We’ve dipped into the history books to rediscover some of the greatest female icons, many of which struggled through vicious adversity and remain largely unrecognized. Here you’ll find some of the most courageous, gnarly, and overall badass women to ever exist. Fun fact: a 2018 study showed that females are more resilient than men, but you need not look any farther for evidence than this list.
From an 86-year-old who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to a teenage climate activist to and a UFC legend, here are 25 women who inspire us to do badass stuff.
Althea Gibson was Venus and Serena Williams before there were Venus and Serena Williams. The first major African-American female tennis player, Gibson was an unstoppable force who dominated the sport. She was the first Black player to compete at Wimbledon and the first African American to win a Grand Slam title. Still hungry? Gibson went on to be the first African-American woman to compete in the pro women’s golf tour.
Iconic media executive and talk show host Oprah Winfrey grew up in poverty with an unmarried teenage mother in Mississippi and went on to build one of the largest entertainment empires the world has ever seen. An inductee to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Oprah was North America’s first Black multi-billionaire, held the highest-rated television program for well over a decade, and is considered one of the most influential women on the planet.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman
Nicknamed “Brave Woman,” Buffalo Calf Road Woman was a 19th-century Cheyenne warrior who strategically fought and rallied others at the Battle of the Rosebud and the Battle of Little Big Horn. While little is known about her life, she is considered one of the most heroic fighters in American history.
Tamar the Great of Georgia
Then 18-year-old Tamar was crowned co-ruler of the Georgian kingdom in an epically cool move by her father, and began her 29-year reign in 1184. Tamar’s intense drive to build a strong and successful kingdom was evident to daddy. She went on to take the moniker of “king” and command a gang of intense medieval knights before building one of the most unstoppable armies in history.
TIME Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year was Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Her iconic and powerful address to world leaders (theoretically putting old political cronies in their place) echoed through the speakers of computer and cellphones, forever changing the world’s perspective on climate change and the lack of action being taken to assure young people of a future, inhabitable planet. Thunberg will no doubt go down in history, and her legacy is only beginning to take shape.
The Night Witches
The Nazis in World War II gave The Night Witches their name. There’s no hiding how terrified Nazi troops were of these all-female Russian fighter pilots, who bombed Nazi targets under the cloak of night. Formally, The Night Witches were the 588th Night Bomber Regiment who braved frigid temperatures, dark skies, and a hail of bullets to drop more than 23,000 tons of bombs and help WW2 come to a close. By the way, they did it in stripped-down plywood airplanes nonetheless.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The second female justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, RBG is a notorious gender-rights badass. She was one of only nine female students during her time at Harvard, became the lead counsel for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and can be credited with building a better legal foundation of women’s equality. Watch the 2018 RBG documentary ASAP.
You don’t earn the title “The Wrestler Princess” by not being a badass. Genghis Kahn’s great-great-granddaughter, Khutulun is written in the history books as helping her father with military strategy during the decline of the Mongol Empire. Khutulun’s father relied on her badassery instead of asking his 14 sons. Marco Polo even writes about Khutulun saying, “Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father.”
Talk about female fighters — Olympic, UFC, and WWE athlete Ronda Rousey couldn’t speak until the age of six but grew up to be the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo, the first female UFC fighter, and the first woman to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. She also achieved the fastest UFC title fight by submission. In her own words, offered to one opponent, “Don’t cry.”
Irom Chanu Sharmila
For more than 16 years, Irom Chano Sharmila fasted in protest of India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gave the government power to search, arrest, and abuse anyone who acted suspiciously against the state. Sharmila became an icon of resistance, constantly imprisoned and re-released during her extensive hunger strike. She’s been nicknamed the “Iron Lady.”
You may recognize Serbian mathematician Mileva Marić from her former last name, Einstein-Maric. Mileva was the first wife of Albert Einstein and many believe his most profound discoveries (hello, Theory of Relativity) and scientific productivity should be at the least co-credited to Mileva, who was the only woman at Zürich’s Polytechnic School alongside Albert at the time. Despite her brilliance, gender inequalities kept Mileva out of scientific textbooks.
Colombian-born Policarpa Salvarrieta, also known as La Pola, is famous for being a seamstress for Spanish royals. It was this skill that allowed her unsuspecting access to secret information, which she would bring back to Revolutionary Forces during the Spanish Reconquista. She. Was. A. Badass. Spy. A figure beloved by the country of Colombia, which eventually gained independence from Spain, Salvarrieta is quoted frequently from her last words before being publicly executed for treason: “Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!”
Ida B. Wells
African-American journalist Ida B. Wells was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, battling sexism, racism, and the threat of extreme violence. Born into slavery, Wells’ journalistic skills (she’s considered the first female journalist) opened up the world to the inhumane conditions of the South, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Having traveled abroad, she was also busy on the ground floor boycotting and filing lawsuits to fight injustice.
We all know the stars are made of hydrogen and helium, and the only reason we know that is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. She made the discovery in grad school, and at the time, nobody believed her. Can you imagine? Payne-Gaposchkin has since been lauded as “the most eminent woman astronomer of all time.” During her time, science was a boy’s club. She crushed this ridiculous gender norm with intense passion and intelligence. She was also the first person to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College and later the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Harvard. Studying her impact is as expansive as looking at the night sky.
Hypatia of Alexandria
The first female mathematician whose life is somewhat recorded, Hypatia of Alexandria lived in ancient Rome and was revered as a brilliant counselor, philosopher, astronomer, and teacher. In fact, she’s been called the greatest scholar of the time. Hypatia suffered brutally under the hate of religious zealots and sexist ignorants, eventually being torn apart and murdered by a vicious mob. We mean very, very vicious. This tragic demise is, however, part of her lore. Hypatia has since become an icon for women’s rights and martyr for philosophy.
A modern lyricist and Civil Right activist, Aretha Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after a career that produced 18 Grammys, 75 million record sales worldwide, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a top spot on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
At 86 years old, Russian-born Angela Vorobeva became the oldest woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Word is that she spent an hour at the summit celebrating, then went about her business (like a BAMF).
The video game industry is flooded with dudes trying to Warcraft for a living. Meanwhile, 30-year-old Kat Gunn (known online as “Mystik”) is the highest-earning female gamer in the world and winner of WCG Ultimate Gamer.
The first woman of African-American and Native-American descent to hold a pilot’s license, Bessie Coleman didn’t just cruise the friendly skies — she is famous for performing gut-twirling tricks. This steel reserve earned Coleman the nickname “Brave Bessie.” Her career was almost cut short when she suffered an extreme crash two years in. Coleman cracked her ribs and broke a leg, but it didn’t stop her. She saved up, bought her own plane, and the rest is history.
The Queen of the Underground Railroad and the “Moses for her people,” Harriet Tubman was a slave who became a spy, scout, guerrilla soldier, nurse, and leader of the Underground Railroad, helping other slaves escape. She had a bounty on her head, once suffered a broken skull, and we feel is one of the strongest people to have ever existed.
You might have seen Misty Copeland in Under Armour ads, but the American ballet dancer is more than physically strong. Growing up with a single mother, Copeland’s determination drove her to become the first African-American female principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theater. She is an outspoken advocate for diversity and the support of young girls.
The Mirabal Sisters
When the Dominican Republic was run by dictator Rafael Trujillo, the fearless efforts of three ordinary sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal, helped expose the corruption and brutality of Trujillo’s regime. The sisters were assassinated; however, their deaths led to Trujillo’s own assassination six months later. The United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in honor of the Mirabals.
The woman who discovered radioactivity, Marie Curie is the first person to ever win two Nobel Prizes, and she also discovered the elements polonium and radium. Her parents were poor school teachers and she grew up with no formal higher education. The girl just liked reading on her own (hint hint)
Maud Stevens Wagner
Tattoo history would not be complete without the badass Maud Stevens Wagner. Originally a contortionist in a circus, Wagner became the first known female tattooist in the U.S. She got started by agreeing to go on a date with a man she met in exchange for tattoo lessons. She also had many tattoos in an era where many (men and women) wouldn’t have fathomed it. Rebel level: 100.
Supermodel, singer, actress, Grace Jones is not only an ’80s icon but an all-around badass woman who influenced the countercultures of art and sexuality at the time. Listen to her music, pin up her posters, and “create oneself.”
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