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Category: female badasses

Female Badasses in History: Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)

Countess Constance Markievicz was a founding member of the Irish parliament, a fighter for Irish independence, a suffragette, a socialist and one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position in any government. Despite her aristocratic background she was involved in socialist politics in Ireland, smuggled arms for the Irish Republicans, and took part in the Irish Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War following the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Constance Markievicz was born Constance Gore-Booth in 1868 in London as the daughter of an Artic explorer and Anglo-Irish landlord. In her youth her father had already been an inspiration for during the famine of 1879-80 he had distributed free food among the peasant on his estate in North-West Ireland. She originally trained to become a painter in London and soon became involved with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society, an organization dedicated to women’s suffrage in the UK. Before settling in Dublin in 1903 she also went to Paris where she met and married her husband Casimir Markievicz, a wealthy count from Poland.

After settling in Dublin, Constance made a name for her as a landscape painter and since she was interested in Gaelic language and culture she became a member of the Gaelic League. The league despite it’s original apolitical intent was an organization that brought together many prominent figure of the Irish nationalist struggle such as the later first president of Ireland Douglas Hyde or John O’Leary. In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin and the Daughters of Ireland, a revolutionary women’s movement. Her first activities included a cultural campaign of promoting the nationalist Irish cause through theater as well as a suffragette campaign in opposition to the election of Winston Churchill to the British parliament.
With the conflict becoming more heated, Constance founded the Fianna Éireann (Warriors of Ireland), a scout organization that trained boys and girls in the use of firearms. Soon after she was arrested for the first time for speaking at a rally against the visit of King George V to Ireland.

In 1913 the big lockout occurred. The lockout is one of the most intense labor disputes in Irish history starting when Dublin’s public transportation workers went ton strike due to low payment and in protest of British policy in Ireland, eventually culminating in city-wide dispute that involved approximately 20.000 workers and 300 employers. It lasted seven months. Through this event Constance drifted further to the left, joining the socialist Irish Citizen Army, which was dedicated to protecting the workers from the police. She supported the cause by paying for food out of her own pocket and organizing soup kitchens for worker’s children. She also became involved in gun running for the organization.

In 1916 Irish republicans mounted the Easter Uprising, a revolt staged to establish Irish independence while Great Britain was heavily involved in the First World War. Constance took part as an officer and was charged as second-in-command with defending St- Stephen Green, a park in Dublin. Constance and her men held out for six days under heavy British fire and only gave up when they heard that the leader of the uprising Patrick Pearse had surrendered. Under cheers from the crowd she was brought to prison and later pleaded guilty to “disturbing the order of his Majesty’s people”. When the court communted her sentence from death to life-long imprisonment on account of her being a woman, Constance remarked that she “had done what was right” and that she wished they “had done their lot and shot me”. She was released from prison one year later after a general amnesty of the British government for those involved in the uprising.

In 1918 Constance ran for election and became the first woman to be elected to the British parliament but refused to take her seat in protest of British policy towards Ireland. The same year, she also became one of the first women and founding constituents of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament that declared unilateral independence form the United Kingdom. She was again elected to the Dáil in 1921 and from 1919 to 1922 served as Minister for Labor in the Irish cabinet and therefore as the first woman to hold a cabinet position in Ireland and one of the first women worldwide to be a government minister. She left the Irish government in protest of the Anglo-Irish treaty, which established Irish independence but didn’t go far enough for Constance and other Irish republicans. She participated as an officer and fighter in the Irish Civil War but Irish Republican forces lost the conflict in 1923 to the provisional government. She was reelected several times to the Irish parliament but also several times refused to take her seat because of her staunch Republican views. Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at age 59 possibly due to tuberculosis.

Constance Markievicz can be remembered as a prominent female socialist revolutionary that fought for the right of her people for independence and national self-determination. She always stood up for the things she believed and was ready to fight for her causes of Irish independence, socialism, and suffrage with violent means if necessary. She certainly was a woman who was afraid of almost nothing and her war records as well as her prison sentences prove that it was impossible to break her and make her give up the ideals she fought for all her life.


Female Badasses in History: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000)

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was outstanding in so many ways: she was the first woman to graduate an Austrian university with a degree in architecture, a famous architect with the Bauhaus movement, designed what is essentially the prototype of every modern kitchen, and was part of the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance as well as an outspoken critic of Austrian post-war politics.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was born in Vienna in 1897 in a bourgeois family. Through hard work, ambition, and help by artist Gustav Klimt she became the first female student admitted to the K.K. Kunstgewerbeschule (today: University for the applied arts), which at the time was already one of the most exclusive and prestigious school in all of Central Europe. She studied under Oskar Strnad who was a pioneer in the filed of sozialer Wohnbau (i.e. the building of affordable and comfortable council housing for low-income families and singles – a program that continues on a great scale in Vienna until this day) and Margarete took over his views that architecture had to be functional in the way that it affords comfort and affordability at the same time rather than looking grand. Even before graduating Margarete was already awarded several prizes and after graduating one of her first jobs was to design residential estates for World War I invalids together with star-architect Adolf Loos.

Many people where highly impressed by her work and in 1926 she was offered a job at the housing magistrate of the city of Frankfurt, which at the time was due to a huge campaign dedicated to creating new housing in the city was one of the forefronts of modern architectural design. Margarete accepted and during her work, she created what basically changed housing and is until this day the prototype of the modern fitted kitchen that probably most us have in our apartments: The Frankfurt Kitchen. The Frankfurt Kitchen was a design that acknowledged the change in society. It was designed not with a big apartment for a family of four in mind (albeit it could work for them too) but with singles or a couple living in an apartment and its purpose was to facilitate kitchen work, mainly for the working woman. Inspired by an assembly line principle and the special design of railroad kitchens, the Frankfurt Kitchen combines special effectiveness with an architectural design that aimed at rationalizing workflow in the kitchen. It introduced the sink-cutting board-stove combination, as well the integrated yet removable garbage drawer, and an organization system with labeled bins and conveniently placed cupboards and drawers. It also was very cost-effective: The kitchen came fully furnished (a novelty at the time) and ran for about 100 Reichsmark (which at the time was more than it sounds, yet not a lot. Comparatively it is cheaper than fitted kitchens today). Feminists have criticized her concept in the 70s and 80s stating that her design isolated women from the rest of the household due to its small-size, which can be viewed as a valid point. However, in the 1920s it was an innovation with working women in mind aimed at providing them with a fully equipped, cheap housing space and – as Lihotzky put it – “allowing them to have more free time and relax”.

Maragrete stayed in Frankfurt until the early 1930s continuing her work and also designing for other cities such as Vienna where she for example designed two apartment blocks with only 35 m2 of base area. With the political situation in the Weimar Republic and Austria deteriorating – Margarete identified as a socialist from her student days on –  she and a couple of her colleagues went to Moscow on a program designed to attract foreign architects to help build in the Soviet Union. Margarete helped design for the industrial city of Magnetogorsk and stayed until her pass expired in 1937. Subsequently she and her husband, Wilhelm Schütte, moved to London and then Paris but had trouble finding work there. In 1938 she moved to Istanbul where she met several other Austrian communists who tried to build up a resistance network in what by then had become part of “Greater Germany”. Lihotzky decided to join them and traveled back to Vienna. After some initial success in establishing contact with the small communist underground, the Gestapo arrested her and her companions in 1941. Initially sentenced to death, her husband managed to save her by stealing stationary from the Turkish government and intervening on her behalf. Margarete spend the rest of the war in a prison in Bavaria.

After the war and despite her anti-Nazi activity, the Austrian establishment shunned her by denying her publicly funded work because she was a communist. She was forced to take jobs consulting for housing projects in the GDR, Cuba and China. Only in the 80s did the Austrian establishment decided to honor her for her work but Margarete caused another uproar by refusing an award by then president of Austria Kurt Waldheim because of his past in several Nazi organizations. She was also one of the most outspoken critics of Asutrian far-right politics in the 90s, especially Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party. For her 100th birthday the city of Vienna awarded her the highest honors. She died in 2000 just 5 days shy of her 103rd birthday.

Maragrete Schütte-Lihotzky can be remembered as an architectural pioneer, the influences of her design extending until this day as well as a staunch anti-Nazi activist and one of the most remarkable Austrian women of the 20th century. Modern architecture would do well in taking some lessons from her, especially concerning her ideas about the social function of modern architecture.

Female Badasses in History: Elizabeth „Bessie“ Coleman (1891-1926)

Bessie Coleman was one of the first female African-American civil aviators as well as the first African-American female to hold an international pilot license. She came from a poor family and worked her way up to fulfilling her dream of becoming a pilot. She is also credited with tearing down barriers for African-Americans in regards to the young flight industry and inspiring a whole generation of young women.

Bessie was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to a family that was part Cherokee. Her early education took place in an all-black, one-room school several miles away from her home. Despite the poor conditions, Bessie excelled as a student and at age eighteen she took all of her savings to enroll in a university in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately she ran out of money before she could even finish one term.

In 1915 she and her family moved to Chicago where Bessie started working as a manicurist in a barber shop. It is said, that this was the place where she heard stories of flying told by pilots that visited the shop. Being inspired by these stories, Bessie tried to gain admission to flight schools but she always was rejected because she was a woman and black. At the time African-American aviators existed but they also refused to train her.

Having heard that in France women could become pilots, Bessie took out a loan, took French classes and in 1920 packed her things and moved to France. In Paris she gained admission to a flying school and in 1921 became the first African-American woman to hold an international pilot license. She returned to the US in the same year and became an immediate media sensation.

In order to make a living, Bessie reckoned she would have to become a stuntpilot.  After some more training in Europe (in the US she had been refused again), she started performing in 1922 as a stuntflier, which at the time was the true beginning of civil aviator ship since there was hardly any commercial traveling by plane.

She soon became known as a daring stunt flyer by the name of “Queen Bess” never backing down from a daring stunt. Her reputation even lead to her being offered a movie role, which at first she accepted but when she learned that the first scene of her in the movie would be in tattered clothes with a walking stick, she walked off the set because she disagreed on principle with this kind of presentation of African-Americans in movies.

Bessie Coleman dreamed of opening a flight school for African-Americans but unfortunately she didn’t live to see this dream come true. In 1826  at age 34 she purchased a new plane and when she took it on its maiden flight together with her mechanic, the plane spun out of control and Bessie was thrown out of the plane and died upon impact on the ground.

Her funeral was attended by thousands of people and her impact on the history of flight in the US became apparent immediately following her death. All over the country Bessie-Coleman flight clubs were founded in order to make it possible for African-Americans to learn how to fly. Not only has she been honored by the City of Chicago, by the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as by the US government, which issued a stamp of her in 1995, her most important post-mortem accomplishment was to inspire African-Americans, especially women. William Powell, who served as a pilot in a segregated unit in WWI, wrote in 1934 that Bessie Coleman helped not only to overcome racial barriers but also the “barriers within ourselves”. Mae Jemison, the first female black astronaut, wrote a book about Bessie Coleman in which she emphasized the following: “”I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.“

Female Badasses in History: Cathay Williams (1844-1892)

Cathay Williams is the first (known) black woman to have served in the United States Armed Forces. Born a slave, she still defied the time’s norms regarding gender, race and even class and stands as an example to remembered, not just for her own courage, strength and bravery but for all women and especially black women who served and fell for their country but have been forgotten by the history books due to their own success in masking their identity or due to racial and gender prejudices.


Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in 1844 as the daughter of a free man and an enslaved woman, making her too a slave. She worked as a house servant on a plantation near Jefferson City until the Union army liberated the area in 1861. She was declared a “contraband” and went on to serve in the army for the first time as a cook in the 8th  Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

During her service she was transferred to Little Rock for some time where she must have seen African-American soldiers fighting in the Union Army thereby maybe inspiring her to also serve.


After the end of the Civil War, Cathay decided to enlist in the army for a three-year engagement, disguising herself as a man and using the alias William Cathay (which in my opinion is genius in its own right). Only two other people knew her secret. Unfortunately she contracted smallpox shortly after her enlistment and was hospitalized for a considerably amount of time. In 1868 she re-joined her regiment in New Mexico but due to the heat, the physical strain of the march to New Mexico and the smallpox, she again had to be hospitalized and this time the doctors discovered her secret. She was immediately discharged by her commanding officer.


After her service in the army she became a cook in New Mexico. In 1876, almost ten years after her service, details of her story became public and Cathay by that time sick again decided to apply for a disability pension from the army the same way Deborah Sampson had done.

What had worked in the case of Sampson, however did not work for Cathay Williams. Despite the fact that she suffered from diabetes and her toes had been amputated, official examiners from the army did not grant her application. This certainly had to do in part with Cathay having no influential friends – like Sampson had Paul Revere – and even more with the fact that Cathay was African-American.

The exact date of her death is unknown but is likely to have occurred in 1892 based on the report of the examiners from the Pension Bureau detailing how severe her illness had become in 1890.


Cathay Williams’ story has a very sad ending. She had served her country defying patriarchal and racist norms and was denied her due payment for it. A payment, which other white women who had done the same, had already received. She died at an unknown time, at an unknown place under unknown circumstances and is hardly present in official memory today – also something that does not apply to her white counterparts like Deborah Sampson.

Cathay Williams’ story also certainly wasn’t the only one of its kind. Historians suspect that African-Americans and also African-American women already had served in the Armed Forces in the War of Independence. They are, however, largely forgotten today. Let us remember Cathay Williams in the place of all of them.

Femlae Badasses in History: Deborah Sampson (1760-1827)

Deborah Sampson certainly was one outstanding example of female badassery in American history. Serving at the frontlines of the American Revolutionary War, she is an example that, even in its earliest days, women had served the United States in combat roles. By publicly campaigning for her role as a soldier to be recognized and succeeding, she not only, as Lucy Freeman and Alma Pond put it, bridged gender differences but also asserted the sense of entitlement felt by all veterans.


Deborah Sampson was born in 1760 in Plymouth, Massachusetts to a family of colonial stock. Because of their poverty, Deborah was forced to become an indenture servant, spending her youth in seven different households. After being released from servitude at age 18, Deborah chose a career as a schoolteacher and rejected the notion of getting married.

Being a staunch patriot of the very young United States, Deborah decided to enlist in the Continental Army in 1778. Since women could not become soldiers, she disguised herself as a man and going by the name of Robert Shurtleff Sampson, enlisted at her local recruiting office.

She was assigned to the 4th Massachusetts Regiment consisting of 50 to 60 men with only her distinct cousin, a reverend, knowing her secret. As part of the regiment, Deborah fought distinctly in several skirmishes until she was wounded during her first battle in 1782. She was shot two times in the leg and after unsuccessfully pleading to her fellow soldiers to let her die, she snuck out of the hospital they brought her two and removed one of the two musket balls in her leg herself with a penknife and a sewing needle.

For the rest of the war she was assigned as a waiter to General John Patterson due to the injuries she sustained.

In 1783 she came down with a fewer and a doctor discovered her secret. The doctor decided not to betray her outright but seems to have informed General John Patterson. In the same year after the treaty of Paris brought Peace she received an honorable discharge from the army at West Point, although not receiving her fully pay.


In 1792 Deborah petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for the pay the army had withheld from her because she was a woman. Her petition was approved by the Senate and signed by then Governor John Hancock, citing her extraordinary display of female bravery.

Ten years later, Deborah Sampson, by then married with four children and considerable financial trouble, started petitioning again in order to receive her military pension. For this purpose she enlisted her friend Paul Revere from whom she also occasionally borrowed money. She was successful in her petitioning to Congress but it took until 1816 until she received her full military pension for invalid soldiers of a total of 76.80 Dollars per year.

She died in 1827 at age 66 due to yellow fever.


Deborah Sampson stands until this day as an early example of women serving in combat roles, which sheds the debate concerning this issue today in a quite ridiculous light. Also, by her petitioning, she asserted the claim to wellfare for veterans everywhere and of every race and gender. Several books have been written about her and a monument to her memory can be found in Sharon, Massachusetts. Despite this, American politicians concerned with the issue of women serving in combat roles would do good to remember her outstanding example of bravery.

Female Badasses in History: Clara Zetkin (1857-1933)

Clara Zetkin was one of the most famous socialists of her time. She stands out for her involvement in German and international socialist politics, was one of the socialist movement’s most revered fighter’s for women’s rights and never shied away form criticizing, even when it came to her own movement’s politics. She is remembered today as a successful fighter for women’s rights (including being one of the initiators of the Internal Women’s Day) as well as a fighter for a more just world including her opposition to Stalin.


Clara Zetkin was born as Clara Eißner in 1857 in Germany as the daughter of Josephine Vital, an early women’s rights pioneer, and granddaughter of Jean Dominique, a participant of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. She became a elementary school teacher by trade and through her contacts to the women’s rights and workers movement joined the Socialist German Workers Party in 1878. The same year the German imperial government outlawed any socialist activity outside of parliamentary institutions. This prompted Zetkin to go into exile, first living in Zurich and the in Paris where she met Ossip Zetkin who had fought in the Russian Revolution. Despite the fact that she had two sons with Ossip and that she took his name, Clara never married him. She participated in the International Workers Congress in Paris in 1889 and was one of the main initiators of the second Socialist International.


Returning to Germany in 1890 she became together with Rosa Luxemburg one of the most outspoken and known people in the left-wing of the German Socialist movement, rejecting reformist politics and striving for revolution. In 1907 she met Lenin in Germany with whom she developed a life long-friendship.

Early on, Clara Zetkin became one of the most outspoken fighters for women’s rights. At the International Workers Congress in Paris she held her very famous speech elaborating how the fight for the worker was also a fight for women’s rights. Despite the fact that she criticized the non-socialist movement for women’s rights – denouncing them as bourgeois -, this speech made her one of the pioneers for this cause in the socialist movement.

Following her return to Germany, she became head of the Women’s Bureau of the socialist party and managed together with Luxemburg to incorporate the demand for women to be able to vote into the German Socialist Party’s program. She also was a founding member of the Socialist Women’s International, an organization dedicated to the fight for the rights of female workers world-wide.


In the years between 1914 and 1918 Clara Zetkin together with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, fought against the German Socialist Party’s politic regarding the war. The party had decided to participate in the German war government in order to support the German state in its war efforts. Zetkin rejected this because she believed that the First World War was a war fought by imperialists against the interest of working men and women all around the world. Again together with Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Zetkin split from the party and founded a new Socialist Party in 1916, which would ultimately after the war become the German Communist Party. In contradiction to Luxemburg and Liebknecht who were murdered by right-wing death squads, Zetkin narrowly escaping the politically motivated violence that followed the right-wing orchestrated backlash against German communists and the Munich Revolution in 1918.


Following the end of World War I and the founding of the Weimar Republic, Zetkin was elected into the German parliament as one of its first female delegates. Within the Communist Party she retained considerable influence, which she used to fight for women’s rights such as the right to vote, the right to maternity leave, institutionalized care for women’s health, the legalization of abortion and generally a greater participation of women in the political process. Also within the party she routinely criticized political orders from Moscow – by then the capital of the only socialist state thus the Soviet Communist Party’s understanding of itself as the “mother party” of all communists world-wide – and the attempts to use political violence.

At the conference of the executive committee of the Comintern 1923 she stood out by reject the theory that fascism was the next stage of capitalist development, instead attributing the growing number and influence of fascist and extreme right-wing parties to the failures of the socialist movement itself, especially the socialdemocrats and their willingness to join alliances with bourgeois parties.


Zetkin remained a delegate to the German parliament until 1933 continuing her fight for women’s and workers’ rights. With the Nazi takeover of power she fled Germany to the Soviet Union, living isolated for the next couple of months until her death at age 76. Stalin himself carried her urn to her grave in the Kreml murals.

With her death the official socialist movement immediately began to remember her while at the same time she her memory was distorted. In official writings neither her fight for women’s rights nor her critique of the Stalinist system and methods were remembered. Instead she was turned into a martyr for the movement.

Clara Zetkin stands out as an independent and determined woman, even by the standards of the socialist movement. She never shied away from critique and conflict, especially if it was in a fight for something she believed would contribute to a better and more just world. Her political career and her fight were dedicated not only to workers but to all people, especially women who at the time were marginalized even by the socialist movement in many ways.

Female Badasses in History: Anna Komnene (1083 – presumably 1153)

Anna Komnene did not fight in any wars or kick ass physically (not for lack of trying though). She did, however, kick ass scientifically so to speak. Komnene, born a Byzanthine princess, is the first known female historian in world history. She wrote a 15-volume magnus opum, the Alexiad, that until this day is one of the best sources for this particular era of Byzantine history and the only Hellenic source portraying the First Crusade (1096–1099).

Anna Komnene was born in 1083 as the first child of Emperor Alexios I Komnene of Byzantium. The circumstances of her birth are noteworthy for she was born in the Porphyra Chamber (or purple chamber) of the Emperor’s palace in Constantinople. Being born in the Porphyra Chamber was a special privilege even among the children of the Emperor and if one was born like Anna you were bestowed a special title denoting your higher standing. Also, being born in the purple chamber was seen as a sign for an outstanding future, something very true for Anna.

During her childhood Anna was educated in reading and writing like it was custom for princesses, the same custom on the other hand dictated though that she was only allowed to read books deemed appropriate for women which pretty much excluded every historic account, every philosophic book and all the Greek classics for they were deemed to violent and sexually graphic for women. Legend has it, however, that Anna refused to comply with this rule and routinely snuck in the Emperor’s library to read all night. This can be somewhat substantiated from her later works as well as from her testament in which she explicitly thanks her parents for letting her have such an extensive education.

In 1097 Anna was married to Byzantine noblemen, knight and historian Nicephorus Bryennius. Originally her father had her bestowed to a different nobleman expecting her to be heir to the throne but with the birth of her brother John in 1087 the arrangement as well as Anna’s hopes for becoming empress of the world largest empire of the time fell through. Her father favored John as his successor but her mother threw all her influence behind her and this created a constant conflict that even outlasted their father’s death in 1118. Shortly before John had secretly been brought into his father’s bedchamber and took his imperial ring. Anna, of course, felt cheated and tried to plot to bring her brother down. All of her plans remained fruitless though and she became socially ostracized in Constantinople. After the death of her husband in 1137 Anna was forced by her brother to join the convent of Kecharitomene founded by her mother where she would remain for the rest of her life.

In the monastery she took up the study of philosophy and history and held esteemed conversation circles often discussing the works of Aristotle et. al. She put her evident knowledge and sharp mind to good use when she took it upon her to finish a book started by her late husband that was designed to be an account of the recent period of Byzantine history. Intended to be one book by her dead husband, Anna expanded upon the idea and wrote the Alexiad, the 15 volume account of her father’s reign. In it she provides an account of, among other things, the First Crusade that is unrivaled in his extensiveness. Meticulously Anna describes not only contemporary weaponry, battle formations and strategies but also the political process in Byzantine at the time. Her father had originally requested help against Turk nomads at his border but the Pope took the opportunity to declare the First Crusade. Through Anna’s account we know today that this was a move not welcomed by Alexios. Also, the crusading knights were also not a very welcome sight in Byzantine. Anna describes them looting, pillaging and being the drunk, bumbling, illiterate idiots that they were. Another outstanding part of Anna’s account is the role she gives her mother and grandmother in describing their influence on the politics of the time. Mentioning women and even giving an account of their contributions is something almost unheard of in historical accounts preceding Anna Komnene’s and even in subsequent accounts it remains a seldom sight.

Anna’s outstanding knowledge and education is also something very apparent in the Alexiad. She routinely discusses philosophy, history, science, astronomy and language quoting almost every part of the contemporary canon, from Homer to the Bible.

Anna Komnene finished the Alexiad in 1148, the same year she wrote her testament, which is the last historic account we have of her. Presumably she died in 1153 due to unknown reasons.

Anna Komnene is not only the first known female historian, she is also an outstanding one that certainly belongs in the same league of classic historians such as Herodot or Cicero. Only recently has the scientific community began to not only use her research for the writing of historiography but to also research her and the more we know about her the more an outstanding example of knowledge, early historical professionalism and education she becomes.

Female Badasses in History: Julie d’Aubigny a.k.a. La Maupin (1670–1707)

Julie d’Aubigny was a 17th century swordswomen and opera star. She is the very image of the swashbuckling romantic cavalier: Adventurous, tall, handsome and surpassing even the finest swordsmen of her day. She also performed as an opera singer on some of the most famous stages of her day and according to the lore surrounding her unusual life even had an affair with a nun.

D’Aubigny was born the daughter of a lower French aristocrat who was the Master of the Horse to King Louis XIV. During her youth her father – following his notion that education was not something reserved for sons – had her trained in reading, writing, riding, dancing, drawing and fencing.

In her youth she began an affair with her father’s employer, the Compte d’Armagnac, who introduced her to the court of King Louis XIV. Due to the scandalous nature of her affair and Julie’s already established habit to often dress in men’s clothing, the Compte decided to marry her to a certain M. Maupin from Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The arranged marriage helped protect their affair but after only one additional year the Compte decided to break off their entanglement and send Julie and her husband to a distant province of France. Julie however decided not to follow her husband to his new post in the province but stay in Paris and do as she pleased. That included frequent altercations with shopkeepers, dueling a considerable number of young aristocrats – and according to legend she never lost – and beginning a new affair with a swordfighting and fencing trainer named Serannes. Serannes and d’Aubigny started giving dueling exhibitions in which d’Aubigny dressed in male clothing but never concealing the fact that she was a women, which added to their growing popularity.

After a string of illegal duels in one of which Serannes killed a man, the pair ran afoul of one of the most powerful men in Paris, the Lieutenant-General of Police, Nicolas-Gabriel de La Reynie, who is commonly regarded as the first modern police man due to him professionalizing the Paris police force. In 1686 the pair was forced to flee Paris for Marseilles with La Reynie hot on their trail in order to escape an impending trial against Serannes. Forced to find means to support them selves in Marseilles d’Aubigny – besides continuing her sword fighting show – also applied for admittance to the musical academy of Marseilles in order to become a trained opera singer.

In the following months d’Aubigny became bored with Serannes and – as she herself put it – with men in general. She began a relationship with a young woman of unknown name. The young woman’s parents were of coursed not very thrilled by this prospect and send her to a convent in Avignon. Determined to be united with her lover d’Aubigny also signed up as a novice at the convent and hatched an escape plan for the pair. D’Aubigny stole the body of a dead nun, placed it in the bed of her lover and set the convent on fire. She and her lover escaped, their relationship did however only last three more months after which the young women returned to her parents. D’Aubigny fled again, this time back to Paris to escape trial in Marseilles where she was tried as a man for kidnapping, body snatching and arson and sentenced to death by fire.

The next couple of years d’Aubigny traveled from Paris to Roue and Bruxelles, earning her living by signing operas and fighting men for money or for show.

In 1702 under the pseudonym La Maupin she returned to Paris with the help of the Compte who nullified her sentence and used her already established reputation as an opera singer to built a career and further reputation as an opera performer in the Paris Opera. She retired in 1705 and died two years later.

There are many more details and anecdotes of La Maupin’s impressive duels, superior fighting and singing skills, scandalous affairs and mind-blowing adventures. It some cases the truthfulness of these stories is doubtful, Julie d’Aubigny’s outstanding role as a women completely defying all expectations and rules placed on her as a 17th century woman by a male and aristocratically dominated society however is not. In 1835 Théophile Gautier, famous French novelist and literary critic, published a fictional account of her life entitled Mademoiselle de Maupin which remains the only fictional work that admits to be based on her. It seems reasonable to assume however that Julie d’Aubigny also was a character foil for many writers at the time who made a male hero out of her.

Female Badasses in History: Adelheid Popp (1893-1939)

Adelheid Popp is known as the founder of the Proletarian Women’s Movement in Austria and was an important figure in the International Women’s Committee of the Socialist International.

Popp was born in 1893 in Vienna into a poor proletarian family. She had to leave school after three years and had to start working in a factory from age ten on. Her brothers, also workers, were Socialists and started taking her to meetings, demonstrations and gatherings from an early age on. At one of these meetings, presumably in 1910, she spontaneously spoke at one of these gatherings about the workers’ living situation and the audience was so impressed by her that she was asked by the Socialist Party of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy to write an article. She agreed but since she only had three years of school education realized she had to learn how to read and write better first. She started teaching herself to read and write after her 10-hour workday. Popp succeeded  and the people in the party were so impressed by her that she started rising in the ranks of the Socialist Party, even becoming a founding member of the official party newspaper, “Arbeiterzeitung”, a couple of years later.

Popp became a female Socialist icon in Austria, especially after she and her allies in the party managed to influence party line to support suffrage in 1918 after the Austrian republic was founded. Up until 1934 she was a member of the Austrian parliament and fought a long hard fight for the rights of female workers and against the prohibition of abortion in Austria. She is credited with introducing and pushing through legislation that granted time off to pregnant workers, shortening the work day in Austria from 10 to 8 hours, better health regulations for women in the work place, availability of some free health benefits to women in Austria, the introduction of the International Women’s Day in Austria as well as the first anti-discrimination regulations in Austria’s history.

With the abolishment of democracy in Austria in 1934 her political activity became illegal, the Austrofascist government however did not persecute her for her political conviction especially since she was connected internationally through her role as the successor of Clara Zetkin as the president of the International Women’s Committee of the III. Socialist International. Adelheid Popp died in 1939 shortly after the annexation of Austria by Nazi German. The exact circumstances of her death are not known.

Today she is remembered not only as a pioneer for women’s rights in Austria but also an internationally as a female Socialist icon fighting for women’s and worker’s rights.

Female Badasses in History: Violette Szabo (1921-1945)

Violette Szabo was a secret agent for the Allies in World War II. She participated in two major missions for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE, the approximate counterpart to the American’s OSS) and served with such distinction that Odette Churchill, another female British secret agent (no relations to Winston Churchill), said of her that “She was the bravest of us all”.

Violette Szabo was born in 1921 as Violette Bushwell in Paris. Her family, her father being British, moved the family to London where Violette went to school until age 14.

The celebration of Bastille Day in London in 1940 should change her life. This is where she met Etienne Szabo, a French officer of Hungarian descent. Violette married him after only 42 days in August of 1940. A year later and only shortly after the birth of their daughter Tania, in October 1941, Etienne died fighting in El Alamein against the German Africa Corps. This tragedy convinced Violette to sign with the Auxiliary Territorial Service, an agency related to the SOE. The SOE picked her out – among other factors – for her excellent knowledge of French and trained her not only in night- and day-time evasion tactics, parachuting, hand-to-hand-combat but also sabotage techniques and demolitions.

In April 1944 she started her first mission parachuting into France near Cherboourg. She took charge of a group of French resistance fighters that had been seriously weakened by the German police and army in France. Not only did Violette Szabo manage to rebuilt the group and become its temporary leader, she her group also gathered vital intelligence for the preparation of D-Day and managed to sabotage several railway lines and bridges. She completed the mission successfully and returned home after six weeks.

Her second mission took place right after D-Day on June 7 1944. Again she parachuted into France this time near Limoges and took charge of the local French resistance group. She and her group contributed to the Allied fight against Nazi Germany vitally by successfully sabotaging communication lines of the Germans so that they couldn’t communicate that the Allies had landed in Normandy. On June 10 she and some other membes traveled by car and raised the suspicion of German soldiers nearby. A gunfight ensued and Violette Szabo in an act of heroism decided to save the group by staying behind and fighting the Germans. She engaged them in a gunfight lasting over an hour and while German records indicate no injuries witnesses state that she succeeded in taking out several German officers. Ultimately Szabo was captured because she ran out of ammunition.

The German soldiers that captured her transferred her first to the local German SD office from she was transferred to the Paris’ Gestapo headquarter. The Gestapo tortured and interrogated her for four days. Afterwards she was sent to the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (the camp especially for women) where she and other female SOE agents allegedly joined the camp-internal resistance movement. Around February 5, 1945 she and four other SOE members were executed at Ravensbrück and their bodies subsequently were burned in the camp’s crematoria.

The names of her murderers and torturers remain unknown until this day, Violette Szabo however is still remembered for her bravery and contribution to the war effort. In 1946 she was posthumously – as the second woman ever – awarded the King George’s Cross. Today there is not only a plague and a museum in Szabo’s honor and memory but also several books about her – one written by her daughter – as well as a movie called “Carve Her Name with Pride”. She also made her way into today’s popular culture by being the role model for female agent Violette Summer in the 2009 video game “Velvet Assasin”.