Fiercest women in history
When we think about the great figures in history, we tend to think of a few names off the top of our heads: kings, presidents, and political leaders, the majority of which were men. There’s some historical amnesia when it comes to the memory of female wave makers, some even ghosted in our modern-day textbooks. Luckily, this isn’t a feminine agenda aimed to push guilt toward every bad hombre. If anything, we just want everyone to remember the fierce women warriors through history — some of which you probably never even heard of.
Ida Lewis was the first female lighthouse keeper, a job she inherited when her father became suffered from a stroke and was unable to perform his lighthouse keeping duties. Being the dutiful daughter she was, Ida stepped in for him and kept the light on.
Ida took her duties very seriously and would go on to save at least 18 people from drowning. Her heroic acts, which often involved venturing into stormy and formidable waters became so well known that President Grant personally came t visit her and thank her for her services. When she died, over 1000 people attended her funeral. To this day, the Newport yacht club is named after her.
The Trung Sisters
In the 1st century BC, North Vietnam was home to a Red River tribe culture — one where men and women lived in equality. In this early society, women could hold political positions, become religious leaders, own property, and even have multiple husbands (Yes ladies, they baked their cakes and ate it, too). The social equality between men and women was a unique privileged, one that its neighboring tribes did not share.
In 111 AD, China invaded Vietnam and imposed not only their taxes and laws, but also their cultural beliefs. China stripped away ancient Vietnamese traditions; they took away the equality between Vietnamese men and women and replaced it with the Chinese social system that was advantageous to men. Enraged by the oppression, the Vietnamese people rebelled and called forth their strongest warriors: The Trung Sisters.
The Trung sisters may have been hardcore born-to-be revolutionaries, but for one woman, pursuing the life of a revolutionary wasn’t really an option. She was born into it — literally. Laskarina Bouboulina was born in a prison cell within the city of Constantinople in 1771. Her father was from the Greek Island of Hydra and was imprisoned for a failed coup against the Ottoman Empire, a reign that rules Greece with an iron fist for more than four centuries.
Seeing her country under the oppression of the Ottoman Empire, Laskarina knew that she wanted to help her country regain its independence. Fueled with a sense of purpose, Laskarina joined a secret organization known as the Filiki Etaireia, a group that was preparing for a revolution that would win its country’s independence. After her second husband’s death, Laskarina invested her inheritance into the Greek resistance. What the widow did next was drastic.
Fighting like a girl
Laskarina quickly earned her keep within the organization and established herself as someone not to be messed with. Using the inherited cash, Laskarina bought four ships and funded the Filiki Etaireia with provisions and ammunition. Laskarina joined a naval fleet and took part in a naval blockade that captured the Peloponnese harbors.
Laskarina even freed a harem belonging to the Ottoman garrison. She became a hero overnight, and her persistence and dedication won her country its independence. After her death in 1825, Laskarina was the first woman to be granted the title of Naval Commander. Today, her statue can be found on Spetses Island.
We think of samurais as honorable rogue soldiers wielding a katana and fighting with a sense of honor for their emperor and country. The concept of the samurai was born during the feudal period of in the Shogunate era. The samurai were a private military class trained by a clan leader, or a shogun, whose power rivaled that of the emperor.
Nakano Takeko was one of these warriors, and was called an Onna-bugeisha, or a “female warrior.” Nakano was born in the aristocratic Aizu clan and trained in the ways of the warrior: mind and body. At sixteen, she became a master warrior and was skilled with naginata, a long-shafted weapon ending with a blade. She gained a reputation for being a woman of ferocity. However, everything changed when the emperor sent his samurai army to conquer the Shogun territories in the late 1860s. Nakano knew what had to be done.
Answering her calling
Eighteen local samurai women dedicated their lives to the Aizu clan. However, they were no match against the emperor’s army. They were outnumbered by 10,000 men, who were equipped with and trained in westernized weapons. They used rifles — capable of shooting 15 rounds a minute — and fired cannons.
As Nakano and her warrior women raced toward Wakamatsu Castle (the Aizu stronghold), they were blocked by the imperial army. Instead of laying down their arms, Nakano and her warrior women charged into battle. They fought fiercely on the field, and as their leader, she was their prime target. She was shot and killed. As a custom, Nakano’s sister recovered her fallen sister in fear that her body would be taken as a war trophy by the opposing army. Her remains were buried, and today, a monument is erected in her honor by the people of the Aizu.
Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797. It wasn’t until 1826 that the soon-to-be abolitionist decided to escape from her slave master’s clutches. With an infant in her arms, Truth had no idea that her life would create a chain reaction for the women’s rights movement and the abolition of slavery.
She only intended to be free. But when her five-year-old son was illegally sold to the very plantation she ran away from, Truth returned and went to the Supreme Court demanding the return of her child. Not only did she win the case, but she did so by challenging a white man in court — she was the first person of color to do so. Truth saw the injustices black men and women faced and was convinced that it was her civic duty to push for civil change. What Sojourner did next was radical, even for the abolitionists.
Ain’t I a woman?
By the 1850s, Truth joined the women’s rights movement where she went on to deliver one of the most famous speeches in women right’s in American history — “Ain’t I a Woman?” at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Truth’s push for justice later brought her to Washington DC, where she met former president Abraham Lincoln.
They conversed about the abolitionist cause. An unstoppable force, Truth continued to challenge social customs by sitting in streetcars designated for whites and reportedly chastised her fellow abolitionists for their lack of social progress with black men and women. Though Truth died before seeing the legalization of the women’s vote, she became a beacon and pioneer who faced one of the greatest challenges during the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War.
Milunka Savic will go down as one of the most decorated female soldiers in warfare history. Her story begins in a remote village of just twenty people in Koprivnica, Novi Pazar, Serbia. When the Balkan War erupted in 1912, the country called all able men to the front, including Savic’s brother. Women only had one active role during the war, which was either a nurse or a medical volunteer — but Savic had other plans.
She cut her hair and enrolled in the Serbian army under her brother’s name, Milun Savic. She fought in two Balkan wars under her assumed identity. It wasn’t until she was wounded in the second war that she was discovered (Mulan…is that you?). What she did next will make your jaw drop.
Discovered and honored
At the time of her discovery, Milunka was a part of an infantry regiment known as the “Iron Regiment” and fought in the Battle of Bregalnica where she was promoted to corporal. Instead of punishing Milunka, the Serbian army decided to give her a chance to explain herself. Touched that she wanted to serve and honor her country, the Serbian army allowed her back in the ranks. Savic continued to fight even when Serbia entered WWI.
As a result of her service, Savic went on to win two Order of the Star of Karadjordje with Swords, which was the highest honor in the Serbian Kingdom, two French Legion of Honors, the Russian Order of the Holy George for courage, the British medal of the order of St. Michael, and was the first woman to win France’s Croix de Guerre (France’s highest-honor medal). She was injured nine times and fought until the end of WWI. Savic died as a national hero in Belgrade, Serbia, on October 5, 1973.
Marie Curie will always be remembered as “that lady who discovered polonium and radium.” However, Marie Curie was so much more than the woman scientists what high school chemistry teachers are obsessed with. In fact, Curie was the only person in history to win two Nobel prizes. She also coined the term “radioactivity.”
So, who exactly is Marie Curie? Well for one, Marie Curie was not her birth name (cue dramatic music): her real name was actually Maria Sklodowska. She was born in Warsaw, Poland, to two Polish teachers who were well-known in their community. At the age of 18, Curie worked as a governess and saved money to leave for Paris to attend the school of science at the Sorbonne. She was one of only two women who enrolled in their science program. That was when she adopted her current name: Marie. The discoveries she made there will rattle your chemistry beakers.
As a student, Curie met fellow scientist Pierre Curie. The two were enamored with their ideas and connected intellectually. They were married shortly after. As partners, the Curies were both fascinated by radioactivity and studied the findings of German physicist, Roentgen, and French physicist, Becquerel — the founders of radioactivity. Soon, the Curies discovered something groundbreaking in radioactivity: They discovered polonium and radium.
Through their discovery, the couple won a Nobel prize in physics, making Marie Curie the first woman Nobel laureate in history. She later made history again by winning a second Nobel prize in chemistry. She was the first person, man or woman, to win the prize twice. Thanks to the powerful work she and her husband conducted, their research proved crucial in the development of the x-ray. Once perfected, surgical x-rays were installed in WWI ambulances. Unfortunately, Madame Curie developed Leukemia from radiation exposure and passed away on July 4, 1934.
Hedy Lamarr has to be, hands down, one of the most beautiful women in the world. Many of you are now scrambling at the bottom of the comments section and arguing otherwise. However, one could argue that Hedy Lamarr was not just beautiful in appearance — her intellect was just as striking. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Lamarr was married at 19 to a wealthy war manufacturer who conducted business with the Nazi party.
It was during that time Lamarr and her husband were invited to fascist parties that the likes of Hitler and Mousillini attended. It was during those soirèes that Lamarr first learned about military and radio technologies. Four years and significant marital problems later, Lamarr left from her husband and fled to Paris. Lamarr eventually moved to America and became an actress for Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. What Lamarr invented will forever shape the world as we see it.
Mother of Wi-Fi
Creative and highly intelligent, Hedy Lamarr contributed to more than just her good looks to the silver screen. While in Hollywood, she met with Hollywood composer and ex-US munitions inspector, George Antheil. They discussed the functionality of torpedo radio transmissions. By understanding the transmission, Lamarr posed that it could be plausible to synchronize a pattern of frequencies between the transmitter to the receiver.
In other words, the two found a way to change radio frequencies between two parties without the third knowing. Lamarr calls it “frequency hopping” or a “Secret Communication System.” Lamarr patented the idea which would later blossom into what is now known as “spread-spectrum technology.” Thanks to Hedy Lamar’s contribution we now have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Let that sink in for a hot minute.
If you know anything about Vilma Espin, you know she was many things before her death in 2007. She was the daughter of a wealthy Cuban family, a chemical engineer student from M.I.T., and Cuba’s first lady. Wait, what? Yes, Vilma Espin was also the first lady of Cuba.
Born in Santiago, Cuba in 1930, Espin grew up to become a leader within the Cuban Revolution. She fought under Frank Pais and helped mobilize an armed uprising that would overthrow Fulgencio Batista in 1956. Shortly after, Espin joined the armed rebels in Sierra Maestra where she met her future husband Raul Castro — aka, Fidel Castro. It was during her time with Castro that Espin worked under the nom de guerre (war name) Deborah. What she did as a rebel will cement her place in Cuban history.
The First Lady of Cuba
Once Batista was overthrown, the Castro brothers swiftly took over. At the time, Fidel Castro was in the process of a divorce, Espin assumed the title as Cuba’s informal first lady and was later appointed to the Communist Party’s ruling Central Committee. Described as intellectual with an intense personality, she was a perfect fit for the role.
Once in power, Espin founded the Cuban Federation of Women, where she monitored its integration and development into the National Organization for Women. Espin occasionally served as a Cuban representative for the United Nations’ General Assembly and became Cuba’s official first lady in 2006.
When WWII was declared in 1939, the whole world held its breath. As the German army swept through Europe, they ruthlessly gathered all European Jewish people imprisoned them into ghettos. One of these was Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto — the last stop before entering Nazi-run concentration camps. Poland was the first to witness the full force of Nazi Germany.
One woman, however, decided to fight back against German forces. Her name was Irena Sendler. She was a social worker who condemned the systematic abuse and alienation of the Jewish people. Sendler rallied a group of young Polish women, some barely in their teens, to smuggled children out of the ghetto. For five years, Sendler and her girls would enter the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggle children, carrying them out in potato sacks, trash bags, an ambulance, or through sewers. Sendler put her life at risk every time she returned into the Warsaw ghetto.
Sendler knew that if she or any of her girls got caught, the Germans would execute not just them, but probably their families as well. As she rescued each child, Sendler made sure to write their name on a scrap of paper and buried it in a jar, hoping to later reunite the children with their parents. Sendler was smart. She had priests forge birth certificates and identification papers so that the smuggled children could be admitted to orphanages and safe houses.
To ensure safety, Sendler taught the children Catholic prayers in case any of them were interrogated by German soldiers. Then, the unthinkable happened. On October 20, 1943, German officials arrested Sendler, discovering her plot. They tortured her, demanding the names of her accomplices. But Sendler didn’t let up. On death’s door and about to be executed, Sendler was unexpectedly released, thanks to a bribe. By the end of the way, Sendler had smuggled over 2,500 children. Sendler became a national hero and is celebrated for her bravery. She died at the age of 83 in 2008.
Everyone knows who Frida Khalo is. A surrealist painter famed for capturing and painting her own life and pain on the canvas, she’s known for her grit and for her love of her country. She’s everywhere nowadays. Her face is on t-shirts, socks, and even Trader Joe’s wicker bags. But does anyone really know Frida’s story?
Frida was more than a painter — she was a biracial, feminist revolutionary who smoked. After she was severely injured in a streetcar accident (permanently damaging her hip and back), Frida became imprisoned within her own broken body. Gifted a set of brushes and paint, Frida began to paint images on her body cast, giving birth to a newfound passion.
A surreal life
Fiercely independent, Kahlo followed her own path and intuition. Her defiant personality and intellect matched her political ideals that were inspired by the Mexican Revolution. Kahlo was inspired by the issues facing her country and joined the political ranks alongside her husband, Diego Rivera.
Through her political and cultural passions, Kahlo was able to create some of the world’s most astounding surrealist paintings. Her work would often depict the stark contrast between Mexico Nationalism and American Commercialism, simultaneously celebrating and mocking their social politics. Today, Frida Kahlo is celebrated as a figure who represents beauty, art, passion, and feminism.
Gloria Steinem is a serious overachiever. We all know her as the face of feminism and an advocate for social and political change. Born in Toledo, Ohio, Steinem grew up taking care of her mentally disabled mother. It was during this critical time that Steinem decided to go to school and study government at Smith College — a major seen as unconventional for a lady at the time.
At the time (the ’50s), it was customary for women to get married and become stay-at-home mothers. That was not an option for Steinem. She quipped to People Magazine, “In the 1950s, once you married you became what your husband was … I’d already been the very small parent of a very big child — my mother. I didn’t want to end up taking care of someone else.” Instead, Steinem set into motion what would become the next feminist movement.
A louder voice
After graduating, Steinem went on to complete a fellowship in India where she became a freelance writer. It was when she returned to the US in 1963 that she wrote a famous article, an expose piece on New York City’s Playboy Club. There, Steinem went undercover as a waitress dressed as a Playboy Bunny. Inside, Steinem exposed the misogynistic world of the Playboy club. Her experience began a social conversation regarding a woman’s role in society.
She continued working as a writer and toward establishing both the New York and Ms. magazines. In 1992, she wrote a book called Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, which focused on self-image and inner-strength. Her efforts amplified the voices of women everywhere. She fearlessly talked openly about hush-hush issues such as abuse, social expectations, and living independently. She also published stories that weren’t centered on traditional gender roles.
Aung San Suu Kyi
The country of Myanmar has a long history of struggle and political turmoil. Since the coup of 1962, Myanmar has been under the iron grip of dictator U Ne Win, a military general turned ruler. When U Ne Win rose to power, he initiated “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” nationalizing socialism programs and eradicating independent newspapers and media.
It was when he came to power that Aung San Suu Kyi took a stand for her country’s citizens. Born to the ex-prime minister of Burma (now Myanmar), Suu Kyi grew up with a strong political background and studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University. Upon her return, Suu Kyi was shaken to the core after she saw what happened to her country.
Spokesperson of the people
Her beloved country was in U Ne Win’s iron grip. The country’s currency crashed in 1987 and people took to the streets triggering anti-government riots. It was then that she became an advocate for democracy and human rights. An entity was forged by the fire: Suu Kyi’s rage. She opposed U Ne Win and spoke publicly against his rule, causing her to be placed under house arrest in 1989.
Out of her 21-year sentence, Suu Kyi was imprisoned for 15 before being released in 1995. However, she was imprisoned several times after as well. During her imprisonment, Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. After her release, she ran for a seat in parliament. The people’s voice was heard — Suu Kyi won her election. With her place in parliament, Suu Kyi is one step closer to establishing peace in her country, regardless of the obstacles ahead. Myanmar still struggles with internal violence to this day.
When we think about Jane Goodall, we think about a chimpanzee loving enthusiast who’s studies have pioneered the understanding of primates in modern times. Though this much is true, Jane Goodall has more under her belt than “the wild child of Tanzania.” She is an animal rights activist, environmentalist, and scientist with an abundance of curiosity and a passion for scientific pursuit.
Born in London in 1934, she always had an interest in animal behavior, prompting her to attend Newham College after a trip to the Gombe Stream Game Reserve. She was one of the few candidates to receive a Ph.D. without obtaining a BA. The work that she pursued after college changed the way we saw primates and the world around us.
Animal rights and environmental activist
After her intensive study in Tanzania, Goodall published her first book In the Shadow of Man, a field study on chimpanzees. In her book, Goodall portrayed the primates with human-like qualities, questioning their involvement in both the scientific field (such as lab testing) and entertainment. Her later book, Through a Window, commented on the ethical concerns around the primates’ physical and mental suffering.
Her studies and observations earned her a plethora of awards, such as Order of the Golden Ark, a World Wildlife Conservation award, the International Peace Award, and the UNESCO Gold Medal Award. Jane Goodall became more than an animal behaviorist — she became a force in redefining the relationship between humans and nature. She brought the importance of environmental conservation of all species to the world stage.
Known for her poems and her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou lifted the social veil that had long hidden abuse, loss, discrimination, and racism, while also embracing femininity, love, and strength. Her poetry created a voice that carried through generations and continues to speak for those who feel silenced.
Though Maya Angelou was a celebrated writer, she wasn’t always the poet we know and love today. She was many things — one of them being the first woman of color to be accepted as a member of the Directors Guild of America. She was also the first person of color to work as a trolly conductor. Angelou was able to weave her life experience the tapestry of her poetry. Her life was extraordinary.
Before Angelou was a famous poet, she worked multiple occupations: cook, waitress, actress, dancer, playwright, and editor of a newspaper in Egypt. It wasn’t until her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, that she became canonized as a powerful writer and poet. Her book was published in 1969. Angelou had found her voice by writing about the trauma she endured as a child.
Angelou went on to receive several well-esteemed literary awards such as the Langston Hughs award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She even won multiple Grammy Awards for her spoken word album. Angelou even wrote a poem for the inauguration of the former president, Bill Clinton, the second poet to do so (the first being Robert Frost).
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
— Maya Angelou
Malala Yousafzai is the epitome of what it means to be an advocate for women’s education. She’s best known for her book I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. She is the youngest participant in history to be awarded the Novel Peace Prize.
Her story highlights the struggle of today’s education of young girls around the world and speaks openly about women’s rights. She’s regarded as the voice of the current generation, symbolizing hope for not just her country, but countries around the world struggling under corrupt rule. Before Yousafzai was a well-known global activist, she was a student who’s advocacy began at the tender age of 11. Her story truly is inspirational.
Advocate for education
Born in Mingora, Pakistan, Yousafzai was raised in a politically charged environment. When the Taliban grappled for control over the Pakistani nation, her father opposed the Taliban forces which later influenced Yousafzai’s political views. Seeing the negative impact of the Taliban on her community, Yousafzai began to blog to the BBC about living under Taliban threats when they denied her education in 2009. To protect her identity, Yousafzai wrote under the pen name Gul Makai.
As her platform grew, her activism made her a nominee for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011. Then tragedy struck. Yousafzai’s blog identity was revealed, and at the age of 15 while on a bus with her friends on the way to school, a masked gunman entered and shot Yousafzai in the head. She survived the traumatic ordeal — instead of being struck with fear, Yousafzai only pushed harder for her rights. At the age of 17, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and admitted to Oxford University where she is studying government, politics, and economics. Today, she continues to push for human rights causes, beseeching leaders to reprioritize their policies and aid in women’s education.