Some of the greatest historical tales come from the battlefields of war. Likewise, some of history's most notable figures are those who fought in such battles. From the myth-laden Trojan War to the brutal Battle of Cajamarca and even the fateful collision at Gettysburg, it's typically men who are credited for these romanticized victories. But what of the women throughout time and all around the globe who fought with passion, skill, and bravery? Here are seven famous female warriors from history who managed to fight both stereotypes and altogether more physical battles.
Artemisia I of Caria
Greece, 5th century B.C.E.
Artemisia I of Caria was the queen of the Greek city-state Halicarnassus, as well as the bordering islands of Kos, Nisyros and Kalymnos. She fought as an ally alongside the King of Persia, Xerxes I, and was known for her brutal sense of self-preservation. Held in high respect by Xerxes, this strategic and intelligent warrior commanded five ships in the Battle of Artemisium and the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.E.
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As the battle of Salamis was brewing, the insightful Artemisia was the only naval commander to advise Xerxes not to attack—a piece of advice he ignored, ultimately leading to his fleet's loss. During the battle, Artemisia saw defeat closing in. As an Athenian ship closely pursued the vessel Artemisia was on, she began to devise a crafty escape. She steered her ship into an allied Persian craft, so as to trick the Grecian forces into believing she was one of them. As the Persian ship sank, the Greeks fell for her ruse. Meanwhile, Xerxes remained none the wiser on the shore, believing that Artemisia had sank an enemy ship.
Japan, c. 1157 - c. 1247
Tomoe Gozen was an onna-musha, a female warrior in pre-modern Japan. During the Genpei War, she served the general Minamoto no Yoshinaka, who had been raised alongside her as a foster brother. Besides being known for her exceptional beauty, she was hailed for her remarkable skill in archery, as well as her brutal talent with a sword. Brave and fierce, she was a formidable rider who could mount unbroken horses, and she was often sent out by Yoshinaka as his first captain whenever battle loomed ahead.
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In 1182, Tomoe Gozen led a mere 300 samurai against an army of 2,000 from the rival Taira clan. After their defeat, the Taira were driven toward the west, and Yoshinaka moved to rise as the leader of the Minamoto clan. This led to the 1184 Battle of Awazu, which is widely considered Tomoe's greatest military contribution. Though Yoshinaka's forces were ultimately defeated in this collision, Tomoe managed to behead the leader of the Musashi clan.
France, c. 1673 - 1707
While Julie D'Aubigny never served on a battlefield, she still stood as a warrior in her own right. As her father was the Master of the Horse for King Louis XIV, she trained alongside the court pages in not just reading, but fencing as well. From roughly the age of 14, she was known for being highly skilled, scrappy, out-spoken, and libidinous. After fleeing with her lover to Marseille, D'Aubigny earned a living giving fencing exhibitions, as well as singing at taverns and fairs. She would often challenge people to duels on the street, mocking them with clever songs and flashing them to confirm that she was indeed a member of the "fairer sex."
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D'Aubigny became famous due to her celebrated career in the Paris Opera, but that hardly made her settle down. She took on lovers of both sexes and many challengers. At one point, one of her lovers was sent to a convent by her family to get her away from D'Aubigny's influence. D'Aubigny responded by robbing the grave of a long-dead nun and setting her lover's convent bed aflame to create a distraction to aid in their escape. While they made it out free, the affair didn't last much longer. D'Aubigny continued on her path of sword fighting and love making, eventually cultivating a legacy of a woman who was pardoned from death not once, but twice.
China, 1775 - 1844
Born into poverty, Ching Shih kept herself afloat by working in a brothel. However, by the age of 26, she grabbed the attention of pirate leader Zheng Yi. After marrying the pirate, Shih not only lent her brilliant mind to her husband's business, but participated in his endeavors fully, sharing both control and profits evenly. Six years into their marriage, Zheng Yi died, leaving Shih room to rise to a position of complete leadership.
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Soon, Shih was leading almost 2,000 ships and the 70,000 outlaws that sailed on them. However, this massive force was seen as a threat to the Qing dynasty—and for good reason. A fleet was banded to destroy the pirates, and though Shih's ranks suffered some losses, she not only won victory in the confrontation, but sailed away from it with an even larger fleet after pressing some of the rival crews into her own service. In response to this insulting defeat, the emperor ordered the Chinese navy to attack the pirates, alongside British and Portuguese naval allies.
After a dangerous two-year-long battle, Shih knew how to escape unscathed. She accepted amnesty from the Chinese government for both herself and the members of her crew, allowing them to walk away from a life of piracy free from punishment—and they were even allowed to keep their loot.
Apache tribe, c. 1840 - 1889
The sister of prominent Apache chief Victorio, Lozen herself was a warrior rumored to be a prophet. It's said that in battle, she used her powers to anticipate the movements of her enemies. Her brother otherwise described her as "strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy."
In the 1870s, the Apaches were relocated to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, which had living conditions that were beyond deplorable. Victorio and his followers left the reservation in 1877 and indulged in a life of raiding, while evading the U.S. military at every turn. Lozen was Victorio's right-hand woman in the battle against the American forces who had stolen their land in western New Mexico.
At one point, Lozen helped the tribe's frightened women and children cross the Rio Grande river to safety, with her rifle fearlessly held high. And after the group arrived soaked and exhausted on the other side, Lozen returned to the frontlines to fight alongside her fellow warriors. She was compassionate, an incredible shot, and believed by some to be even more strategic than her brother.
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After Victorio's death, Lozen fought alongside Geronimo. She negotiated hard for an acceptable peace treaty for the Apaches, but eventually had to surrender to American terms to reunite with her people. Though a formidable and otherworldly force, she died of tuberculosis as a prisoner of war, like many other indigenous people of her time.
New Zealand, 1912 - 2011
Nancy Wake was a nurse and journalist from New Zealand who joined up with the French Resistance—and later the Special Operations Executive—in World War II. Even in the thick of war, Wake was said to have had infectiously high spirits. As a courier for the Pat O'Leary escape network, she helped stranded Allied airmen evade Nazi capture. After landing on the Germans' radar, Wake escaped to Britain via Spain. Her husband wasn't so lucky, and was ultimately executed.
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It was in Britain that she joined the SOE under the name "Hélène." In April of 1944, Wake was part of a three-person team that parachuted into Auvergne province, France to act as a liaison between London and the local maquis group. Wake was in charge of not only communications between the two groups, but also the coordination of agents and the airdrops of vital supplies. While maneuvering the activities of roughly 7,500 soldiers, she never shied away from diving back into the fight. She was a quick and excellent shot in the field. During one confrontation, she even killed a man with her bare hands.
Russia, 1916 - 1974
Having served in the Red Army during World War II as a Soviet sniper, Lyudmila Pavlichenko is on record as the most successful female sniper in history with 309 kills. Her terrifying accuracy earned her the nickname "Lady Death."
Pavlichenko was initially offered a position in the army as a nurse. She opted instead for the 25th Rifle Division, where she eventually rose above prejudice to become a member of the Soviets' elite sniper team.
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Only 2,000 Soviet women served as snipers during World War II, with a high casualty rate of 75%. Though she was eventually wounded by shrapnel, Pavlichenko was one of the lucky few to make it out alive. She continued her legacy by training future Red Army snipers, and serving the army as a public spokesperson.