelphus back to Rome, where they were raised by his sister (and Antony’s ex-wife), Octavia.
Alexander and Philadelphus disappear from the historical record, but Selene married Juba II of Mauretania. She wasn’t a housewife, though—Selene was like her mother, and ruled as his equal. For example, Selene minted her own coins that snubbed the Roman empire and hinted she represented the throne of Egypt in exile.
Selene never forgot where she came from, and she memorialized her childhood in Alexandria, Egypt by turning the capital city of Iol-Caesaria in Mauretania into a miniature Alexandria. This was one formidable Queen, and not someone you’d want to cross.
For fans of the Netflix show, Marco Polo, the name Khutulun is not unfamiliar. In the series, she is a fierce warrior who falls in love with Kublai Khan’s illegitimate son Byamba.
In real life, Khutulun was the daughter of Kaidu and cousin to Kublai Khan. She was a bada** Mongolian warrior who was skilled in the arts of wrestling, horsemanship and archery. As she got a bit older, Khutulun became known as the opponent no man could throw and won horses from her defeated opponents. At one point, her herd of horses was said to rival the Emperor’s.
She even rode into battle with her father Kaidu and in order to scare the sh*t out of their enemies, Khutulun would make a dash for the troops, pick out some poor sod, and carry him back to her dad.
Khutulun and her father were very close, and she often gave him political advice. According to some accounts, he tried to make her the next khan, but her brothers were NOT pleased and shut that down quickly.
13 Huda Shaarawi
Feminist activist, Huda Shaarawi, founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women in 1914 and the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. The EFU fought for women’s suffrage, more education for women, and changes in the Personal Status laws, setting the stage for future feminist victories. #HudaShaarawi #feministflashbackfriday #historicfeminist #history #flashbackfriday #feminist #suffrage
Huda Shaarawi was born into the harem system, in which women were secluded and veiled. Despite the forced seclusion from the outside world, Hude was very well-educated and spoke French, Arabic and Turkish.
At the age of 13, she married her cousin Ali Pasha Shaarawi, but eventually separated from him for seven years. During that time, Huda became more independent, expanded her education, and learned about activism. When she eventually reunited with Ali (who was also an activist,) he included his wife in political meetings and often sought her advice.
Huda was responsible for opening up the first philanthropic society for poor women and children that entirely run by women in 1908. In 1910, she opened up a school for girls that focused on academia.
She was also a suffragette who organized lectures for women and helped create the largest women’s anti-British demonstration in 1919. One of Huda’s famous acts was when she returned to Egypt after attending a conference in Europe and she removed her veil in front of a crowd, which led to other women following her example. Plus, Huda founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, which is still active today.
12 Grace O'Malley
Grace O’Malley (Grainne Ni Mhaille) was the daughter of the O’Malley clan chieftain who ruled the southwest coast of County Mayo from a castle on Clare Island.
Grace married twice: first to Donal-an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty, heir of the O’Flaherty clan. Since her husband was said to be an inept ruler with a fiery temper, Grace often ruled as the leader of the clan. When he was killed in a skirmish with the Joyce clan, she made sure to avenge her husband’s death. She then married Richard-na-larainn Bourke, and is said to have given birth to his child Tibbot-na-Long on one of her galleys. Supposedly the day after she gave birth, Grace got up and helped fight off Algerian corsairs.
It was NOT wise to tick off the Pirate Queen. Sir Richard Bingham picked a fight with Grace by killing her son Owen and imprisoning her other son Tibbot. He also destroyed Grace’s lands.
So, she decided to ask Queen Elizabeth I for help and the two queens sat down to discuss Bingham being a jerk. At the end of the meeting, Lizzie had Tibbot released and gave Grace a pension. Bingham, thankfully, was eventually imprisoned—Grace definitely had the last laugh!
11 Sybil Ludington
"Paul Revere wasn't the only colonial hero to take a midnight ride through dangerous territory to warn of the coming British army. In fact, a young patriot from upstate New York was tapped for a dangerous midnight mission after the British raided Danbury, Conn., in April of 1777. Her name was Sybil Ludington, and she was the 16-year-old daughter of an American colonel. She also happened to ride about twice as far as Paul Revere. Setting out after dark in freezing late-winter rain, Sybil rode 40 miles, reportedly fending off a band of highway robbers along the way, to rouse the local militia. Thanks to Sybil's warning, the men marched and engaged the British at the Battle of Ridgefield. Sybil, though often forgotten today, was honored by George Washington for her heroic ride.” This unsung hero is my #WCW for her courage, strength and patriotism. (Bio info from Huffington Post)
We’ve all heard of Paul Revere, who warned the Americans about the British troops during the Revolutionary War, but we sadly did not learn about a young bada** named Sybil Ludington.
At the age of 16, Sybil helped the American troops get revenge on the British troops after they had attacked Danbury, Connecticut. They got drunk and ransacked the town, burning and looting as they went.
Sybil’s father, Colonel Ludington, and his militia were on furlough at the time of the attack. It is unknown if Sybil volunteered for the mission or if her father asked her, but either way, Sybil left that night and covered 40 miles in order to raise men for the militia and spread the word about the Danbury attack. Some even say that during Sybil’s brave ride, she fought off a highway man with her dad’s musket. Thanks to Sybil, by dawn, the militia was ready to attack and they were able to make the British pay for their treatment of Danbury.
Sybil received personal thanks from future first president George Washington himself and General Rochambeau, who was the French commander that was fighting alongside the Americans.
10 Valentina Tereshkova
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to enter space. She joined a local aviation club at the age of 22 and her enthusiasm for skydiving garnered the attention of the Soviet space program, which wanted to beat the U.S. by sending a female to space.
In February 1962, Valentina was selected to begin the intensive training required to become a cosmonaut. Her training paid off, and in 1963, she was chosen to take part in the dual flights in the Vostak program. On June 16, she was launched into space onboard Vostak 6. Valentina completed 48 orbits and 71 hours in space, which was more than any other U.S. astronauts combined at that time.
Three days later, Vostak 6 re-entered the atmosphere and Valentina successfully parachuted to Earth after ejecting at 20,000 feet.
Sadly, Valentina never went to space again and became a member of the Supreme Soviet (the USSR’s Parliament) in order to serve as the Soviet’s representative to international women’s organizations and events.
9 Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman, the first black female aviator and stunt flyer, born January 26th 1892. #Aviation #Aviator #Stunt #StuntWoman #Aircraft #Flying #Flight #Pilot #FemalePilot #PanAnnShoes #Airlines #AA #PanAnn #FlightAttendant #CabinCrew #Crew #FlightCrew #FlightDeck #CabinCrewShoes #CrewShoes #AirlineShoes #Boeing #DeHavilland #Embraer #Avro #Instagram #Firsts
Aviator Bessie Coleman became the first African-American woman to stage a public flight in the U.S. Her high-flying skills wowed the crowd in 1922, but she didn’t have an easy start.
Bessie was born in Texas as one of 13 children to Susan and George Coleman, who worked as sharecroppers. She started attending the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas at the age of 12. After graduating, Bessie traveled to Oklahoma to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but only completed one term due to financial constraints.
When she was 23, Bessie moved to Chicago with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. While living in Chicago, she started reading about World War I pilots and that sparked her interest in aviation.
Since the U.S. wouldn’t allow a woman to earn a pilot’s license, Bessie decided “screw you, I’m going to teach myself French and get my license from France’s well-known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation.” It took her only seven months to get her license and Bessie specialized in stunt flying and parachuting. Now that’s determination!
8 Hedy Lamarr
Hollywood Golden Age enthusiasts may have heard of Hedy Lamarr only as an actress who appeared in films such as Lady of the Tropics and Samson and Delilah.
However, this Austrian-born starlet was NOT just a pretty face. If it wasn’t for her, we might not have wireless technology today, so bow down to this awesome scientist.
During the 1940s, Hedy wanted to help the war effort and started working with composter George Antheil to create the “spread-spectrum radio” that would change radio frequencies to help keep enemies from decoding messages. The system was originally created to help fight the Nazis, but became an important step forward in creating technology that would help maintain the security of both military communications and cell phones.
Sadly, Hedy wasn’t instantly honored for her communications invention until decades later, when its wide-ranging impact was FINALLY understood. Hedy and George were given the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997, and she became the first female to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award that same year.
7 Mai Bhago
Who hasn’t heard the story of the legendary Joan of Arc, who fought for France and her faith and wound up getting burned of the stake? While Joan was a bada** in her own right, there’s another woman who did something similar and is not known: Mai Bhago.
Mai Bhago lived in a time when the Mughal empire was ruled by Aurangzeb, who did NOT like the Sikhs. Mai grew up in a rural town with her parents, and her father taught her how to be a devoted Sikh, how to ride a horse, and how to defend herself.
The leader of the Sikh, Guru Gobind Sing Ji, founded the Khalsa—the warrior-saints who were to forget the caste system, forget their family names, be baptized, and fight for their faith.
Of course, the Mughals weren’t thrilled and waged war on the warrior-saints. After months of fighting, 40 men peaced out and returned to their normal lives. Mai was having NONE of this. She shamed the men into fighting and led them back to the Guru.
During a bloody battle with the Mughals, Mai was the only survivor and eventually became bodyguard to the Guru. She outlived him, and after she died, her house was converted into a place of worship.
6 Policarpa Salavarrieta
Policarpa Salavarietta was a seamstress who became a Revolutionary spy during the Colombian Revolution.
She was born in Guaduas, Colombia but her family moved to Bogotà in 1792. Unfortunately, her parents and two siblings died in a smallpox epidemic in 1802, so the Salavarietta siblings moved back to Guaduas, living with various relatives until one of their sisters married. Policarpa found work as a seamstress, and eventually got involved in the anti-royalist movement after her brother-in-law was killed in the fighting in 1815 and her youngest brother was wounded.
In 1817, Policarpa and her youngest brother returned to Bogotà under fake names. They carried hidden letters from two important Revolutionary leaders, and as a seamstress, Policarpa used her position to spy on the Royalists. She also helped recruit new men for the cause and often bought weapons for the troops.
Sadly, Policarpa’s involvement with the rebellion was eventually discovered and she was executed in Bolivar Square. Even until the very end, she was defiant and her death enraged the rebels. In 1967, Columbian president Carlos Restrepo declared November 14 to be the Day of Columbian Women, in honor of their heroine Policarpa.
5 Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian 武则天，the one and only female emperor of China, ruling from 690-705 (she was in her 60s when she declared herself emperor; before that she was regent to her son) Known and debated mostly for her gender, even the most sexist of historians cannot deny her political and tactical prowess and how well the country flourished under her reign. Seriously, there are stories that paint her as some sort of super evil cold hearted woman when really, she ruled like any emperor of her time would have, and better than a lot of them. #wuzetian #wumeiniang #moleskine #sketch_dailies
Wu Zetian was a concubine of the Tang emperor Taizong, but after he died, she started up a relationship with his son Gaozong.
Wu Zetian was not about to let any female rivals get in her way, so one by one, she got rid of them and was named Empress in 655. She also used her influence to eliminate anyone at the court who opposed her rise to empress.
Since Gaozong had some health issues, Wu Zetian was the real ruler of China for quite some time. To replace her fallen rivals, she gathered courtiers who were loyal to her, and she won the respect of the court for being a good administrator.
After her husband died, Wu Zetian’s son Li Xan took the throne, but his mother had him deposed and exiled after one month. She installed her other son Li Dan on the throne, but he was only a figurehead.
At the age of 65, Wu Zetian decided to take the throne for herself and ruled for 15 years, proving that a woman can do anything a man can do.
4 Zenobia of Palmyra
Zenobia was the Queen of Palmyra almost 2000 years ago, with the ancient town the centre of an empire that stretched from modern-day Egypt to Anatolia. Her capital today is a link between people and cultures across the region. #Unite4Heritage Read about how we’re Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/safeguarding-syrian-cultural-heritage/
Zenobia married Odaenthus, the Roman client ruler of Palmyra. Unfortunately, her husband and his son by his former wife Herodes were killed, which meant Zenobia ruled as regent for her son Vaballathus. She crowned herself queen of Palmyra, and had her son adopt his father’s title of “King of Kings.”
However, Zenobia did NOT like the Romans. In 269, she seized Egypt and conquered much of Asia Minor. There is some speculation that Zenobia was related to Cleopatra VII through her great-granddaughter Drusilla the Younger of Mauretania, who married into the Emesani royal family. If so, then she was claiming her rightful territory and avenging the great wrongs Rome had inflicted on her ancestors. You go, girl!
Sadly, Zenobia’s plan failed and she was captured by the Romans while trying to flee with her son towards the Euphrates River after Palmyra was besieged. Some say she was killed after the Roman triumph, while others say she followed Cleopatra VII’s example and committed suicide while en route to Rome.
We’ve all heard about ancient Egyptian pharaohs such as Nefertiti, Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun, but not too many people know about Tutankhamun’s wife Anhhesenamun.
Ankhesenamun was the third daughter of the “Heretic Pharaoh” Ankhenaten (he didn’t like that Egypt was polytheistic and only wanted them to worship the sun disc, Aten) and the famous Nefertiti. After Ankhenaten’s little monotheistic experiment crashed and burned at Armana, Ankhesenamun was married to her half-brother Tutankhamun.
Ankhesenamun truly loved her husband, and was devastated when he died young. In an attempt to keep the throne of Egypt, she sent a letter to the Hittite king asking him to send her a prince to marry, as she was afraid a servant would usurp the throne. The Hittite king eventually complied, but his son died en route to Egypt.
An inscribed ring hints that Ankhesenamun may have been forced to marry Tutankhamun’s successor (and her possible grandfather) Ay. After that, she disappears, although there is some speculation that the mummy KV21a in the tomb KV21 could be her. Poor Ankhesenamun—she tried so hard to hold the throne, but in the end, she failed and disappeared into the sands of time.
2 Arsinoe II
Arsinoe II was the daughter of Ptolemy I Soter and his fourth wife, Berenice I. Yes folks, she was an ancestor of the famous Cleopatra VII and her daughter, Cleopatra Selene II.
At the tender age of 15, her parents decided to marry their daughter off to King Lysimachus of Thrace and Macedon, even though she was young enough to be his kid. She had the hots for his son Agathocles, but he rejected his advances and Arsinoe II might have poisoned him. With his death, her own sons were next in line for the throne.
After her husband died in battle, her half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos seized the Macedonian throne and he tricked his half-sister into marriage. He then killed her two younger sons. Arsinoe II was PISSED and peaced out, taking her surviving son into exile. Her second husband was eventually driven from the throne and killed by Gauls.
Arsinoe II then sailed to Egypt and married ANOTHER half-brother named Ptolemy II. She quickly took power and booted her third husband’s first wife out.
During her lifetime, Arsinoe II was deified as a goddess and there was even a cult in her name too.
1 Nana Asma’u
Nana Asama’u was born in 1793 and was a member of the Fodio clan who ruled the Sokoto Caliphate in what is now considered to be Nigeria. Her family was part of an Islamic sect called the Qadiryya, which focused on pursuing knowledge as part of a spiritual path.
Nana was an awesome student and was fluent in four different languages. She was also an accomplished poet too, and her work mused on topics such as Sufi women saints, the prophet Muhammad and divine truth. Because she was so well read, Nana also went on to become a very respected scholar too.
Like the other women in her family, Nana also taught many of the local boys and girls. She also decided to train a large network of women as teachers, and her army of educators memorized their benefactress’s poetry so they could use them as teaching devices for women. Nana’s teachers then traveled throughout the Caliphate educating women so that their knowledge would spread. Now THAT is girl power!
Sources: History With A Twist, Stephanie Dray, Rejected Princesses, People of Color In European Art History, Amazing Women In History, Discovering Ireland, History Ireland, Revolutionary War, National Women's History Museum, History, Biography, NPR, Britannica, Ancient Peoples, and Judith Weingarten