15 Historical Women They Should Have Taught You About In School

Gather round for some stories of excellent women from recent and ancient history who lived all over the world.

Zenobia, 3rd-century Queen of Palmyrene Empire in Syria

“Queen Zenobia – HOW DO PEOPLE NOT KNOW ABOUT HER? – was the warrior queen of what is now Syria, a feminist, and a diplomat. She spoke at least four languages, wrote a book chroniciling a thousand years of Asian history, and spear-hunted bears and lions from horseback. She and her husband, in full battle armor, led armies across Persia, defeated an invasion of Goths (not the Hot Topic kind), and she was such a badass that the Pope praised her bravery. When her husband was murdered, she arrested the murderers and offered them up as human sacrifices at the Temple of Baal just to prove a point. But Zenobia was just getting started. She declared herself Queen of the East, invaded Egypt, and ruled over a gigantic empire. She fixed the economy, built alliances with Arabia, and sent the Roman army packing when they dared to fuck with her.”

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), American educator and Civil Rights activist

“Mary McLeod Bethune was a tremendous educator and Civil Rights activist. She founded private schools for African-American children when they were denied educations elsewhere, helped found the National Association of Colored Women and founded the National Council of Negro Women (and participated in most of the national groups for African-Americans), and served as an advisor to FDR. She worked her ass off to formally educate both blacks and whites in America about the accomplishments of black people at a time when a large percentage of American citizens believed that blacks where biologically sub-human. She hung out with W. E. B. Du Bois, and was the only black woman present when the United Nations was founded.”

Laskarina Bouboulina (1771-1825), Greek naval commander

“I’m Greek and I grew up admiring Laskarina Bouboulina a lot. She was a rich, twice-widowed mother of nine who lived from 1771 to 1825. After both her husbands were killed by Algerian pirates, she inherited their fortunes and expanded upon them. Later, she became the only woman to join an underground organization which was preparing Greeks to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. She also joined the Greek War of Independence. She commanded a fleet of eight ships, including five of her own. She participated in naval blockades in three different cities. During the Chios massacre, she restrained Turkish soldiers who were destroying the island and saved the lives of the women and children in the harem of the city’s ruler. Eventually she was deemed dangerous to the Greek state, arrested, and exiled to her island. After her death, Russia awarded her with the title of Admiral. She was the only woman to be awarded that title. Greece put her on a coin from 1978-1997 and named some streets after her.”

Artemisia I of Caria (5th Century BCE), queen and naval commander in the Greco-Persian wars

“Artemisia I of Caria was a highly successful, unmarried queen in the 400s BC. As if that isn’t enough, she became one of the top military generals of the Persian Empire, where she was known for being super smart and strategic. The emperor even sent his kids to be raised around her in a hope that they would model themselves after her. (Yes, she’s the girl from 300 but she was SO MUCH COOLER IRL.)”

Hürrem Sultan (1526-1558), one of the most influential women in the history of the Ottoman Empire

“Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana, was a Ukranian slave who entered the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent at the age of 15. She became politically influential, even leading to Suleiman to retire the rest of his harem, free her, and marry her offically. She played a prominent role in politics and began the Sultanate of Women (a period of about 130 years when women had huge political influence over the Ottoman sultan).”

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), Indian-American secret agent for Britain in WWII

“Noor Inayat Khan was a British secret agent during WWII and worked as a radio operator in Nazi-controlled Paris. The job had an average lifespan of six weeks and she lasted nearly five months. She was eventually betrayed by a French pilot, and interrogated for over a month at Dachau concentration camp. She fought the Nazis so hard during interrogation that they became scared of her and labelled her as a ‘dangerous prisoner’. She never gave a single bit of information to the Nazis in all her time at Dachau….Her last word before her execution was reported to be ‘liberté.’”

Veronica Franco (1546-1591), Italian poet and courtesan

“Veronica Franco was a 16th century courtesan, poetess, and editor. She was a well educated woman, a rarity at the time, and part of the intellectual class of courtesans. She published at least two books of poetry, edited others, belonged to Venice’s most prestigious literary circle, and advocated for poor women and children. She was tried for witchcraft, but the charges were dropped, and she was believed to have had a liaison with King Henry III of France. Veronica Franco was a woman making her own way at a time when women were little more than property.”

Madge Syers (1881-1917), pioneering British figure skater

“Madge Syers was a British figure skater who completely changed the sport. In 1902 she competed in the world championship, which was an all-male event. She managed to take home the silver. After the world championships, the International Skating Union (ISU) voted in favor of barring women form the sport. Despite this ruling Madge still entered into other competitions. The following year she competed in the British championship and came in first place, beating all other competitors, including her husband. Finally, in 1905 the ISU relented and allowed women to officially compete.”

Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (1583-1663), who fought Portuguese colonialism in Angola

“Queen Nzinga of Angola fought against Portuguese colonization of her kingdom. During a meeting with Portuguese officials, they sought to humiliate her and keep her in her place. She entered the room, and the only chair was occupied by one of the Portuguese representatives. They thought she would be forced to sit on the floor. But her eyes scanned the room, and she motioned to one of her servants, who immediately dropped to their hands and knees to serve as her chair.”

Josephine Baker (1906-1975), American-born French entertainer and activist

“Josephine Baker was a cabaret star who kept a pet cheetah and aided both the French Resistance in WWII, and the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. In the 1930s, fancy European society was simultaneously creepily fascinated by and hostile towards women of colour – but Baker was always unapologetically herself. Still a major style icon, her shows had cabaret and topless dance numbers alongside slapstick comedy and silly faces and so totally challenged the notion that female sexuality could be defined or controlled, and most importantly showed that above all else it should be FUN for women. Oh, and there’s an amazing anecdote about her: Her maid comes into her boudoir and says ‘Miss Baker, there are 12 men here to see you’. Josephine responds, ‘Oh, I’m so tired today. Send one away.’”

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