July 4, 2024 | Samantha Henman

The Toughest Women In History

What The History Books Don’t Tell You

Though they may not be as known as the men they ruled or fought alongside, history is full of strong, tough women whose brilliance, courage, and cunning left an indelible mark, forever changing the world.


Olga of Kiev

This is just one anecdote from her fascinating life—and it seems like something straight out of Game of Thrones. Though she achieved sainthood by (forcefully) converting scores to Christianity, there’s also a legend that she once burned down an entire town by luring pigeons, attaching sulfur to their wings, setting them on fire, and sending them back to the buildings where they roosted.

Santa Olga de Kiev - painting 2016La Verdad, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Hannie Schaft

During WWII, Resistance fighter Hannie Schaft was arrested by the Germans and sentenced to a horrible death, but she faced the firing squad without fear—and when the soldiers failed to kill her in the chaos of the first round, her response was truly chilling. She allegedly told her executioners, “I shoot better”!

Jannetje Johanna (Hannie) Schaft, Dutch communist and resistance fighter.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons


Boudicca was a Queen of the ancient British Iceni tribe and also a fierce warrior. When the Roman Empire attempted to conquer her people, she bravely led an uprising against them. Though it was ultimately defeated, she took down some 70,000 Romans with her.

Painting of Queen BoudicaJohn Opie, Wikimedia Commons



Hatshepsut was one of only a few female pharaohs in thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history. She led several military expeditions and led a campaign against Nubia.

Large Kneeling Statue Of HatshepsutMetropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

Grace O’Malley

O’Malley’s father was the head of a dynasty in western Ireland—one that she took over when he passed on, despite the fact that she had a living brother. From the time that she was just 11, she became a seafarer and pirate. O’Malley was both a natural leader and feared pirate—but also managed to be remembered for her charming and friendly nature.

Grace O'Malley, on display in Westport House, Ireland - 2020Bastun, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Queen Elizabeth I

It was almost as if Elizabeth I inherited her parents most positive traits—intelligence, determination, cunning—and few of the negative ones. On top of this, she was well-educated—all of which led to a 45-year reign where England thrived.

Queen Elizabeth I in red dress wearing a crown on a black backgroundJohannes Corvus, Wikimedia Commons

Anne Lister

Anne Lister was born to a minor landowning family at the end of the 18th century in Britain, and she never met a cultural norm she wasn’t willing to break. Throughout her life, Lister built a small empire, converting one of their properties into a hotel and casino, developed coal and stone mines, and seduced scores of beautiful women.

Anne Lister of Shibden Hall - circa 1830Joshua Horner, Wikimedia Commons

Jeanne de Clisson

The legendary Jeanne de Clisson was known as “The Lioness of Brittany.” She got this nickname because she was known to raid villages or towns and slaughter their populations, leaving only a few survivors to spread the word that de Clisson’s wrath was not to be trifled with.

Jeanne de Clisson (1300–1359), also known as Jeanne de BellevilleWaltercolor, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the richest and most powerful women in Medieval Europe. She not only married the King of France, she later married the King of England, and personally put three of her sons on the throne of England. She was a very active ruler, and actually took part in a plot against her own husband, Henry II of England.

Psalter Of Eleanor Of AquitaineKoninklijke Bibliotheek, Wikimedia Commons


Queen Zenobia

Zenobia was the ruler of the Palmyrene Empire, which broke away from the Roman Empire in the third century CE—and she took her job pretty seriously. Zenobia was present, leading massive armies and conquering Egypt and half of Anatolia during her reign.

Painting of Queen Zenobia's Last Look upon Palmyra (1888)Herbert Gustave Schmalz, Wikimedia Commons

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd was the daughter of Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, and was born at a time when the Vikings were invading England. She grew up to both plan and lead a series of successful military expeditions.

Illuminated portrait of Æðelflæd - 1220Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons


Olympias was the wife of Philip II, King of Macedonia, and mother to Alexander the Great. She was as ruthless and cunning as they come. She actively participated in politics and was at the center of many a power struggle. Olympias was also incredibly vengeful, and wielded her power like a knife.

Painting portrait of of Olympias.Gerard Hoet, Wikimedia Commons

Queen Isabella of France

There’s a reason Queen Isabella is known as the She-Wolf of France. She led a rebellion against her husband, King Edward II, and ruled England for a brief period of time alongside her lover, Roger Mortimer.

Painting of Isabella of France, Queen of England - 1475Jean Froissart, Wikimedia Commons

Nell Gwynn

Gwynn was born into poverty, but clawed her way to the top—literally. She became the mistress of the infamous King Charles II, and was one of the most shameless women in history, proudly flouting norms around gender and her bedroom life.

Nell Gwynne, actress and Mistress of Charles IIAnn Longmore-Etheridge, Flickr

Empress Theodora

If there was one person you didn’t want to tee off in the Byzantine Empire, it was Theodora, wife of Justinian I. Thanks to her smarts and strong will, she was essentially leading right alongside with him. During the Nika riots, she advised her husband to remain in the palace—and afterward, she was right there when he sentenced the 30,000 rebels who’d attempted to take the throne to death.

Empress Theodora Mosaic DetailPetar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


Queen Seondeok

Seondeok was the first female monarch in Korean history, and her reign set the stage for the unification of the Three Kingdoms of Korea in the 7th century.

Queen SeondeokWikimedia Commons, Picryl

Isabella of Castile

Isabella of Castile was one of the most powerful queens in history. She unified Spain thanks to her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon, and funded Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the Americans. Of course, she was also responsible in part for the infamous Spanish Inquisition.

Painting of Isabelle of Castile.Ann Longmore-Etheridge, Flickr


Freydis was the daughter of Erik the Red. One day during a particularly brutal battle, the Viking forces were falling into despair. Seeing the men’s cowardice, Freydis gave a speech where she immediately shamed them for losing their courage and picked up a heavy sword, bragging loudly to ally and enemy alike that she could fight better than them. The kicker? She was eight months pregnant at the time.

Viking woman in costume.Joshua Roberts, Pexels

Lady Fu Hao

Though she was one of many wives to the Shang Dynasty King Wu Ding, she certainly stood out. She was not only a high priestess and oracle, she actually worked her way up—through dramatic military conquests—to become the most powerful Shang general of the era.

Fu Hao Tomb and Statue.Gary Todd, Wikimedia Commons

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria was unapologetic in the way that she ruled—and after her upbringing, who could blame her. Victoria blamed her sad childhood on John Conroy, her mother’s rumored lover. But once she was queen, she got revenge. There were years at a time where her mother had pressured her to put him in a position of power, and every time, Victoria refused.

Finally, when she ascended to the throne, she declared that he should be “banned from her presence”.

Portrait of Queen Victoria - 1882Alexander Bassano, Wikimedia Commons

Ulpia Severina

Ulpia Severina is a historical enigma. Little is known about her beyond her marriage to Roman Emperor Aurelian—but what we can infer, we can get from the coins that bear her visage. She was a constant presence on coins not only from her husband’s reign, but also afterward. As such, it’s likely she ruled in the interregnum period after his passing, which could potentially mean she was the sole female ruler of a unified, undivided Roman Empire.

Portrait de Severinae Augusta - 15th centuryPisanello, Wikimedia Commons


Elizabeth Woodville

Edward IV of England married Elizabeth Woodville in secret—a rare marriage of love in a time of political unions. It was her second marriage, and she had to fight for her inheritance from her first husband’s family. Most of her family, including her father, brothers, and sons, lost their lives during the Wars of the Roses. Her power over her husband led to rumors that she was a witch—but really, he was just that devoted to her.

Painting of Elizabeth Woodville.Ann Longmore-Etheridge, Flickr

Artemisia I of Caria

Artemisia was the Queen of Caria, a region in what is now modern-day Turkey. In 480 BCE, she played a major role in Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, namely in the Battle of Salamis, fighting alongside the Persians.

Painting of Artemisia Building The MausolaeumSimon Vouet, Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie

There’s workaholics, and then there’s Marie Curie. The Polish physicist discovered radium and polonium, and her work contributed to help finding treatments for cancer. Sadly, it also exposed her to the poisonous radiation that would take her life.

Portrait of Marie Curie - circa 1920sHenri Manuel, Wikimedia Commons

Hortense Mancini

Hortense Mancini was a crafty lady. She married a duke who mistreated her, and came up with a devious plot to escape him. She was protected by Louis XIV, published her memoirs, and became the chief mistress to Charles II…and also was romantically involved with his illegitimate daughter.

Portrait of Ortensia Mancini - 17th centuryJacob Ferdinand Voet, Wikimedia Commons

Queen Tamar

Queen Tamar wasn’t just the most famous queen in Georgian history—she’s the most remarkable ruler in Georgian history, period. She established an empire, bringing new territory to Georgia, which became the most powerful country in the area. She also faced down formidable opponents like Ram Sultan, and shut down not one but two rebellions led by her ex-husband.

Painting portrait of Queen Tamar of Georgia.TbilisiStMus, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Annie Oakley

Oakley performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for 17 years as a markswoman, becoming one of the most proficient sharpshooters out there. She not only became a star in a male-dominated sport, her name and legend spread all over the world.

Portrait of Annie Oakley - Circa 1880Baker's Art Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

Wu Zetian

Few people in history—men or women—were as ruthless as Wu Zetian, who became Empress of China through sheer cunning. She began her ascent as concubine to the Emperor…and also slept with his son for good measure. This saved her when the Emperor died, and his son brought her back to the palace from the convent where she’d been sent.

Painting of Wu Zetian.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Wu Zetian (cont’d)

Through much scheming, Wu became empress-consort by having all her competition deposed, started her own political faction, and gave birth to the new emperor’s children. Then, when her eldest son became emperor, she deposed him, and made her youngest emperor—with a dark twist.

Painting of Wu Zetian.未知, Wikimedia Commons

Wu Zetian (cont’d)

From that point on, Wu Zetian essentially imprisoned her son—the emperor—and ruled in his place. Eventually, she forced him out, and became the first Empress of China, establishing the second Zhou Dynasty. Though much of her rule can be attributed to ruthless scheming—and a secret police who enforced her rule—she was also an adept politician who made sure to appoint competent officials.

Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) - 18th centuryUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Queen Mary I of England

Whether or not you agree, no one could argue that Queen Mary I of England didn’t fight fiercely to rule the country in the way she saw fit—mostly, representing Catholic interests. Mary reigned for only 5 short years, yet in that time she burned over 280 heretics at the stake. This earned her the name “Bloody Mary”.

Mary I, Queen of England, Daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of AragonAnn Longmore-Etheridge, Flickr


Ke'elikolani was a member of the House of Kamehameha, and was one of the wealthiest landowners in the Hawaiian Islands. Though many Westerners wrote her off, she was a formidable force in the fight for the preservation of Hawaiian culture and against annexation.

Portrait of Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani - 1909J. J. Williams, Wikimedia Commons

Catherine the Great

Her name says it all. Catherine was one of the most formidable rulers of all time, promoting education and the arts during her reign, as well as expanding Russia’s borders with nearly unheard-of gains. She reigned longer than any other female in Russian history.

Tsarina Catherine the Great, Hermitage, St. PetersburgRichard Mortel, Flickr

Ada Lovelace

As the daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace could’ve rested on her laurels, or perhaps also pursued a career in the letters. Instead, she became a mathematician—and the first computer programmer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace - 1836Margaret Sarah Carpenter,  Wikimedia Commons

Franceska Mann

Mann was a Polish ballerina who inadvertently started an uprising of female prisoners at Auschwitz after she stole an officer’s pistol, shot him, and wounded another while she was being led to the gas chamber.

Performing artist Franceska Mann - circa 1936/39"Van - Dyck", Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Churchill

Sarah Churchill was the true power behind the throne during Queen Anne's reign. The overbearing and ruthless Churchill bullied Anne into getting her way constantly, even going behind Anne’s back to the English parliament.

Portrait of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of MarlboroughGodfrey Kneller, Wikimedia Commons

Ching Shih

When considering some of the most successful pirates of all time, there are quite a few women’s names on the list. Aside from Grace O’Malley, there’s also Ching Shih, who commanded over 300 ships. She ruled the Chinese seas with an iron fist. When she captured men, she gave them a choice: Join her fleet or get clubbed to death.

An Illustrated History of Privateers - 1836Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Anna of Russia

Anna’s bloodthirsty nature rivaled some of Russia’s most brutal tsars. For example, when one of her enemies got married, she gave him a disturbing gift—a honeymoon suite made out of ice. When the couple protested, she told them the only way to stay alive was to do what all married couples do.

Anna Ioannovna Empress Of Russia18th Century Russian painter, Wikimedia Commons


Cleopatra is seen as the original femme fatale—but it was much more than her looks that got her in the history books. She was intelligent, led a powerful army with great skill, and used her bedroom conquests for her political gain. In short, she was tough as nails, and the total package.

Painted image from a villa at Herculaneum ,portrait of Cleopatra VII - 1st century ADAncient Roman artist from Herculaneum, Wikimedia Commons

Qiu Jin

Qiu Jin was passionate, defiant, and brave. She wrote poetry, refused to bind her feet, and fought for the rights of women. She was ultimately beheaded, and became known as China’s Joan of Arc.

B&W photo of Qiu Jin looking at side - between 1900 and 1907Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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