“What is the real name of the female Paul Revere?” I was stumped at my trivia game get-together last week, but just before the buzzer, I remembered Sybil Ludington. According to legend, 16-year-old Ludington rode 40 miles on horseback to warn local troops in Putnam County, New York, of an imminent British attack in 1777. How did I know the answer? I read OZY! Today, join me on a deep dive into some of history’s other female game-changers in politics, science, literature and more.
Isabelle Lee, reporter
1. Better Than Bond
Odette Sansom, a French mother living in London with her three daughters, didn’t think much of it when the British War Office issued a call for photographs of the French coastline. She mailed in some photos, and the next thing she knew she was learning hand-to-hand combat and Morse code so she could transmit vital information between spy networks in occupied territory. She survived brutal torture with her wit intact and helped convict Nazi war criminals. The wildest James Bond film isn’t a patch on her true story.
If you thought self-isolating in your apartment or house was bad, try being stuck alone on Wrangel Island, north of Siberia. Cook and seamstress Ada Blackjack was the sole survivor of an attempt to claim the island for the British Empire. After three of her expedition partners had left the island in an effort to reach Siberia, she was left to care for the last member of their group, who was sick with scurvy. He died six months later, and she survived for two more months with no one but a cat for company, before she was rescued.
She started as a concubine and transformed herself into one of the key political players of her time. Kidnapped from the Kingdom of Poland as a teen, Roxelana used the power of words and charm to become the favorite concubine and trusted adviser of the 16th century Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. She eventually married the Sultan, and served as a diplomat, political adviser, and his eyes and ears while he was away.
The death toll in the British concentration camps during the Second Boer War in South Africa would have been much higher if not for the fearless work of Emily Hobhouse. When she heard about the horrible conditions of the camps, which housed Boer women and children, she began raising money and traveled to South Africa to visit the sites. After her visit, she delivered a report to Parliament, which resulted in improved conditions at the camps and saved thousands of lives.
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She was 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. But Masako Katsura was so good at billiards that she made short work of her opponents. The Japanese prodigy learned the game from her brother-in-law and became the first woman to compete for the world billiards title in San Francisco in 1952 after having already toured across Japan, China and modern-day Taiwan.
The first Black woman to earn a medical degree in America, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, which democratized medical care, making knowledge accessible for doctors and caregivers alike. The treatise was the compilation of years spent working to treat recently freed former slaves and disadvantaged women in the wake of the Civil War.
An early 16th century queen of Morocco, Sayyida al-Hurra wasn’t just royalty; she was also a badass pirate. She was both feared and respected, hell-bent on fighting the European quest to dominate the Mediterranean. Her position as leader of the pirates earned her a place in the Moroccan history books as a national hero.
To found and run a business as a woman in early 19th century Europe was to defy the odds. To run an alcohol business? You needed to possess a rare audacity. At a time when Portugal’s wine industry was on the brink of extinction, Antónia Ferreira learned about the sector and rebuilt it — and helped support the wine region of Douro, where she had based her enterprise. So the next time you sip on Portuguese wine, you know who to toast.
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Julie d’Aubigny once defeated three men in a duel after kissing a woman on the dance floor — all while dressed as a man. This opera star and famously rebellious romancer seduced numerous women and lived about as outlandishly as you could in the 17th century. Intrigued?
If you don’t lose all your teeth, have multiple affairs and write stories about your many escapades, you may be missing out. Take it from Isabelle Eberhardt, who left her cushy European digs for a writer’s life of adventure in North Africa. Dressing as a man allowed her to bunk with soldiers, travel freely and party with mystics.
Living openly as a lesbian in the 1920s is one thing, but Natalie Clifford Barney also ruled the literary scene in Paris. She wrote a book of romantic poems called Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes, making her the first woman since ancient Greek poet Sappho to write candidly about loving women. She loved wild women, hosted saloons for 60 years and founded a women’s academy.
Facing execution for their many crimes across the Americas, including alleged murder, the notorious rogue known as Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán admitted that he was, in fact, a woman. Catalina de Erauso escaped a convent at age 15 and began dressing as a man, which is when her adventure began. Two decades later, with her gender revealed and virginity confirmed, she escaped death and returned to her native Spain, eventually even meeting the pope.
Get to know the real Jillian Michaels. From lessons on race learned from raising a Haitian daughter, to insights into the grind required to break into the big time, there’s a lot more to the famed fitness guru and Biggest Loser star than meets the eye. Don’t miss a fascinating conversation on cancel culture with the woman who was slammed for “body-shaming” Lizzo. Plus, discover the next big health trend — and get the skinny on her new relationship. Could marriage soon be in the cards? Watch now to find out.
She was an activist, a choir singer and a political worker. But to many in South Africa, Charlotte Maxeke was first and foremost the “mother of African freedom.” Born in 1874 in South Africa, she attended college in Ohio, where she formed her political beliefs. She toured the U.S. and the U.K., but her heart was always back home. She returned to South Africa, where she campaigned against the racist policies of a white government that predated the formal imposition of apartheid.
Marielle Franco was at the forefront of the swell of progressivism building in Brazil until her assassination in 2018. In 2016, she made her first run for office with the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), focusing on policies that protected women. She became a single mother at the age of 19, and went on to attend university and make her foray into politics. Her death sparked protests and reignited many young people’s interest in leftism.
You are surely familiar with the famed civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, but you might not know much about his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and her incredible contributions to society. Graham Du Bois was a powerhouse who penned operas and biographies of Black historical figures and defended her husband against naysayers. The couple fled the anti-communism and anti-Black extremism of the early 1960s by moving to Ghana, where her husband died in 1963. Graham, who championed the success of Malcolm X, never slowed down, remaining an activist until her death at age 80.
Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, who went by the names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, respectively, had only recently moved to the Channel Islands from France when their new home, Jersey, fell under German occupation in 1940. The cross-dressing lesbian activists became thorns in the Nazis’ side, dropping leaflets into forced labor camps, vandalizing churches and leaving notes for Nazis hoping to encourage the German soldiers to give up and go home. Their other goal? To give hope to fellow members of the resistance. The two were imprisoned for their typewriting campaign but escaped death and were freed when the island was liberated.