10 Badass Women
of History
Written by Alison Eldridge
Curious about some of the most intriguing
women in history?
#WTFact strives to bring you stories of the amazing, the
absurd, and the what-did-I-even-just-read. The following
ten women lived lives that were sometimes stranger
than fiction, but we assure you: to the best of our
ability, all of the facts you’re about to read are true.
From the one-legged spy who was Klaus Barbie’s
number one enemy to the pirate queen of China to the
sci-fi writer who used her CIA training to disappear from
her marriage, read on to discover ten fascinating
women of history.
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Badass Rating:
“The most dangerous of all
Allied spies”
Also, incidentally, had only one
Born: April 6, 1906
Died: July 8, 1982 (age 76)
Country of origin: United States
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To Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, Virginia Hall was the most dangerous of all Allied spies.
She was also the first civilian woman to win the Distinguished Service Cross, and she
worked for the CIA for 15 yearsuntil her retirement at age 60. Oh, yeah, and she
accomplished all this with one leg plus a prosthetic she affectionately nicknamed
Hall was a born adventurer and had an early interest in foreign service. After college she
traveled in Europe and then worked at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. From there
she took an assignment in Izmir, Turkey, where she unfortunately lost her left leg below
the knee in a hunting accident. This was hardly a setback for Hall, who was fitted with a
wooden leg and then took a position at the consulate in Venice, Italy. She applied for the
foreign service but was rejected because of her missing limb. However, soon after, World
War II broke out, and Hall joined the ambulance corps in France. She eventually
volunteered for service with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), where she
learned all sorts of spy skillscombat, codes, and communications. Here her disability
was an asset: as a woman, an American, walking with a limp, she could move freely and
without suspicion. For the SOE she established networks, facilitated daring escapes, and
set up safe houses throughout the war. After the war ended, she worked in Italy
gathering intelligence about the burgeoning communist movement there. She joined the
CIA in the United States in 1951 and assisted the agency in covert actionsalthough,
unfortunately, mostly from behind a deskuntil her mandatory retirement in 1966.
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Badass Rating:
America’s first supermodel
First American star to appear fully
nude on film
Born: June 8, 1891
Died: February 20, 1996 (age 104)
Country of origin: United States
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You probably haven’t heard of Audrey Munson, but you may have seen her image.
Munson’s likeness is carved in some two dozen sculptures in New York City alone, not
to mention the films she performed in and the photographs that were taken of her.
She was known as the “American Venus” and the “Perfect Woman,” but her star
faded early in her career.
As a teen, Munson moved with her mother to New York City to pursue a career as an
actress. There she was scouted by a photographer, which helped her land a job
posing for sculptor Isidore Konti, who convinced her to pose nude. The New York arts
scene soon went wild for her figure. She posed for numerous painters and sculptors,
some of the most famous of her time, and was the subject of more than half the
sculptures at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.
That year she began appearing in a series of films, including Inspiration (1915), in
which she was nude; it is thought that Munson was the first woman to be filmed
nude in a non-pornographic motion picture. Munson was outspoken about women’s
issues and the sometimes fraught relationships between artists and muses. She
wrote a series of 20 articles for the New York American, in which she discussed the
collaborative artistic process between model and artist as well as sexism and salary
inequality in the arts industry.
Unfortunately, Munson’s time in the spotlight came to an early end. In 1919 her
landlord murdered his wife, claiming it was because he wanted to marry Munson. She
denied any romantic relationship with him, and no evidence was found of such, but
public opinion of her was tarnished. In 1922, according to Munson, a Broadway
producer made a sexual advance toward her in a dressing room, and she spurned
him. The production was abruptly canceled, and Munson struggled to find work
afterward. That same year she attempted suicide. In 1931 she was committed to St.
Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane, where she stayed for 65 years, until her death
in 1996 at age 104.
Badass Rating:
Warrior Queen of India
Maybe fought with her adopted
son strapped to her back?
Born: November 19, 1835
Died: June 17, 1858 (age 22)
Country of origin: India
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Lakshmi Bai was raised by her father, who was a court advisor, after her mother died
when she was a child. Rather than raise her in the boring way ladies of the time were
usually raised, he raised her to be a badass. Lakshmi Bai learned sword fighting,
horseback riding, archery, and self-defense. And she put these to good use too.
In 1842 Lakshmi Bai was married to the maharaja of Jhansi, which made her a rani
basically, a queen. Several years after their marriage, she had a son, who died at
about four months old. The rani and maharaja adopted a boy to take his place, but
the maharaja died shortly thereafter, leaving Lakshmi Bai and her adopted son on
their own. She was 18 years old at the time. Unfortunately for Lakshmi Bai and her
son, it just so happened that the British East India Companythe most powerful arm
of British colonization in India at the timehad a rule that they could exploit in this
instance, the “doctrine of lapse.” According to this doctrine, the East India Company
could annex a territory where there was no legal male heir. At first Lakshmi Bai tried
to take the high road: she appealed in court to keep her son’s claim to Jhansi. The
courts, as you might have guessed, were controlled by the British and ruled against
her. So she got feisty.
After the outbreak of the rebellion known in India as the First War of Independence
(elsewhere known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857), Lakshmi Bai organized troops
both men and womenagainst the British. They fought valiantly, and she refused to
surrender even when her forces were overwhelmed. Some say she dual-wielded
swords with her son strapped to her back. Eventually forced to retreat, she led
another fierce battle but died in combat on June 17, 1858. Many in India view her as a
martyr for their freedom, and there have been many songs, books, and films
celebrating her life.
Badass Rating:
Serial murdering countess
Possibly a vampire?
Born: August 7, 1560
Died: August 21, 1614 (age 54)
Country of origin: Hungary
If the stories about Elizabeth Báthory are true, she was one of history’s most prolific
serial killersperhaps the most prolific murderer in the world. Modern scholarship
contends that she was a victim of politically motivated slander, but, nevertheless, the
stories of her alleged cruelty have earned her a place in history as the “Blood
Báthory, a daughter of nobility, was born in a place you might have heard of:
Transylvania. She had a lot of power, and contemporary accounts say she definitely
abused it. The stories of her supposed acts are truly wild and, hopefully, at least
somewhat exaggerated, if not completely made up. Báthory throughout her life is
said to have tortured and killed more than 600 girls, many of them servants in her
home. By some accounts, she bathed in or drank their blood in order to preserve her
own vitality. According to others, she would bite off chunks of her victims’ flesh. Her
alleged crimes were ignored until late 1609, when she and some servants accused of
assisting her were arrested. After a 1611 trial, three of the servants were executed.
Báthory herself was confined to her chambers in her castle, where she died in 1614.
Though contemporary sources may have believed the tales of her cruelty, modern
scholarship has posited that the acts attributed to her were actually fabricated in
order to allow her relatives to appropriate her lands. According to some scholars,
that slander may have inspired the central character of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
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Badass Rating:
Singer, cross-dresser, and bouncer
“The Rosa Parks of the gay
Born: December 24, 1920
Died: May 24, 2014 (age 93)
Country of origin: United States
Stormé DeLarverie was a biracial lesbian with a larger-than-life personality. She has
been described as “the Rosa Parks of the gay community,” and one of her friends
said that she “walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero.”
Manyincluding DeLarverie herself—believed that she was the “Stonewall lesbian”
who (after being clubbed by a police officer) threw the first punch at the uprising at
the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, an event that gave rise to the gay rights movement.
The daughter of a wealthy white man and a black woman who worked in his home in
the segregated South, young DeLarverie faced bullying and harassment from
neighborhood kids. As a teen, she ran away with the circus, performing on horseback
for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. DeLarverie also started singing around this
time, first dressed as a woman and then dressed as a man. She was the cross-dressing
emcee of the Jewel Box Revue, a renowned show in which all the other performers
were female impersonators, and appeared at such famous venues as the Apollo
Theater and Radio City Music Hall. She wore masculine clothing in her off-hours too,
which may have inspired others in New York City’s lesbian community to adopt that
style. That fateful night at the Stonewall Inn, a gathering place for people in the LGBT
community, she described being clubbed by a police officer who may have mistaken
her for a man and returning his blow with a punch to the face. The incident sparked a
scuffle later known as the Stonewall riots, or Stonewall uprising, which helped push
the LGBT community into campaigning for their civil rights.
A protector of New York City’s gay community, DeLarverie worked as a bouncer at
lesbian bars into her 80s and patrolled the streets looking for what she called
“ugly”—any type of discrimination or harassment. Though she had no family of her
own, she called the gay and lesbian youth of New York City her “children” and
dedicated her time to looking out for them.
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Badass Rating:
Wrote hundreds of Nancy Drew
Was not actually a real person
Born: ?
Died: ?
Country of origin: United States?
Carolyn Keene’s name has graced the cover of hundreds of books about girl detective
Nancy Drew. How does one author write so many books, you might ask? In this case
she doesn’t. Carolyn Keene was actually a pseudonym used by several people. They
were paid $125 per book and signed away their rights to royalties and personal
recognition. Publisher Edward Stratemeyer was the inventor of the Nancy Drew
series. He wrote the outlines and sent them to writers. But one writer, it can be
argued, was the inventor of Nancy Drew herselfthe creator of her personality.
Mildred Benson wrote 23 of the initial 30 Nancy Drew stories, including the first four
published in 1930. She strove to create Nancy as a strong and self-possessed young
woman girls could look up to, different from the stereotyped heroines of the day.
However, her identity as the original Carolyn Keene was a mystery for many years.
She did not come forward as an author of the series until a 1980 lawsuit against the
publisher, Stratemeyer Syndicate, and even after that was not known as the author
of the first books until the Nancy Drew Conference at the University of Iowafrom
which Benson had been the first person to graduate with a master’s degree in
journalismin 1993.
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Badass Rating:
Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks
Teenage civil rights pioneer
Born: September 5, 1939
Country of origin: United States
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Nine months before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white
passenger in the segregated American South, Claudette Colvin did the same thing
except she was only 15 years old at the time.
On March 2, 1955, Colvin was riding a Montgomery, Alabama, bus when the driver
requested that she and three other African American teenagers give up their seats so
that a white woman could sit down. Remembering famous activists she had been
studying in schoolHarriet Tubman and Sojourner TruthColvin refused and
remained in her seat. The driver stopped the bus at a junction, where Colvin was
arrested and taken to an adult jail rather than juvenile detention. Her mother and
pastor bailed her out, and then community members guarded her house during the
night for fear of retaliation; her father stayed up all night with a shotgun in hand.
Colvin stayed quiet about the affair until she had retired many years later in New
Colvin actually knew Rosa Parksthey lived in the same community, and Colvin
attended Parks’s youth group at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church. Parks experienced a
situation very similar to Colvin’s, but, in the eyes of community leaders, Parks’s status
in the community and work with the NAACP made her a better face for the civil rights
movement. (Complicating matters for Colvin was also the fact that she became
pregnant in the year following her pioneering protest.) The Montgomery bus boycott
kicked off in earnest later that year, and in December 1956 bus segregation was
finally ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. That was also thanks in part
to Colvin, who was one of four women who testified in front of a U.S. district court
about their experiences on segregated buses.
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Annie Edson
Badass Rating:
First person to survive going over Niagara
Falls in a barrel
(Which is apparently something people had
been trying to do?)
After sending her cat on a trial run, of course
Born: October 24, 1838
Died: April 29, 1921 (age 82)
Country of origin: United States
Annie Edson Taylor was a 63-year-old schoolteacher on a mission: she wanted to
become rich and famous quickly. The best way to do this, she reasoned, was to travel
over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
The Pan-American Exposition had drawn a crowd to Buffalo, New York, and Taylor
believed that the news of her scheduled stunt would attract an audience. On October
24, 1901her 63rd birthdayTaylor got into a barrel and was towed to the main
stream of the Niagara River. (Several days prior she had sent her cat over in the barrel
for a test run…like ya do.) Her barrel went over the Horseshoe Falls (some 190 feet)
and was retrieved on the Canadian shore. Spectators were amazed as she emerged
relatively unscathed, with only some bruising and a gash on her forehead to show for
her death-defying feat. After the stunt, Taylor did make some money selling
autographs and memorabilia, but her fame waned, and she unfortunately lived most
of her final years in poverty.
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Alice Bradley Sheldon/
James Tiptree, Jr.
Badass Rating:
Science fiction writer who inspired an award
for work that “expands or explores our
understanding of gender”
Had a complicated relationship with her male
alter ego
Born: August 24, 1915
Died: May 19, 1987 (age 71)
Country of origin: United States
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Alice Bradley Sheldon was a sci-fi writer with a life that was stranger than fiction. As a
child, she went on several trips with her parents to Africa and illustrated children’s
books that her mother, Mary Bradley, wrote about Alice and her adventures there.
After a brief young marriage, an attempt at college, and stints as a painter and an art
critic, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942, and in 1943 she was hired
by the Pentagon. And that’s just the beginning.
After World War II ended, in 1945, Alice was transferred to a new unit and soon
married her commanding officer, Col. Huntington Sheldon. In 1952 they both joined
the CIA. Alice left the CIA in 1955…and used her intelligence training to disappear
from her marriage, which she had become unsure about, for about a year. After
earning a college degree in 1959 she pursued graduate studies in experimental
psychology. While writing her dissertation, she also began writing science fiction
stories under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree’s stories received several
awards and were praised by critics for their treatment of themes such as death and
gender and later for their feminist leanings. Tiptree corresponded extensively but
always closely guarded “his” personal life and identity. Sheldon felt that Tiptree was
not just a pseudonym but also part of her personality, a character she played.
The only detail Tiptree gave about his life was that his mother was an explorer from
Chicago. When Mary Bradley’s obituary was published in 1976, the sci-fi community
put the pieces together and figured out Alice Sheldon was Tiptree. This revelation
helped contradict assumptions within the sci-fi genre about perceived differences
between men’s and women’s writing. Sheldon, however, was deeply affected by the
loss of her alter ego. She continued to publish as Tiptree, but her work was never the
same. Having dealt with depression for much of her life, Sheldon shot her ailing
husband and then herself in 1987. In 1991 an award was established in her honor: the
James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award for work that “expands or explores our
understanding of gender.”
Badass Rating:
Prostitute turned pirate queen
Cut a deal with the Chinese
government to keep her loot
Born: 1775
Died: 1844 (age 68ish)
Country of origin: China
There aren’t many stories about women pirates, for a variety of reasons (basically,
sexism). But Ching Shih was a woman pirate who couldn’t be ignored. By many
accounts, she was the most successful pirate who ever lived. Ever. Of any gender.
Little is known of her early life except that she was a prostitute, but in 1801 she was
captured byand subsequently became the wife ofa pirate named Cheng Yi.
Together they sailed the China Seas and amassed a pirate army known as the Red
Flag Fleet. Upon Cheng Yi’s death in 1807, Ching Shih took command of the fleet,
which consisted of hundreds of ships and some 50,000 pirates. She kept them in line
with a strict code of conduct, most offenses being punished by beheading. The fleet
proved so unstoppablesometimes even venturing upstream in smaller boats to hit
cities and towns that weren’t on the coast—that the admiral of the Chinese navy
committed suicide rather than be captured by her. In the end the Chinese
government couldn’t suppress her and offered her amnesty. She retired to the
countryside with her loot.
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10 Badass Women
of History