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Dec 18, 2021
The patriarchy runs deep. Even today, more than 6 in 10 gun owners in America are male, but people have been fascinated by women warriors — partly because they tended to be quite rare — since ancient times. Perhaps that’s how so many amazing stories of female experts with swords, machetes and bullets have been passed down: The women who grabbed those weapons were already shaking off a norm, so they tended to be rule breakers. In today's Weekender read, you’ll learn about women from around the world and throughout history who took up arms (and made some great stories). Then discover several modern-day women who continue to carry on the warrior tradition.
1 - Lumina Sophie dite Surprise
Also called Martinique’s Joan of Arc, Lumina is nowhere near as famous as her French counterpart — but no less brave. Though two months pregnant at the time, Lumina became one of the ringleaders of a five-day revolution against racial inequality on the island in 1870, using her flaming torch to set fire to plantations before being arrested and sentenced to exile and hard labor.
She could teach us all a thing or two about fighting fascism. Kempner, a young Jewish woman from provincial Poland, vowed to fight the Nazis — and didn’t even let the end of the war stop her. She and her group of revolutionaries, known as the Avengers, blew up miles of train tracks during the war to keep Nazi trains from running, and even plotted to kill prisoners of war with poisoned bread after the Third Reich surrendered (many fell ill but none died).
Also known as La Maupin, this French opera singer’s life is a collection of incredible stories, like the time she enrolled in a convent to be near her girlfriend, then burned down the convent, or when she wounded a man in a duel and they became best friends for life. Oh, and when a fencing expert questioned whether she could possibly be a woman given how good she was at sword-fighting, she ripped off her shirt in front of him just to prove the point.
Known for most of her life as Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán, this conquistador who roamed the Americas in the early 17th century was born female — and eventually reclaimed her gender as a way to get out of being executed for crimes that included killing her own uncle and (accidentally) her own brother. She returned to Spain and got special dispensation from the pope to continue dressing as a man.
2 - Nadezhda Durova
If you wanted to join the Russian military in 1806, you couldn’t do it as a woman. So Durova became Aleksandr Sokolov — and when she was eventually found out, she’d become so beloved that she was allowed to remain in the army. In fact, she continued to dress as a man for the rest of her life.
3 - Cathay Williams
When this former slave became the only confirmed female Buffalo Soldier, she simply inverted her name, calling herself William Cathay and posing as a man for two years. She said her motivation was the ability to earn her own living, and she was only found out during a medical examination in 1868. Despite extremely poor health later in life, a doctor examined her and decided she didn’t qualify for a military disability pension.
4 - Lyudmila Pavlichenko
With 309 Nazi kills under her belt, this WWII Russian sniper was originally assigned to be a nurse in the Soviet army. A renowned recreational shooter, she showed them a certificate proving her prowess with a gun and became an army sniper (and a legend, nicknamed “Lady Death”).
At the age of 12, Gökçen approached Turkish legend Ataturk when he visited her orphanage and asked for his help attending a boarding school. He went further, adopting Gökçen and supporting her eventual ambition to become the world’s first female fighter pilot — in 1936, about 60 years before American women were allowed to take on such a job. Gökçen is now a controversial figure, though, due to her bombing of a Kurdish revolt that’s now thought to have been a preplanned massacre.
Research on an archaeological site in Peru recently unearthed the grave of a great hunter, whose burial site was piled with tools of the trade like knives and sharp projectile points. The surprise to researchers: The 9,000-year-old grave was that of a woman, which has led to a reexamination of long-entrenched ideas in archaeology about women gathering and men hunting in ancient times.
2 - Tomyris
An early example of a female warrior who captivated the world, Queen Tomyris turned down a proposal from legendary monarch Cyrus the Great in 529 BCE. Later, when his forces captured her son and he killed himself, Tomyris took arms in retaliation, charging into battle, killing the king — and then beheading the corpse and dunking his head in a wineskin filled with blood. Dang.
This queen of Madagascar fiercely defended her island kingdom from colonizers, missionaries and foreigners in the 19th century. But she wasn’t that nice to her own subjects either: She was famous for her “tangena trial,” a loyalty test where she’d feed the suspect three pieces of chicken skin and a dose of poison. If he regurgitated all the pieces, he was innocent. Otherwise, well, she was famous for her vicious executions.
Though women are banned from many sports in Mongolia’s Naadam, an Olympics-style contest that features traditional activities like horse racing, they’ve been allowed to compete in archery for decades. These women, champions of their sport, are now hoping to attract fresh blood to the bow and arrow.
2 - Knight Rider
As the first woman in Scotland to participate in competitive armored medieval sword fighting, Leonie Leaver compares the rough and tumble sport to ice hockey. She worked two jobs to buy her own armor while supporting her young daughter as a single parent.
3 - Number Four With a Bullet
Gun sales skyrocketed in 2020, particularly among Black Americans and women in what gun manufacturers are calling an unprecedented surge. And since those same companies aren’t allowed to advertise in traditional ways on most social media platforms, they’re getting the word out via partnerships with influencers, often women. A small army of these gun-fluencers can now be found posing with their weapons or offering tutorials on them — and while guns-and-bikinis have been used to sell firearms for decades, this type of sponcon tends to be more geared toward selling the girl power aesthetic that’s recently become a popular marketing tactic for guns.
Think you know your badass women? Take our quiz and send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Which of these women was not only an expert with weapons, but an opera star?
Catalina de Erauso
Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar famously put people on trial using what foodstuff?
Which two of her relatives did Catalina Erauso kill?
Her mother and father
Her uncle and brother
Her son and nephew
Why did Tomyris eventually go after Cyrus the Great in battle?
She blamed him for her son’s death.
He rejected her offer of marriage.
He annexed her home city.
Vitka Kempner’s plan to kill Nazi prisoners of war included:
What is Cathay Williams’ claim to fame?
She became the first female Buffalo Soldier.
She’s the only woman known to have served in the Civil War.
She taught Ulysses S. Grant how to shoot a gun.
What country did Aleksandra Shelton represent in the Olympics?
Rae Lynn Vander Weide, Farrier: One of the few female contestants on the sword-making TV competition Forged in Fire, Rae Lynn Vander Weide shows off her craft.
What to Listen to:
The Dead Prussian: This podcast about war and warfare has a great episode about women on the front lines.
Diana, Hunter of Bus Drivers: An episode of This American Life shares the odd story of a woman who claimed responsibility for killing two bus drivers in Mexico, blaming them for rampant murders of women in the area.
Former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sits down with Carlos Watson to discuss the future. He discusses his career in public service, how he learned to lead from a young age, what it means to be a conservative patriot, why he would consider running for President in 2024 if asked by America's voters ... and more!
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