Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History

Khalid Elhassan - October 14, 2023

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Sichelgaita. Wikimedia

A Bloody Medieval Amazon

As described by near contemporaries: “Directly Sichelgaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) 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 in 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 to conquer Byzantium were discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1084, Sichelgaita and Guiscard resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. They won some initial victories, such as a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine fleet, which gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign in Greece fizzled out. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
The Trung sisters. National Geographic

Vietnam’s National Heroines

The Trung sisters, Trung Nhi and Trung Trac (circa 12 – 43 AD), are Vietnam’s national heroines. They led an independence movement and rebelled against China’s domination of their country. They broke the Chinese yoke and established an independent Vietnamese state, which they ruled for three years. Vietnam had groaned under Chinese domination for about a century by the time the Trung sisters were born. Trung Trac, the older sister, was married to a Vietnamese nobleman who resisted Chinese hegemony, and objected to a particularly oppressive Chinese governor’s ham handedness.

For his troubles, Trung Trac’s husband was executed by the Chinese to cow other would-be rebels. In response, his widow organized and rallied other Vietnamese nobles to resist the Chinese. With the help of her sister Trung Nhi, Trung Trac launched a rebellion in the Red River Delta, near modern Hanoi, in 40 AD. From there, the revolt quickly spread up and down the long Vietnamese coast. After generations of life under foreign domination, the Vietnamese were ready to rebel, and the uprising became wildly popular.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
The Trung sisters led a female army. Pinterest

A Bloody Rebellion by an Army of Women

Unique among armed rebellions, the Trung sisters’ forces were made mostly of women. With those predominately female armies, the rebel siblings seized numerous Chinese forts and citadels, and chased out or defeated their garrisons. Within a few months, China’s authority in Vietnam was broken, the Chinese were forced out of the country, and Trung Trac was proclaimed queen. Although greatly outnumbered, the siblings managed to keep the invaders out of for three years. Eventually, however, the Chinese concentrated a massive force to recapture Vietnam.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Vietnamese female soldiers march past a Trung sisters monument. Connected Women

In 43 AD, the Trung sisters were finally defeated in battle. Captured, they were decapitated by the Chinese, who then reasserted their control over Vietnam. Although their independent state proved short lived, the Trung sisters successfully planted the seeds of Vietnamese national identity. Conventional wisdom in Vietnam has it that if the Trung sisters had not rebelled and fought against the Chinese, Vietnam would have been wholly absorbed and dissolved into China, and there would be no Vietnamese nation today.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall. University of Kent

The Rich American Who Ended Up as a WWII Resistance Heroine

Life in World War II’s resistance in Europe was pretty tough. Whether it was the Gestapo hot on their heels, the ever-present danger of betrayal by collaborators, or mere bad luck, capture and doom were never far away. Life was harder and more dangerous still for resistance figures with readily identifiable characteristics – especially if such characteristics were known to the Nazis. Virginia Hall, a one-legged spy who spent much of WWII dodging the Gestapo in occupied France, could attest to that.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall transmitting from German-occupied France. CIA

Hall was born into a wealthy Baltimore family in 1906, but she was not into the usual fripperies that rich young ladies of her era were into. Among other things, she did not want to simply become somebody’s dutiful housewife. Instead, she was a total Tomboy: a free spirit, athletic, independent, and liked to thumb her nose at convention. As she wrote in a schoolbook in 1924: “I must have liberty, with as large a charter as possible“. At age twenty, she headed to Europe to blazer her own path.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall’s 1930s drivers license. Time Magazine

The One-Legged Spy

Virginia Hall attended Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, her era’s female counterparts of Harvard and Columbia universities. There, she studied French, German, and Italian. She liked travel and public service, so she tried to combine the two and become a US diplomat. Unfortunately, the State Department’s sole career track for women back then was clerical. So Hall became a clerk at the American consulate in Turkey. There, she accidentally shot herself in the leg while hunting, and the limb was amputated. She got a wooden prosthetic, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert”. Because of her gender, Hall was repeatedly denied promotion to diplomat. So she resigned in 1939. She was in France when the Germans invaded, and volunteered to drive an ambulance for the French Army. When France fell in 1940, she fled to Britain.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Gestapo sketch of Virginia Hall. Rhapsody in Words

There, Hall joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a clandestine organization tasked with espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. She became one of the first spies infiltrated into France. It was hazardous duty: more than a third of female SOE agents sent to France perished. She established an espionage network named Heckler that gathered valuable information and coordinated with the Resistance. The Gestapo learned that a “Limping Lady” was operating on their turf, and circulated bulletins – along with sketches – to be on the lookout for her. However, Hall used various aliases and disguises, and continued her clandestine work under the Nazis’ noses despite her tell-tale limp. Along the way, she recruited a Lyon brothel owner, and used his establishment as a kind of headquarters. She also had a sixth sense for danger, which allowed her to evade capture on many occasions.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall. All That is Interesting

An Overlooked Heroine and the Bloody Gestapo

Klaus Barbie, a bloody minded Gestapo official known as “The Butcher of Lyon” for the thousands whom he ordered tortured and killed, was hot on Virginia Hall’s trail. He plastered wanted posters all over the place that featured a sketch of her face above the words: “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy – We Must Find and Destroy Her!” Hall, who was so good at disguises that she could be four different women with four different identities in a single afternoon, evaded his clutches. Eventually, things got hot enough that she had to flee France. She made a hazardous escape in 1942 that included a 50-mile trek on foot in heavy snow across the Pyrenees Mountains into neutral Spain. The Spanish arrested her for lack of an entrance visa, and she spent six weeks in jail before she was finally freed and returned to Britain.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History

Soon as she caught her breath, Hall volunteered to return to France. The SOE decided it was too dangerous. By then, however, the US had joined WWII, and its Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s version of the SOE, was glad to have her. Back in France, this time as an OSS agent, Hall called in airdrops for the Resistance, and coordinated their activities with the Allies. Her network eventually numbered 1500 members, including a French-American soldier, Paul Goillot, whom she eventually married. Hall’s extraordinary heroism earned her a Distinguished Service Cross. She was the only woman to receive such an award – America’s second highest distinction – in WWII. After the war, she spent fifteen years in the CIA. Despite her vast hands-on experience, she faced discrimination as a woman, and was restricted to desk duty. She eventually resigned in 1966, and died in relative obscurity in 1982.

 

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

 

Clements, Barbara Evans – Bolshevik Women (1997)

Collector, The – The 5 Cruelest Women in History to Hold Power

Devries, Kelly – Joan of Arc: A Military Leader (2003)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lakshmi Bai

Encyclopedia Britannica – Matilda, Daughter of Henry I

Futurist Dolmen – Rozalia Zemlyachka: An Incomplete Biography

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)

Hanley, Catherine – Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior (2019)

Herodotus – The Histories, Books 7 and 8

History Collection – One of History’s Greatest Minds, Hypatia, Was Brutally Disposed of for Being a Woman With too Much Power

Journal of Medieval History, Volume III (2005) – Sichelgaita of Salerno: Amazon or Trophy Wife?

Kiernan, Ben – Viet Nam: A History From Earliest Times to the Present (2019)

Lebra, Joyce C. – Women Against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment (2008)

Legends of America – Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen

Love British History – 9 Times the Empress Matilda Was a Total Badass

National Archives – Virginia Hall of the OSS, May 12, 1945

National Public Radio – ‘A Woman of No Importance’ Finally Gets Her Due

Owlcation – 10 Famous Female Outlaws of the Wild West

Porter, Linda – Mary Tudor: The First Queen (2007)

Richey, Stephen Wesley – Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint (2003)

Salisbury, Joyce E. – Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World (2001)

Shirley, Glenn – Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends (1982)

Smithsonian Magazine, April 8th, 2019 – How a Spy Known as ‘The Limping Lady’ Helped the Allies Win WWII

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