Badass Bitches of History

So last week we celebrated International Women’s Day and to commemorate the occasion here is the first part of a series I like to call Badass Bitches of History. Here, starting from antiquity, you will find the stories and biographies of lesser-known ladies and heroines whose lives could make for a myriad of film plots and novels. It is no secret that so often the lives and conquests of women are washed over or simply never recorded, never remembered and thus forgotten. But badass women have always existed. They are not a historical anomaly or glitch in the matrix and you don’t need to look as far as Westeros to find them. So here is one woman’s attempt to drag her sisters out of the shadows, and who knows, maybe inspire a Halloween costume or two.

While some of these women found their way into folklore, for the most part they are symptomatic of a systemic and intentional omission that women face the world over. From Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls to the He-for-She campaign, feminism seems to be making mileage in both politics and the media. Yet, as Amanda Foreman writes, “the tools of oppression begin with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and that’s why you have to set the record straight.” Feminism asks not just why we tell the stories we do, but questions who decides which stories are worth telling. Feminism acknowledges the responsibility of art, history and literature within culture and the way it shapes public perceptions.

Representation matters because the lessons and stories we tell children help create the person they will one day be. Growing up – even now – you’re essentially a human version of fly paper: you pick up whatever you’re exposed to. It’s like good old Chuck Palahniuk said: “Nothing of me is original. I am a combined effort of everyone I have ever known.” Now, I was lucky, I have always had strong women in my life, but the not-so-lucky kid needs more than just Lisa Simpson and Xena the Warrior Princess to sustain and teach them how to be a woman.

A caveat: while this post is a celebration of womanhood, it is by no means a comment on men in general. When we rage against the man it is not against you, a man, we are raging against a system that for centuries has been created and controlled by a small population of men. I know and we know that this hurts you just as much as it hurts me. We’re in this together, feminism means equality and equality means men stepping in. These women are as much a part of your history as they are mine, and we should **all** be proud.

Now many of us know about the bigguns, like Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir and Woolf, but history is full of brutal, beautiful and conflicted women not always included in the history books. There is a clichéd saying that behind every great man is an even greater women, and it is to these women I dedicate this series. Bookmark them and keep them in your lil feminist tool box, ready to paste wildly into twitter next time someone bad mouths us ladyfolk. But first, let’s look back…

  1. Enheduanna (2285—2250BCE)
    Who better to begin the process of telling than the woman credited with the creation of literature? Born in the Sumerian city of Ur, Enheduanna was the daughter of king Sargon of Akkad and the High Priestess of the Moon God Nanna, and later became history’s first known ‘En Priestess’. Yet Enheduanna is not just known for her political position in her father’s empire, she is one of the first named women in history and is regarded to be the world’s earliest known author and poet (which makes you wonder, just when did we become Joyce Carol Oates’ (women) writers?)
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    Leading in both her temple and community, Enheduanna dedicated much of her life to reconciling the warring religious beliefs of the inhabitants of her father’s conquered empire. Furthermore, through her “Sumerian Temple Hymns” she cemented her devotion to her God Inanna, and also created what it is believed to be one of the first attempts at a systematic theology. Indeed, as the historianPaul Kriwaczek writes, “Her compositions, though only rediscovered in modern times, remained models of petitionary prayer for even longer. Through the Babylonians, they influenced and inspired the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Through them, faint echoes of Enheduanna, the first named literary author in history, can even be heard in the hymnody of the early Christian church.” Enheduanna’s enduring influence in both literature and theology is undeniable, even if it is often overlooked. I told you she was awesome.
  2. Tomoe Gozen (1157-1247 C.E)
    Now for a woman of another kind. Armed with her long sword and strong bow, Tomoe was a Japanese warrior worth a thousand men who fought, slashed and quite literally decapitated her way into the history books. In feudal Japan, female samurai were not uncommon and women often received military training, but their duty was always to defend rather than conquer – a rule Tomoe defied when she was appointed by Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka as his leading commander during the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War). As his commander, she proved that you can be both radiant and ruthless as she repeatedly led his cavalry to victory and astounded her contemporaries with her strategic expertise.
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    It was customary of the time to collect the heads of vanquished enemies, and much like the Governor in the Walking Dead, Tomoe excelled at it. While details surrounding her death are still speculated, her life is still celebrated throughout Japanese culture and literature. My favourite fable of her fate involves her avenging the death of Lord Yoshinaka by eliminating his foes, reclaiming his stolen head (and thus his honour) before walking out into the ocean to drown, with the head of her dead comrade in one hand and eternal infamy in the other.
  3. Fatima al-Fihri (unknown – 880 C.E)
    Fatima al-Fihri was the educated daughter of a wealthy merchant, who used her inheritance to found the Qarawiyyin mosque and madrasa in Fes, Morocco, in 859 C.E. The madrasa is still open and operational today as a university and the mosque is one of the largest in North Africa, making it one of – if not the – oldest university in the world. Her sister, Mariam was also the sponsor of another mosque in Fes, the Al-Andalus.
    As in many and most cultures throughout history (and indeed today), pursuing education was forbidden for Fatima, in fact despite being founded by a woman, the madrassa did not admit women until the mid-20th Yet, her accomplishments are testament to the idea that knowledge is power and that there is no greater weapon in which to face this world with than education. While she never had the freedom for herself she has provided the tools so that others may follow and flourish where she could not. She has become an icon for young Muslim girls and is symbolic of a shifting Islam, one which is ever more celebratory and accepting of women.
  4. Hypatia (351 to 370 – 415 C.E)
    Now as someone who studied philosophy in university and spent a great deal of time pouring over the Greeks, I was really surprised and quite disheartened that I hadn’t come across Hypatia during my studies. Hypatia was the daughter of a prominent mathematician and philosopher, who soon surpassed her father’s reputation and established herself as one of Alexandria’s greatest thinkers. After being educated in Athens, in around 400 C.E she became the head of the Neoplatonic School in Alexandra – a philosophical field dominated, as it still largely is today, by men. Here she lectured on subjects such as philosophy, mathematics and astronomy to students, travellers from foreign lands, pagans and Christians. She was renowned and respected in Alexandria during its most turbulent and bloody time, yet still met her demise at the hands of an angry Christian mob for meddling in the affairs of prominent men.

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    Mary Anderson, in the title role of Hypatia, circa 1900

    But her legacy is as paramount as her life; in death she became a figure of virtue to some Christians, yet was heralded in 1843 by German scholars as the first witch punished by Christian authority (now that’s a title to have). She has been both idolised and demonised, treated with both veneration and vengeance. She even has an asteroid belt and lunar crater named after her.
    She supposedly remained a virgin – though it is worth considering that the word virgin did not become synonymous with chastity until Christianity later merged the two; prior to this, ‘virgins’ were simply women who were unwedded and not tied to any man. But my final and favourite snippet of information about Hypatia is, that legend has it, in order to maintain her independence she used her menstrual rags to ward off suitors. What a woman, eh?

  5. Boudicca (est. 25 C.E – 61 C.E)
    Now, Boudica here is a British heroine, even her name means victory. She was the widowed queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe who led one of history’s most vicious uprisings. The story goes that upon her husband’s death, he bequeathed his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Empire in hopes to protect the region and his family from increasing Roman aggression. But his wishes were ignored – when Boudica protested, she was flogged, her daughters raped and her people were subjected to slavery. Holy sites such as the Druidic centre on Mona were destroyed, Druids were murdered and scared groves were torched. Believed to be a trained Druid herself, Boudica began plotting and united her neighbouring tribes.
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    Boudica’s army first desecrated Camulodunum, ambushed the Roman legions sent to their aid and then headed for Londinium, the capital of Roman Britain. Here, she burnt the town to the ground, leaving half a meter of scorched earth that can still be found beneath London. As many as 70,000 civilians were killed and they impaled those who did not flee on sharp skewers that ran lengthwise through the body. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all.
    During the final battle they were defeated, but not before Boudica famously rode in a chariot with her daughters before her, chanting and proclaiming that Britons were already accustomed to following women into battle – indeed, Suetonius, a Roman general, wrote that there were more women within the ranks than men. It is written that Boudica commited suicide, poisoning herself before the Romans could reach her. So Spartacus, eat your heart out.
  6. Murasaki Shikibu (973— est. 1025 C.E)
    Little is known about the life of Murasaki Shikibu as even her name is disputed, but she is considered to be the first modern novelist and credited with the creation of the first psychological novel, The Tale of the Genji. She wrote during the Heian Period, widely considered to be the halcyon days for the aristocrats and an epoch that favoured poetic prowess and held literary skill in high esteem.
    As the daughter of a scholar and granddaughter of an esteemed poet, Lady Murasaki was born with an innate curiosity and deep desire to learn. Women in Japan fared much better than their European contemporaries, but the education available to women was still severely limited and in some cases forbidden. But her tenacity to learn knew no bounds, she even learnt to speak Chinese through pressing her ear to the door while her father taught her brother. Eventually her father gave in and allowed her to study with her brother, and even gave her access to the Chinese classics.
    Interestingly, only Japanese men were allowed to speak Chinese. Much like the medieval courts in Britain who solely spoke French, Japanese culture held the Chinese language in esteem due to its presence in religious and official documents. Women speaking Chinese however, was a taboo and believed to be unladylike, and so Murasaki went through great lengths to cover up her linguistic talent. The ‘every day’ language was reserved for women and ironically actually resulted in somewhat of a literary boom, with the majority of contemporary writings circulated at the time and still available now being created by women writers.
    She was married at 20 but quickly widowed, and shortly after in 1006 was summoned to court to serve the empress. Being somewhat of a Japanese Shakespeare, her talents were apparent from an early age and were quite likely the reason for her relocation. It was here she began writing one of the most renowned sagas in literary history.
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    She was inspired through observing the court and recording the period’s idiosyncrasies with both humour and philosophical insight. To set its scope to scale, the novel itself is twice the length of War and Peace, contains 54 books or episodes, spans four generations and includes over 400 characters. The legend goes that the empress had grown tired of the stories she had been told and so sent Murasaki on a pilgrimage to Ishiyama-dera, a temple close to Lake Biwa, in search of inspiration. It was here that the character of Genji first appeared to her as she overlooked the moonlit lake, and like the frenzy that came over Mary Shelley while writing Frankenstein, she produced the 11th and 12th episodes that night.
    No one knows where or what happened to Murasaki after she left the imperial court, but her work remains as one of the most important and enduring works of all time. The reverence she continues to maintain is testament to the talent that produced it, she is not just Japan’s greatest novelist, but among the world’s.
  7. Zenobia (est. 240 – 274 C.E)
    Another thorn in Rome’s side comes Zenobia, the queen of the Palmyrene Empire who challenged Rome and conquered Egypt. She was the wife of the ruler of the Roman Colony of Palmyra –present day Syria – and was thrown into political strife when her husband and his first child were assassinated. According to some sources, Zenobia orchestrated the assassinations herself so that she could seize control of the region, although contemporary scholars believe it to have been the work of Rome.
    In any case, once she consolidated her power, her focus shifted to her empire. The Romans were currently in the mists of what is known as the Crisis of the Third Century, a time of chaotic political upheaval with civil wars raging in every corner of the empire. Zenobia seized her opportunity and demanded Egypt as her own, claiming that she descended from the likes of Cleopatra and Hannibal and that the territory was her birth right. But she didn’t stop there, using her military and might she conquered territory as far as Ancyra, capturing Syria, Palestine and Lebanon too as her own. She was also known for the presence of philosophers and intellectuals in her court, and using their combined force she implemented a successful propaganda campaign that secured the region.
    Herbert_Schmalz-Zenobia Her new territories were initially recognised by Rome, but when Zenobia produced new coinage that featured her and her son alone, with no reference or stated allegiance to Rome, Emperor Aurelian was angered. After being defeated in battle, Zenobia and her son fled to Palmyra, where they made plans to defend the city. But when supplies did not arrive, Zenobia attempted to escape through the desert on a camel to the Sassanian territory, but before she could she was captured by Aurelian while trying to cross the Euphrates River.
    What happened next is widely debated – like many women on this list, her story soon merges with myth. Some believe her and her son were executed, or that like her ancestor she took a poisonous snake to bed, while others claim that she was given a villa and a husband in Rome. The most famous tale of her fate is that she was captured and paraded through Rome in golden chains and jewellery. Regardless of the ending, the story of a woman raging against the fist of Rome is one that has been told and retold, and found in operas and literature as early as the 14th Century, including the Canterbury Tales.
  8. Khutulun (1260 – 1306 C.E)
    My final instalment of this blog goes to Khutlun, the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan known as the Wrestling Princess (anyone known as the Wrestling Princess is a friend of mine… even if she would have flat out murdered me).
    But first a bit of back story: The Mongol Empire at its height was the largest contiguous empire in history and stretched across China, Europe and the Middle East. By the time Khutulun was born the empire had begun to unravel, with opposing factions of the family fighting to maintain its nomadic roots while others sought after a more stable politics. Khutulun, also known as Aigiarne and Ay Yaruq (quite literally translating to Moonlight), was the famous daughter of Kaidu, the head of the side favouring tradition, and the niece of Kublai, Kaidu’s brother and rival.
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    As the youngest of 14 brothers, Khutulun became skilled in fighting from a young age and soon became her father’s closest ally and confidant. She excelled in sports that the Mongol’s held in the highest regard, from archery to horse riding she was unparalleled, but her greatest talent was wrestling: here she was unbeaten. Female fighters were not unprecedented, but the level to which Khutulun was raised was really something else. Yet, in Mongol culture her talents were not simply marvelled at, but were raised to an almost spiritual level – her physical agility and natural talent created an aura around her that her comrades believed was blessed. Not only was she an expert in battle and tactics, but her talents turned her into a kind of talisman, she was basically a walking good luck charm. Now the Mongol’s were infamous for their love of bloodshed, combine that with the image of beloved Khutulun riding on horseback, snatching enemy combatants and taking them to her father and you have a pretty revved up army.
    Everyone wanted to marry her but she refused every suitor. After years of refusing her parents every plea and request, she suggested a wager: each suitor must put up 100 horses and beat her in wrestling. No one could. This is how she ended up with a herd of 10,000 horses – a number rivalling the emperor himself. Given the nomadic nature of the Mongol’s, her wealth and status was essentially transformed by her stubbornness.
    She eventually did decide to marry, but to someone of her choosing.
    She continued to be an all-round badass until she died, but when her father chose her as his successor, his brothers’ grew jealous and Khutulun was wiped almost entirely from the history books. She was omitted from the scribes in Khublai’s courts and removed from historical documents by the Mongols themselves. If it wasn’t for Marco Polo and a few Muslim writers she may have been forgotten, because even the coolest women weren’t worthy of being recorded and remembered.
    I personally am awaiting Disney’s adaptation of Khutulun’s story, considering what a sizeable chunk of my primary school years were spent wrestling with anyone I could, younger me would have really dug a bit of Khutulun (I would have probably spent less time dressed as Spider-man too).

What surprised me most about making this list was how many women I could have chosen – and this is just the first part. Other awesome ladies will be coming to a computer screen near you shortly – have any suggestions? Let me know below!

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