Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History

Khalid Elhassan - August 4, 2020

History tends to downplay the role of women. Their accomplishments are often ignored altogether, or they are depicted as either passive observers, or supporting actresses in the stories of great men. That shortchanges the many badass women who took charge and impacted events, not as background figures, but as primary movers in their own right. Following are forty fascinating things about some badass women not taught often enough – or at all – in history class.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Lillian Armfield. DVIDS

40. Australia’s First Female Detective

During the 1920s, organized crime in Sydney, Australia, operated with near impunity. Drugs were sold with impunity, unlicensed bars throve, and prostitution and protection rackets proliferated. There was also widespread gang violence, and bloodied bodies littering the streets were a common sight during what was known as the “Razor Wars”. Into that chaos stepped Australia’s most badass female cop, Lillian Armfield (1884 – 1971).

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
A cut-throat razor. Police and Justice Museum

Lillian had spent years working as a nurse, when she surprised everybody by switching careers and getting a job as a Special Constable in Sydney’s police. She was special in the sense that she was given no weapons, no uniform, no handcuffs, and only limited powers of arrest – restrictions imposed only on women. Despite those limitations, Lillian broke Sydney’s gangs, wrecked the drug trade, and gained a reputation as one of the city’s most badass and intimidating cops.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Lillian Armfield, seated center, in a 1910 photo with her parents and relatives. Daily Mail

39. From Nurse to Cop

Early in her career as a nurse, Lillian Armfield was exposed to Sydney’s darker side while working in an insane asylum. In 1915, Sydney formed a Women’s Police Force – the first of its kind in Australia – and encouraged nurses and asylum workers to apply. Lillian fit the bill on both counts, so she signed up.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Downtown Sydney in 1920. New South Wales State Records

Despite numerous hurdles placed in her way – gender discrimination and sexism were orders of magnitude worse back then – Lillian was badass enough to overcome them and soldier on. She became Australia’s first female detective and worked for over thirty years fighting crime and busting criminals.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Sydney in the 1920s. Sydney Living Museums

38. Fighting Through the Barriers

When signing up as a detective, Lillian Armfield was required to sign an indemnity, agreeing that the police department was neither responsible nor liable for her safety and welfare. This, despite the fact that she was sent to track down some of Australia’s most dangerous criminals, armed with nothing more than a handbag.

Unlike her male colleagues, Lillian was not only denied a weapon and uniform, she was also denied overtime and compensation for ancillary expenses. She was also discriminated against in terms of compensation for workplace injuries suffered on the job. The final insult came at the end of her three-decade career as a police officer when, again unlike her male colleagues, she was not given a pension. None of the hurdles stopped her from being one of the country’s most badass cops.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
May Smith, alias Botany May. Sydney Living Museums

37. Beating a Crazed Drug Dealer With a Handbag

Sydney police’s refusal to issue weapons to female officers should have been a serious handicap to Lillian Armfield. Especially considering that she routinely came in contact with dangerous and violent criminals, who had no respect for the police uniform – which Lillian had not been issued, anyhow – or police in general.

In 1929, an infamous drug dealer named May Smith, AKA Botany May, grew livid at Lillian Armfield’s interference with her trade. So the enraged drug dealer grabbed a red hot iron, and attacked the policewoman. Lillian’s only weapon was her handbag, but it was enough: she used it to beat back her attacker. Smith was arrested, tried, convicted, and received a stint behind bars with hard labor.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Vintage straight razor in a pool of blood. 123 RF

36. Taking on the Razor War Leaders

As her encounter with the crazed May Smith revealed, Lillian Armfield did not need a weapon to be a badass and shine as Sydney’s best cop. In the 1920s, the city was wracked by The Razor Gang Wars. As the name states, they were gang wars fought largely by razors: in the 1920s, new laws imposed severe penalties for carrying concealed firearms, so criminals switched to razors.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Lillian Armfield, seated at the head of the table, at the Criminal Investigations Branch in Sydney. Justice and Police Museum

Sydney’s biggest razor gangs were headed by a pair of female crime bosses who loathed each other: Kate Leigh, AKA the Sly-Grog (unlicensed bar) Queen, and Tilly Devine, AKA the Queen of Woolloomooloo. The crime queens fought each other with all available tools, with goons slashing each other in the streets, snitching on rivals to the police, and conducting PR campaigns by bribing journalists to portray them in the best light possible while vilifying their foe. Lillian Armfield took on and wrecked both.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Tilly Devine. Sydney Living Museums

35. “The Worst Woman in Sydney

During the Jazz Era, Sydney’s major criminal kingpins were actually queenpins, running the city’s biggest gangs. One of them, Tilly Devine, the Queen of Woolloomooloo, was a former London prostitute who emigrated to Australia. There, she continued her career as a sex worker, and added to her repertoire a series of violent assaults – often with razors – that earned her a reputation as “The Worst Woman in Sydney“. She racked up 79 convictions in just five years, none of which carried serious penalties. That eventually changed, when she got two years in the State Reformatory for bloody assault.

While behind bars, Devine decided to change her life around. Not in the way the authorities wished, however: instead of a prostitute, she became a madam. The law at the time was phrased to state that men could not profit from the sale of sex. That left a loophole for female madams. Within a few years of her release, Devine was well on her to dominating Sydney’s sex trade. That brought her in conflict with Kate Leigh, another badass Sydney gang boss who resented Devine’s attempts to monopolize the city’s prostitution rackets.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Kate Leigh, the Sly-Grog Queen. Justice and Police Museum

34. The Sly-Grog Queen

The expansion of Tilly Devine’s criminal enterprises brought her into conflict with Kate Leigh, an Australian-born crime boss specializing in unlicensed bars, drugs, and with her own line in the prostitution racket. Known as the Sly-Grog Queen, Leigh was just as violent as Devine, but shrewder: she was seldom convicted for the violence she ordered or personally dished out.

The rivalry between Leigh and Devine grew into personal enmity, which flared into the Razor Wars. The crime queens’ henchmen would attack each other on the streets, raid and trash each other’s brothels, bars, and stash houses, and tattle on each other to the police. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the sight of slashed bodies and blood splatters on Sydney’s streets became all too routine.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Lillian Armfield. Thrive Global

33. Tearing Down the Crime Queens’ Realms

While crime queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine were tearing each other on the streets during the Razor Wars, Lillian Armfield went about patiently tearing down their criminal empires. Her most powerful weapons were doggedness, coupled with kindness. Instead of arresting prostitutes, Lillian showed them compassion, and helped them get out of the life. Between that kindness to exploited workers and ruthless pursuit of their bosses, Lillian decimated the crime queens’ businesses.

She drastically reduced their workforce, and drove the once-prosperous Leigh and Devine to destitution, breaking their power, and ending the Razor Wars. Lillian even managed to put Leigh behind bars on drug charges. Badass Lillian Armfield stayed on the police force for over three decades, before finally retiring in 1949. Which was when the establishment dished out its final act of sexual discrimination: unlike her male colleagues, she was not given a pension.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Breathlist

32. Provocation Thrusts a Badass Queen Into the Spotlight

In March, 1900, Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, the British governor of the Gold Coast – today’s Ghana – traveled to Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti tribe. There, he delivered a provocative speech, in which he demanded that the Ashanti produce the Golden Stool, the tribe’s most sacred object, so he could sit upon it. Unsurprisingly, that upset his audience.

Into the spotlight stepped Nana Yaa Asantewaa, a badass Ashanti Queen Mother. She rallied her people into resistance, in what came to be known as the War of the Golden Stool. Thousands of Ashanti took up arms, and Asantewaa was appointed war leader. The Ashanti were eventually defeated and annexed to the Gold Coast, but retained their autonomy. They also did not produce the Golden Stool.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Fighting during one of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars. Wikimedia

31. A Track Record of Antagonism

In 1840, Nana Yaa Asantewaa was born into the royal line of the Edweso clan of the Ashanti Confederacy. The Confederacy was an African state founded in 1701 by a badass chieftain named Osei Tutu. The new state’s foundation myth revolved around the Golden Stool – a mystical seat that was supposedly summoned from the sky by Osei Tutu’s chief priest. It fell into the lap of the Ashanti Confederacy’s founder, thus confirming his right to rule. The Golden Stool became the Ashanti state’s most sacred object, and its chief unifying symbol.

A century later, Britain’s African Company of Merchants began supporting rivals of the Ashanti. That created friction, which Britain inherited when it dissolved the African Company and took over its holdings in 1821. Continued British support for Ashanti tribal enemies eventually led to a war that lasted from 1823 to 1831. That conflict, the First Anglo-Ashanti War, was followed by steady skirmishing, which flared into open warfare four more times in subsequent generations.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
British soldiers burning the Ashanti capital, Kumasi, in 1874. Mechanical Curator Collection

30. Born and Raised Amidst Conflict

It was against that backdrop of conflict between the Ashanti and Britain that Yaa Asantewaa was born, raised, got married, and had a daughter. The elder of two children, Asantewaa became a major landowner and prosperous farmer in her region. Her younger brother eventually became chief of Edweso. When he died in 1894, his sister exhibited signs of the badass she would become, when she used her position as Queen Mother to nominate and secure the succession for her own grandson. The eruption of yet another conflict with the British disrupted her plans.

Britain demanded that the Ashanti sign a letter consenting to become a British protectorate. When the Ashanti refused, the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War broke out. It was a brief and lopsided conflict that lasted from December, 1895 to February, 1896. It was decided by overwhelming British firepower, in which Maxim machine guns and the latest in field artillery were pitted against Ashanti spears and obsolescent muzzle loading firearms.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Yaa Asantewaa. Afro Punk

29. Mounting Resentment

The victorious British exiled the Ashanti king, Prempeh I, to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, along with his chief supporters. Asantewaa’s grandson, for whom she had secured the rule of Edweso, was among those exiled. Asantewaa had to step into her grandson’s shoes and assume his place, ruling as regent. She demonstrated her badass chops by maintaining order amongst her subjects.

None too fond of the British to begin with – as few Ashanti were – the exile of her grandson further alienated and soured Edweso’s regent and Queen Mother against the colonial power. Then in March, 1900, the pot boiled over when Governor Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, accompanied by his wife, traveled with a military escort to Kumasi, the chief city of the Ashanti. There, he summoned the chiefs, and oblivious to their sensibilities delivered an offensive speech.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Governor Hodgson. eBay

28. A British Governor Tries to Punk the Ashanti

As Governor Hodgson told the assembled Ashanti: “Your king Prempeh has been exiled and will never return to you. His power and authority will be taken over by the British Queen and her representative. The terms of the 1874 peace treaty between the Ashanti and Britain, which required you to pay for the cost of that war, have not been forgotten. The Ashanti are required to pay £160,000 a year, plus interest. Then there is the matter of the Golden Stool of Ashanti.

What must I do to the man, whoever he is, who has failed to give the Queen the stool to which she is entitled? The British Queen is entitled to the stool, and she must receive it. Where is the Golden Stool? I am the Queen’s representative, so why have you made me sit on this ordinary chair? You knew I was coming to Kumasi, so why did you not take the opportunity to bring the Golden Stool for me to sit upon? However, you may rest assured that although you have not delivered the Golden Stool into the hands of the British Government, it will rule over you with the same impartiality and fairness as if you had produced it.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
The Golden Stool. History Uncaged

27. Provoking War

Governor Hodgson’s speech did not go down well with the Ashanti, to say the least. It was like an extraterrestrial arriving in Mecca, addressing a throng of Muslim religious leaders and other faithful, and requesting that they take him to the Kaaba so he could defecate atop it.

It was unfortunate that Hodgson was so ignorant about his audience and what made them tick. For generations, the Ashanti had been West Africa’s most badass tribe. Pride alone would have kept them from knuckling under without a fight. A less oblivious governor would have known that the Ashanti would never willingly produce the Golden Stool – symbol of their state and people, past, present, and future – for a foreigner to sit upon and defile.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Ashanti warriors. Pintrest

26. A Badass Queen Fires Up the Resistance

When she saw the assembled Ashanti chiefs dithering, the badass in Nana Yaa Asantewaa came to the surface. She shamed her people for their passivity and perceived cowardice, and fired them up into resistance with a stirring speech, the gist of which went:

I see that some of you are afraid to step forward and fight for our king. If we were still in the brave days, the days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, our chiefs would not simply sit down and see their king being taken away without firing a shot. In those days, no white man could have dared to speak to an Ashanti chief the way the Governor spoke to you chiefs this morning“.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Ashanti warriors. Pintrest

25. A Badass Speech

Asantewaa continued on, stirring up her tribe into standing up: “How can a proud and brave people like the Ashanti sit back and look while white men take away their king and chiefs, and humiliate them with demand for the Golden Stool? The Golden Stool only means money to the white man; they have searched and dug everywhere for it. I shall pay nothing to the Governor.

If you, the chiefs of Ashanti, are going to behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loincloths for my undergarments. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! If the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we, the women, will. We will fight the white men until the last one of us falls in the battlefields“.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
An Akan stool that once belonged to a queen mother. Wikimedia

24. A Sex Strike for Resistance

Nana Yaa Asantewaa put an exclamation mark on her badass speech by grabbing a gun and shooting into the air. The effect was electric, firing up the audience and whipping the embers of Ashanti resentment into a roaring blaze of resistance. That evening, she and the gathered chiefs “drank the gods” – libations poured out as offerings – and pledged to rid themselves of the British yoke. She was also appointed Ashanti war leader and commander of the forces – a role to which no woman had been appointed before.

Within days, thousands had flocked to join her. Many more, who had initially been reluctant to join, were shamed into doing so after Asantewaa enlisted the women, to carry out a highly effective public relations campaign. Women were organized into marching around their villages and engaging in martial rituals to demonstrate their support and solidarity. The masculinity of laggard men was publicly challenged, and Asantewaa even got Ashanti women to withhold sex from their husbands if they did not join the resistance.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Ashanti contesting the British. Miliwiki

23. The Tables Turn on an Arrogant Governor

Governor Hodgson hastily retreated into Kumasi’s fort, along with his wife and military escort. They were soon surrounded by thousands of warriors, deep inside Ashanti territory and hundreds of miles away from the coast and British military rescue. The fort’s machine guns and modern artillery held the besiegers at bay. So the Ashanti, who lacked artillery to breach its walls, settled down to a prolonged siege, cutting off the defenders from supplies and hoping to starve them into surrender.

Asantewaa continued displaying her badass chops. She had her men erect massive barricades along the routes to Kumasi. Made of stone, logs and dirt, they proved highly resistant to British artillery. Between the barricades, ambushes, and other Ashanti delaying tactics, a British relief expedition dispatched to rescue Hodgson found its pace reduced to a crawl. A relief column of about 700 men finally reached the fort, only to end up besieging themselves. With supplies running low, the governor organized the healthiest men into a breakout, which spirited him and his wife to safety, while leaving the sick and wounded behind.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Statue of Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Pintrest

22. A National Heroine

In due course, a bigger British expedition was organized to suppress the Ashanti. It marched into Kumasi, lifted the siege, and broke the Ashanti resistance, thus ending the War of the Golden Stool. It had cost the British over a thousand lives, while the Ashanti lost an estimated two thousand. The Ashanti were annexed, and incorporated into the Gold Coast as a protectorate. However, they were allowed to run their own internal affairs, with considerable autonomy which amounted to de facto independence.

The Golden Stool was not surrendered to the British, but hidden deep in the forest. It was accidentally discovered decades later by some laborers, who desecrated it by removing some of its ornaments. As to Asantewaa, she was exiled to the Seychelles, where she died in 1921. Her body was eventually returned to her homeland, where it was buried with honors. Today, she is viewed in Ghana as a great national heroine.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Lakshmibai. Incredible Women of History

21. The Badass Rani of Jhansi

Lakshmibai (circa 1830 – 1858) is one of India’s most badass fighting women. Also known as the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmibai was the rani, or queen, of the Indian princely state of Jhansi in northern India. She was one of the leaders of the Indian Mutiny against British rule in 1857 – 1858, during which she personally led troops and fought in the line of battle. Her exploits made her an Indian national heroine, a symbol of resistance to British rule, and a martyr for independence.

Born and raised in an upper-caste Brahman family, Lakshmibai had an unusual upbringing for a girl of her class. Brought up among boys in a prince’s household, she was taught and became proficient in martial arts such as swordsmanship, shooting, and horseback riding. Upon coming of age, she was married to the maharaja, or princely ruler, of Jhansi. Fate had more in store for her than just being a maharaja’s wife.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
The fight for Jhansi. Wikimedia

20. “I Shall Not Surrender My Jhansi!

The Maharaja of Jhansi and Lakshmibai did not have children, but her husband adopted a boy. Upon her husband’s death, the British resorted to legal chicanery, and refused to recognize the adopted child as heir to Jhansi. Instead, they annexed Jhansi to the territory of the East India Company. When informed of this, the badass in Lakshmibai came out, as she vowed “I shall not surrender my Jhansi!“. It became her war cry in the subsequent rebellion.

In 1857, Indian troops in British service mutinied, and their rebellion quickly spread throughout northern India. Lakshmibai was declared regent of Jhansi, and she governed on behalf of the underage heir. She raised troops and joined the rebels, and disgruntled natives from across India flocked to her standard to offer their support and fight under her command.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Statue of Lakshmibai with her child strapped to her back. Wiki Voyage

19. Badass to the End

Lakshmibai personally led her forces in a series of successful engagements that secured her command and consolidated her rule. Eventually, the British sent an army to recapture Jhansi. When they demanded her surrender, she responded with a proclamation stating: “We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”

The British surrounded Jhansi, and a fierce battle ensued, during which Lakshmibai led her troops in stiff resistance. British heavy artillery eventually reduced her fortifications and breached the city walls. When Jhansi was about to fall, Lakshmibai led a small force in a ferocious attack that cut its way to safety, fighting through the British siege lines with her child strapped to her back. She escaped, reached other rebel forces, and resumed the fight. Badass to the end, Lakshmibai was finally killed in battle on June 17th, 1858, in a fight against British cavalry.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
The Trung Sisters. Lesser Known Podcast

18. The Badass Warrior Sisters

Badass sisters Trung Nhi and Trung Trac (circa 12 AD – 43 AD) are Vietnam’s national heroines. Vietnam had been groaning 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 the heavy hand of a particularly oppressive Chinese governor.

For his troubles, Trung Trac’s husband was executed by the Chinese, as a warning to other Vietnamese. In response, the widow and her younger sister rose up in rebellion. The sisters led an independence movement and launched an uprising in 40 AD against Chinese domination of their country. Against great odds, they managed to break the Chinese yoke and established an independent Vietnamese state, which they ruled for three years.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
The Trung Sisters. Balladeers

17. An Army of Badass Women

The execution of Trung Trac’s husband led his widow to rally Vietnamese nobles in an uprising against the Chinese. With the help of her sister Trung Nhi, Trung Trac launched a rebellion in the Red River Delta, near modern Hanoi. From there, the revolt quickly spread up and down the long Vietnamese coast. After generations of living under foreign domination, the Vietnamese were ready to rebel, and the uprising became wildly popular.

Unique among armed rebellions, the Trung sisters’ armies had huge contingents of women fighting in the front lines. With their heavily-female armies, the badass siblings seized numerous Chinese forts and citadels, chasing out or defeating their garrisons. Within a few months, Chinese authority in Vietnam was broken, the Chinese had been expelled from the country, and Trung Trac was proclaimed queen.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Statue of the Trung Sisters. Historic Vietnam

16. Forging a National Identity

The Chinese set out to reconquer Vietnam, and the Trung sisters led Vietnamese armies to keep the invaders out. Despite being greatly outnumbered, the badass siblings managed to fend off the Chinese for three years. Eventually, however, the Chinese concentrated an overwhelming force to recapture Vietnam, and in 43 AD, the Trung sisters were finally defeated in battle. Captured, they were decapitated by the Chinese, who then went on to reassert their control over Vietnam.

Their independent state might have been short-lived, but the Trung sisters succeeded in planting the seeds of Vietnamese national identity. Conventional wisdom in Vietnam holds 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.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Grace O’Malley. Imgur

15. A Badass Irish Icon

Sixteenth-century Irish heroine Grace O’Malley (circa 1530 – circa 1603) was a badass who fought the English on land and preyed upon their shipping at sea. Her English foes vilified her as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood“, and she was mostly ignored by contemporary chroniclers. Yet, her memory lived on in native folklore, and nationalists would later lionize her as an icon of the Irish fight for freedom and struggle against foreign domination.

In the sixteenth century, there were two Irelands, with two distinct cultures. There was Dublin and its surrounding counties, an English enclave ever fearful of the hinterland comprising the rest of Ireland. The rest of Ireland was the land of the native Irish and the Gaelicized Old English, whom those in Dublin viewed as uncivilized and wild, given to raid and strife and interminable violence. Grace O’Malley came from the “wild” part.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
A violent death in medieval Ireland. Irish Archaeology

14. The “Wild Irish”

Born and raised in Connaught, in western Ireland, Grace O’Malley belonged to what the English considered to be the “wild Irish” hinterland, which consisted of numerous autonomous territories. Its rulers and inhabitants frequently feuded, raided each other, rustled cattle, captured and lost castles and strongholds, and otherwise vied for advantage and dominance. All were part of a clientele system, in which the weak aligned with the strong, offering tribute in exchange for protection. To thrive in that environment, one had to be a badass. Grace O’Malley was plenty badass.

The O’Malleys were Irish nobility with clients of their own, who looked to them for protection. They were, in turn, clients of another, even more powerful family. They traded produce and raw materials for luxury good, fished, ferried passengers, levied tolls on shipping passing through their waters, and engaged in opportunistic piracy. For protection, the O’Malleys built a row of castles facing the sea.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Rockfleet Castle, one of Grace O’Malley’s strongholds. Wikimedia

13. The Dark Lady of Doona

In 1546, Grace O’Malley was married. She bore three children, before her husband was killed in an ambush in 1565. Because of the era’s sexist laws, she was unable to inherit her husband’s property. So she became a pirate, settling in Clare Island and making it her stronghold and base of operations. She began her piratical career with three galleys and a number of smaller boats, using them to prey on shipping and raid coastal targets.

While seething over the laws that deprived her of her husband’s property, and building up her pirate fleet, Grace consoled herself by taking as a lover a shipwrecked sailor. When her lover was killed by a rival family, the MacMahons, history got its first glimpse of Grace O’Malley’s ferocity. To avenge her lover, she attacked Doona castle, where her lover’s murderers were holed up, and killed them. That earned her a badass nickname: “The Dark Lady of Doona“.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History

12. Connaught’s Pirate Queen

Grace O’Malley remarried in 1566, but was still mad at her deceased sailor lover’s murder. So she had another go at the MacMahons in Doona Castle and seized it by surprising the garrison while they were praying. Around that time, she also went after a thief who stole something from her, then fled to a church for sanctuary. So she surrounded the church and decided to wait him out, offering him the choice of surrender or starvation. He chose the third option, by digging a tunnel and escaping.

Grace became Ireland’s sea mistress, and a badass pirate queen who controlled the waters around Connaught with an iron fist. She preyed on shipping and coastal communities along Ireland’s western coast, as well as on eastern settlements on the Irish Sea. While expanding her control, she personally led a raid on a seaside stronghold known as Cocks Castle. To commemorate her courage in capturing it, it became known thereafter as Hens Castle.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s pirate queen, and Queen Elizabeth I. Pintrest

11. The Pirate Queen and the Queen of England

In 1588, the English defeated the Spanish Armada. With the threat of foreign invasion removed, the English were able to focus on consolidating their grip on Ireland, and fighting Irish piracy and pirates such as Grace O’Malley. To resist that English expansion, O’Malley allied with Irish lords rebelling against the English. However, in 1593, the English captured her sons and brother, so Grace sailed to England, to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release.

She met the English Queen at Greenwich Castle, where Grace reportedly refused to bow, on the grounds that she did not recognize Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. Elizabeth got O’Malley to promise to stop helping Irish rebels. Elizabeth did not live up to her part of the bargain, however, so Grace O’Malley went back to helping the rebels, and reportedly died in one of her castles in 1603.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Alkeskandra Boiko and her husband, Ivan. Klimbim

10. Badass Boiko

Few things are more badass than fighting the Nazis in your tank, but that is precisely what badass Red Army soldier Aleksandra Boiko did. She not only fought in the front lines against the Nazis during WWII, but did so as a crewmember in her own heavy tank. “Own” in this case being literal, as the tank in which she fought was actually owned by her and her husband, Ivan Boiko, who fought in the vehicle alongside his wife.

The Boikos lived in the Siberian town of Magadan, having volunteered to work in that rugged region, where wages were higher and the opportunities for advancement were greater. It was the back of beyond, and with nothing to spend their money on, they saved their wages. When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, they heard the news that Aleksandra’s hometown of Kiev had fallen, and soon thereafter, that the Wehrmacht had captured Ivan’s home village of Nezhin. From family and friends, they heard of atrocities, burned homes, ravaged cousins, and relatives murdered or dragged off to Germany as slave laborers. They decided to do something about it.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
An IS-2 tank. YouTube

9. The Fighting Couple

When Aleksandra and Ivan Boiko first sought to join the Red Army, the draft officials refused, because both had essential jobs: Ivan was a superb heavy truck driver, while Aleksandra performed essential clerical work for her department. The couple did not give up, though, and eventually figured out a way to get into the fight. During the war, Soviet citizens could directly pay for specific new tanks and planes for the military. So, in 1943, the badass couple donated 50,000 rubles from their savings to pay for a new IS-2 heavy tank, and wrote a letter to Stalin, asking for the right to drive that tank into battle.

Stalin agreed, and the Boikos were trained as tankers in Chelyabinsk Tank School. Ivan became a tank driver, while Aleksandra became a tank commander – the only woman to have ever commanded a heavy tank during WWII. Their technically “private” tank was officially named “Kolyma”, after the Kolyma River near the couple’s Siberian town of Magadan.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
The Boikos. Reddit

8. Fighting From the Baltics to Central Europe

After graduating tank school, Aleksandra Boiko was commissioned into the Red Army as a lieutenant. She arrived at the front with her husband in 1944, in their brand new IS-2 heavy tank – her as commander, he as a driver. They first saw combat in the Riga Offensive, during which Aleksandra’s IS-2 destroyed five enemy tanks, including a Panzer VI Tiger, and two guns. For her exploits, she was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, First Class.

A few months later, the Boikos’ tank was hit and damaged, and both were seriously injured. They were down, but too badass to remain out. The Boikos’ tank was repaired, and they eventually recovered from their wounds and returned to the front. All in all, Aleksandra and her husband fought from the Baltics, through Belarus, into Poland, and eventually ended up in Czechoslovakia at the war’s end. Upon demobilization, Aleksandra returned to Magadan, where she ran a bakery, and was eventually elected to the City Council. Unfortunately, the couple did not live together happily ever after: they divorced in the 1950s. Ivan died in 1995, and Aleksandra followed him a year later.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Anne Dieu-le-Veut. Gouezou

7. A Badass Buccaneer

Badass French buccaneer Anne Dieu-le-Veut (1661 – 1710) became famous – or infamous – in the Golden Age of Piracy, during which she gained a reputation for courage in combat and ruthlessness. Her name, which means “Anne God Wants It”, was reportedly earned because her determination and willpower were so strong, that whatever she wanted seemed to have been what God Himself wanted.

Anne arrived in the Caribbean as one of the so-called “Filles de Roi“, or “King’s Daughters” – impoverished women, many of them convicted criminals, deported to far-off colonies. There, they were expected to turn a new leaf and start a new life, settling down and marrying French colonists. Anne ended up in Tortuga, off Haiti’s northern coast. There, in 1684, she married a buccaneer, Pierre Lelong, and had a child with him. When Lelong was killed in a fight in 1790, she married another buccaneer, Joseph Cherel. However, her involvement with piracy went well beyond simply being married to a buccaneer.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Buccaneers extorting tribute. The Way of the Pirates

6. Gaining a Hubby at Gunpoint

In 1693, Anne Dieu-le-Veut became a widow once more, when her second husband Cherel was killed in a bar fight by another buccaneer, Laurens de Graaf. Anne was not about to play the wilting flower grieving widow. Instead, she challenged de Graaf to a duel to avenge her husband. He drew his sword, but when she pulled out a pistol, cocked it, and took aim, de Graaf had second thoughts, and suddenly remembered that chivalry forbids men from fighting women.

De Graaf also proposed to Anne on the spot, supposedly because he thought she was badass and admired her courage. That could well have been true. However, it was also true that she had a cocked pistol aimed at his chest, and the quick-thinking romantic gesture might have saved his life. Either way, Anne accepted de Graaf’s proposal.


Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Anne Dieu-le-Veut. Agni

5. Challenging Gender Roles and Superstition

Anne Dieu-le-Veut accompanied her new hubby on his buccaneering. Badass through and through, she fought by his side, and shared his work and the command of his ship. Anne differed from other female pirates of the era, in that she made no attempt to conceal her sex. Instead, she went about openly as a woman, notwithstanding the superstition that women aboard ship were bad luck. Instead, her ship’s crew saw her as a kind of mascot and lucky charm.

In 1693, Anne and her husband attacked the English in Jamaica. In retaliation, in 1695, the English attacked Port-de-Paix in Haiti, where Anne dwelt when ashore. The English captured and sacked the town, and took Anne and her children prisoner. They were kept hostage for three years, before they were finally released in 1698. Following her release from captivity, Anne Dieu-le-Veut disappears from the historic record. Unconfirmed stories have her and Laurens de Graaf settling in Mississippi or Alabama, but the last reliable mention of her is her death in 1710.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Joan of Arc. Wikimedia

4. France’s National Heroine

Joan of Arc, also known as the Maid of Orleans (1412 – 1431), is perhaps history’s most famous badass female warrior of all time. As a teenage girl during the Hundred Years War, she led French armies to victory against rampaging English invaders. Fighting at the head of her forces, she won a series of miraculous victories that revived the French national spirit, and turned the tide of the conflict.

Joan was born into a peasant family in Lorraine, and was noted for her piety since childhood. In her teens, she began seeing visions from a variety of saints, directing her to save France from English domination. At the time, France was exhausted, downtrodden and reeling from a series of humiliating defeats. The French crown was also in dispute between the French Dauphin, or heir to the throne, and the English king, Henry IV.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans, by Jules Eugene Lenepveu, 1890. Corbis

3. The Badass Teen Warrior

When she was sixteen, Joan of Arc was led by voices and visions to leave home, and travel to join the French Dauphin. In 1429, she convinced the French heir to give her an army, which she took to relieve French forces besieged by the English at Orleans. Her frail teen girl exterior hid a total badass within. Endowed with remarkable mental and physical courage, Joan led her men in a whirlwind campaign that lifted the siege in nine days, and sent the English fleeing. In so doing, she won a momentous victory that repulsed an English attempt to conquer France.

After the victory at Orleans, Joan convinced the Dauphin to crown himself king of France, which he reluctantly did. She was then sent on a variety of military expeditions. In one of them in 1430, she was thrown off her horse and captured by Burgundians. Her captors kept her for several months, while negotiating with the English, who were eager to get their hands on the girl who had caused them so much trouble.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Execution of Joan of Arc. Catholica

2. That’s Gratitude for You

The Burgundians eventually sold Joan of Arc to the English. Although she had saved France, she was now abandoned by her countrymen to fend for herself. The English and their French collaborators accused her of heresy and witchcraft, and locked her in a dark and filthy cell pending her trial. Manacled to her bed with chains, she was incessantly harassed by her inquisitors at all hours of day and night in an effort to break her will and spirit.

She adamantly refused to confess to wrongdoing, and her accusers were unable to prove either heresy or witchcraft. In frustration, they turned their attention to the way in which she had dressed in male attire on the field of battle. Claiming that such cross-dressing violated biblical injunctions, they convicted her. On May 30th, 1431, she was taken on a cart to her site of execution in Rouen, where the nineteen-year-old Maid of Orleans burned to death.

Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History
Saint Joan of Arc. Emaze

1. From Heretic to National Heroine and Saint

Two decades after Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, an inquisitorial court was ordered by a new Pope to reexamine her trial. The new court debunked all the charges against her, cleared her posthumously, and declared her a martyr. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte made her a national symbol of France.

Five centuries after she had been executed as a heretic, Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909, then canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church in 1920. Today, Saint Joan of Arc is one of the patron saints of France, and the most famous female warrior of all time.


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

Ancient Origins – Grace O’Malley: The 16th Century Pirate Queen of Ireland

Australian Dictionary of Biography – Armfield, Lillian May (1884-1971)

Black History Heroes – Queen Nana Yaa Asantewaa of West Africa’s Ashanti Empire

Cracked – Badass Women History Class Totally Failed to Mention

Culture Trip – Hai Ba Trung: The Story of Vietnam’s Elephant-Riding Warrior Princesses

Dangerous Women Project – Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of the Ashanti Confederacy

History Collection – The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them

Devi, Mahasweta – The Queen of Jhansi (2000)

Devries, Kelly – Joan of Arc: A Military Leader (2011)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lakshmi Bai

Female Pirates – Anne Dieu-le-Veut

History Ireland, March/ April 2005, Volume 13 – Grainne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend

New South Wales State Archives & Records – Tilly Devine and the Razor Gang Wars, 1927 – 1931

Pernoud, Regine – Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses (1982)

Rejected Princesses – Alexandra Boiko: Soviet Tank Girl

History Collection – Amazing Women Who Should Be Way More Famous

Straw, Leigh S. L. – Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018)

Taylor, Keith Weller – The Birth of Vietnam (1983)

University of Notre Dame, Australia – Tackling Sydney’s Organized Crime, Armed With Just a Handbag

War History Online – Queen of Ghana and War For the Golden Stool

Wikipedia – Anne Dieu-le-Veut

Wikipedia – War of the Golden Stool