The women you missed in history class

The author of the first novel, warriors and rulers, scientists and war heroes. History abounds with tales of trailblazing women long forgotten — especially those who were nonwhite, non-Western, or not straight. Take a look at a dozen of the women in “Bygone Badass Broads” so you can begin to see what you missed in history class.


I first learned about Murasaki back when I was a small child obsessively playing Where in Time is Carmen SanDiego?, the single computer game owned by my family, which tended to crash our Windows 95 every time we hit level four — which happened to be the level featuring Murasaki, author on ancient Japan of what is considered to be the world’s first novel, “The Tale of Genji.’’


La Maupin was one of the first women I read about who inspired me to start digging deeper for more stories of rebellious women in history. Julie D’Aubigny — stage name La Maupin — was a bisexual swordswoman and opera singer in 17th-century France who slept her way across Europe. Audacious, charming, and hot tempered, she’s the sort of woman who, if she showed up in a work of historical fiction, would be deemed far too modern for her time.



I’m a Boston transplant, and the first time I felt like this was a city I could call home was standing in the courtyard of the Gardner Museum in Fenway, awestruck by the beauty and the stories of the tiny, raucous, rule-breaking woman who created one of the first spaces in our fair city where the public could experience art. And also boxing matches. Because Gardner did what she wanted.


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While Hollywood seems to like giving statues to movies about men — usually white men — in World War II (“Dunkirk’’ or “Darkest Hour,’’ anyone?), films about women heroes like Noor Khan tend to be in short supply come Oscar time. Khan, a Muslim woman of Indian-American descent, was poised to be one of Britain’s worst wireless operators in occupied France. But when the entire resistance network was captured except her, Noor stepped up. Most undercover agents lasted six weeks in France. Khan worked for about four months, outsmarting and outwitting the Nazis at every turn until she was captured and executed by the Germans. For her service she posthumously became one of the most decorated agents of the British Special Operations Executive.

Images from “Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World”


I love women warriors. I love women who help other women. I love women whose real lives seem like plot lines in the “Assassin’s Creed” video games. Chiyome was all of these — a noble Japanese woman in the 16th century who, as legend has it, used her powerful position and connections to create a secret school where war widows and orphans trained to be ninjas.


This gender nonconforming nerd queen pulled her country out of the 30 Years War, established Stockholm as an intellectual capital, and became a patroness of the arts. But, after 10 years, she surrendered the throne for reasons unknown but probably to do with how much she wanted to scandalously remain a single lady and celebrate it .


Mosher, an American physician and researcher, conducted the only known study on women’s sex and sexuality in the Victorian era, covering everything from masturbation to sexual pleasure to menstrual cramps. She also helped dispel the myth that women’s bodies were physically inferior to men’s, concluding that many of the signs of perceived weakness resulted from clothing that restricted breathing, inactivity, and ignorance about lady times.



Queer history can be tricky to study because of how different historical views on the subject were. Then there are women like Lister, often referred to as the first modern lesbian, who proved that even before the word lesbian becamecommonly used, queer people in history knew what they were and what they wanted. And Lister desired, as she wrote in her millions of words of diaries, “only the fairer sex.” She even managed to “marry’’ another woman — in 1800s England!

Images from “Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World”


Best remembered as Sayyida Al-Hurra (actually a title that translates loosely to mean independent noble lady), this exiled Grenadian played the long game of revenge in the 16th century. After her family, along with thousands of other Muslims, were kicked out of Spain, she waited, and saved, and schemed, until she had an army of pirates at her command, with which she extracted calculated revenge upon the nation that had cast her out.


Would you have guessed that the 20th-century American publisher behind the best-selling children’s books of all time — books like “Goodnight Moon,’’ “Where the Wild Things Are,’’ “Harold and the Purple Crayon,’’ “Charlotte’s Web,’’ and “Harriet the Spy’’ — was a woman who couldn’t spell, didn’t go to college, and had no children of her own? But when asked what made her qualified to publish self-described “good books for bad children,” Nordstrom replied, “Well, I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”


Imagine what reality TV would be like if, instead of handing out roses, the Bachelorette proclaimed she’d only marry the man who could defeat her in wrestling, then walked away from the show without a ring on her finger? Because that’s Khutulun, 13th-century Mongolian warrior and undefeated wrestling champion who said any challenger who won against her would receive her hand in marriage, but if they lost, they owed her 100 horses. Legend has it that pretty soon she had 10,000 horses and no husband.


“There were no black people in the Wild West,” you think to yourself as you watch John Wayne reruns on PBS and page through “Lonesome Dove.’’ False! Historians think that about 25 percent of cowboys were black. And then there was “Stagecoach’’ Fields, the tough-as-nails, whiskey-swilling, gun-toting badass who became the first African-American to carry mail in Montana for the US Postal Service in the late 1800s. She traveled via horse and wagon, through a lawless, unforgiving wasteland that would have made Mad Max’s Fury Road look like Candy Land. Oh, and also, she did this when she was about 60. The rest of her life? That’s a whole other story.

Mackenzi Lee is the award-winning and New York Times best-selling author of the young-adult novels “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’’ and “This Monstrous Thing.’’ Her new book is “Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World.’’