History and legend are full of stories about male heroes. You could be forgiven for thinking that bravery, ferocity and toughness were only for men. In fact, there are tough female heroes in every era of history, even those where society and historians refused to admit it. Here are only a few of the most interesting.
Grainne O' Malley
Grainne Ni Mhaille, also called Grace O'Malley, was chief of the powerful O Maille (or O'Malley) clan in 16th century Ireland. Like her father, O'Malley was a merchant who sailed to many different destinations -- but she was also a pirate, famous for ordering her ships to attack traders and fortresses belonging to rival clans. She also raided Scotland's outlying islands. Although many of the heroic exploits later attributed to Ireland's "pirate queen" are legendary, her real adventures were daring enough to earn her a place on this list.
Mary Reade and Anne Bonny
The two most famous female pirates are Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, both of whom sailed with pirate captain Calico Jack Rackam. Rackam, never a very successful pirate, was caught by the governor of Jamaica's forces in 1719. When the governor's sailors boarded Rackam's sloop, most of the crew was helplessly drunk. Only Reade and Bonny fought back. At the trial, it turned out that they had been living under male identities on and off for some years -- Reade had served in both the British army and navy.
Olga of Kiev
Olga of Kiev -- also known was Saint Olga -- ruled the Kievan Rus, the kingdom that would evolve into modern Russia, in the 10th century. Ruling on behalf of her young son, Olga was famous for her determination -- and sometimes her cruelty. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, Olga had 20 ambassadors from a rival prince buried alive, then locked the second embassy from the ruler in a bathhouse and burned them alive. Olga demanded tribute from the defeated enemy in the form of birds from their homes, then had her man attach sulphur to the legs of the birds and release them. When they flew home, the wooden buildings of the enemy town caught fire.
Joan of Arc
In the 1420s, the kingdom of France was in turmoil. English forces (and their Burgundian allies) had conquered much of the country and the government was in disarray. Jeanne d'Arc, a peasant girl who claimed to have received visions from the Archangel Michael and other saints, won several crucial victories over the English despite having no military training. She restored French confidence at a critical time. Eventually, however, she was captured by the Burgundians, tried by the English for heresy and burned at the stake.
Ancient Egyptian society was dominated by male rulers, but its female pharaohs are among its most famous. The foremost of these is Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1479 to 1458 BC. The wife of King Thutmose II, Hatshepsut should have yielded the throne to Thutmose III, her husband's son by another wife. Her rule saw many major building projects and a period of prosperity for Egypt. Because the symbols of rulership were masculine, Hatshepsut wore a false beard as part of her regalia.
You don't have to be a warrior to be one of history's toughest women -- but Tomoe Gozen certainly was. This 12th-century Japanese noblewoman fought as a samurai, a rare thing for a woman in medieval Japan. She was famed for her archery and skill with a sword as well as her riding. The historical epic Heike Monogatari ("The Tale of the Heike") says that Tomoe "performed more deeds of valour than any of [General Yoshinaka's] other warriors."
The archetypal warrior queen, Boudica ruled Britain's Iceni tribe in the middle of the 1st century AD. Like many small local tribes, the Iceni had an unequal relationship with Rome, and when Boudica's husband, King Prasutagus, died, the Romans annexed the kingdom. Taking personal command of both her own tribe and the neighbouring Trinovantes, Boudica led a rebellion against Rome before being finally defeated. Although she's often portrayed as a noble freedom fighter, Boudica's war was an ugly one: the rebels massacred Roman civilians -- tens of thousands according to some estimates -- and systematically demolished cities.
Born in 1822, Harriet Tubman was a slave until escaping to the northern United States in 1849. She carried out several missions into slave states to rescue her friends and family who were still slaves, taking them to Canada where slavery was illegal. During the American Civil War, she worked as a spy and scout for the Union army, using her knowledge of the terrain to guide raiding parties. In later life, she became active in the struggle for women's voting rights. Harriet Tubman died in 1913 at the age of 91.
The Night Witches
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the Red Army fought back with everything it had. In some cases, this meant using old and outdated equipment. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew Polikarpov Po-2 "Kukuruznik" planes, designed in 1928. Despite their outdated planes, the all-female "Night Witches" flew over 23,000 missions against the invading Germans, turning their planes' disadvantages -- slow speed and small size -- into advantages that allowed them to attack stealthily. 23 of the regiment's members were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
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Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald
A modern doctor might seem like an odd addition to a list of history's toughest women, but Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who died in 2009, certainly qualifies. While serving as the only doctor on staff at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Nielsen discovered that she had breast cancer. Unable to be evacuated because of severe weather, she performed her own biopsy, using Antarctic ice as her anaesthetic. Her assistants for the procedure were base staff whose only training had come from Nielsen herself. Eventually evacuated from the base during the tense Operation Deep Freeze, Nielsen returned to her work as a doctor as well as an educator about cancer.
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