When most of us name daring and adventurous figures from the past, we think of men. Pirates such as Blackbeard, explorers like Louis and Clark, Magellan, or Alexander the Great fill our history books and give us examples of courage and fortitude. However, there are also vast swaths of female history that have been, sadly, left out of these textbooks. So let’s explore just a fraction of these women and celebrate their accomplishments as well.
Women of the American Civil War
When women are described as being part of the Civil War, they often flock to us in the guise of nurses and innkeepers, tending to the ill and injured. However, there were plenty of women who bound their chests, picked up muskets and fought in long hard battles alongside their male counterparts.
While some women were found out, and then discharged for ‘sexual incompatability,’ there were some women who served 3-7 years, and one that we know of that served the entire length of the war.
In 1862, a private named Albert D.J. Cashier enlisted in the Federal Army and bravely fought in more than 40 battles. After the war ended, Cashier worked as a laborer and eventually drew a pension. But in 1913, a surgeon discovered the unthinkable. Cashier was actually a woman. This turned into a media frenzy as her colleagues and compatriots had no idea, even while living in close quarters.
The amount of women who enlisted during the Civil War comes to about 750 by historical estimate. While many defected when medical treatment became necessary or a physical exam took an unexpected turn, there were plenty who served far longer than their male counterparts.
The Pirate Grace O’ Malley
Born, raised and married off, bearing three children soon after, Grace O’Malley’s life could have been an incredibly average one. However, it was at the moment that her first husband died that her life shifted considerably. With his prestige and wealth, she not only overtook castles (one infamous castle, called Cock’s Castle, was later renamed to Hen’s Castle after her successful coup) but withstood sieges from the British.
In the early 1560s, she turned her eyes to the sea and enlisted privateers from all over the islands to sail around, pillaging and stealing English goods.
England, however, had had about enough of her at the time, and took her family hostage in an attempt to stop her. So what did Grace do? She sailed to England, walked right into the Royal Palace, and spoke directly with Elizabeth I herself.
It is often speculated that these two women of immense power, intelligence and capability developed a kinship of sorts. Both understood the sacrifices and realities that powerful women living in that time had to make. After the meeting, a mutual agreement was reached and the women went on their way. And while this agreement did not last forever, it was said that Grace fought fiercely until her last days.
Explorer Mary Kingsley
Mary Kingsley was an odd bird. She had more courage in one bone of her body than most armies did amongst their ranks. She arrived in Sierra Leone in 1893 in full Victorian English fashion. She wore petticoats, sun hats and refused to change into more practical clothes, preferring to cover up completely in the African heat. After all, trousers would be improper.
Meanwhile, she fended off crocodiles during solo canoe trips down rivers, pushed into territories that most other male explorers, and not to mention African men were afraid to wander, and did so with a disarmingly practical sense of personal accountability.
She writes about staying with the Fan Tribe, one of the most feared tribes in all of West Africa. They were known for acts of random murder and cannibalism. Because of this, explorers and rival tribes alike all kept their distance from them. Not Mary Kingsley though. She saw no reason she shouldn’t just walk up offering some salt, meet them and then spend the night in their village.
She recalls putting her Edwardian hat just outside the hut before retiring for the night. During the evening, she heard noises outside her room and decided to explore (because of course she did). It was then that she saw her hat had been filled to the brim with a mysterious meat. An offering to Mary, from the prestigious Fan Tribe. While Mary kept a journal of her travels, which has been compiled into a book that anyone can read, it’s incredible how few know of her travels and exploits around 1800s Africa.
Dahomey’s Warrior Women
Speaking of West Africa, the Dahomey Warrior Women involves a fascinating history that spans nearly 200 years. It was during this time that the elite squad of female warriors fought and died for the border rights and inter-tribal issues in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey.
These women, who outranked their male counterparts, were given far more privileges, including the ability to come and go from the palaces as they pleased (unlike the men). They were so revered for their warrior prowess, The Smithsonian explains, that men were taught to keep their distance:
“Recruiting women into the Dahomean army was not especially difficult, despite the requirement to climb thorn hedges and risk life and limb in battle. Most West African women lived lives of forced drudgery. Gezo’s female troops lived in his compound and were kept well supplied with tobacco, alcohol and slaves – as many as 50 to each warrior, according to the noted traveler Sir Richard Burton, who visited Dahomey in the 1860s. And “when amazons walked out of the palace,” notes Alpern, “they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.” To even touch these women meant death.”
Yet as colonialist ambitions grew in the region, the Dahomey female warriors eventually grew sparse. Fierce combat missions to crush the independent kingdom eventually succeeded, and in the 1940s, it is said that the last of the female warriors died.
Shagrat Al Durr
Many of us have no problem remembering who Louis IX is. But do we really know about the woman who crushed his crusade attempt in Egypt? Shagrat Al Durr was known as the woman ‘behind the throne.’ Her husband was a great leader, but when he grew ill and died, she hid his death and continued advising troops on her own. Eventually, his death was discovered, but Al Durr did not just shrink away. No, she took the throne herself and in doing so, sent a devastating blow to would-be conquerors.
However, at the time Egypt was under the rule of the Caliph of Baghdad. Unhappy with a female running the show, the Caliph sent over his own ruler, Aibak. Shagrat reluctantly agreed to step down, but refused to let it end there. She seduces Aibak, marries him and because she had far more knowledge of administration and rule, essentially ran the empire for another seven years.
It wasn’t until Aibak decided to take another wife, something that Shagrat simply could not abide, that the whole plot began to unravel. She masterminded the murder of Aibak, but was discovered shortly after. She was beaten to death and thrown into the river. However, today her honor and memory lives on as her bones were later transported to her own namesake mosque in Egypt.