When most people think of war they think of Grant and Lee, or Henry V, or Napoleon – a lot of dead white dudes. But the truth is that there are a lot of women who also knew how to throw down in their day, and did so with gusto. Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, but sometimes war has no commandos like a woman armed.
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10. Queen Zenobia
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Queen Zenobia knew how to work what her momma gave her, and she was also pretty handy with an army at her disposal. In 258 A.D. she became the second wife of the King of Palmyra, Septimius Odaenathus (Palmyra is modern day Syria). Marital bliss didn’t last long as Odaenathus and his son (her stepson) were assassinated, and since Zenobia’s son – Vaballathus – was a year old, Zenobia named herself both Augusta and Augustus. Now there’s a ruler with the seal of legitimacy!
Between 267 and 274 she expanded the Palmyrene Empire, invading Egypt, Anatolia, Palestine, and Lebanon. She was, in short, a war-mongering woman on wheels. Once Zenobia started stepping on Roman toes, stealing Roman trade routes and taking tasty territories favored by the Empire, Emperor Aurelian finally took on this feisty queen and conquered her in 274.
But no one ever really conquered Zenobia. Shackled in chains that were literally made of gold, she was paraded through Rome and deemed by Aurelian too good-looking for prison. So he gave her a villa in Tivoli, Italy instead. She lived out the rest of her days high on the hog as a renowned philosopher, married to a wealthy Roman senator and, while Vaballathus didn’t survive the trek back to Rome, Zenobia had plenty of Roman babies, the descendants of which continued her royal lineage into the fifth century.
9. Martha Jane Canary, a.k.a. Calamity Jane
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Martha Jane Canary was born with a lot of names, but went down in history known simply as Calamity Jane. And for good cause. This is a lady who knew how to raise hell. Anyone who’s familiar with the HBO show Deadwood knows how badass she was, though the real Calamity Jane didn’t need David Milch to write her lines in order to kick butt. In fact, the real Jane was much more adventurous and fearless than the show would have us believe. She spends most of Deadwood careening from muddy stoop to stoop drunk as a skunk – Jane was, in fact, an alcoholic.
But she also was known to clean up very well, and when she wasn’t prostituting for a few extra dollars she was starting a fight. She was friends with Wild Bill Hickok and took part in many campaigns against Native American Indians. She claims she got her nickname from Captain Egan, after rescuing him from an ambush. After he was shot she turned her horse around, caught him as he fell from his, and galloped off with the captain in tow. She claimed that the Captain said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”
Calamity Jane was more than a drinker and a fighter, though. She was a kind soul who cared for anyone in trouble, and even rescued a stagecoach from being attacked by Plains Indians. While living in Deadwood, she helped many people suffering from the smallpox recover. She was a true warrior healer.
8. Queen Sammuramat
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Probably the only queen of Assyria that people are still talking about, Sammuramat lived in the ninth and eighth centuries BC. While she was married to Menos, her husband summoned her during a battle. She used her inherent military talent to flank the opposing army and defeat them. This was not lost on King Ninus, who took her for his own wife, which led to Menos committing suicide.
Unfortunately for King Ninus, his wife was much more intelligent than him. Still smarting from the loss of her first husband, Sammuramat requested to be the ruler of Assyria for a day. Since Ninus was a moron, he indulged his wife’s request and crowned her.
Before she even had time to get hat hair from her new crown Sammuramat had Ninus summarily executed and proceeded to rule Assyria for the next forty-two years. The moral of the story? If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, get a woman much less intelligent than you, who isn’t plotting your murder, to be your wife.
7. Fu Hao
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When Fu Hao died in 1200 BC, there was no one in the Shang Dynasty who had a higher rank in the military, or was more respected by King Wu Ding. The Shang were at war with the Tu-Fang for time immemorial until Wu Ding made Fu Hao one of his many wives. At some point Wu Ding saw fit to put Fu Hao in charge of the armed forces, and it was the smartest thing he ever did. In one crushing campaign Fu Hao made short shrift of the Tu-Fang, annihilating them in a single battle.
Even after Fu Hao died (archaeologists, grave robbers that they are, dug up her tomb in 1976 and found her buried not with her prized jewelry, but with every pointy weapon known to man, including girly baubles like battle axes), Wu Ding continued to sacrifice to her and implore her spirit for help in fighting the Gong. Like Obi-Wan, death didn’t really stop her from exerting a lot of influence on the world she left behind.
6. Queen Tamar of Georgia
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Queen Tamar of Georgia was a lot like Elizabeth I of England. She was made heir to the Georgian throne by her father, George III, in 1178, and from there she ushered in the golden age of her country as the first female monarch of Georgia.
It became clear pretty early on in her reign (from 1184-1213 AD) that Tamar would not shy away from a fight. In 1187 she promptly banished her drunken husband, Yuri, to Constantinople, then added insult to injury by accusing him of sodomy. Yuri did not take kindly to this and attempted a coup a couple of times, only to fail miserably.
Tamar also helped to found the Empire of Trebizond on the Black Sea. Taking advantage of the fact that the Fourth Crusade had gone badly for the Europeans fighting Saladin, she made her empire the Christian Mecca of the Middle East in place of the Byzantine Empire. From there she brought some of the most successful and prosperous years to her country and was revered by her people as the “Champion of the Messiah.”
5. “Mad” Anne Trotter Bailey
Some people’s true colors really show when they’re in the midst of war, and this was definitely the case for “Mad” Anne Bailey. She fought in two of them – the Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War – so she definitely knew her way around a battle or two.
Aside from the heroics she displayed during the Revolutionary War, during which she dressed like a man, she also regularly attended militia meetings and briefed the men on attacking the British and the American Indians. The lady knew her stuff and wasn’t afraid to give orders.
But she won the appellation of “Mad” Anne Bailey by her fearlessness when it came to traversing Indian territory. Men believed that she was “possessed by an evil spirit” and that she was outright insane, even having magical powers to move through Indian land without being detected. In fact, she came by this ability by being downright ballsy and employing espionage skills the CIA would pay good money to learn.
At one point she was being pursued by a group of Indians as she passed through their territory and realized she was cornered. She ditched her horse, hid herself in a hollowed out tree, and held her breath as her enemies tried to figure out where she’d disappeared to. They failed to do this and stole her horse instead. But Anne wasn’t having any of that. She waited till nightfall, slipped into the Indians’ camp, took her horse, and galloped away. As she escaped on her horse she screamed at the top of her lungs in triumph, her enemies staring in disbelief at the “crazy” woman who played them all like punks.
4. Queen Boudicca
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The Romans brought peace, stability, and culture to every land they subjugated – or so history tells us. But the actual process of subjugating a people wasn’t always easy. By the time the Romans managed to finally colonize Britain (it only took them four tries over almost a hundred years), they’d also managed to piss off a lot of the locals. And one woman was fed up to here with it. That woman was Queen Boudicca.
Her husband, King Pratusagus, the leader of the Iceni, did his best to set up his wife, Boudicca, after he kicked the can. He did this by telling the Romans they could be partial owners of the kingdom, but they weren’t having any of it. Once he died around 61 AD they kicked the Iceni out of their homes, stole their lands, and took pains to beat Boudicca and rape her two teenage daughters.
Unfortunately for Paulinus Suetonius, the military leader charged with keeping the Brits in line, he didn’t put much effort into making sure his own men behaved themselves. So when Boudicca raised an army of 120,000 soul-chilling, infuriated Celts, gathered from various tribes of similarly ill-treated peoples, things looked real bad for the bringers of liberty.
By the time Paulinus got word that Boudicca was exacting her vengeance on the entire island – she and her army sacked Colchester and literally burnt London to the ground, where a layer of the incinerated buildings still lies 13 feet beneath the surface of the city – he had to sacrifice London, and 70,000 Romans met their maker at the hands of one pissed off queen. When her army finally fought Paulinus’ army, with Boudicca wielding a spear astride a chariot, they were defeated by only 10,000 (better organized) Romans. Instead of letting the Romans ever get their hands on her or her family again, Boudicca had her daughters drink poison, then drank it herself.
Paulinus Suetonius did not get a raise from the Emperor that year and was shortly relieved of his command.
3. The Tru’ng Sisters
Few military leaders knew how to fight the good fight like the Vietnamese Tru’ng Sisters. Born in the first century AD, these sisters didn’t take a whole lot of crap from anyone. They grew up in a military family and spent their childhoods studying warfare and martial arts. In other words, these were not sisters you'd want to meet in a dark alley.
As the Chinese encroached more on more on the freedoms of the Vietnamese and treated them with increasing cruelty, Tru’ng Trac and Tru’ng Nhi decided they were going to take a stand. By 39 AD, they put their four feet down – along with those of some of the local villagers – and held off a Chinese regiment, then proceeded to take back 65 occupied citadels.
After their feat of military prowess they were promptly made queens, which was followed by an inspired two years of successfully repulsing the Chinese from their country. Before the humongousness of China’s forces finally overwhelmed them, there’s a legend that as the Tru’ng sisters fought (it should be noted their army consisted mostly of women) a pregnant woman named Phung Thi Chinh actually gave birth on the front lines, then continued to do battle wielding both sword and newborn.
In the decisive battle that ended their reign, the Chinese men fought naked in order to disgust their female opponents. Unfortunately it worked, as many of the Tru’ng sisters’ soldiers fled the terrible sight of their enemies’ penises. But the Tru’ng sisters belonged to no man, and didn’t hesitate to go down like Boudicca and drown themselves in the Hat River in 42 AD.
2. Joan of Arc
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Not too many women warriors go down in history as saints, too. It’s not an easy feat to pull off. But Joan of Arc did just that, and she took down a few Brits while she was at it. During the end of the Hundred Years’ War, Joan was only a girl of twelve when she started hearing voices. Whose voices, exactly? None other than Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, all of whom implored her to kick the English the hell out of France.
Most seventeen year olds in the fifteenth century were more focused on getting the keys to their parents’ wagon, or getting tickets to the next public execution, but not Joan. She was busy petitioning the Dauphin to go to war with the English. And after she made an astute prediction about a battle, she got the go-ahead.
By 1430 Joan was only 18 years old but also a veteran of war. She’d completely turned things around for the French, but she’d also managed to get captured by the English and Burgundians. After ordering a retreat she insisted on leaving with the rear guard and was knocked off her horse by an arrow. Since her family didn’t have the money to ransom her, the Burgundians turned her over to the English, who then convicted her of heresy (then, like now, money got you out of legal trouble) in a kangaroo court.
After a daring escape attempt that involved leaping 70 feet from a tower, she was burned at the stake at the tender age of 19. Even her executioner knew he’d majorly screwed up when he said, Judas-esque, that he “greatly feared to be damned.” No one ever said getting sainthood was easy, but Joan of Arc made it downright heroic.
1. Tomoe Gozen
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What’s the only thing cooler than a samurai? You guessed it: a female samurai. And Tomoe Gozen was not just a female samurai, she was valued above all others by her husband and commander, Minamoto no Yoshinaka. She was Yoshinaka’s first captain, which meant she was the first person to go forth and scope out a battle before it started.
Aside from being renowned throughout the land as the hottest hottie in Japan, she was also known to be lethal with a longbow, unparalleled at breaking in untamed horses, and a serious badass with a broadsword. Tomoe made Angelina Jolie in Wanted look like a paintywaist.
Tomoe helped Yoshinaka win the Genpei War (1180–1185), but in 1184 Yoshinaka’s clan fought the clan of Minamoto no Yoritomo, his cousin, for the shogunate. Yoritomo was victorious, and Yoshinaka sent Tomoe away, refusing to die in the presence of a woman. Legend has it that Tomoe galloped into the distance, bearing only her sword and the decapitated head of one of the many men she killed in battle.