The Most Incredible Women In History That You’ve Never Heard Of

Share on Facebook

Whether you knew it or not, women have been pushing the limits and shaping the world since…well, pretty much since humanity became a thing. And you don’t have to resort to fictional stories to get your fill of dashing heroines. They’ve been with us in the pages of history all along!

Most people are familiar with true stories starring rulers and warriors, philosophers and scientists. But how many of those are about women? In reality, plenty of history’s rulers, scientists, and everything in between have been women; we just don’t hear about them.

They deserve to be celebrated in the mainstream. Because really, I don’t want Pirates of the Caribbean 10; I want The Life and Times of Ching Shih. Eager for another gritty WWII movie to add to the pile? Great; let’s do Irina Sendler’s List. And who doesn’t enjoy pop culture’s lovable rogues? But it doesn’t have to be Indiana Jones, featuring even more close calls because he’s 76 now. We could just make a movie about Julie d’Aubigny, a real person with a double life as both opera star and cross-dressing duelist.

Countless amazing women have changed the course of history, but very few get the credit. It’s about time we shine a light on history’s most awe-inspiring women.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the feminist poet of Mexico City.

via Getty

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a prodigy who wrote plays, essays, ardent poetry…oh, and one of the first feminist manifestos. Born an illegitimate child in colonial Mexico, she taught herself mythology, philosophy, law, and three different languages. Then she moved to Mexico City, where she took vows as a nun at the age of 16 so that she could maintain a quiet life of study (and risqué writing). De la Cruz’s manifesto came after her critics condemned her writing and forced her to sign the convent ledger “I, the worst of all.” Her manifesto was a beautifully written clap-back, reading: “Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do?… I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus — I was born with it and with it, I shall die.”

Margaret Hamilton, the coder who saved Apollo 11.

In her 20s, Margaret Hamilton was the leader of the MIT team assigned to develop code for the spacecraft’s onboard flight software for humanity’s first trip to the moon. Her math was so accurate that she was called the “human calculator,” and she was actually asked to be the double-checker for math performed by MIT’s computers! While preparing for the Apollo 11 flight, Margaret was criticized by her superiors, who told her that astronauts were trained never to make a mistake. Defying their orders, she programmed backup code that would basically act as a failsafe and keep everything from crashing should something happen. And guess what? Minutes before Apollo 11 landed, somebody pressed a wrong button. So whose code saved the mission? Yep. Margaret. Hamilton’s.

The Mirabal sisters, leaders of the Dominican resistance.

Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal were Dominican sisters and freedom fighters who opposed the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo in the 1950s. The sisters, with their husbands, took part in countless underground political actions and became both feminist icons and symbols of resistance; they were nicknamed as the “Butterflies.” Trujillo had them assassinated in 1960, the outrage was so great that it actually contributed to Trujillo’s assassination only six months later. Now, every November 25, the United Nations remembers the Mirabal sisters with its International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, declared in their honor.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist who fought sexism and segregation.

via Getty

In 1892, three of Ida’s friends were lynched. She began investigating through her newspaper, The Free Speech, and in response, a mob destroyed the newspaper’s office. But after moving to Chicago Ida continued her work, in writing about the history of lynching and in her efforts to advance African American women. In 1913, she joined the masses during Washington, DC’s universal suffrage march. Later, with the help of Jane Addams, she prevented the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago and co-founded the NAACP.

Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood actress who laid the foundation for WiFi.

via Getty

Hedy Lamarr wasn’t one to rest on her laurels. Though she was a successful Hollywood actress, she was also an inventor. She invented “frequency hopping” technology, applying aspects of piano engineering to create radio-guided torpedoes for WWII. Though the Navy dismissed her, they hung on to the idea and used it later as the base for future technology. Does “GPS” and “WiFi” sound familiar? Thanks, Hedy!

Khutulun, the Mongolian warrior princess who lived undefeated.

Let’s talk about this very special Mongol princess because Khutulun led an impressive life. According to Marco Polo (yep, that Marco Polo), she was “a superb warrior, one who could ride into enemy ranks and snatch a captive as easily as a hawk snatches a chicken.” Moreover, Khutulun wasn’t in the mood to settle. So she declared that a man who wanted to marry her had to defeat her in a wrestling match first. She would place wagers on the fights with potential suitors wherein she’d win a horse from them if she won. When all was said and done, it’s said she amassed a herd of ten thousand horses. (We don’t have enough records to know what the herd actually looked like, but suffice to say, she whooped a lot of suitor butt.)

Mai Bhago, the 18th century’s Sikh Joan of Arc.

via Getty

Mai Bhago was a Sikh woman who led soldiers against the Mughals in 1705, and now she’s revered as a saint within the Sikh religion. Not only was she a fierce and accomplished warrior but she also had a way with words. When Sikh men deserted their Guru in the face of Mughal invaders, Man Bhago rallied them by essentially shaming them back into line. After returning to battle, she defeated the enemy and was given the position of the Guru’s bodyguard. Later in life, she retired to devote her time to meditation.

Nana Asma’u, the Nigerian scholar who fought for women’s education.

via Getty

In Sokoto Caliphate, a part of Nigeria, Nana Asma’u promoted women’s education and established a network of female educators across the kingdom. She was born to a powerful ruler and raised in the Muslim faith to believe that sharing knowledge was every Muslim’s duty. Thus, after she completed her considerable education, she set about seeing to the education of women everywhere. Nana Asma’u’s network, the Jaji, traveled to teach and expand the network so that women who learned from them could then become teachers themselves. And now, modern-day Jajis continue to educate following the tenants of Nana Asma’u.

Nancy Wake, an Allied British agent, and the Gestapo’s most wanted person.

via Getty

Nancy Wake was a hero of the French Resistance during WWII. Moving from New Zealand to Paris, she began her career as a journalist. But when the war began, she joined the resistance and saved “hundreds of Allied soldiers and downed airmen between 1940 and 1943 by escorting them through occupied France to safety in Spain.” And she wasn’t done. After that, she added “spy” to her resume and began working with the British Special Operations Executive. She excelled at spy-work, too, earning such a reputation that she was the Gestapo’s most wanted – but she always evaded them.

Policarpa ‘La Pola’ Salavarrieta, Colombia’s revolutionary.

La Pola was a rebel, through and through. She didn’t live long, but her brief time was spent making an impact that would last. She grew up amid rebellion in what is now Colombia, as the Spanish Empire tried to tighten its hold on South America. La Pola established a network of helpers and began work as a spy; under the guise of being a seamstress, she’d gather intel and pass it on to the rebels. She also used seduction to convert soldiers, flirting with them before suggesting they leave Spain to join the rebels. She was eventually discovered, but refused to betray any information on the rebels; as such, she was sentenced to death. But La Pola’s final words were of the revenge that would follow for her death…and she was right.

Ching Shih, the silver-tongued Chinese pirate.

Forget everything you thought you knew about bargaining; THIS is the real art of the deal. Ching Shih, in 1801, was a prostitute carried away to marry pirate commander Cheng Yi. But she demanded an equal share in his plunder and a say in the pirating business, and he agreed. They made a decent power couple, but Cheng Yi was killed just six years later. And here’s where it gets good. Because once she became the sole commander of the Red Flag Fleet, Ching Shih’s considerable skills became evident. She had been the brains of the operation, and employed extortion, blackmail, and protection rackets to rack up wealth. She became such a problem that the Chinese government sent ships to take her down. But the Red Fleet was too strong, and Ching Shih was too skilled a strategist; the Chinese armada and subsequent British and Portuguese forces were all defeated. So China’s government offered a truce. And you’re probably thinking that since it’s the government, they tried to turn things in their favor. But no, Ching Shih came away with a remarkable deal: amnesty, jobs in the armed forces and dibs on the stolen loot for her sailors, and the title of ‘Lady by Imperial Decree’ for herself. She retired to Canton, married her second-in-command, opened a gambling den, and lived a good long life. How’s that for a successful career in piracy?

Artemisia Gentileschi, a painter of fame and skill in the Baroque era.

via Getty

For all her incredible skill, Artemisia Gentileschi established herself in a time when women were not allowed to attend artistic academies. Her artist father supported her training, but when she was 18, she was raped by a colleague of her father’s. Then, she went through a brutal interrogation to confirm her story while her rapist was never incarcerated despite being convicted. So Artemisia painted her revenge: Judith Slaying HolofernesIt’s one of her most famous works, painted after the trial.

Beryl Markham, the Aviatrix who, according to Hemingway, wrote better than Hemingway.

via Getty

Let’s get one thing straight: people were generally either afraid of or intimidated by Beryl Markham. She was a fearless adventurer, and Ernest Hemingway wrote that she, “can write rings around all of us who call ourselves writers.” He also described her as a “very unpleasant person.” So, you can see how admiration kind of overrides the negative stuff. Beryl became the first licensed horse trainer in Africa. Then she became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic “the hard way,” from Britain to the U.S at the age of 33. In her own words, “Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”

Amelia Boynton Robinson, the civil rights activist.

via Getty

Amelia Boynton Robinson was the leader of the first Selma to Montgomery march, held to advocate African American citizens gaining the right to vote. Even when she was beaten, gassed, and left for dead, Robinson never quit. Above, you can see a photo of her with Barack and Michelle Obama in 2015, where she led a mass of people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge – the route her protest took all those years ago.

Margaret Sanger, the nurse who pioneered birth control.

via Getty

Ever wonder who you can thank for Planned Parenthood? Look no further: the answer is Margaret Sanger. In the early 1900s, Margaret made her first attempt to start a family planning clinic. She was arrested three times because – get this – it wasn’t even legal to talk about birth control. At one point, the court said if she promised never to speak of her ideas again, she would be released. She said no, and back to jail she went for 30 days. But she later established the American Birth Control League (which later became Planned Parenthood), led the invention of the first birth control pill, and advocated for the diaphragm. So, I guess Margaret Sanger still had the last laugh.  

Tomoe Gozen, the legendary samurai warrior.

Tomoe Gozen was one of Japan’s few female warriors, who fought in the 12th century Genpei War, and she was a fighter without equal. In The Tale of the Heiki, Tomoe Gozen is described as follows: “She was…a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents…She performed more deeds of valor than any of [her commander’s] other warriors.”

Yaa Asantewaa, the warrior who opposed European colonialism.

From 1900-1901 (in what is today Ghana), Yaa Asantewaa was a leader in the war against British colonialists. At the time, a colonial governor demanded to be given a symbol sacred to the Asante, the Golden Stool, and war broke out. Yaa, who was a 60-year-old grandmother at the time, put a stop to the governor’s demand. She is now recognized in Ghana as an “epitome of African womanhood and resistance to European colonialism.”

Irina Sendler, the WWII hero who saved over 2,000 Jewish babies.

The Polish social worker saved 2,500 babies, to be more exact, saving over twice the people Schindler did. Yet, most of us never heard of her. Irina would trick her way into the Warsaw Ghetto, where over 500,000 Jews were being held to await execution. She persuaded anyone she could to surrender their babies to her, so she could get them to safety. With 20 aides, Irina began the process of rescuing 2,500 young children. She did everything: took them to convents, hid them within non-Jewish families around Poland, and even used sewer pipes and body bags as hiding places for them. The kids’ records were all buried in jars, and when Irina was captured and tortured, her arms and legs broken, she refused to break. Irina Sendler never breathed a word about the children or the aides that operated with her. After the war, she used those hidden records to try and reunite the families, but still never believed she was a hero. “I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death,” she said in an interview years later. Whatever regrets Irina may have had, I think we can agree that she’s absolutely a hero for what she did.  

Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. President.

via Getty

Did she expect to win? Probably not. But Victoria Woodhull was looking for something else: she ran to challenge society’s rules about women. Victoria made her bid when she was 34 – not the legal age to run for President (it’s 35). Frederick Douglass was also listed on her ticket, although he didn’t even agree to it. She had her hands in a hundred different honey pots, though: she also published a newspaper promoting women’s rights, contraceptive rights, free love, and sexual education, which is really cool. And then, she and her sister became the first female stockbrokers. Plus, they were the first ladies to run that firm in New York.

Isabella Lucy Bird, the unlikely travel writer.

via Getty

I say unlikely because, just before she set out, she’d had a tumor removed from her spine. But Isabella was not one to be held back and became a prolific explorer and travel writer. Among her chronicles is an account of pre-Americanized Hawaii, an account covering 800 miles of Rocky Mountains, on horseback, with a  one-eyed outlaw called Rocky Mountain Jim, and a journey through Asia. Later, she studied medicine and photography and launched mission trips to India, dedicating herself to helping people. She also traveled with soldiers from Baghdad to Tehran, writing and publishing her anthropological studies.

Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionary and political theorist.

via Getty

Overthrow the bourgeoisie! Or, that’s what Rosa Luxemburg strove to do, as she made her name as a brilliant leftist revolutionary. Born of Polish-German Jewish descent, Rosa both developed and advocated for “a humanitarian theory of Marxism, stressing democracy and revolutionary mass action to achieve international socialism.” She also called for women to become more actively involved in politics, independent of their husbands’ influence. Even from prison, Rosa continued to distribute her revolutionary ideals!

Mary Lou Williams, the mother of jazz.

via Getty

Mary Lou Williams was a piano prodigy and major player during the first three decades of jazz. By age 12, she was publicly performing, and the career that followed established her as one of the most important musicians and composers of her time. And yes, she is in fact considered a matriarch of jazz, especially big-band jazz and bebop!

Æthelflæd, the Anglo-Saxon warrior queen.

Basically, this. During her rule, Æthelflæd fended off Viking attacks. She became respected throughout the land as she proved her skill in ruling.

Jeanne Baret, the first woman to sail around the world.

In addition to that already impressive resume, either Jeanne or Philibert (and it’s very likely Jeanne) discovered the bougainvillea plant!

The ‘Night Witches,’ Russia’s deadliest WWII fighter pilots.

The Nazis gave these women their nickname “Night Witches,” for their remarkable, near-impossible proficiency with night vision and stealth. Always in complete darkness, flying relatively flimsy plywood planes in groups of three, the Night Witches mastered the ability to switch off their engine and glide toward the target. That way, two of them could draw any enemy fire while the third deployed bombs, and nobody heard them coming. The existence of the Night Witches was fairly bamboozling to their enemies. “We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women,” one of Germany’s top commanders wrote in 1942. “These women feared nothing.”

Wu Zetian, China’s renaissance empress.

Wu Zeiten was an anomaly as a female Empress of China, but her accomplishments speak for themselves. As the Tang Dynasty fell into ruin, she usurped the throne, and then as a ruler, she ushered China into a renaissance and peace. Wu Zeiten favored brains over brawn and populated her court accordingly. She treated China’s peasants with fairness and lowered taxes. Even more, she ordered works to elevate the female position in society.

Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire.

via Getty

C.J. Walker is known as both philanthropist and fabulously successful (and wealthy) businesswomen. She made her grand fortune creating a line of hair care products for African-American women, which she used to give back to her community.

Ada Lovelace, author of the first computer program.

via Getty

Ada Lovelace was a mathematician, and she worked with Charles Babbage on plans for an “analytic engine,” envisioned as a sort of computer precursor. During this time, she wrote what many consider the very first computer program of all time. Is that cool, or what?

Nellie Bly, the investigative journalist who went around the world in 72 days.

via Getty

Nellie Bly read Jules Verne’s book about traveling around the world in 80 days, wondered if she could beat it…and rolled with the idea. In current terms, Nellie Bly read the book and thought “Hold my beer, Phileas Fogg.” When she went to her editor with the idea, he told her that they had already thought of it and were planning on sending a man to do it. In the words of her own book:
“It is impossible for you to do it,” was the terrible verdict. “In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.” “Very well,” I said angrily, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

Tamar of Georgia, who became her country’s greatest ruler.

via Getty

Reigning as Georgia’s first female ruler from 1184 to 1213, Tamar of Georgia did not refer to herself as “Queen.” Her title was “mepe,” meaning “king.” She was the King of Georgia. And Tamar’s rule was a soaring success, immortalizing her name in Georgian popular culture. Under her rule, Georgia enjoyed a time of cultural advancements and military success. And Tamar herself made it clear that she was not to be messed with, divorcing her first husband and exiling him (how’s that for a divorce settlement?) before choosing a second husband a few years later. Within the Georgian Orthodox Church, she is canonized as the Holy Righteous Queen Tamar. Not bad, eh?  

Julie d’Aubigny, bisexual French opera singer, duelist extraordinaire, and ultimate lovable, rogue.

Okay: fasten your seatbelt for this one, because Julie ‘la Maupin’ d’Aubigny had one wild ride of a life. Not only is the above story totally true (she had a habit of starting duels with disagreeable gentlemen, and was even pardoned twice by the King of France for illegal dueling), it’s only one of many. La Maupin, as she was called after marrying Sieur de Maupin, was a noblewoman and French celebrity. She was beloved and well known for beautiful voice, her acting skill, and her androgynous attire. She was a master duelist, and she killed or wounded at least ten men in life-or-death duels. She performed nightly shows on the biggest and most highly-respected opera stage in the world. She had too many to adventures to recount in full, but here’s a juicy one: once, la Maupin fell in love who with a young woman who was sent to a convent. So, naturally, Julie snuck in by taking vows as a nun, then ran away with her lady love, and burned down the convent in her escape. The things we do for love!

Luisa Capetillo, one of Puerto Rico’s most famous labor leaders.

Yes, Luisa Capetillo was a risk-taker and a trend-setter, and she spent her life fighting for social equality. Here’s a quote from her book, Mi Opinion:
Oh you woman! who is capable and willing to spread the seed of justice; do not hesitate, do not fret, do not run away, go forward! And for the benefit of the future generations place the first stone for the building of social equality in a serene but firm way, with all the right that belongs to you, without looking down, since you are no longer the ancient material or intellectual slave.

Hypatia, the Hellenistic astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician.

via Getty

Hypatia was a woman ahead of her time. Born in Alexandria, Egypt while it was under Roman rule, she became a prominent philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician. She earned renown during her life as a great teacher and wise councilor. A pagan herself, Hypatia was a tolerant woman and taught Christians and pagans alike, and she was beloved by both peoples. That’s why her death was so shocking to everyone: Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD. After, she became a so-called “martyr of philosophy.”

Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany.

It’s the classic story of two French aristocrats: woman meets a man, they fall in love, the woman marries the man. Then, the French king kills the man, so the woman turns pirate, outfits three ships as her “Black Fleet,” names her flagship “My Revenge,” and spends the next ten years killing every French crew she comes upon. Well, she did leave one survivor, but it was only so he could tell everyone about her vengeful mission. It’s got a pretty nice ending, too. After she sated her bloodlust, she took her son back to land and re-married, settling in the port town of Hennebont on the Brittany coast.

Hatschepsut, the second female Pharaoh of Egypt.

via Getty

Though she was not Egypt’s first female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut is widely regarded as one of the most successful pharaohs in Egyptian history. Egyptologist James Henry Breasted called her, “the first great woman in the history of whom we are informed.”  

Noor Inayat Khan, British WWII heroine who gave it all.

Though she was captured and executed by the Nazis, Noor Inayat Khan left her mark during WWII. A child born of royal descent on her father’s side, she studied psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, and music at the Paris Conservatory. But when World War II broke out, Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Though she was a pacifist according to her father’s Muslim teachings, she was determined to aid the war effort. So, she trained as a wireless operator and was later recruited into the Special Operations Executive. Her mission as a wireless operator was especially dangerous, but Inayat Khan’s fluent French and competency in wireless operation made her stand out in her role. When she was eventually captured by Nazi forces, it was due to betrayal. Someone from within the SOE gave her away, and she was brought in for interrogation. She made numerous escape attempts, even successfully doing so once, but was still recaptured. She was classified as “highly dangerous” and remained uncooperative until the end, refusing to reveal any information to the Nazis. In 1944, she was executed, and her last word was, “Liberté.”

Osh-Tisch, the Native American two-spirit warrior and craftsperson.

Osh-Tisch was assigned male gender at birth and married a woman, but lived their life and dressed as a woman, making them what Native Americans call ‘two-spirit.’ Among the Crow Nation, to which Osh-Tisch belonged, they were also a badé: a male-bodied person in a Crow community who lives in the social role of a woman. Osh-Tisch fought in the 1876 Battle of the Rosebud, for which her name was earned; it means “Finds Them and Kills them.”

Sybil Ludington, the patriot whose midnight ride outstripped Paul Revere.

That’s right: in 1777, at the age of 16, Sybil Ludington rode more than twice the distance of Revere. From 9 pm until dawn, using a stick to knock on doors, she woke up a whopping 400 men to fight at the Battle of Ridgefield.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Soviet sniper during WWII.

via Getty

Lyudmila Pavlichenko is one dangerous woman: she’s considered one of the deadliest snipers of all time. During World War II, she is credited with a total of 309 kills. She joined the Russian army at a time when women were not yet accepted, but with time, she proved how valuable she truly was. During the war, she toured America and even struck up an honestly heartwarming friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. And afterward, she didn’t remain in the army. Instead, Lyudmila finished her education at Kiev University and became a historian.

Kumander Liwayway, the rebel commander whose warpaint was lipstick.

Liwayway was interested in dresses, makeup, and the like when she was a teenager in the Philippines. But when her father was tortured and killed by Japanese invaders, Liwayway took up the cause of the freedom fighters. Liwayway became the commander of her military squad; ‘Kumander Liwayway’ is actually a title given to her by her troops, meaning “Commander Dawn.” She also established her signature: wearing formal attire and lipstick into battle. Her reasoning? Because she was “fighting for the right to be herself.” So, she showed the world who she was right then and there. Though heavily outnumbered, Liwayway and her soldiers fought off the Japanese and Liwayway herself remained in the war until its end in 1945. Are you feeling inspired after all these true stories of greatness? Share them; these women have spent too long in relative obscurity!