Before Hillary, Beyoncé or Amy Schumer, there were many bold women who paved the way for the badasses of today. What’s more, they did so in much harder and more oppressive times. Still, these women ignored everything society was telling them: that girls don’t write computer code, that women can’t fly an airplane or that females can’t have control over their own reproductive systems.
From smartypants Hedy Lamarr to tremendously brave Ellen Craft and transgender trailblazer Carmen Rupe, these women were fierce and are sure to inspire. To quote Chinese poet Qiu Jin, “Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes.”
20. Ada Lovelace
Think computer coding is a man’s world? Well, you might be surprised to learn the very first person to write a computer program was an 19th century English woman. Ada Lovelace was a gifted and accomplished mathematician at a time when women were thoroughly discouraged from ever entering that sphere. She also happened to be the daughter of the poet Lord Byron – so smarts clearly ran in the family.
19. Annie Peck
Not only was Annie Peck a scholar but a kickass mountain climber, too. In the 1900s mountain climbing was a new sport and not exactly a female-friendly one, but Peck shrugged this off, summited the Matterhorn and went on to achieve the highest ever climb in the Americas in 1908.
18. Ellen Craft
The daughter of a black slave and a white slave owner, Ellen Craft was light-skinned and was therefore able to pass as white. Seeing this as a way to escape slavery, she dressed in drag to impersonate a slaveholder, while her black husband posed as her servant. Together they escaped the south to freedom and were totally badass while doing it. The Crafts went on to live in London and crusaded tirelessly as abolitionists.
17. Nellie Bly
In 1880 Nellie Bly encountered a sexist editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. After she sent in a furious reply, then, the paper offered her a reporting job. Bly went on to break journalistic ground, impersonating a mentally ill patient in order to write an exposé on a psychiatric hospital and later traveling the world in just 72 days.
16. Margaret Sanger
If you rely on the pill as a method of birth control, you should give thanks to Margaret Sanger, who worked tirelessly in early 1900s New York to educate women on their bodies and how to prevent a pregnancy and paved the way for more liberal views on contraception. Sanger even spent time in jail for her actions – and eventually had to flee to England to escape prison again.
15. Madam C. J. Walker
The rise of Madam C.J. Walker is an Oprah-level story of inspiration. And she had the odds stacked against her at first: not only was she married at just 14 in 1882, but her husband died just five years later, leaving her left to raise her daughter alone in a society still thoroughly entrenched in sexism and racism. Still, she had one very bright idea: because Walker herself suffered from hair loss and was looking for a cure, and she developed a line of hair products specifically made for African American woman. In doing so, she became the first female self-made millionaire in America.
14. Mary Frith
Mary Frith, it’s fair to say, didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. The 17th-century highwaywoman smoked a pipe, wore breeches, carried a sword and could expertly snip a moneybag off a belt, earning her the rather badass nickname of Moll Cutpurse. Her uncle tried to ship her off and make her a lady, but she jumped overboard and swam to shore to continue her hell-raising for many more years.
13. Carmen Rupe
Carmen Rupe, born Trevor Rupe, was the first Maori drag performer in history. And despite suffering several beatings at the hands of oppressive police in 1950s Australia, the transgender trailblazer became an outspoken LGBT activist and an icon for the early LGBT community. What’s more, in 1955 Rupe bravely performed as Eartha Kitt for a bunch of soldiers – and they showed their appreciation with a standing ovation.
12. Hedy Lamarr
You may know her as a gorgeous, Golden Age film star who shared the screen with the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. But Hedy Lamarr wasn’t just beautiful; she was also crazy smart. In fact, the actress helped develop spread spectrum communications – the technology that paved the way for many of today’s cell phones.
11. Shirley Chisholm
Without Shirley Chisholm, there might never have been a Hillary – or, indeed, an Obama. Not only was Chisholm the first black congresswoman, in 1972, but she went on to become the first major party African American woman to try for president. She made tremendous strides for both women and the African American community.
10. Anaïs Nin
Lena Dunham owes quite a debt to Anaïs Nin. After all, the French author paved the way for scandalous writing when she dared to pen judgment-free stories about sex, abortions and lesbianism at a time when all of those things were at least somewhat taboo. Incredibly, the trailblazer was considered a failure for many years – that is, until she published her personal diaries and was rightly lauded for her brains and bravery.
9. Bessie Smith
Legendary songstress Bessie Smith was considered the Empress of the Blues. In fact, during the 1920s, she earned more than any other black performing artist. And if you listen to a clip of her belting out “Downhearted Blues,” you’ll understand why.
8. Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart is perhaps one of the most famous badasses of all time, and in 1928 she entered the history books as the first woman to pilot a plane alone over the Atlantic. Indeed, she was actually the first person of any gender to fly over both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Sadly, in 1937 Earhart’s plane mysteriously disappeared after the brave pilot embarked on an attempt to fly around the world.
7. Nancy Harkness
A less commonly known but no less influential aviator was Nancy Harkness. Harkness was one of the first women in history to take to the skies in a military plane, and she played an enormous part in getting female pilots airborne during WWII. And if those weren’t awesome enough achievements, then it’s worth noting that she also helped found the Women Aircraft Service Pilots, which triggered a tectonic shift in women’s roles in society. Cool as.
6. Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells was traveling on a train in 1884 when she was told to go sit in the car for African Americans. She refused and was removed by force. The incident was a breaking point for Wells, who then began to write about the injustices her people faced. She became a groundbreaking black journalist – and in the decade that followed led a historical anti-lynching crusade.
5. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the ultimate warriors for women’s rights, and she fought ferociously for the right to vote in particular. A bold, brilliant revolutionary, she is one of history’s biggest badasses. Why? Well, not least for spearheading the groundbreaking 1848 Declaration of Sentiments – a historic document that demanded women be treated as equals in the U.S.
4. Emma Goldman
You did not want to mess with Emma Goldman. After immigrating to the US from Lithuania in 1885, she saw America’s deplorable working conditions and became a fierce anarchist. In fact, in 1901 she was jailed for demanding birth control and encouraging supporters to riot, declaring, “Women need not always keep their mouths shut and their wombs open.” Right on.
3. Mary Wollstonecraft
Today Mary Wollstonecraft is widely considered to be a leading feminist philosopher, but in the late 1700s she was downright scandalous. Because while she penned many books, her most famous work was, and remains, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: an incendiary tract in which Wollstonecraft dared to suggest that given the same advantages, men and women are actually equals. Such crazy talk!
2. Qui Jin
Qiu Jin was born in China in 1875, and even in her early years she showed promise as a poet. But when she grew up, Jin was forced into a horrible arranged marriage. Not to be deterred, however, she decided to take control of her life, ditching the husband and launching a feminist journal. She bravely spoke out against footbinding and trained revolutionaries, too. But at the age of 31, Jin was arrested for helping to plan an uprising and, tragically, was publicly beheaded.
1. Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman always wanted to fly – regardless of how many people told her she couldn’t. But with Coleman being a black woman, no American flight school would take her in. And so she began to save money working as a manicurist, taught herself French and, eventually, went to aviation school in France. She returned with the dream of opening a flight school for African Americans and performed daredevil airshows to raise the funds. Sadly, though, in 1926 she was killed in a plane crash before her dream could be realized.