Historical Women That Took the World by Storm

As a member of Her Campus and a sorority at CU, I am constantly surrounded by powerful women who inspire me to rise to my greatest potential. However, before finding these groups I looked to women of the past who pushed for freedom, fought for love, and made an impact in history. Here are my top 4 picks for women I’m secretly obsessed with.

  1. 1. Atalanta of Greece

    Atalanta is one of the unsung heroes of Ancient Greek myths. Abandoned on a mountainside by her father who wanted a male heir to the throne, Atalanta was raised by a she-wolf. When two centaurs tried to assault her in her youth, she killed both of them. She helped slay a giant boar (like an elephant-sized boar that would trample entire towns) and even sailed with the Argonauts.

    When her father heard of her greatness, he summoned Atalanta back to his kingdom and asked that she marry. Knowing her father only wanted her to marry for his political gain, Atalanta refused with only one exception. If a man could beat her in a footrace, she would marry him. If he lost, he would be put to death. Surprisingly, her father approved this plan and thousands of men flocked to the kingdom to race Atalanta. No man could beat her. She excelled in beauty, cunning, and speed. A young man named Hippomenes was determined to marry her and asked Aphrodite for help. The goddess gave him three golden apples, which he would throw far from the track during the race. Seeing the irresistibly shiny object, Atalanta would veer away from the path to follow the apple. Through trickery, Hippomenes won Atalanta’s hand.

    Eventually, they fell passionately in love and even had a hot hookup sesh in one of Zeus’ temples. In anger, Zeus turned them into lions. If two strangers used my room to hookup I would do the same tbh. At the time, it was believed that lions could not mate with each other, so they were doomed to never be together again. In my opinion, Atalanta is the ultimate modern woman. She literally belongs to the streets--er, wilderness. No one could tame her, even in marriage. She not only slayed feral hogs but also slayed life. She really said “these men ain’t it” and her only weakness was being easily distractable?? Are we sure I wasn’t Atalanta in a past life??

    Please watch this video that made me instantly sub to the creator’s channel for more information. Here's an article from my favorite author, Madeline Miller, who specializes in Greek myths as well.

  2. 2. Catherine the Great of Russia

    You’d better strap in because I could write a book about this woman. Catherine the Great was one of the most prolific female rulers in history (sorry future President AOC). She married Peter the Great, the 1700s equivalent of a frat boy, who specialized in being drunk, torturing animals, and sleeping with other women. She knew exactly what it was like to walk into a frat party and see the guy who flirtatiously invited you kissing another girl. When Peter came to power, literally everyone hated him. He was obsessed with Prussia (Prussia was to Russia as CSU is to CU). He even dressed in Prussia’s national colors instead of his own country’s. Catherine knew what had to be done. Catherine quickly became the desired ruler of the people, and thus a coup ensued. While Peter was vacationing, Catherine rushed to the palace to win over the church and military. It all happened so fast that her hair was done as the carriage sped towards her destiny. It was all quite dramatic. The church and military bowed to her and by the time Peter understood what was happening, it was too late. He later mysteriously died after a drunken bar brawl but anyways, good for her!

    Catherine ushered in the Russian Enlightenment, limiting the church’s power and allowing religious freedom. Philosophy, art, playwriting, and education flourished. She expanded Russia’s borders and even founded the first school for young women. On top of all that, she had a whopping twenty-two confirmed affairs (and NO a horse was not one of them.

    I could talk about how rumors like this one are created to shame powerful and sexually liberated women, but that’s a story for another time). For more information on this baddie b, check out the best (yet highly inaccurate) show of all time.

  3. 3. Ching Shih of China

    Sex worker. Pirate warlord. Successful retiree. Born in 1775, Ching Shih grew up to work in a Cantonese brothel. She was kidnapped by pirates and forced into a marriage with one of the most famous Chinese pirates, Cheng I. Cheng I allowed Ching Shih to oversee the ship’s crew. After he died in a typhoon (weird flex, but okay), Ching Shih took command of his entire fleet. Each raid and the distribution of the crew’s loot required her approval. If pirates had any sort of physical relationship with captives, consensual or not, they could be arrested, beheaded, flogged, or even quartered. The pirate would have to marry the captive and swear to be faithful to them if they wanted even a consensual relationship. Eventually, the Chinese navy tried to destroy the “Terror of South China”, but was decimated by Shih’s fleet. Ching Shih offered the naval survivors to either join her crew or be hung by their feet and flogged to death.

    Nine years later, she made a deal with the Chinese government to allow her crew to return to the mainland and live unprosecuted. At this point, China was at the pirate queen's mercy. Her enormous band of pirates lived peacefully in China with a hefty payment from the government. Ching Shih herself retired and managed a brothel until her death. For more information, check out these short YouTube documentaries

  4. 4. Josephine Baker of France

    Let’s have a chat about Josephine Baker. Born in America in 1906, Baker became one of the most famous and successful black women of her time. She was born into poverty and worked as a babysitter from age eight. Financial independence was of the utmost importance to Baker, which allowed her to enter and leave marriages as she pleased. In fact, she was married four times. When things began to go south, she would simply leave. Baker never depended on men.

    She began performing at a young age and even appeared in a few low-tier broadway sows before moving to Paris in 1925. The French could not get enough of Josephine Baker’s erotic jazz shows. Her most famous performance included her dancing suggestively wearing a skirt made of bananas, and little else. Reviews often commented on how she used her bum and shook it like an instrument. By 1937, Josephine Baker was one of the highest-paid dancers in Europe. She attracted all sorts of famous admirers, including  Picasso, Hemingway, and e.e. cummings. Hailed as “Black Venus” or “Black Pearl”, Baker quickly rivaled her white contemporaries as one of the most photographed women alive. She allegedly received over 1,000 proposals at the height of her career and even oversaw a duel between to admirers in a cemetery.

    Eventually, she purchased a grand estate in southwestern France and invited her entire family to live there. She obtained french citizenship through her third marriage and worked for the Red Cross during the onslaught of World War Two. She used her charm and sex appeal to schmooze with leaders of the Axis powers during parties, obtaining valuable information that she would pass on to the French military. These messages were often sent in code within her music sheets or even attached to her underwear. While acting as a spy for the  Allied forces, Josephine, unfortunately, suffered from frequent miscarriages and ultimately was forced to receive a hysterectomy. Although she never had any biological children, she adopted twelve children from all over the world. She dubbed her new family “The Rainbow Tribe” and sought to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers”. This inspired Angelina Jolie in her adoption endeavors. If all of that didn’t enchant you, wait until you hear about her roles in the civil rights movement. Josephine Baker was the only official female speaker at the March on Washington in 1963 and reflected on how she walked into palaces abroad, but was barred from entering a hotel lobby to get a cup of coffee in the US. In fact, she was turned away from a whopping 36 hotels when she visited New York City. Keep in mind, Josephine Baker was bigger than Beyonce. Eventually, she returned to New York and performed in Carnegie Hall. Although she was petrified of how she would be received, the audience gave her a standing ovation and Josephine Baker wept onstage. When she died in France in 1975, Josephine Baker received a 21-gun salute and 20,000 French citizens lined the streets to pay their respects. She also had an affair with Frida Kahlo, had a pet cheetah named Chiquita, and was besties with Grace Kelley. Sorry Justin, the only JB I know is Josephine Baker. 

A dinner party with these four gals would go so hard. These women came from all different backgrounds but experienced very similar things. They all, in a way, were raised in the wilderness by wolves or bears (metaphorically speaking for the last three women). Catherine the Great suffered a loveless marriage and the tumultuous Russian court. Ching Shih was literally kidnapped by pirates. Josephine Baker was repeatedly excluded from white spaces in America because of the color of her skin. All four women were told they didn't belong. All four women were scorned by their societies. Yet all four women rose above their oppressors and then fought to create spaces for women like themselves. They achieved great success and wished to share it with other women and minority groups. They were selfless, strong, strategic, and charming. I hope they inspire you to challenge, usurp, lead, and speak out as they have inspired me.