9 badass historical women we all should know more about

by Gigi Griffis
Omis starigrad fortress

As you may already know, for the last four years or so, I’ve been writing fiction in my spare time. I went into it with no real expectations about what I’d end up writing. But very quickly it became clear to me that historical settings were my jam. And not just historical settings, but badass historical women.

When I found the subject of the manuscript that landed me my agent, I realized just how angry I am that my education was so overwhelmingly male and white and abled and straight. And I’ve been trying to remedy that ever since, reading books, devouring podcasts, and digging through historical footnotes to find the women whose fierce stories I needed as a teen and a college student and now as an adult.

In case you, too, feel like your historical education was sorely lacking in badass ladies, here are nine worth reading about:

1. Ching Shih (Chinese: 鄭氏)

Ching Shih commanded 80,000 (yes, you read that right) men on 1,800 ships. She was known for her strict code of conduct, financial savvy, and her undefeated status. Many call her the most successful pirate of all time.

2. Mochizuki Chiyome

No list of historical female badasses would be complete without mentioning Mochizuki Chiyome – a kind-hearted Japanese lady who secretly ran a ninja academy.

Yep. *A ninja academy.*

She recruited so-called “errant women” (sex workers, victims of war, orphans, widows, etc.), presented her work as “providing a home for the less fortunate,” and trained said “errant women” as ninjas and spies.

In the end, she had somewhere between 200 and 300 lady ninja spies in her employ.

3. Mother Lü (Chinese: 呂母)

Today’s historical badass is Mother Lü (Chinese: 呂母) – a middle-aged lady who led a revolution and overthrew the government when they unjustly killed her son.

How did she do it? She spent her considerable fortune to help young men get rice wine, clothes, and whatever money he needed to get by. Once a bunch of them owed her one, she said heeeyyyy, so, I need you to overthrow the unjust government.

Then they did.

4. Anna Genovese

Anna Genovese was the first person to break the mob’s code of silence and get away with it. She ran mob operations while her husband fled the cops, started her own night club, consulted on The Godfather (which was an amalgamation of her husband and the other head honcho of the mob), and may have been an FBI informant.

To the queen of NYC’s mafia, we bow down.

5. Kathleen Neal Cleaver

Kathleen was the spokeswoman and press secretary for the Black Panthers (and the first woman on their decision-making body).

And fellow white folks: We could, in general, do with a lot more education about the incredible work of the Black Panthers. One of the things they did was show up when police stopped someone to help that person understand their legal rights. They also fought for their right to bear arms, fed hungry kids, and demanded police accountability.

6. Stephanie St. Clair

One of my favorite badass women from history is Stephanie St. Clair – queen of Harlem’s numbers racket. Her newspaper ad might be my favorite thing ever:

“To whom it may concern:

I have received letters and telephone messages from men which have annoyed me very much and I take this occasion to ask them publicly to please not annoy me. I, Mme. St. Clair, am not looking for a husband or sweetheart. If they do not stop annoying me, I shall publish their names and letters in the newspaper.”

7. Freddie and Truus Oversteegen

These brave teen girls sabotaged bridges and railways and used their seeming innocence to get Nazis alone and then assassinate them. 

Per History.com:

“They were unusual, these girls,” says Bas von Benda-Beckmann, a former researcher at the Netherlands’ Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “There were a lot of women involved in the resistance in the Netherlands but not so much in the way these girls were. There are not that many examples of women who actually shot collaborators themselves.”

8. Mary Touvestre

A Civil War spy who obtained the plans for the C.S.S. Virginia and crossed enemy lines to deliver them to her allies, Mary was a free black woman working for a Confederate engineer at great personal risk. Alongside a number of other brave black women, her spying brought real gains for the north.

9. “Stagecoach” Mary Fields

Mary was the second woman (and first African-American woman) to become a postal carrier in the US – and in freezing-ass Montana, no less. They say sometimes her coach would get stuck in the snow and she’d trek 10 miles through frigid storms with mailbags over her shoulders. She also fought off a pack of wolves. Even better, she was doing this while in her 60s.

Now, readers, to you: Tell me your favorite badass women from history. Who should I be researching next?

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Paula May 4, 2020 - 11:08 am

Great list! Thank you for something positive today. I needed it.

Rebecca May 6, 2020 - 7:26 am

My favorite badass women from history include Madhari a spy during WWI ,Coco Chanel, Elanor Roosevelt and a female pirate whose name I cant think of. There are a surprising number of badass women in history and I love discovering more and reading about them even if it is just a brief introduction. I got a lot of books about them for my daughter because I thought it would help her to find herself and realize that she doesnt have to be a “good girl” by societies standards to be a better person


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