Long before semi-employed celebrities roamed the earth, crazy-talented women were accomplishing all sorts of tide-turning, world-changing Great Things. For some reason, though, they've been largely excluded from everywhere but Advanced Placement classes—if that. Here, we introduce you to seven fearless females who broke rules, got messy, and made history—on their own terms.
1. Christina, King of Sweden
Her mom might've been disappointed to have given birth to a third daughter, but Christina was like, "Eff that. I'm going to be king one day." Her dad agreed and raised her with the education and rights of a prince, grooming her to one day inherit the throne. And she did at the ripe old age of six. (Though she didn't actually begin ruling until she turned 18.) As King of Sweden (yes, her official title), Christina made Stockholm into a cultural center and continued studying religion, philosophy, and math for at least 10 hours a day. Oh, and BTW—she wore whatever she wanted, including pants.
Here's the gist: Khutulun, the daughter and trusted adviser of the most powerful ruler of Central Asia in the 13th century, didn't want to get married. This wasn't her fault, because she was a skilled warrior (Marco Polo was impressed enough to write about her) and pretty much every guy was lame in comparison. So she devised a test: a wrestling match. If a man beat her, she'd marry him. If he lost, he would have to hand over a prized horse. She ended up with 10,000 horses. (You can see her portrayed in the Netflix series Marco Polo, though we contend she was even more of a badass in real life.)
3. Mary Lou Williams
A piano prodigy from Pittsburgh, Mary Lou Williams began supporting her 10 half-brothers and sisters by playing for parties. By 15, she was performing with Duke Ellington and jamming with other legendary jazz musicians. Throughout her career, she wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than 100 records, all of which influenced Kansas City swing, big-band jazz, and bebop. And did we mention she was modest? Near the end of her life, she said, "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."
4. Mai Bhago
Kind of like the 18th-century Sikh Joan of Arc, Mai Bhago led a bunch of dudes into battle—except in her case, the bunch of dudes were deserters who had to be shamed into returning to defend themselves against Mughal invaders. After she killed a bunch of enemy soldiers and achieved sainthood, she became the Guru's bodyguard, took up meditation, and died at an old age. Not bad. Not bad at all.
5. Nana Asma'u
In the late 18th century, this Nigerian scholar was already preaching one of the tenets of the women's rights movement: Educate girls, and the world gets better. After she completed her own rigorous studies—she could speak four languages, recite the entire Koran, and write poetry—she trained a network of women teachers, called "jaji," to travel the kingdom teaching other women, who would in turn teach yet more women. The best part? The jaji still operate today.
6. Madame de la Fayette
Simple: She's kind of the reason why The Age of Innocence and The Turning of the Screw exist. In 1662, the writer published The Princess of Clèves anonymously, which is widely recognized as a precursor of the modern psychological novel. People freaked out trying to figure out who wrote it (it's really quite good, even today) and got into huge public debates surrounding topics such as adultery and *feelings.* One more thing: When Nicolas Sarkozy dissed her book in 2006, literature fans held public readings and sales soared. And that's how you do payback, 344 years removed.
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