Warriors, Philosophers, and Queens:
Legendary Women throughout History
Several people at Sirens Conference (in 2015, when the theme was Rebels and Revolutionaries) asked if I could make the presentation I gave publicly available, so here it is*, modified slightly for internet consumption! (I was going to do a blog post, but this presentation is over 6,000 words long, so…)
The focus of this presentation is on legendary women throughout history. Given the way our media is biased, be it in news reporting or in any of the arts, it’s easier than it should be for people to come to the conclusion that men — particularly cishet white men — have been behind all the great breakthroughs and that they’re the only ones that could transform history and make a mark.
This obviously isn’t true. Not even a little bit. Plenty of us already know that.
But even when people know better, the bias towards men having all the agency bleeds into speculative fiction. I think some of it is habit, and some of it is a disconnect between what we know to be true and what narratives we’ve spent all our lives consuming.
There are some women, like Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, or Boudica, that have seeped into our cultural consciousness to some degree, but even then they’re often treated like the exceptions in an otherwise bleakly male landscape.
So in this presentation I wanted to introduce some historical women you may not have heard of before.
Some of these women were known for using their muscles, or their wits, or both. Some were royal, and some began about as far from royal as it’s possible to get. But there are historical records of all of them and of their exploits. Since these women existed in actual history, it should not be a stretch to imagine them in our fantasy literature, and it should not be a stretch to incorporate female characters with comparable amounts of awesomeness.
And because I think we should also expect greater diversity in our fiction, we’re going to start ancient and work our way forward with transformative women from all over the world. At the end, if you know of some women that should rightly have been in this presentation that aren’t (and there are MANY, because I had less than an hour to give a brief overview of all of these women’s stories), I hope you’ll share some of their stories in the comments section.
(*If you are writing a paper about any of the women in this presentation/doing serious historical research, do not use this presentation as a source. In my retelling of the stories I am taking varying degrees of poetic license, because the content here was only ever intended to be a leaping-off point, written to give an overview and introduction that would excite listeners into pondering and doing their own research; it does not function as a secondary source. I’ll list sources and talk more about research at the end, but most of this presentation’s research was accomplished with Google.)
Now, let’s get started!
I wanted to start with Queen Himiko. There isn’t a ton of information about her, and what we know comes from Chinese histories — and as it happens, the references to Himiko are also the first historical references to Japan at all. What we know is that there were a lot of different warring factions in Japan in the late 100s until a woman named Himiko took control. She remained unmarried, with a thousand female attendants as well as a single man who arranged her wardrobe and functioned as her medium. She lived in a guarded palace, established laws… and, according to the records, she ruled with sorcery and bewitched the people — the term they use is “kido,” which is sometimes translated as the “way of the demon.”
And that’s about all the records tell us.
So we know she had to be powerful enough to have united a bunch of disparate warring factions. She was politically savvy enough to communicate with and gain recognition from the Chinese government, the first time a Japanese ruler had ever done so to the best of our knowledge. And she was likely some sort of shaman, though there’s no specifics about what this actually means.
A lot of our impressions of what it meant to be a miko, a Japanese Shinto priestess, in ancient times come from the Kojiki, the Japanese mythological text, and the Nihon Shoki, a history of Japan, neither of which were written for about 6 or 700 years after Himiko would have lived. Scholars have made guesses, but no one really knows, so there is a whole lot of room for fictional takes here. Did Himiko actually commune with the gods, or did she convince people that she did? Did she live alone and unmarried because of her magic? We have no idea.
But we do know that after her death, the people tried to crown a king, and that this worked Very Badly. Dark times followed, complete with assassinations and wars and all kinds of fun things until Himiko’s thirteen-year old niece Iyo was put on the throne. All we know about Iyo’s qualifications are that she was female and related to Himiko, and that seems to have been enough to restore order.
So whatever powers Himiko possessed, they left a lasting impression on both her own people and on the established dynasties across the ocean. And, of course, Himiko is the first known ruler of Japan — and she was a woman.
Now, going back a ways, around 550 BC Cyrus the Great was going around conquering everything, as one does, until he reached Massegetae, around what we would now call east Iran. So, first, he asks for Tomyris’ hand in marriage. She’s like, uh, no, let’s not do that. So he’s like, okay, fine, I’ll just conquer the usual way then.
Now, Cyrus was essentially commanding the most powerful army known at that time. Tomyris did not give a single shit. When Cyrus ordered his men to build a bridge to cross the river so they could start conquering, Tomyris sent him a message asking him to just choose a side of the river so they could get to duking it out. Much more efficient that way.
Cyrus chose her side of the river, Tomyris pulled her forces back so that Cyrus’ people could set up camp, and Cyrus set a trap: he arranged a banquet, left just a few guards there, and then moved the bulk of his army elsewhere. About a third of the Massegetae took the opportunity to kill the few remaining guards and then gorged themselves on wine — wine that was much stronger than what they were used to. They got so drunk that Cyrus’ army came back and slaughtered them — and, as a key point, captured Tomyris’ son. Cyrus called for Tomyris’ surrender, and she replied something that translates to something like:
Now listen to me and I will advise you for your good: give me back my son and get out of my country with your forces intact, and be content with your triumph over one-third of the Massagetae. Refuse, and I swear by the sun our master that, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.
Cyrus ignored the threat, and Tomyris’ son escaped his captivity and killed himself in shame. And that was it for Tomyris. Cyrus’ and Tomyris’ armies met for one more battle, which Herodotus called “more violent than any others fought between foreign nations,” and Tomyris was victorious.
Afterwards she found Cyrus’ corpse and shoved his head into a wineskin filled with human blood and proclaimed, “See now, I fulfill my threat; you have your fill of blood.”
Take a look at the picture of Tomyris I have here for a second. Basically any depiction of Tomyris that you can find involves her nonchalantly drowning a severed head in vats of blood. As one does.
And that is the story of how an outgunned empress totally wasted the most powerful conqueror in the world.
The image I have here of Khawlah bint Al-Azwar is a stamp from Jordan issued in her honor.
Khawlah bint al-Azwar was the daughter of a powerful chief and one of the early converts to Islam in the early 600s. We know that as a child she learned swordsmanship and poetry from her brother, and during the Islamic Conquest she served as a nurse for a while, and then things changed: namely, when her brother was captured during a battle.
She was not going to have any of that. She ran to a supply tent, grabbed a robe, armor, and weapons, and rode off to start taking on the army by herself. Eventually the commander of her army noticed that someone was destroying the enemy all by their lonesome, sent soldiers after her, and together they ended up routing the army, and Khawlah went and retrieved her brother.
When she revealed to the commander that she was a woman, he didn’t even care — he was just like, you’re clearly a badass, you will be fighting with the men now, end of discussion.
On another campaign, Khawlah was captured, and her enemy was planning to have his way with her. However, he made a critical error leaving her alone with a bunch of other female prisoners, whom Khawlah promptly proceeded to mobilize. They fought their way out with tent poles and escaped.
There is more documentation of Khawlah’s life, so we know she survived the war and eventually married a prince. But we remember her for taking no shit in battle.
Around 600 AD, Princess Pingyang was the third of eighteen daughters born to a popular Chinese general. Being popular was not the healthiest thing, because the emperor at the time was tyrannical, wasteful, all kinds of incompetent, you get the idea, and! To top it all off, paranoid. So when Pingyang’s father grew even more popular after negotiating a treaty with the Mongols, the emperor arranged to have him executed, and her father was like, this seems like a good time to rebel.
Pingyang and her husband were living uncomfortably near the capital at the time, and given this news they decided to split up to better escape the emperor’s wrath. She returned to her family home, and this is when things start getting really interesting. The people living there were basically starving, so she opened her family’s grain reserves to them. Disposing of her family’s wealth made her really popular, and she began raising an army. She met with some other rebel leaders and retired generals and convinced them to join her as well, and before too long she was leading an army of about 70,000 people called “The Army of the Lady.”
Reportedly she maintained strict discipline among her troops which made her even more popular with the people, and her army continued growing. But the emperor didn’t take her threat very seriously because she was, you know, female… until she started sacking his cities and taking over. That changed things a bit.
Eventually she and her army got together with her father’s and husband’s forces, and she helped her father found the Tang Dynasty. He renamed her Princess Pingyang — which I believe means “wise and virtuous” — and honored her above all other women, to the point that when she died two years after the revolution at age twenty-three, she was given a general’s funeral. For centuries she was the only woman to have a funeral with full military honors.
And while we’re talking about China, we have to talk about Empress Wu, who lived about a century after Princess Pingyang. The reason we have to talk about her is because she was the only female emperor of China in more than four millennia.
The history of Wu is reeeally mixed. To this day historians are still sorting out what she actually did as opposed to her reputation, because she made a lot of wealthy people Very Angry.
But let’s go back a bit. As a young girl, Wu was renowned for her wit, beauty, and talent, and not only did she become one of the emperor’s concubines at young age, she attracted the emperor’s heir’s interest, such that when the emperor died, she wasn’t confined to a convent with his the other concubines; she instead became the new emperor’s concubine. Now there are some conflicting accounts over whether Wu herself had some key people assassinated or whether she took advantage of some deaths, including that of her infant daughter, but in fairly short order she displaced the new emperor’s wife and married him herself.
When the emperor grew sick, she managed all his affairs for him, and it became widely known that she wielded the power of the throne. She was known for ruling fairly, and she was particularly popular with the common people. More on that in a bit though.
When the emperor died, one of her sons took his place, and this turned out to be a bad idea. Wu ended up having to outmaneuver her own children to put a younger, weaker son on the throne, such that he became her puppet while she ruled. After a few years of this, the son officially abdicated, and Wu herself became emperor, declaring the start of the Zhou dynasty.
Now, Wu already had something of a reputation for ruthlessness and bossiness, but this is when things start getting a little murkier in the historical record. When other noble families challenged her for the throne, she went after them with a vengeance. She established secret police, and a system where essentially any noble could get someone with a claim to the throne in trouble — basically like an anonymous tip box — and she dealt with those nobles with extreme prejudice. This was a very dark time for the nobility.
It was not, however, a dark time for everyone else. She lowered their taxes. She broadened the availability of the civil service exams. She routed corruption in the government and reorganized it, and more people ascended to positions through the exams aimed at meritocracy than through birth than they ever had before. She expanded histories of prominent women in China. No one ever managed to defeat her, and although she never remarried, there are rumors that she had lovers into her seventies, because Wu was a woman who knew how to get what she wanted. She eventually died peacefully at age eighty.
There’s a lot of debate over her methods in eliminating rivals, what she actually did to seize and keep power, and her use of the secret police. But even the historians that despised her admit that she was an extremely competent ruler, and under the lone female emperor in millennia China prospered.
Bringing us forward a bit into the early 1000s we have Hildegard von Bingen.
When it comes to intellectual pursuits, Hildegard could do basically anything. She was not just an abbess or a saint. (Just.) She founded monasteries; she composed songs, poems, and dramas; she studied theology, botany, and medicine and wrote scholarly texts on each. She’s considered the founder of natural history in Germany. Although she experienced visions for most of her life, it wasn’t until her work came to the attention of a pope and he gave her dispensation to record them as true visions from God that she began to write them down.
However, she kept plenty busy in the meantime.
Even without the credentials as an official visionary, Hildegard knew how to maneuver. Upon becoming the leader of the group of women dedicated to a monastery, she requested permission from the abbot establish her own nunnery rather than becoming prioress under his authority. When he declined, she went over his head and got approval from the archbishop. The abbot still opposed her until Hildegard came down with an illness that paralyzed her body; the abbot himself couldn’t move her, and with Hildegard claiming this was a sign of God’s displeasure for not moving to the nunnery, she eventually got her way.
Her theological texts made huge splashes at the time, but so did her medical ones. The Physica documents properties of plants, animals, and rocks in the natural world, and the Causa et Curae deals with her studies of the human body. She was famous during her lifetime as a healer and a visionary, and even modern historians note how thorough and organized her texts are — and they’re one of the only insights historians have into the practice of medicine in medieval Europe, since generally European doctors and healers at that time weren’t writing things like this down.
With all that said, I should note that Hildegard did not have formal educational training in the trivium and quadrivium like a man would have at the time. In fact, that the church recognized her writings at all is pretty unusual. But she didn’t let lack of education or opportunities stop her, and she traveled and preached widely. Famously, she declared that “woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman,” which was pretty revolutionary in her cultural context.
There is a ton written by and about Hildegard, so I’ll leave off there. Basically she was the ultimate philosopher of her time.
Also, in the picture I have of her here? In case you couldn’t tell, these are the divine flames of inspiration coming out of her brain. Clearly. This is an illumination from I think her first theological text of Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating it to her secretary and scribe.
Lalleshwari, also known as Lal Ded, Mother Lalla, and a whole bunch of other names, was a Kashmiri mystic in the 1300s. She was married at the age of twelve, and it was not a happy time for her. The core of the problem was her mother-in-law, who would do things like put a rock on Lalleshwari’s plate and cover it in rice so that it looked like Lalleshwari got a full serving of rice while actually remaining half-starved all the time. Lalleshwari never complained, but when she was twenty-four, she’d had enough. She renounced the family and up and left.
She became the disciple of a guru, as one does, studying under him for years and then eventually becoming a wandering preacher to better help the suffering people she saw. To better communicate with people, she spoke her sayings in Kashmiri, and to this day an enormous portion — one source I looked at claimed 30% — of Kashmiri idioms and proverbs are derived from her teachings. She actually founded the entire form of poetry called vatsun or vakhs.
Stories of her miracles remain, and people still discuss her poetry and its impact on literature to this day. But even more than her mysticism and her ability with words, it’s her spirit — her wisdom, patience, and giving nature — that people remember.
In the late 1100s, Queen Tamar presided over what’s become known as the Georgian Golden Age. (To be clear, this is the Georgia over by Russia and Turkey.) And back in the 1100s, things in Georgia were rather different.
Tamar’s father the king named her heir and had her co-ruling with him from when she was eighteen to when he died six years later. She assumed the throne on her own, and then naturally, because patriarchy, male nobles starting throwing a fit.
Tamar struggled early on with pressures from the Georgian aristocracy, but gradually she consolidated her power, with loyal people in the treasury, the clergy, and disloyal people beheaded. As one does.
She married a Rus’ prince named Yuri, but it was clear fairly early on that this had been a mistake. He was a drunk, he was irresponsible, he was picking international fights, and Tamar was like, nope, not keeping this guy around. She actually persuaded the church to totally annul their marriage and had Yuri exiled. This is not something that was done. Georgia was an orthodox Christian nation, and in the 12th century the church definitely didn’t allow divorce, but nevertheless. Tamar not only managed it; she persuaded the church to let her remarry, too.
Yuri didn’t mean to stand for that treatment, but after Tamar’s forces totally demolished him in battle twice he stopped being a problem. In fact, just to add insult to injury, she sent her new husband, a badass warrior general, to deal with Yuri himself.
That’s the beginning of Georgia’s famous expansion. Between Tamar and her consort — who did not rule equally with her; she kept all the power for herself, back in the 12th century — they conquered territories their own people had never heard of. Georgia was wealthy, and with their political, militaristic, and economic strength and stability they experienced a huge surge in the arts. Tamar also gained a reputation for piety, spending time studying as a recluse in the mountains and spending time and money on charitable works for her people.
Then the Sultan of Rum assembled a coalition and tried to take her on. He sent a letter explaining that all women were “feeble-minded” — yep, that’s a quote — and that she was a simpleton and incompetent and invited her to convert to Islam and become his wife or else be conquered.
Tamar destroyed him. And then her forces continued marching until she’d not only defeated the Sultan of Rum, she’d conquered everywhere from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.
Tamar lived until she was about fifty-three, leaving behind a son and a daughter who both ruled after her.
Elsewhere in the 12th century, Tomoe Gozen was Japan’s most renowned female samurai. She wasn’t the only female warrior by any stretch: there are lots of records of women of the samurai class training in the martial arts and fighting in battles. Typically these onna-bugeisha used a weapon called the naginata, a pole with a curved blade on one end, and they usually fought in defense.
Tomoe Gozen did not fight in defense. She was very much an offensive sort of samurai.
This is how she’s described in The Tale of the Heike:
Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.
For context, Yoshinaka was one of the leaders of the civil war going on in Japan during that time. So, the commanding general of the entire army put a woman in charge of his battles. And she was more awesome than any of his other warriors.
In the end, Yoshinaka was defeated by overwhelming odds, and he ordered Tomoe to leave him — which, with regret, she did, but not before beheading at least one more guy on her way out. There are a lot of instances of Tomoe beheading guys, actually, it seems to have been a thing with her. You know. Like you do.
But that’s the last reference to her in the Heike, so everything else about her life is speculation. There are tales of her love life, tales of her taking revenge on all of her lord’s enemies, but all we know is that she was an epic female warrior.
Khutulun was the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, niece of Kublai Khan, and daughter of a man named Kaidu. Kaidu and Kublai Khan had an ongoing argument about the proper way to rule — Kublai Khan was more into, you know, governing, while Kaidu held to the traditional ways of roaming and conquering whenever he felt like it. This boiled over into war, and Kaidu ended up reigning over a huge swath of Central Asia, thanks not to his fourteen sons, but to his warrior princess daughter Khutulun.
Marco Polo describes how Khutulun would singlehandedly charge opposing forces, snatch up a man like a hawk, and carry him back to her father totally unwounded as the opposing army wouldn’t have even realized what had just happened. This was a repeat-event, apparently, and I gather it was done for intimidation — and it sounds like those armies were definitely intimidated.
Khutulun was brilliant warrior, and she’s the only woman known to have carried a gergee, a medallion symbolizing her power and authority. Women usually had seals, but Khutulun was given her gergee by the Great Khan himself.
While we know her to have been a fierce warrior in battle, the most famous story about Khutulun has to do with her wrestling. In Mongolia, wrestling is Serious Business. As I understand in Khutulun’s time, basically any move — knees, elbows, what have you — was valid, but whoever hit the ground first lost.
When her parents started pressuring her to get married, Khutulun was like, sure, I’ll marry the first man who can prove he’s worth my time by beating me in a wrestling match. And anyone who loses owes me 100 horses.
Khutulun, being awesome, did not lack for suitors or challengers. But she never lost.
She is the single undefeated wrestling champion in Mongolia’s history. She reportedly told Marco Polo at one point that she had ten thousand horses and no husband — though it’s not clear if “ten thousand ” is the equivalent of “so many I can’t even count them anymore.” Regardless: she never lost.
One suitor — a foreign prince that her parents both approved of — bet one thousand horses on winning their bout, and he promised he would be an excellent husband. And then either he asked her, or her parents asked on his behalf, if she would throw the match.
She would not.
Khutulun did eventually marry, because people were starting to cast allegations that she and her father were incestuous, but the lucky man didn’t wrestle her. If he’d lost, after all, she couldn’t have married him. And she chose him.
Although her father tried to make her his successor, her many brothers objected too strenuously, but by all accounts Khutulun wasn’t all that concerned. She was more interested in beating people. She made a deal with one of her brothers to back him on the condition that she could command his armies, and she went out fighting.
And now, because fantasy does not have to exist in a medieval sort of framework, I want to move into the modern era with some more recent legendary women. What with more records, sources on these women abound, but I tried to pick a few that aren’t quite as embedded in our cultural consciousness.
But first up, necessarily, is Pirate Queen Ching Shih.
As I was doing research for this presentation I found a kind of amazing number of women who’ve become pirate queens over the years. Omu Okwei, a princess in Nigeria in the late 1800s, became known as the “merchant queen.” (Although she wasn’t technically engaged in piracy I gather there was a good bit of bribery going on in her early days of establishing her reputation.) And back in the 1300s, Jeanne de Clisson — after partaking in various political shenanigans — her husband was executed by the French crown, and she was pissed and raised a pirate army to get her revenge. As one does.
I’m just saying, never let it be said there is not ample precedent for ladies commanding mercantile or pirate fleets with varying degrees of legality.
But let’s talk about Ching Shih.
Ching Shih was a prostitute in the late 1700s until she married a pirate captain. She helped him run the Red Flag pirate fleet, but when he died, it was her time to shine. Or rather, to rule iron-fisted from the shadows. As one does.
She got her husband’s first mate on her side, and then she went about reassembling the ships that had dispersed on her husband’s death. Legend has it she told them, “Under the leadership of a man you have all chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourselves under the hand of a woman.”
She laid out a strict code of conduct, with the penalty for breaking the rules usually being beheading or worse. No one was to steal from towns that supported the fleet. No one was to rape women. Refusing orders, deserting, withholding booty, unauthorized shore leave, all Very Frowned Upon.
And it worked. Ching Shih stood up to the Portuguese, British, and the Qing Dynasty. Estimates vary, but some say she commanded as many as 80,000 pirates. When the Chinese government finally decided to do something about her and mounted a serious offensive, they lost three weeks and forty ships while Ching Shih and her pirates emerged basically unscathed.
Eventually, Ching Shih was getting old and tired and strode into a government office unarmed to negotiate. Not only did she get to retire peacefully, the government paid her to retire, and with her help they then routed Ching Shih’s old pirate enemies. In her retirement, she ran a gambling house and a brothel, and she finally died at around age seventy as basically the most respected woman in China.
Let me tell you a little bit about Julie d’Aubigny, also known as La Maupin. Just a little bit, mind you, because I could not possibly tell you the whole of it.
La Maupin was a bisexual French opera singer and fencing master. Her father was responsible for training the king’s pages, and Julie was trained accordingly as well. Her life was as full of duels — which she always won — as it was with affairs. And to be clear, there were a lot of each. She actually had to be pardoned by the king twice within forty years. This was a woman who did nothing slow, and nothing that wasn’t flashy.
Before she was twenty years old, she’d taken holy orders to sneak into a convent to retrieve her current lady lover and burned the place behind her. She arranged her pardon, she took up with a fencing master who trained her for a while until she surpassed him and he started boring her, then she injured a powerful lord in a duel and then ended up having an affair with him too, she became the star of the opera in Paris, as one does, cross-dressing both on stage and at court and whenever she felt like it… She actually got in trouble not for pissing off a group of nobles but for dueling with them (and of course winning) and so while the court cooled down went abroad to have an affair with a German prince, as one does… like, I kid you not, every story you read about La Maupin is more incredible than the last.
I could not possibly do her justice in the minutes allotted in this presentation. Just trust me and look her up later.
In the mid-1800s, Running Eagle was born Brown Weasel Woman among the Blackfoot tribe. Running Eagle is a man’s name, but she earned it by being, as far as I could find, the only female war chief in history.
One day she picked up a longbow and shocked her father with what an accurate shot she was, and she was so good that pretty soon the warriors had adopted her as one of their own and were taking her out on serious hunts when she was fifteen. She dropped buffalo as easily as she dropped targets in practice.
Out on one of these hunts, the Blackfoot hunters were ambushed by the Flathead tribe. They were badly outnumbered and tried to flee, but then someone shot Running Eagle’s father’s horse out from under him. Not about to leave her father to the Flathead, Running Eagle did an about-face and charged all the way back. Under her barrage the Flathead fell back, and she got both her father on her horse and also rescued the buffalo meat he’d had packed on his horse, because she was just that competent.
Her father did die shortly thereafter regardless, and Running Eagle, not interested in the domestic lifestyle, actually hired a widow to serve the same function a wife normally would so Running Eagle could keep on hunting. Running Eagle never married a man — she apparently thought about it seriously once, but then she way out-hunted the guy and it got awkward and she decided not to — but she was so skilled as a warrior that none of the men ever gave her any trouble about it.
She made a career out of sharp-shooting, sneaking into enemy camps, stealing and killing and generally reigning victorious at everything she tried.
And the last woman I want to leave you with is Jacqueline Cochran. She had a rough start: she got about two years of school, total, she started working at a textile mill young and was married with a child by about age fourteen. The fellow died shortly thereafter, leaving her a single mom with no prospects, and here is where Jackie’s story really begins.
She took her son and moved from the rural south to New York City. She put herself through beauty school, got a job at a prestigious department store, and then met, fell in love with, and married a millionaire.
And then in twenty days flat she got her pilot’s license.
And then she developed her own cosmetics line and started flying around the country herself to sell it.
This was a successful venture, but what she really discovered was that she loved flying.
She would pull any stunt she could think of with any plane she could get her hands on. She had a couple of near-death experiences doing things with planes that were strongly not recommended, and this did not slow her down one jot. She flew in all kinds of competitions and demonstrations, often winning, and she came to be known as the “speed queen.” When World War II hit, she got a job ferrying warplanes across the ocean, and she recruited a band of women pilots to join her. She got permission from Eleanor Roosevelt to put together a military aviation training program for women.
After the war, she apparently needed something to keep her blood up, and she became a military test pilot. By the time of her death she’d set more records in aviation — altitude, distance, speed, what have you — than any man or woman, and she was the first woman to do an incredible number of feats with planes, one of which was to break the sound barrier and then later Mach 2.
Oh, and that cosmetics venture I mentioned? She made so much money off of it that she financed a program to train female astronauts.
A question I hear a lot is “where can I find out more,” and I love that question, but it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re writing historical fantasy, you need an incredible amount of detail. If you’re writing secondary world fantasy, you may just need enough to give you ideas you can run with in another direction.
For this presentation, most of my research was done just with the internet, and if you’re doing any serious historical research that will not be sufficient. Happily, reference librarians are delighted to help point you in the right directions. If you have access to a collegiate library, that’s even better.
The three sources I found most helpful in putting together this presentation — which, again, should not be the end of your research, are these:
First is Badass of the Week. It’s excellently indexed — for instance, you can search the site for just women he’s done entries on — and it’s incredibly detailed, although it’s also terribly hyperbolic (and I clearly have stones to throw on that count…). But the author has a great way of making history both accessible and fun, telling it like a story.
Second is Rejected Princesses. This one also does a great job of telling history like a story, and it focuses on feminism. One of the cool things on this website is it actually has a map, with pins where they’ve done entries of historical women, so if you know you’re interested in a Peruvian or Ethiopian or Malaysian historical lady for inspiration, you can search that way.
And last is Wikipedia. Again, this — none of these — should be the end of your research, but one of the reasons I love Wikipedia is because it documents sources and references, which you can then use to go do your own research.
So, in conclusion! These are obviously nowhere near all the incredible women in history. I tried to cast a wide net here, but there are still whole continents I barely touched on.
But even in a presentation under one hour long, we had queens, academics, entrepreneurs, fighters, and all sorts that there is historical evidence for. There are gaps in the historical record, and this presentation was only the barest introduction to any of these legendary women.
But I think about the fantasy I read.
I think about how much of it is based on some sort of simplistic Western medieval analog.
I think about how much of it doesn’t have women at all, or when it does their scope is severely limited.
I think about how many people read a fantastical female pirate queen and call her unrealistic.
I think about what kind of depictions female warriors get, how effective fictional queens are allowed to be.
The fantasy genre is growing and changing, and it’s come a long way, but there is a lot further that it can go.
I hope if you’re a writer, this presentation, or these women, give you Ideas.
And if you’re a reader, I hope it gives you some idea of what kind of women we should be able to expect in fiction, no matter how gritty the realism or how escapist the fantasy.
As previously stated, most of the research done for this presentation was accomplished through Google-ing, because this presentation was only ever intended to be a starting point, not a reference. This is not a formal works cited list, just a list of the sources (mostly links) I used in creating my overview. Please assume that if I’m referencing a site with many entries (for instance, Wikipedia) rather than a particular entry, I used it many times over. Also, my apologies, but these are not totally in order.
- The Miko’s Gift and Other Stories: Shaman Queens of Ancient Japan, an undergraduate thesis by Emm Simpson (Vassar, 2007).
- The Kojiki
- The Nihon Shoki
- The Tale of the Heike
- Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica
Pingyang (Tang): http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/07/pinyang-warrior-princess/
Tomoe Gozen: http://tomoegozenkg.weebly.com/after-the-heike.html
Julie d’Aubigny: http://historymasquerade.blogspot.com/
Jacqueline Cochran: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jackie_Cochran_at_1938_Bendix_Race.jpg