“Well behaved women seldom make history.”
History is full to the brim of women who fought the expectations of their times and did things that nobody else dared to do. This is a list of the stories of extraordinary women who knew what they wanted, thought outside of the box, and fought to go after their dreams. Undaunted by what anyone told them they could and could not do, they forged a path for themselves in the world and broke past the fences people built around them. They went into uncharted territories, led armies, and went boldly before kings and death alike. They weren’t afraid of anything, and that’s what makes them complete and utter bosses.
1. Mai Bhago
Mai Bhago was, essentially, the Sikh Joan of Arc. In 1704, the descendants of Tamerlane, Mughals, slashed through the area that is now India, subjugating everyone to Mughal rule, and putting a price on the heads of several Sikhs. They tried to exterminate all traces of the religion, decided that they were going to wipe out Sikhism for once and for all. They dispatched a general to besiege the city of Amritsar, where the Guru of the Sikhs was located at the time. It was a pretty big deal. Thankfully for the Guru, he was surrounded at all times by a Sikh elite guard called the “warrior-saints”. They took up arms and defended the city from the Mughals. Again, and again the Mughals crashed against the gates of Amritsar, and bit by bit, they began to wear down the warrior-saints’ defenses. Eventually a group of forty Sikh soldiers said “screw this” and abandoned their comrades and the Sikh Guru to fight the Mughals alone.
Well, Mai Bhago was a badass who wouldn’t stand for that. She met these deserters on the road and taunted them. Some stories even go so far to say she punched each one in the face. Mai told them they ought to be ashamed of their cowardice, and, well, ashamed they were. They were so ashamed, in fact, that they started back to the town and the comrades and the Guru that they’d left behind. Instead of returning to her own home, Mai suited up in some nifty battle armor, swung aboard her horse, and went with them.
In the time that had elapsed, the Sikh Guru had to evacuate Amritsar. Mai Bhago and her men met him on the road while he was being chased by a horde of Mughals. Instead of turning tail and running, Mai led her men straight to that horde and challenged them to a fight. It was a bloody battle, but those forty Sikhs fought so valiantly that they were able to completely rout the opposing side. According to the story, only Mai Bhago and the Sikh Guru survived the fight. She left with him to settle down and meditate for the rest of her life, and lived to a ripe old age.
2. Gladys Aylward
Gladys Aylward was a Christian missionary to China in the mid 1900s. She was a small woman with a big nose and a big heart who grew up in a poor family in London. In October of 1930, she set out from London to Yangchen by the Trans-Siberian railroad despite the fact that China and the Soviet Union were locked in a war. While she was on the train, a Soviet soldier entered her car, intent on raping her. Gladys stood in the doorway, looked up at this towering Russian man and said “my God will not let you in here”. The man got so frightened of this tiny, mousy woman, that he turned tail and left.
Shortly after reaching Yangchen, the woman who was supposed to look after her and make sure she settled properly died, leaving Gladys alone in a foreign country where she barely spoke the language with an inn to run between her and the aging Chinese cook. That didn’t stop her, though. Every day the mule drivers would come down from the mountains, and Gladys would stand in the doorway to the yard of her inn, and when they passed by she would literally leap and grab the halter of the first mule and forcibly drag them into her inn to spend the night. Once the mules were stabled, there was no leaving, and Gladys and her Chinese cook would make enough money to survive. Bit by bit, she learned the language, and her inn became more and more popular.
During her second year in the small down, Gladys was summoned by the Mandarin. A riot had broken out in the men’s prison. The guards pushed her in and told her to stop the rioting. Gladys stood there in the midst of the chaos: this tiny English lady. In the dust and the confusion, one of the prisoners ran at her, a bloody axe raised. Gladys stood her ground, stared him down, and held up a hand. Miraculously, he stopped, so surprised at her bravery. It was so badass, in fact, that the riot stopped entirely. Gladys made friends with the prisoners and demanded that they be given better conditions and something to do. They were rioting because they were bored. After that, everyone in Yangchen started to call her Ai-Weh-Deh, which means “virtuous one”.
Gladys went on to do a lot more really cool things, like saving hundreds of orphans from the brink of death and housing them and giving them food to eat. In 1938, war erupted between China and Japan. In that year, she took all one hundred of those orphans and led them through the war-torn Chinese countryside to safety in an orphanage at Siam.
This story goes way back to Roman times, to about AD 60, when the Romans were trying to conquer Celtic Britain. At that time in Britain, the land was split between several different warlike Celtic Tribes. One of these tribes was called the Iceni. They lived in the area of Britain that is now called Norfolk, ruled by Prasutagus and his wife, Boudica. The Iceni willingly allied with Rome, but it turns out it was only deception on the Romans’ part. Later in the year, Prasutagus died, and, at the slightest provocation, the Romans swooped into Iceni territory, raping, pillaging, and murdering Celts in their beds. Boudica was flogged, and both her daughters were raped. The Iceni and the surrounding Celtic tribes were so incensed by this (understandably so), that while the Roman soldiers moved North, they united and began to plot against the Romans.
Boudica was named queen and military leader. Under her rule, the Iceni and the surrounding tribes moved as one united force in AD 60 and completely demolished three Roman settlements in the area. The Celts, despite their inferior tactics and weapons, gave the Romans a run for their money in that year. Eventually Boudica was defeated. The exact site of her defeat is unknown, but it is known that she died bravely, in battle, fighting like the warrior-queen she was, fighting to keep the Romans from destroying the home she loved. Now, a statue of her stands next to Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.
4. Ching Shih
Ching Shih was a Cantonese prostitute. In 1801, she married the famous Chinese pirate Cheng I. Her husband belonged to a long line of successful pirates. During the marriage, Ching Shih was all up in her husband’s business, participating in his piracy and criminal activity. Together Cheng I and Ching Shih used Cheng’s reputation and military might to form a coalition of rival pirates. By 1804, they were the most powerful pirate force in China, and were known as the Red Flag Fleet.
On November 16, 1807, Chen I died in Vietnam. Almost immediately following his death, Ching Shih began to insert herself into pirate politics, pushing herself into the position that her husband had once held. She made friends with other pirate captains, established her authority and her leadership before any conflict could arise, solidifying herself in place as the new leader of the Red Flag Fleet. Ching Shih sought out the most powerful leaders of the Fleet and made herself indispensable to them. Once she had complete and total control of the fleet, she created a code of conduct for the pirates to live by, and strict consequences should they disobey. With a loyal and formidable force, she then set on her wayfaring, swashbuckling career of piracy. Under her rule, the Red Flag Fleet could not be defeated. Everybody tried: Qing dynasty officials, the Portuguese navy, and the British navy, too. Nobody could bring her down from the high seas.
In 1810, amnesty was offered to all pirates, and she took full advantage of that. She retired with all of her booty and opened a gambling house, enjoying the spoils of her efforts, and eventually died at a ripe old age of 69.
5. Grace O’Malley
Grace O’Malley is first among many badass women to come out of Ireland. She was renowned as the Irish Pirate Queen, and lived during the late 1500s and very early 1600s. During that time, she made herself an utter nuisance to the English fleet. As a young woman, she was heavily involved in sailing ships and international trade. During the 1560s, O’Malley recruited fighting men from all across Ireland and Scotland and used them to man her pirate ships. She attacked ships all around the Irish coastline, imposed embargos on trade, trying to weaken English power. Bit by bit, though, English power grew in Ireland, encroaching on Grace’s own. The story goes that in 1593, Grace O’Malley was taken captive by a very petulant and very jealous English sea captain named Bingham. He brought her before Queen Elizabeth. Grace was so bold in English court that she took off her shoes in the middle of Elizabeth’s throne room and danced an Irish jig for the queen, much to the distress of all her courtiers! Elizabeth apparently liked her so much that she ordered Grace set free, and the two women talked for quite a long time about Ireland and diplomacy, and then Grace O’Malley was allowed to return home, back to her exploits, much to Bingham’s chagrin!
Unfortunately, Bingham also returned to Ireland, and Grace realized that her meeting with Queen Elizabeth had been utterly useless. She supported the Irish insurgents all through the Irish rebellion in the Nine Years War, and reportedly died in 1603.
This is just the tip of the iceberg out of thousands, millions of women who changed the course of history all because they didn’t let anybody tell them how to behave. They stayed true to themselves, to their families, and to the things that they loved. They fought, and died, and lived amazing lives, and their stories have inspired generations of women for centuries.