Seven Badass Women Of History You Should Know (But Probably Don’t)

From mighty heads of state to revolutionary scientists, adrenaline-chasing war correspondents to the world’s first novelist – a look at some of the females in history your school textbooks left out.

As published on Thought Catalog (March 2015)

1. Martha Gellhorn (1908 – 1998)

Martha Gellhorn would be scoffing at Brian Williams if she were still alive now. The American journalist was considered one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century, without having to fabricate stories.

Gellhorn covered some of the most dangerous frontlines during her reporting career, including The Spanish Civil War, World War II, Vietnam War, Six-Day War in the Middle East, U.S. invasion of Panama and other civil wars in Central America.

Because of her gender (you know, being a female and all), she was refused press credentials to cover the Normandy invasion, but she didn’t let the sexist beliefs of her white male superiors stop her.

In England at the time and fearing she’d lose her last opportunity to get to the action, she hid one of hospital ships due to set sail for the French coast. This cleverly defiant move made her the only woman at Normandy on D-Day.

Gellhorn’s reporting mostly focused on civilians, casualties and the human impact of war.

“The thing about war is that it has two sides, … The first is the absolute horror of it. The other thing about it is you meet absolutely marvelous people … brave and extraordinary people.” 

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Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with unidentified Chinese military officers in Chungking, China, 1941. By Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (born 1937)

Neil Armstrong who? Sure, being the first human to step foot on the moon is impressive, but so is being not only the world’s first woman astronaut but also it’s first civilian astronaut as well.

On June 16, 1963, a 26 year-old Russian named Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova piloted the Vostok 6 spacecraft for a total of 48 orbits around Earth. Returning after 71 hours, she’d spent more time in space than all U.S. astronauts combined up to that date.

During her flight, she collected data used to study the impact of spaceflight on the female body. She also took photographs of the Earth’s horizon during her flight that later were used to identify the Earth’s aerosol layers.

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for WOMANkind.

“Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives. I achieved my childhood dream of the sky.”

RIAN_archive_581339_Pilot-cosmonaut_Valentina_Vladimirovna_Tereshkova

RIA Novosti archive, image #581339 / Lev Ivanov / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Benazir Bhutto  (1953 – 2007)

In a culture where women are often undermined by men, being the first woman to lead an Islamic nation in no easy feat. Benazir Bhutto earned this impressive title by being the first – and so far only – female prime minister of Pakistan.

In 1988, at the age of 35, Bhutto was also one of the world’s youngest heads of state.

A vigorous advocate for democracy, education, healthcare and modernizing Pakistan, she faced strong opposition from Islamic fundamentalists, including various assassination attempts on her life.

On December 27, 2007, one of those attempts succeeded when Bhutto was targeted and killed by a car bomb after leaving a political rally. At the time, she was the leading opposing candidate for the 2008 general elections due to be held two weeks later.

In 2008, she was one of seven people awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.

“I found that a whole series of people opposed me simply on the grounds that I was a woman. The clerics took to the mosque saying that Pakistan had thrown itself outside the Muslim world and the Muslim umar by voting for a woman, that a woman had usurped a man’s place in the Islamic society.”

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Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, speaks to the press upon her arrival for a state visit at Andrews Air Force Base. By SRA Gerald B. Johnson, United States Department of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867 – 1934)

Scientific studies suggest men are more mathematically and scientifically inclined than women, but try telling that to Marie Skłodowska-Curie, a polish-born physicist and chemist whose research and work in radioactivity, a term she coined, led to the creation of atomic physics.

If it wasn’t for Curie and her husband, who was a scientist as well, the chemical elements polonium and radium may have never been discovered.

In 1909, Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her scientific breakthroughs. She was also the first person (and only woman) to receive this highly distinguished award twice and the only person to win twice in more than one science (chemistry and physics).

Take that, science!

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

Marie Curie

Portrait of Marie Skłodowska-Curie sometime prior to 1907, via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Claudette Colvin (born September 1939)

Just about everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, the African American who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama during segregation in the South. But what most people don’t know is that Parks wasn’t the first civil rights pioneer to do this.

Nine months earlier, on March 2, 1955, a fifteen-year-old named Claudette Colvin was returning home from a normal day of school when she did a not so normal thing for her time.

Refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a full buss, Colvin became the first person in U.S. history to get arrested for resisting bus segregation in Alabama – paving the way for the bus boycott movements that would soon follow.

Later on, she became one of four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case, which eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately ended bus segregation in Alabama.

“I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’”

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Claudette Colvin at the age of 15. Public Domain photo via BlackPast.org (http://www.blackpast.org/aah/colvin-claudette-1935)

6. Hatshepsut (1508 BC–1458 BC)

Move over Cleopatra, there’s another queen in Egypt.

Hatshepsut is noted as being Egypt’s first female pharaoh, making her one of the world’s first recorded female heads of state (though some evidence suggests there may have been other female pharaohs before her).

Regardless of who was the first, Hatshepsut still takes the ‘bad ass’ spot as she’s regarded as one Ancient Egypt’s most successful rulers – men and women alike.

During her rule, Hatshepsut strengthened Egyptian trade routes and instructed the building of numerous grand monuments, such as the Djeser-Djeseru (“holiest of holy places”) and two giant granite obelisks at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, one of which still stands today at 29.5 meters (96.8 feet) tall.

Did I mention she also dressed in men’s clothes? She was a gender bending long before it was hipster to do so.

“I have restored that which had been ruined. I have raised up (again) that which had formerly gone to pieces…”

Hatshepsut

Statue of Hatshepsut on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Postdlf from w [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html).

7. Murasaki Shikibu  (c. 978 – c. 1014 or 1025)

Little is known about Japanese poet and author Murasaki Shikibu, but what is known is that she’s credited with writing the world’s first known novel, The Tale of Genji.

This 1200 plus page epic is believed to have took about a decade to complete, and was finished somewhere between 1000 and 1012.

As a child, Shikibu learned Chinese at a time when girls weren’t educated. She ended up teaching herself to read and write by watching and listening to her brother practice at home.

Since the names of women weren’t recorded during her time, her real name remains unknown. Murasaki Shikibu was a nickname later given to her by scholars.

The Tale of Genji is considered to be one of the greatest works of Japanese literature ever written and has lived on through the centuries, even if her real name hasn’t.

“No art or learning is to be pursued halfheartedly… and any art worth learning will certainly reward more or less generously the effort made to study it.” 

Murasaki_Shikibu_by_Hiroshige

Murasaki depicted at Ishiyama-dera by Hiroshige III (c. 1880). Hiroshige III [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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