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These women might not be household names, but they sure made history. Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the "Top 10 Badass Historical Women You Probably Never Heard Of."
For this list, we’re looking at women who are famous in their own right for their impressive achievements, but that have probably slipped under your radar. If you can’t find a woman you think should be on this list, be sure to check out our video on the Top 10 Female Warriors in History.
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She’s not the most well-known American heiress, but her impact on women’s rights is priceless. From her youth, McCormick knew the importance of education and equality. While most of her female peers were discouraged from attending college, she earned a biology degree from MIT in 1904. She later became a prominent suffragette, and was the first vice-president of the League of Women Voters. After her husband died in 1947, McCormick earned a $35 million inheritance, giving her the chance to achieve her lifelong goals. She went on to donate money towards MIT’s first onsite female dorm, and funded research that led to the first birth control pill. Philanthropist and pioneer, McCormick has helped improve women’s lives throughout America and the world.
While scientist duo Watson and Crick are associated with DNA’s double helix structure, Franklin was also a big part of this influential discovery. A chemist and x-ray crystallographer, Franklin was a researcher at King’s College in London. In 1952, she and her student took pictures of DNA, including the pivotal Photo 51. Without her knowledge, Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins showed Photo 51 to Watson. Watson and Crick used the X-ray image to support their own research, while Franklin’s own research was downplayed. Franklin died of ovarian cancer at only 37, and never lived to see the growing recognition of her work. With awards, buildings, and even a play in her honor, Franklin’s contributions to science will always be remembered.
This tough-as-nails spy started out as a freelance journalist, and ended up a French Resistance hero. In the mid-30s, Wake visited Vienna, and saw Nazis assaulting Jews in the streets. From then on, she knew that she had to stop them. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Wake joined the Resistance as a courier and guide for Allied soldiers and refugees. Trained in England, she strengthened ties between Britain and the Resistance, and her efforts led to many guerrilla victories. Always on her tail, the Gestapo could never catch the woman they called “the white mouse.” Wake passed away in 2011 at the age of 98, and is one of the most decorated servicewomen of World War II
Noor Inayat Khan
Not only was this brave woman a British spy, she was also a Sufi princess! Khan was a children’s author in Paris when the war broke out, and fled to England in 1940. She became a radio operator for British intelligence shortly thereafter, and was next sent to Paris to work for the French Resistance. While many members of her network were arrested, Khan continued to work while trying to evade capture. In October 1943, a colleague betrayed her and Khan was imprisoned in Paris by the SS. Even though she faced horrible conditions, Khan defied her captors until the end. She was executed at Dachau, Germany in 1944, and has since earned her place among Britain’s wartime heroes.
Before the WWE Divas, there was Khutulun, a beautiful Mongol princess who happened to love wrestling. A descendant of Genghis Khan, she was a skilled warrior who often joined her father in battle. When she wasn’t killing it at the front, she could be found wrestling opponent after opponent. Khutulun could wrestle anyone she wanted, and she didn’t do it just for kicks. If Khutulun won, she’d get 100 horses; if she lost, she’d marry her opponent. Needless to say, Khutulun ended up with a lot of horses. She allegedly married someone she met outside her lucrative hobby, and died in 1306. Largely unknown outside of Mongolia until recently, this unbeatable princess wrestled her way into history.
She was the only female emperor to reign in her own right in Chinese history—and a polarizing figure to boot. Depending on the sources, Wu Zetian was either a ruthless woman who wasn’t above having her own relatives killed to take the throne, or a highly effective leader who improved the lives of commoners. The truth lies somewhere in between. Wu purged a lot of the competition to become emperor, but also managed to purge corruption, expand the civil service system, and make Buddhism more prominent. She even headed a brand new dynasty for 15 years, which ended upon her abdication and death in 705. Despite her controversial reign—or maybe because of it—Wu continues to captivate us centuries later.
Fourteen hundred years before Cleopatra, another female pharaoh ruled over Ancient Egypt. After her husband Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut ruled alongside her stepson Thutmose III, eventually becoming a pharaoh in her own right. Hatshepsut was usually depicted with feminine features, along with the king’s false beard to show her power. Her 20 year reign was mostly peaceful and prosperous. Hatshepsut built many monuments and embarked on a landmark trade expedition to the Land of Punt. Twenty years after her death, traces of her memory were destroyed, with some believing that her stepson Thutmose III was to blame. While later research casts doubt on this theory, we’re fortunate that enough has survived from her reign so that Hatshepsut won’t be forgotten any time soon.
This former prostitute became one of the most feared and successful pirates of the South China Coast. Her husband Cheng I was already known as the commander of the Red Flag Fleet. After he died in 1807, Ching took the helm. By 1810, she oversaw a fleet of up to 80,000 pirates—no small feat! She also set up a strict code of conduct to keep them in line, unless they wanted to lose their heads. Whether it was Chinese officials, the Portuguese, or the British, nobody could defeat the Red Flag Fleet. When the government offered amnesty to pirates, Ching retired, keeping her loot and running a gambling house. By land or by sea, Ching was unstoppable.
Jeanne de Clisson [aka Lioness of Brittany]
This Breton noblewoman’s third husband was executed for treason during the Hundred Years’ War. Jeanne then swore revenge on France. She sold her belongings to fund a small army, fighting on land before becoming a pirate in the English Channel. She and her children reached England, where Edward III is said to have given her three ships. Along with her forces, Jeanne supposedly beheaded French nobles herself, always sparing a few to report to the French king. Sources differ on her pirating days—she was at sea anywhere from five months to 13 years—but they ended once she married an English military deputy. While much of her life is the stuff of legends, her resolve was all too real.
Before we unveil our #1 badass historical woman, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Mary Seacole
- Maya Deren
- Yaa Asantewaa
The Mirabal Sisters
These Dominican sisters—Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa—fought the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Through their resistance group, the Movement of the Fourteenth of June, they issued anti-Trujillo pamphlets and planned revolts. Minerva and Maria Teresa were arrested, but were freed after the Organization of American States intervened. Their freedom was short-lived, however. On November 25, 1960, the sisters were driving home from visiting Minerva and Maria Teresa’s jailed husbands when Trujillo’s henchmen beat them to death. Trujillo was assassinated six months later, and the Mirabals’ surviving sister Dede dedicated her life to preserving the women’s memory. To commemorate the sisters, November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. These sisters were not only badass, they’re also national heroes.
Do you agree with our list? Who’s your favourite badass historical woman? For more remarkable Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to MsMojo.