1. Juana Ines de la Cruz, (1651-1695)
Juana was a child prodigy, learning how to read aged 3, to write and sew aged 6, and to compose poetry aged 8. She was 15 when she appeared at the Mexican royal court, becoming the nation’s first lady-in-waiting. With her pure beauty and cultivated skills, she was courted by all the most handsome suitors of her day.
However, being a devotee of the arts and of knowledge, she rejected their advances and pursued a life of study by joining a Catholic monastery. Her poetry and findings in science have ensured her name and her legend have remained up to our own time.
2. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204)
Eleanor is often considered the most shining and luminous beauty of the dark middle-ages. She married two powerful kings. First she wed Louis VII of France, who was unable to tame her wild temperament. Though they were married for more than a dozen years, the King divorced her. And unlike for most people of pre-modern times, this was no stain on her honor. She was even more sought after now than before.
She eventually settled with Henry II, monarch of England, a new European power. She loved him and bore 8 children with him. Unhappily, he started to lose interest in her as she aged, and he imprisoned her in a castle. However, her brave son, Richard I (aka the Lionheart) freed her. She died aged 82.
3. The Mirabal Sisters (1900s)
The three sisters, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa, were political rebels who opposed the tyrannous rule of Rafael Trujillo in Dominica. They fought for revolution and democracy as hard as they could. The regime fought back by assassinating the ladies on November 25th, 1960.
This, though, made martyrs of the sisters, and created a mass uprising which resulted in the regime being toppled a mere six months later. Did you know that the day of their murders has now become the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women?
4. Nancy Wake (1912-2011)
Nicknamed the ‘White Mouse’, Nancy was one of the Nazis’ most successful enemies. The Gestapo put a 5 million Franc bounty on her head. Working as a secret agent for the French Resistance, Wake had some hair-raising war adventures. A skilled martial artist, she once reputedly killed a German guard with her bare hands. She continued her life as an intelligence operative long after the war had been won. She died at the ripe old age of 98.
5. Joan of Arc (1412-1431)
Joan of Arc was one of the most incredible military figures of her time. With no background or training, and despite being female, she inspired French armies against their English rivals during the bitter conflict summarized as the Hundred Years War. As a war chief, she won many battles, and is particularly celebrated for her exploits at the Siege of Orleans.
She was captured, however, by the English and executed by being burned at the stake as if she were a witch. Few people in history have matched her amazing bravery.
6. Lilian Bland (1878-1971)
Lilian was a photographer and journalist who was piqued by the chauvinist comment she heard come from the mouth of an impudent young man. He claimed that women had no place in the world of technology. So, to prove the proud young man wrong, she decided to build an airplane from scratch. Though she had no training in engineering or piloting, she managed to fly 100 feet. Having left her native Ireland, she emigrated to Canada. She died there aged 93.
7. Tomoe Gozen (1157-1247)
Tomoe was no ordinary woman. In fact, as a samurai warrior, she was counted extraordinary even among men. She was Minamoto no Yoshinaka’s top officer, and he sent her first into every battle. She carried a very large sword, mighty armor, a huge bow, and rode unbroken horses with such manly vigor that no one dared to cross her path. During the Genpei War, she was considered the most valorous of all fighters. Today, in Japan, Tomoe is a well-known symbol of female power.
8. Rosa Luxemberg (1871-1919)
Rosa is one of the most important anti-war advocates of a century full of terrible conflicts on a global level never seen before. People have often wondered what war would be like with women like Rosa in charge of diplomatic affairs, and I think there are few doubts that the world would be a safer place for all of us.
Late in her life, she constantly tried to help people see the futility of the First World War, writing dozens of articles and brochures. Rosa made it her special role to encourage other women to fight against war too. Unfortunately, her views put her life in great peril, but she died with the opinion of history firmly on her side.
9. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Hedy is a great example of the kind of rare polymathic genius that has occurred only a few times in history. She left Austria aged 16 intending to pursue an acting career. However, marriage to a wealthy man dented her dreams for four dull but secure years. After this, she ran off to Hollywood to put her name among the stars.
Not only did she achieve this dream, she also pursued a scientific career as an inventor. Modern technology has benefited from her noise-resistant radio transmission invention, helping to create GSM, GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. What an unbelievable (and very beautiful) lady!