16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women

Khalid Elhassan - October 11, 2018

There are plenty of fascinating people from history who helped shape the world, only to end up overlooked, without receiving anywhere near as much attention as they deserve. With history having been a predominately male-dominated field for most of, well… history, influential women are probably disproportionately represented among the ranks of those overlooked. Following are sixteen such women, who played significant historical roles, but whose contributions are often overlooked.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Mary Ann Bickerdyke, during the Civil War. Wikimedia

Mother Bickerdyke, the Nurse Who Outranked William Tecumseh Sherman

Mary Ann Bickerdyke (1817 – 1901) was a nurse and hospital administrator for the Union army during the American Civil War. During the conflict, she helped establish hundreds of field hospitals for the wounded and sick, and after the war, she spent decades helping veterans and their families secure their pensions. Her deep concern for and tireless efforts on the soldiers’ behalf earned her the nickname “Mother Bickerdyke” from the men in blue, and won the admiration of many of their commanders, including US Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Born and raised in Ohio, Bickerdyke was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College. She eventually settled in Illinois, where she made a living as a botanic physician and a provider of alternative medicines, using plants and herbs. Soon after the Civil War broke out, a surgeon in an Illinois regiment and a friend of Bickerdyke wrote home about the abysmal conditions in military hospitals in Cairo, Illinois. Bickerdyke’s community collected $500 worth of supplies, and she was the only volunteer willing to deliver them.

Bickerdyke ended up getting appointed as a field agent for the US Sanitary Commission – a private relief agency created to support sick and wounded soldiers. A strong-willed woman, she was determined to let nothing stand in the way of her quest to bring order to field hospitals and improve a lot of the soldiers being treated in them. When an Army surgeon questioned her authority, she retorted that she was acting: “On the authority of the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that outranks that?” On another occasion, when members of General Grant’s staff complained to William Tecumseh Sherman of Bickerdyke’s deliberate defiance of some regulations, he threw up his hands and exclaimed: “She outranks me. I can’t do a thing in the world“.

In addition to running hospitals, Bickerdyke accompanied Union armies, braving shot and shell so she could scour the battlefields for wounded men who had been missed by stretcher-bearers, who might still be saved. Those whom she personally saved in this manner included General John “Black Jack” Logan, commander of the XV Corps, who had been wounded and left on the field for dead at Fort Donelson. By the time the war was over, she had helped set up over 300 field hospitals, and had been the difference maker in saving the lives of untold thousands.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Image of Wu Zetian, taken from an 18th century illustrated book of Chinese emperors. Wikimedia

China’s Only Female Emperor

According to dynastic China’s Confucian worldview, women were unfit to rule. Wu Zetian (624 – 705) did not care much for that bit of Confucian conventional wisdom: from 683 to 705, she ran the country unofficially as an empress consort, then empress dowager, and finally, as official empress. She became the sole officially recognized empress during China’s more than two millennia of imperial rule. A strong, wily, and ruthless woman, the tale of her rise to power, and how she held on to it, could have taught Machiavelli some new tricks had he known of her.

Wu Zetian was born into a wealthy family, and her father saw to it that she received a good education, encouraging her to read and develop her mind. That was quite unusual for her day and age, but fortunately for Wu, her father was not too hung up on convention. As a result, she grew up well-versed in literature, music, history, politics, and governmental affairs. She was also drop-dead gorgeous, and at age 14, she was taken into Emperor Taizong’s harem as a concubine.

The combination of beauty and brains served her well. The emperor was an old stick in the mud who was not into intelligent women, and thus did not favor Wu. Being an intelligent woman, and looking ahead, she had an affair with his son and eventual successor, who was not intimidated by smart women. When he became Emperor Gaozong after his father’s death, he made Wu his favorite concubine, and eventually elevated her to his second wife – a huge jump in the imperial harem’s rankings. Not content to remain second fiddle, however, Wu reportedly strangled her own infant daughter, and framed the emperor’s first wife for the death. The intrigue worked, and Wu became the emperor’s official consort.

Her power grew steadily, as she steadily eliminated opponents and potential threats. When Emperor Gaozong died in 683, Wu became empress dowager in her own right and regent, running the empire in the name of her son, Emperor Zhongzong. When Zhongzong ascended the throne in his own right in 684, he tried to buck his mother and get out from under her thumb. He lasted only six weeks on the throne, before Wu had him deposed, exiled, and replaced with her youngest son, whom she made Emperor Ruizong. She maintained all power in her own hands, and six years later, she tired of bothering with any pretense about who actually ran China, and made Ruizong relinquish the throne. Wu officially proclaimed herself empress regnant, and ruled in that capacity until she was overthrown in 705.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Statue of Sybil Ludington in Carmel, New York. Syracuse University Press

The Teenage Girl Who Outdid Paul Revere

Paul Revere’s place in history was cemented when his 18-mile midnight ride in April of 1775, to alert the colonial militia of the approaching British, was dramatized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Paul Revere’s Ride. In 1777, Sybil Ludington (1761 – 1839) made a 40-mile midnight ride to warn the colonial militia of approaching British troops. That was more than twice as far as Paul Revere’s ride, and she did it when she was only 16.

Sybil Ludington was born in Fredericksburg (now Ludington), the eldest of what would become a large family of 12 children. Her father, Henry Ludington, was a New York militia officer, and later an aide to George Washington. On the night of April 26th, 1777, word reached the Ludington household that New York’s governor, General William Tryon, was about to attack nearby Danbury, Connecticut, where the supplies and munitions for the entire region’s militia were stored.

Sybil volunteered (or was ordered by her father – accounts differ) to deliver the order for an immediate militia muster, and to rouse the countryside. In either case, the 16-year-old girl rode her horse, Star, throughout a rainy night on a 40-mile careen around the region. She traveled over unfamiliar roads, prodding the horse with a stick that she also used to knock on doors, and that came in handy to defend herself when a highwayman tried to waylay her in the dark.

By the time Sybil returned home, exhausted and soaked to the bone, most of the region’s 400 militia were ready to march to Danbury. They managed to beat Governor Tryon and his men, forcing the British to retreat. Sybil was praised by her neighbors, and even by George Washington. Unfortunately for her, no world-class poet took an interest in her exploits that night – or perhaps none could find anything good to rhyme with “Ludington”. Either way, Sybil never garnered as much attention as Revere, and her heroics were largely forgotten.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Katie Sandwina lifting her husband over her head. Spiegel

Katie Sandwina, the World’s Strongest Woman

When most people think of 19th and early 20th-century fitness freaks and performers of feats of strength, the image that comes to mind is usually a leotard-wearing broad-chested figure with handlebar mustaches. However, the fitness movement back then was actually an all-encompassing movement, that did not exclude based on gender. An example was Katie Sandwina (1884 – 1952), otherwise known as the “Lady Hercules”. She was quite the powerhouse and an impressive performer who became a world-famous circus strongwoman.

Born just outside of Vienna, Austria, in 1884, Katarina Brumbach – her birth name – came into the world on the back of a circus wagon. Her parents were circus performers from Bavaria, and Katie was destined to follow in their footsteps. Her father stood 6 foot 6, and weighed about 270 pounds – a big man for those days. Her mother, at nearly 6 feet tall and with biceps measuring 16 inches, was a circus strongwoman herself. In other words, strength was in Katie’s blood.

As a teenager, Katie stood nearly 6 feet tall, and weighed a lean 200 pounds. That size and the strength that went with it, combined with her natural good looks, made her an attraction wherever she went. At circus stops, Katie performed feats of strength with dumbbells and barbells, and her father would offer 100 marks to any woman – or man – who could best her in a wrestling match. Her father never had to pay out. Katie had multiple children, but pregnancy hardly ever slowed her down: she performed her strongwoman act almost until she went into labor.

Katie eventually emigrated to the US, where she was signed up by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and spent decades as their featured strongwoman, until she was almost 60. Her greatest moment came when she defeated the era’s most famous strongman, Eugene Sandow, in a weightlifting contest. She managed to lift 300 pounds above her head, while he was able to leave them only to his chest.

One of the things that contemporaries found highly interesting about her was just how feminine she was, and those who knew her frequently remarked on how she was into makeup, getting her nails done up, and other “super girly things”. It was seen as an entertaining juxtaposition for a woman who routinely had a carousel placed on her shoulders, so she could lift anywhere from eight to a dozen people at a time.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Mary Seacole. National Geographic

Mary Seacole’s Fame Once Rivaled That of Florence Nightingale

Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881) was a pioneering nurse and Crimean War heroine, who as a woman, and a black one at that, had to overcome the double prejudices of sexism and racism. A businesswoman and adventurer, she set up what came to be known as the “British Hotel” for convalescent officers behind the Crimean War’s front lines, and cared for wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Scottish soldier and a black mother who used traditional African and Caribbean herbal remedies, and who passed that knowledge on to her daughter. Mary Seacole and her mother ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers that was widely viewed as one of the best hotels in Kingston. The precarious health of many of the guests meant that Mary grew up with firsthand knowledge of dealing with ailments and physical crises.

An inveterate traveler, she visited much of the Caribbean and Central America, as well as Britain, and complemented her knowledge of traditional medicines with European medical ideas. She was in Britain during the Crimean War, and approached the War Office, asking to be sent as a nurse to Crimea, where medical care facilities were scandalously abysmal. Her request was rejected.

Undaunted, Seacole funded her own way to Crimea, where she established the “British Hotel” near Balaclava to provide “A mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers“. She also trekked to the battlefields, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. Her courage in the face of mortal danger earned her the affectionate nickname “Mother Seacole”.

History records Florence Nightingale as the Crimean War’s foremost nurse, but during the conflict, and especially among the soldiers on the ground, Seacole’s fame rivaled that of Nightingale. Seacole returned to Britain after the war, destitute and in poor health. The press highlighted her plight, and in 1857, a benefit festival was held for her, that was attended by thousands, including many grateful Crimean War veterans.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Actress Heather Lind as Anna Strong in the AMC series ‘Turn, Washington’s Spies’. AMC Networks

Patriot Spy Anna Strong

Anna Smith Strong (1740 – 1812) of Setauket, New York, played an important role in the Culper Spy Ring – the Americans’ most important espionage network. The ring’s leader, Abraham Woodhull, frequently traveled to New York City under the cover of his occupation as a farmer delivering produce, or to visit his sister, who lived in the city. While in New York, he gathered information about British units in the city, their dispositions, and any news he overheard from talkative Loyalists and British officers.

Close questioning by inquisitive British soldiers during one of those visits drove home to Woodhull the dangerousness of what he was doing. To reduce his exposure and the frequency of his travel, he began leaning more on recruiting spies in the city, using their reports instead of his personal observations. Anna Strong helped speed up the transmission of intelligence.

Woodhull gathered intelligence from New York City, and returned with it to Setauket on Long Island. He then delivered it to Caleb Brewster, a courier and smuggler who ran a whaleboat, who delivered it to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who finally delivered it to George Washington. It was a time-consuming process that was eventually shortened by using couriers to collect the information in New York, and speedily get it to Setauket, 55 miles away.

Anna Strong, a neighbor and friend of Woodhull and Brewster, used her laundry as a code to coordinate between the duo when intelligence was ready to gather, and where it should be collected. When Brewster was in the area, ready to pick up Woodhull’s reports, Anna would hang a black petticoat in her laundry as a signal to Woodhull. Woodhull would then finish compiling a report, and stash it in a prearranged hiding spot in one of six coves near Setauket. Anna would then hang up white handkerchiefs to dry, their number corresponding to the number of the cove where Woodhull had stashed the report. Brewster would then go to the correct cove, pick up the report, and deliver it across the Long Island Sound.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Frances Glessner Lee, creating one of her ‘Nutshell Studies’. Harvard Magazine

The Godmother of Forensic Science

Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962) was a Chicago society dame who had a hobby that was quite unusual for women of her era: solving crimes and helping advance the science of forensics. To that end, she developed a training system for homicide detectives that she called Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, parts of which are still in use today. She is considered the godmother of forensic science.

Frances Glessner Lee was the daughter of an industrialist who became fabulously wealthy from investing in International Harvester. As a young girl, she got hooked on Sherlock Holmes stories, and dreamt of growing up to become a crime solver. She wanted to attend college, but her family would not permit it. She was also discouraged from pursuing her interests in forensic pathology.

Her dreams did not die, however, and after the death of her father and then her brother, she inherited the International Harvester fortune at age 52. Now a millionaire heiress and society dame, she eschewed splurging on lavish parties for debutants, tycoons, and other society types. Instead, she made a sizeable endowment to the recently established Harvard Department of Legal Medicine – the country’s first such institution.

In addition to her financial generosity, Glessner Lee hosted week-long seminars for homicide detectives, prosecutors, and other investigators, to train them on crime investigation techniques. Her methodology, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, consisted of 20 true crime scene dioramas, that she personally reproduced in painstaking detail on dollhouse scale.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
One of Frances Glessner Lee’s crime scene dioramas. New York Times

Her dioramas were complete with working doors, windows, lights, and minute details all the way down to tiny food cans and miniature mousetraps. Students were then given 90 minutes to study the scene, then try and solve the crime based on their observations. For her efforts, she was made an honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police. 18 of her dioramas are still in use for training purposes.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee. Pinterest

Anita Newcomb McGee, Founder of the US Army Nurse Corps

Anita Newcomb McGee (1864 – 1940) was a physician whose work greatly influenced America’s military, and she is widely viewed as the founder of the United States Army Nurse Corps. Born in Washington, DC, to a noted astronomer, Dr. McGee got her medical degree in 1892, and became one of the few female practicing doctors in the nation’s capital.

At the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, she trained and organized volunteer nurses. His organizational skills led to her appointment as the only woman acting Assistant Surgeon General of the US Army in 1898, in charge of nurses, for the duration of the war. That made Dr. McGee the first woman authorized to wear an Army officer’s uniform.

She wrote a manual during the conflict on nursing, that was adopted by the American military and that formed the basis for nursing practices for decades thereafter. Parts of her manual survive as standard operating procedures to this day. After the war, she lobbied for a permanent nursing corps, and wrote the section of legislation that was subsequently enacted into law to establish the Army Nurse Corps in 1901.

In 1904, Dr. McGee led a contingent of volunteer nurses to serve in Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. She established a field hospital for the Japanese Army, and trained Japanese Red Cross nurses. Given an officer’s rank by the Japanese government, she inspected field hospitals and hospital ships, and served as a medical military attache with the Japanese army in Manchuria. Returning to America after the war, Dr. McGee resumed her medical practice, wrote about her war experiences, and lectured at the University of California. She died in 1940, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
An 1888 painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, depicting Zenobia in golden chains when she was forced to surrender to the Romans. National Geographic

The Syrian Queen Who Challenged Rome

Septimia Zenobia (circa 240 – circa 274) was a third-century Syrian queen who ruled the short-lived Empire of Palmyra from 267 to 272, and challenged the authority of Rome. During that stretch in power, via war, conquest, and diplomacy, Zenboia came to control and govern a huge realm that included most of the Roman Empire’s eastern provinces.

Born in Palmyra, a wealthy Syrian city that grew prosperous from its strategic location astride caravan trade routes, Zenobia was educated in Latin and Greek, and was fluent in Aramaic and Egyptian. She was put in charge of her family’s flocks and crews of shepherds in her youth, and grew accustomed to horseback riding, the outdoors life, and developed endurance and stamina. Those assets would serve her well, later on.

She was married to Lucius Septimus Odaenathus, Rome’s client ruler of Palmyra. Her life overlapped with a decades-long period of Roman chaos and political instability that came to be known as the Crisis of the Third Century. Taking advantage of that weakness, the Persian Sassanid Empire conquered much of the Roman east. Acting at Rome’s behest, Odaenathus fought off the Persians, and recovered the lost provinces. For his services, he was made governor of most of the Roman East, and in 260, he crowned himself king.

In 267, Odaenathus and his eldest son by a previous wife were assassinated, at which point Zenobia assumed power as regent on behalf of her underage son. She also crowned herself queen of Palmyra, and surrounded herself at court with intellectuals and philosophers. She was a remarkable queen, noted for her culture, her intellect, her beauty, and her toughness. Unlike her deceased husband, Zenobia was not content to remain a Roman client. So she conquered Egypt in 269, seized a significant part of Asia Minor, and declared herself an independent ruler.

Reportedly, she could march on foot long distances with her soldiers, could hunt as well as any man, and could out-drink anybody. By 270, Zenobia had conquered an empire stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt, and from Mesopotamia to the deserts of Libya. Rome was forced to take note, and in 270, a new emperor, Aurelian, restored order in the western Roman empire and turned his attention to the east. Marching against Zenobia, he defeated her armies at Antioch and Emesa, and besieged her in Palmyra. She attempted to fight her way out, but was eventually captured. Zenobia was supposed to march as a trophy in Aurelian’s triumph in Rome, but she denied him that satisfaction by starving herself to death in 274 during the trip to Rome.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Battle of Salamis. Ancient Pages

The Greek Warrior Queen, Artemisia I

The Greek queen Artemisia I (flourished in the 400s BC) ruled Halicarnassus in Caria – a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire in southwestern Anatolia. A naval commander and pirate queen, Artemisia fought for the Persians during their invasion of Greece. She won acclaim for her role in the naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, which her side lost, but during which she distinguished herself.

She was born to the king of Halicarnassus, who named her after Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Artemesia married the satrap of Caria, and after his death, she assumed the Carian throne as regent for her underage son. Contemporaries depicted her as a courageous and clever commander of men and ships, who preyed upon the Greeks during the Greco-Persian conflict.

When Persia’s king Xerxes invaded Greece, Artemisia distinguished herself in the naval battle of Artemisium, which was fought simultaneously with the more famous Battle of Thermopylae. She caused the Greeks so much trouble that they put a bounty on her head, offering 10,000 drachmas to whoever killed or captured her. The reward went uncollected.

In the even greater naval Battle of Salamis soon thereafter, Herodotus describes Artemisia as the only commander on the Persian side worthy of mention: ” I pass over all the other officers [of the Persians] because there is no need for me to mention them, except for Artemisia, because I find it particularly remarkable that a woman should have taken part in the expedition against Greece. She took over the tyranny after her husband’s death, and although she had a grown-up son and did not have to join the expedition, her manly courage impelled her to do so“.

She escorted Xerxes’ sons to safety after the battle, then faded from recorded history. Legend has it that Artemisia fell madly in love with a man who ignored her. So she had him blinded. However, her passion continued to burn hot despite his disfigurement. To rid herself of her feelings for him, she decided to leap from a tall rock that reportedly held magical powers, such that jumping off it would snap the bonds of love. She ended up snapping her neck.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Sikelgaita of Salerno. Pinterest

Sikelgaita, Medieval Warrior Duchess

Sikelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090) was a warrior princess and the hereditary duchess of Apulia in southern Italy. A giantess for her day, standing six feet tall, she married Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer who turned southern Italy and Sicily into a Norman domain. Fighting alongside Guiscard, or leading men into battle on her own, Sikelgaita and her husband roiled the Mediterranean world.

Sikelgaita was born into the Duchy of Salerno’s ruling family, and grew up with a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding. After her father, the duke, was murdered in a palace coup, she helped her brother regain the duchy, and her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then had to deal with encroachment from Normans to their south.

She met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard in 1058, and the two fell passionately in love. Impressed by the six-foot Amazon who went into battle, armed and armored, Guiscard divorced his wife and married Sikelgaita. Over the next 18 years, she was Guiscard’s constant companion, on and off the battlefield, helping consolidate their family’s hold on southern Italy.

In 1076, clad in shining armor and mounted astride a stallion, Sikelgaita rode up to the walls of Salerno, which was ruled by her own brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, Sikelgaita and Guiscard besieged the city, and starved him into surrender. She then sent her brother into exile, and took command of the city.

Sikelgaita not only fought on her husband’s side, but also led men into combat on her own. She and Guiscard attempted to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household, but a palace coup in Constantinople foiled those plans. So the power couple decided to take over Byzantium by conquering it.

Her greatest exploit came during the ensuing war, at the Battle of Durazo on the Albanian coast, in October of 1081. Sikelgaita led an advance force, and ran into a powerful Byzantine army. She pressed the attack in order to pin the Byzantines in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements, but her men faltered, and some fled. As described by near contemporaries: “Directly Sikelgaita, Robert’s wife … saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words “How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!” And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.

She was badly wounded during the fight, but held part of the battlefield until reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and win the hard-fought engagement. Despite the victory, the plans for conquering Byzantium came to naught. Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign fizzled out. Sikelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Artifacts recovered from the tomb of Aahhotep I. Temple of Mut

Aahhotep I, Ancient Egyptian Warrior Queen

Aahhotep I (flourished 16th century BC) was a warrior queen of ancient Egypt’s Seventeenth Dynasty, who led armies in combat against the Hyksos – Semitic invaders who had conquered Lower Egypt. She took control of Egypt’s throne and armies after her husband was killed fighting the invaders, and ruled as regent during the minority of her son, Ahmose I. She kept up the pressure against the Hyksos until her son was old enough to take over the fight.

A stele records her deeds: “The king’s wife, the noble lady, who knew everything, assembled Egypt. She looked after what her Sovereign had established. She guarded it. She assembled her fugitives. She brought together her deserters. She pacified her Upper Egyptians. She subdued her rebels … She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”

Aahhotep’s son eventually came of age, took the reins of power, chased out the Hyksos, and reunified Egypt. As Ahmose I, he went on to found the Eighteenth Dynasty, during which the Egyptian Empire reached its zenith, stretching from Syria in the north to Nubia in the south, and from Mesopotamia in the west to the Libyan deserts in the west.

Hyksos-sympathizing rebels attempted to seize the throne while Aahotep’s son was busy in the south warring with Nubians, so she rallied loyal troops, fought them off, and foiled their attempt. For that, she was rewarded with the “Golden Flies of Valor” – Ancient Egypt’s highest military award for courage. It was discovered in her tomb, along with weapons and jewelry, thousands of years later.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Margaret of Valois. Wikimedia

Margaret of Valois

The French queen Margaret of Valois (1553 – 1615) became famous both for her reported licentiousness, and for being the first woman in history to pen her memoirs – a vivid depiction of the turbulent France of her lifetime. Alexander Dumas’ portrayal of her in his historical novel, Queen Margot, made her even more famous, or perhaps, infamous.

Born to king Henry II of France and his formidable wife, Catherine di Medici, Margaret was quite close when growing up to her brother Henry – the future King Henry III. So close as to give rise to rumors of an incestuous relationship. Closeness turned into hatred, however, when she was discovered having an affair with an aristocrat, Henry of Guise. It ended in 1570 with Margaret’s mother and her other brother, King Charles IX, beating up Guise and banishing him from the court.

At the time, there were serious religious tensions in France between Catholics and Protestants. To ease them, Catherine di Medici sought to bring the Catholic Valois closer to their Bourbon relatives, a Protestant branch of the French royal family. So Catherine arranged for Margaret to marry her Bourbon relative, the Protestant Henry of Navarre.

It was a disastrous marriage. Held at Notre Dame Cathedral on August 19th, 1572, it began inauspiciously when the Protestant groom refused – or was not allowed – to set foot in the Catholic cathedral. So he spent the wedding day outside Notre Dame. Things got worse five days later, when the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began on August 24th, and thousands of Protestants who had traveled to Paris for the wedding were murdered by Catholic mobs. Tens of thousands more Protestants were massacred throughout France in the following days.

Margaret’s husband survived by promising to convert to Catholicism. He was forced to live in the French court, but managed to escape in 1576. Margaret had nothing to do with the killings, and had done much to save her husband’s life. However, after the massacre and four years of captivity, Henry of Navarre was not fond of Catholics, including his wife. Once free, he renounced Catholicism and joined the Protestant military forces.

When Margaret’s brother Henry succeeded their brother Charles IX to became King Henry III, her husband became next in the line for the throne, as Henry III had no male heirs. His being a Protestant, however, complicated matters. Soon a three-way struggle, known as the War of the Three Henrys, erupted between Margaret’s brother king Henry III, her husband, Henry of Navarre, and her former lover, Henry of Guise.

In 1588, King Henry III had Henry of Guise assassinated, along with a brother who was a cardinal. That horrified the public, and led to a collapse of the king’s authority. Henry III was assassinated in 1589, and Margaret’s husband, Henry of Navarre, became King Henry IV of France. The Parisians barred him from the city, however, so to secure the throne, he converted to Catholicism, this time willingly, quipping that “Paris is well worth a Mass“. One of his first acts as king was to arrange an annulment of his marriage to Margaret of Valois.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Sayyida al Hurra. Head Stuff

Pirate Queen Sayyida al Hurra

Sayyida al Hurra (1485 – 1561), which means “free noblewoman” in Arabic, was the ruler of Tetouan, Morocco, and a pirate queen who terrorized the waters of Iberia and North Africa. Islamic records are silent about her, notwithstanding that she was a powerful figure of the era, and an equal ally of the more famous corsair Khayr al Din Barbarossa, who dominated the Mediterranean in the 16th century.

Sayyida al Hurra was born into a prominent Muslim family in Granada, but had to flee to Morocco when her home fell to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492. The Moroccan sultan granted Sayyida and her husband, and their refugee followers, the ruins of Tetouan, a city destroyed by Spaniards. They rebuilt and restored Tetouan, and after her husband’s death in 1515, Sayyida became its queen – the last queen in Islamic history to rule independently.

Sayyida remarried after years of widowhood, wedding the sultan of Morocco. However, to emphasize her independence, and to demonstrate that she had no intention to giving up her power and position, she refused to leave Tetouan for the wedding. The sultan had to come to her – the only time in Moroccan history that a sultan married outside his capital.

In the meantime, spurred on by bitter memories of her exile from Granada, Sayyida fell upon the Spaniards in a ruthless campaign of piracy. She allied with Khayr al Din Barbarossa, the era’s most prominent corsair, who became the Ottoman Empire’s most successful admiral. With Barbarossa operating in the eastern Mediterranean, and Sayyida in the western Mediterranean and Morocco’s Atlantic coast and Iberia, the duo went to work.

She led her own fleet, prowling Spanish and Portuguese shipping lanes, and establishing herself as the region’s undisputed pirate leader. Between booty and ransoms to free her captives, she amassed vast riches, and was viewed by Europeans as the go-to contact in negotiations to release Christian captives. It is to those negotiations, and the records thereof, that history is most indebted for our knowledge of Sayyida al Hurra.

The pirate queen’s reign eventually ended as she neared her 60s. After three decades of striking terror into the hearts of crews and captains in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Sayyida’s downfall came at the hands of her son-in-law, who ousted her in a palace coup. She was stripped of power, and her fate thereafter is lost to history.

16 Remarkable But Frequently Overlooked Women
Teuta. Pinterest

The Illyrian Queen Who Defied Rome

Piracy in the waters around the Greek world had been suppressed during the Classical era, when the powerful Athenian and Rhodian navies kept the waters relatively safe. Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great followed suit, but after Alexander’s death, his successors focused their energies on fighting each other. With no strong naval presence to keep the sea lanes free of pirates, piracy returned with a vengeance. Especially among the Illyrian tribes, dwelling along the coasts of modern Albania and Croatia. They took full advantage of the many hidden inlets along their coastlines, and turned to piracy as a way of life.

That led to conflict with the expanding Roman Republic, which became a dominant Mediterranean naval power after its victory over Carthage in the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC). That newly won dominance was challenged by the Illyrians across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian Peninsula, most notably the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe, and their queen Teuta (reigned 231 – 227 BC).

She had inherited the Ardiaei kingdom following the death of her husband in 231 BC, and continued his expansionist policies, pushing her realm’s borders deeper into the Balkans, while encouraging and supporting her subjects’ piratical activities. The conflict with Rome began when some of her pirates seized and plundered Roman vessels.

The merchants complained to the Roman Senate, which tried diplomacy at first, sending a pair of envoys to Teuta’s court. She argued that piracy was legal among the Illyrians, and that her government had no right to interfere with the private enterprise of its citizens. When the envoys retorted that Rome would have to make her change Illyrian laws, Teuta stopped feeling diplomatic, and had one of the Roman envoys killed, and the other imprisoned.

Rome declared war in 229 BC, and sent a fleet of 200 warships to harry the Illyrians at sea, while an army of 20,000 infantry and cavalry crossed the Adriatic to devastate their lands. Teuta put up a fierce fight, but in the end, her tribal kingdom was no match for Rome. She was forced to surrender in 227 BC, and signed a humiliating peace treaty. Teuta was allowed to keep her throne, but as a Roman vassal, paying annual tribute, and ruling over a shrunken realm, stripped of much of its territory.

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Cheng I Sao. Ancient Origins

Cheng I Sao, History’s Greatest Pirate

Cheng I Sao (1775 – 1844) was a Chinese pirate who terrorized South China in the early 19th century, and was arguably history’s most successful pirate, of either gender. A former prostitute, she married a powerful pirate and participated fully in his illicit activities, and inherited his outlaw realm upon his death. However, she was no mere widow who lucked into an inheritance: her own piratical legacy far exceeded that of her departed husband. Cheng commanded tens of thousands of outlaws, and despite challenging the British Empire, the Portuguese Empire, as well as the Chinese Qing Dynasty, she survived to end her days in peaceful retirement.

She was good at choosing capable subordinates, the most formidable woman of whom was Cheung Po Tsai (1783 – 1822), a poor fisherman’s son who was kidnapped at age 15 by Cheng and her husband. Pressed into their crews, the teenager excelled in the new career suddenly thrust upon him, and rose swiftly through the ranks. Before long, Cheung had become the Chengs’ favorite protege and subordinate, and was adopted by them. When Cheng’s husband drowned, the widow took over his pirate fleet, selected Cheung as her right-hand man, and eventually married him.

Cheng’s scale of piratical activities far exceeded anything seen in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. At the height of her power, she controlled over 300 sailing ships, and commanded up to 80,000 outlaws. To put that in perspective, the Caribbean Age of Piracy’s most notorious villain, Blackbeard, never commanded more than 4 ships and 300 men.

With her massive armada, Cheng became de facto mistress of the shipping lanes around southern China, and held them for ransom. Her depredations finally compelled the Chinese authorities to launch a massive campaign to eradicate piracy and restore order. In 1810, seeing the writing on the wall, Cheng accepted a pardon. She abandoned piracy, and returned to her hometown, where she opened a gambling house and brothel. She died peacefully in bed in 1844, surrounded by her family.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Amazing Women in History – Sayyida al-Hurra, Islamic Pirate Queen

Ancient Egypt Online – Queen Ahhotep I

Ancient Origins – Ching Shih: From Prostitute to Pirate Lord

Archive, The, October 20th, 2017 – 30 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard Of

BBC History – Mary Seacole

Changing the Face of Medicine – Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee

Encyclopedia Britannica – Artemisia I, Queen of Halicarnassus

Encyclopedia Britannica – Teuta, Queen of Illyria

History of American Women – Anna Smith Strong

Mental Floss – The Host of ‘Stuff You Overlooked in History Class’ Share 7 Amazing, Oft-Overlooked Women in History

National Geographic, November 27th, 2013 – Mary Seacole, Adventurer in Jamaica, Panama, and the Crimean War

National Geographic History Magazine, November 12th, 2017 – Zenobia, the Rebel Queen Who Took on Rome

National Public Radio, November 18th, 2017 – The Tiny, Murderous World of Frances Glessner Lee

Ohio History Central – Mary Ann Bickerdyke

Physical Culture Study – Katie Sandwina: The Strongest Woman in the World

Rejected Princesses – Wu Zetian: China’s Only Female Emperor

Wikipedia – Margaret of Valois

Wikipedia – Sikelgaita