A typical high school world history class always seems to focus on the same dudes all the time. You’d think every interesting person in history on earth was a man, but that is far from the truth. Here’s a selection of some totally rad ladies who you might not have learned too much about. They each led incredible lives, so let their awesomeness inspire you!
There are not enough words to describe how ridiculously amazing this woman was. Born in New Zealand, she worked with the French Resistance in WWII and later with the British as a special operations agent. This lady parachuted out of airplanes and literally killed Nazis with her bare hands.
She led an army of French resistance fighters against the German Wehrmacht and kicked their asses. She got the nickname “The White Mouse” for her ability to elude capture for years, even after her own husband was tortured and executed by the Germans for his resistance activities. She was the most wanted woman in the world as far as the Germans were concerned, and there was a huge price on her head. But get this—she not only survived the war, but lived to be 98 years old, passing away in 2011. She is remembered as a heavily decorated war hero. Someone needs to make a movie about her life!
Also known as Roxelana, this cool chick basically ruled the Ottoman Empire for a while. Roxelana started off as Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s favorite consort (i.e. they were banging) and eventually got promoted to wife. That was already pretty crazy for the time, since she was essentially a sex slave who got to move up and live the good life as royalty. But just being the wife of a sultan wasn't enough for her.
She took an active role in politics and quietly worked behind the scenes as her husband’s adviser on domestic and foreign affairs. Think 16th century Hillary Clinton, minus the pantsuit. Roxelana proved to be smart and politically savvy and had a ton of influence on the way the Sultan ruled. Oh and did I mention she was also a humanitarian? She started a bunch of charities, including a soup kitchen to feed the poor citizens of Jerusalem. You go, girl.
Catherine the Great
Speaking of ruling empires, Catherine II of Russia is probably one of the most highly respected monarchs in history, but not everyone knows her whole story. She was born a minor princess in Prussia and shipped off to Russia as a teenager to marry her cousin Peter, the heir to the Russian throne. The marriage was an unhappy one and she was pretty pissed with the way things were going for her, so she decided to make a change.
Catherine got around a lot, and hooked up with a high ranking military officer. He and his military buddies agreed to help a girl out and overthrow Peter, making Catherine the empress and sole ruler of Russia. This was great for her and great for her country. She turned out to be smart as hell and brought some much-needed culture to the empire.
Catherine collected so much art that she had a whole palace that was just dedicated to holding her paintings (it’s a public museum now!). She hung out with philosophers and writers and totally overhauled the country’s educational system to make sure everyone had an opportunity to learn.
After her successful coup, she pretty much spent the rest of her life sleeping around with dudes and successfully expanding her empire through war. My kind of girl.
We all know and love the movie Mulan, of course. Wouldn't it be cool if women really did stuff like that in real life? Well guess what, they did. Nadezhda Durova was an upper class woman in Russia during the Napoleonic era who wasn't feeling very fulfilled by her cushy life of wearing dresses and being a wife. Her mother was out of the picture and her father was a military man who raised her in an army camp, teaching her to shoot guns and ride horses.
She craved adventure, so one night in her early 20s she cut off all her hair, stole some manly clothes, and ran away to join the army. She had a rough time but she was a good soldier and ended up saving the lives of some of her compatriots. She was also a pretty convincing man and ended up serving for several years in different campaigns of the Napoleonic wars. By the time she retired she had reached the rank of Captain and had quite the medal collection.
Best of all? She kept a diary throughout her military career and published it as a memoir before she died so you can read all about her adventures (It's called The Cavalry Maiden and it's awesome).
Marjorie was the eldest daughter of the 14th century King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce. Scotland was a brutal war-torn nation at this time, and when her father was defeated in battle, she and her sisters were captured and held as prisoners by the English. The Bruce women were each held in different locations across England in solitary confinement. Marjorie spent about 8 years imprisoned in a convent where she was occasionally subjected to public humiliation, just for fun.
But Marjorie was unbreakable. When the king finally set her free, she was married off to a Scottish soldier named Walter Stewart and she finally got to live that princess life in her castle.
Unfortunately, her life was cut short when the 19 year old princess, heavily pregnant at the time, fell off a horse. She bravely fought to survive long enough to give birth to a healthy baby, who would later go on to become King Robert II of Scotland, the first ruler in the infamous House of Stewart (and this author’s own great ancestor!) If not for Marjorie’s ability to survive, all of history would be different.
You’re probably picking up on a pattern here-- women can (and did) do whatever they want, even fight in World War I. Unlike the fourth lady on this list, Flora Sandes didn't even have to dress like a man to serve in the war. All she had to do was get a little lost.
Flora was a Brit who signed up as a volunteer nurse and went off to Serbia to assist the wounded. Somehow in all the confusion of being in a war zone, she got separated from the rest of her unit. Not entirely sure where she was or where to go, she decided to just go enlist in the Serbian army to ensure she could at least get some food rations and a place to sleep.
The Serbs were pretty chill about letting a random British woman join their army, and good for them because Flora was a great asset. She rocked it out on the battlefield and quickly advanced up the ranks to become an officer. After a serious injury, she was unable to return to battle but spent the rest of the war running a hospital. When the war ended, she married one of her fellow soldiers and spent her remaining years writing books and giving lectures around the world about her experience in the war.
Quick lesson on Poland: back in the old days of the Soviet Union, Poland was a bleak communist country and all-around terrible place to live. Most people had crappy industrial jobs and they weren't treated very well under the corrupt system. Anyone could be fired for any reason and sometimes they just wouldn't get paid for all their work. When Anna found out her supervisors at the shipyard where she worked were stealing money from workers, she joined an illegal trade union and tried to take a stand by distributing literature and speaking out against her employers. That didn't work so well and she got fired in 1980.
This pissed off an awful lot of people, and everyone at the shipyard decided to go on strike. Anna became one of the top leaders of the strike committee and helped mobilize workers across Poland to join the struggle for workers’ rights. Her actions helped make unions legal in Poland and the little group of people she led became Solidarity, probably the most famous trade union in the world, with a membership over ten million people.
Anna remained active in politics throughout her life and is today remembered as the Mother of Independent Poland.
Happy Women's History Month! Now go out and be your own badass!