We may have had to wait for 2017 for a female-led superhero movie (at least in the DC and Marvel cinematic universes), but real female warriors have graced the history books for millennia. While most women were busy being warriors in the home (and the birthing chamber), protecting their families and keeping the house safe while the men were off at war, some of them did indeed don arms to fight for what they believed in.
Read on to learn about 10 real female warriors from history, from ancient Greece to modern times.
Oh, and while we can say that it took a long time for our female warriors to hit the big screen, let’s not forget some of the amazing female superheroes from television. The original Wonder Woman, the incredible Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the amazing Sidney Bristow from Alias who didn’t even need superpowers to be super. But anyway…
Living around 3,000 years ago, Fu Hao was a general under the Chinese Shang Dynasty known to have led an army of 3,000 soldiers on some regional campaigns. Her status as a warrior is confirmed by her tomb, which is near Anyang. More than 1,000 weapons were found buried with her, as well as the remains of 16 slaves who were buried alive to serve her after death.
Artemisia of Caria
Named after the goddess of the hunt, this 5th century BC queen of Halicarnassus (in modern-day Turkey) was born to be a warrior. She was a naval commander in the army of Xerxes, the king of Persia, in his invasion of Greece. Yes, the Xerxes immortalised in the movie 300. The historian Herodotus wrote of her exploits both on sea and on land, where she also fought heroically. However, her true talent seems to have been her head for strategy, and ruthlessness. She famously sunk one of her allied Persian ships in order to fool the Greeks into thinking that she was one of them, preserving her own ship and life. According to legend, she committed suicide for love of a man, but this seems like a male historians made-up ending to the life of a woman warrior.
Boudicca was a Celtic queen living in Roman occupied Britain. She and her husband were allies of the Romans, paying tribute in return for their independence. However, when her husband died, the Romans would not allow his daughter to succeed their father, and instead tortured and raped the girls and their mother, and stole their lands. In retaliation, in AD 60 Boudicca gathered a group of Celtic tribes to fight the Romans. While they ultimately lost, they did so much damage to the Roman forces that the emperor Nero did indeed consider pulling out of Britain. There is no record of what happened to her after her ultimate defeat, but it is thought that she probably committed suicide.
Trieu Thi Trinh
These Vietnamese warrior woman from the 3rd century at just 20 years old raised an army of 1,000 to rebel against the invading Chinese forces. When the men in her own family tried to dissuade her from this activity, she spoke eloquently about her desire to free her people. She also said that she did not understand why she needed to stoop like a slave just because other women did so. She is said to have been a terrifying figure on the battlefield, nine feet tall, carrying two swords, wearing bright yellow robes and riding an elephant. While she was probably not nine feet tall, this may be a metaphor for her commanding presence. Sadly, she lost the war and is thought to have committed suicide at the age of just 23.
One of the few known female samurai, in the late 12th century she fought in the Genpei War. She is described as a string archer and talented swordswoman worth a thousand troops. She regularly led male warrior into battle, and to victory. Her last fight was the Battle of Awazu, where her mentor was killed. She escaped the battle, but laid down her sword. It is believed that she later married, but when her husband died, she chose to become a nun.
Daughter of the King of Ndongo, part of modern day Angola, her father collaborated with the Portuguese as they procured slaves in the area on the condition that they spare his people. When her father died, they reneged on their agreement, put his son in jail and took control of the Kingdom. Nzinga went to the Portuguese to negotiate a new deal. The Portuguese would not give her a chair to sit on so she had one of her own slaves kneel to form a chair, and afterwards slit his throat, to show the Portuguese who they were dealing with. She went on to lead her people and oppose the Portuguese slave trade for many years.
Born in 1530 to a chieftain of an Irish clan, Grace O’Malley was a rebellious teenager. Her mother refused to let Grace board the Irish ships with her father saying that her long hair would get caught in the ropes, so she chopped off all her hair in order to join the armada of ships that she would use for piracy. Any ships that came close to the shores of her Umaill kingdom were boarded and ‘taxed’, killing any who resisted. She is said to have raised her sword against her enemies the same day she gave birth to a child on board her ship. Grace also crossed swords with Queen Elizabeth I of England, who at one point captured her son and brother. Grace sailed against the English fleet in an encounter that resulted in the Queen of England returning her captives, and property that had been confiscated by the English forces.
Joan of Arc
Not only a legendary warrior, but also now a Catholic saint, Joan of Arc was just a young teenager when visions from the Archangel Michael caused her to join the military forces of King Charles VII of France and assist him in expelling the occupying English during the Hundred Years’ War. Naturally she was mocked by the soldiers when she first arrived in camp, not just because she was female, but because of her young age. But once she assisted to end the Siege of Orleans in nine days, she started to earn their respect. By the age of 17 she was one of the commanders of the French army and know for her strategic prowess. She was eventually captured by the English who tried and executed her for heresy and cross-dressing. The price she paid for breaking the mould.
Rani Velu Nachiyar
The first Tamil woman to take up arms against the British occupation of India, Rani practiced martial arts and learned to use weapons as a child. She put this experience to use after the death of her husband and daughter in 1772, organising an army to defeat the British in a decisive battle in 1780. She is said to be the first person to have used suicide bombers, with one of her female followers covering herself in oil and setting herself on fire in order to explode a British ammunition store.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries the West African Kingdome of Dahomey, modern day Benin, has a corps of thousands of female warriors that served as the king’s elite fighting force. It is thought that they may have been third-class wives of the king, with whom he did not mate, but that were bound to him in order to protect him. The ferocity of these warrior women is well documented. It is said that they were so respected that when the left the palace men needed to vacate the area and were not allowed to look at them (divas!).