20 Rejected Princesses Who Prove Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures/Everett Collection.
Jason Porath compiled 200 of “history’s boldest heroines, hellions and heretics” for his new book, Rejected Princesses. And when you start reading, you're reminded that villainous shit against women has really, truly been going on forever. Though back in the day, you’d set your attacker's town on fire as revenge, instead of letting some judge bring down a sentence.

Today, we are rising up to protest millennia of sexual aggression and repression; yet in the same breath, the U.N. has kicked us in the collective teeth by appointing the fictional Wonder Woman as ambassador for women, as well as passing over a woman (again!) for secretary general. How can we finally vindicate the pains of our ancestral mothers? And how can anyone question the karma of rage and anguish that lives within us today after reading through what propelled these women to commit these acts of valor and horror?

Porath, a former DreamWorks animator who's also well-schooled in fairy tale tropes, wanted to pay homage to his mother’s artistic and intellectual dreams that were cut short when she shelved them to raise seven boys. His inspiration was all that she did, and all that remains undone for her and other women who had to curtail their dream-catching.

Porath says most of the stories in his book have gone untold on the large screen because societies worldwide have different ideas about how a woman is modeled vs. a man. In history books, you see Abe Lincoln, Genghis Khan, and Winston Churchill, “so good, bad, kind of between.” Girls get a much more sanitized version of women. “They'll get Helen Keller but not later-day firebrand Socialist Helen Keller. You'll get Harriet Tubman, but not arsonist spymaster for the Union Harriet Tubman. You get Amelia Earhart, but not polyamorous libertine Amelia Earhart,” Porath said. In Rejected Princesses, you’ll hear extra dirt on people you probably already knew about, such as Ida Wells, Mata Hari, Florence Nightingale, and Josephine Baker — and plenty about a diverse, global cast of women who have, until now, disappeared into the dark corners of mainstream history and literature.

Here are 20 of the fiercest princesses and heroines you probably never heard about.

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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Agnodice, 4th C. BCE, Greece, “The Secret Physician of Athens”
Women weren’t allowed to become doctors, but Agnodice, sick of needless injuries and death from male doctors’ insensitivity and ignorance about the female body (remind you of any modern-day politicians?), skipped off to Egypt, studied medicine, and came back to Athens disguised as a man to practice gynecology. It’s said that to ease the minds of her patients, she’d flip up her skirt and let them in on her little secret. She was persecuted for her crime, but eventually, the laws were changed when her grateful patients testified en masse.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Sybil Ludington, 1761-1839, United States, “The True Midnight Rider”
A 16-year-old girl rode through Southeastern New York to gather a militia on the advance of the British, perilously traveling through bandit-riddled woods. By the end of her three-hour, 40-mile ride, she’d fight off one attacker with a stick and return home safely. P.S. Paul Revere only rode 12 miles on regular streets and was caught at the end.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Gráinne “Grace O’Malley” Ní Mháille, 1530-1603, Ireland, “The Pirate Queen of Ireland”
Revenge was her sweet spot. After her husband was killed in battle and invaders came to pillage his castle, she met them with the gift of molten lead helmets. She kidnapped an earl’s grandson until he gave her lodging she was entitled to, and when her second husband was killed by the English governor, Richard Bingham, she burned his castles and killed two dozen of his soldiers. She lived out her 60s as a pirate at sea, and at one point went to Bingham’s boss – Queen Elizabeth – and successfully lobbied to get Bingham to leave her alone and give her the run of Irish waters.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Gracia Mendes Nasi, 1510-1569, Portugal/Italy/Turkey, “The Savior of the Jews”
Being from a wealthy merchant family in Portugal, Nasi and her family had to practice Judaism on the down-low, but they were mostly given a pass because of their standing as financiers during the Spanish Inquisition. She created trade routes across Europe, smuggling Jews to the safety of the Ottoman Sultanate, where they were safe. She continued to help poor and sick Jews and build schools and synagogues, even as her fortune dwindled from having to bribe the establishment in order to keep her business going.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Petra “Pedro” Herrera, late 19th Century, Mexico, “The Soldadera Princess”
Disguising herself as a man as many other women did during the Mexican Revolution, Herrera, a demotions expert and leader of an all-female brigade, sacked the city of Torreon, the biggest victory in the revolution up to that date. But when she wasn’t promoted to general after her success, she formed her own independent all-woman brigade. She was eventually given the rank of colonel. Her brigade disbanded, she became a spy, and was killed by a bunch of drunk men.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Olga of Kiev, 890-969, Ukraine, “The Saint Who Set Fire With Pigeons”
Princess Olga’s husband Igor was brutally killed by the Drevlians—and then insisted she marry one of their princes — which she did. She then led them to a pit dug overnight and buried them alive. She also courted their most elite citizens to a bathhouse, locked them in, and set it on fire. As a finale, during Igor’s funeral, she got 5,000 Drevelians drunk and had them killed. Legend has it, she returned their peace-offering pigeons with tiny bits of burning sulfur attached to them, which burned down their town.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Dhat al-Himma, 8th-century Arabian myth, “Woman of High Resolve”
Originally named Fatima, al-Himma was given away by her tribal-leader father because she wasn’t a boy, then taken by a rival tribe. When one of her captors began sexually harassing her, she complained to the chief, which did nothing. Then she chased her aggressor off with rocks, pulled him from his horse, and killed him with his own sword. And of course, went on to become a superstar raider back with her own tribe.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Marjana, Arabian myth, “The Slave Girl Who Killed Ali Baba’s 40 Thieves”
She was Ali Baba's really smart slave. That’s pretty much all you need to know. And that she killed the thieves with some astute trickery and scalding oil.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Jezebel, 9th century BCE, Kingdom of Israel, “The Most Maligned Woman in the Bible”
Slut-shamed for centuries, there’s actually zero account in the Bible of Jezebel, a married woman, having sex with anyone. Her bad rap actually comes from worshipping and building temples to two other gods rather than Yahweh, which turned powerful priests against her. When she realizes it’s her last hurrah, she dresses in her best gown, gets made up, and marches to meet her doom—being thrown from a tower by disloyal servants, trampled by horses and then eaten by dogs.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Kharboucha, 19th-century Moroccan legend, “The Poet Who Sang Truth to Power”
Scarred by smallpox as a child and illiterate, she took ownership of her life and named herself (Kharboucha means “scarred woman”) and is credited in legend by creating a form of protest singing called al-Aïta, or “the call,” in wide use today. She sang even as her captor tortured her and buried her alive.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Neerja Bhanot, 1963-1986, India, “Heroine of the Hijack”
Bhanot was chief flight attendant on Pan Am flight 73. Four armed terrorist boarded the flight in Karachi and grabbed her hair. While she was able to shout the secret code to the pilots, who escaped, 400 passengers and 13 crew members stayed on board. She maintained calm, collected all the passports, hiding or destroying American ones so the Libya-backed Abu Nidal Organization terrorists would have more trouble identifying those passengers. After 17 hours, a mechanical failure caused the plane’s lights to go out. The terrorists started shooting. Bhanot opened the emergency chute, and instead of saving herself, used her body to shield three escaping children. When it was over, 100 were wounded and 19 died, including Bhanot, who would have turned 23 within a few hours.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Moremi Ajasoro, 12 century, Nigeria, “Spy Queen of the Yoruba”
After being kidnapped by pillaging neighboring villagers and married off to their king, Ajasoro got the king drunk and snuck out, taking a perilous journey back home. Next time the villagers raided, she, with the help of her real husband and other neighbors, set the raiding villagers’ costumes on fire. They ran, never to return.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Annie Jump Cannon, 1863-1941, United States, “The Astronomer Who Heard the Stars Calling”
A stargazer from a young age, and nearly deaf since college, Cannon became a “Harvard Computer,” one in a team of all-female astronomy analysts. She improved the star classification system, which is still used today. She also became deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement. As World War II loomed, she’s credited with saying, "In these days of great trouble and unrest, it is good to have something outside our own planet, something fine and distant and comforting to troubled minds. Let people took to the stars for comfort."
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Julie “La Maupin” d’Aubigny, 1670-1707, France, “The Sword Slinger Who Burned Down a Convent to Bang a Nun”
This rapscallion blustered through 17th century France as a feisty sword-swinging opera singer. She romanced a nun and burned down a convent so that they could elope. She had to be pardoned by the King of France twice.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Noor Inayat Khan, 1914-1944, France, “The Spy Princess”
An unlikely spy, this Sufi mystic pacifist couldn't lie, worked as a children's book author and a musician and was known as a little bit of an airhead and a klutz. But when Paris fell to the Nazis she enlisted in the war effort and became one of the most successful spies for the British, and was only taken down when betrayed by a double agent.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864, Nigeria, “The Princess Who Loved Learning”
The leader of a wandering band of female teachers would go into women’s homes and teach them to read and write, with the idea of empowering them and spreading the word of the Qur’an. She became a court advisor and set orders, held in high regard amid the bloody conflict around interpretation of Islamic law.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Nanny of the Maroons, 1680-c. 1750, Jamaica, “The Mother of Us All”
Escaped slaves on Jamaica created their own communities. To keep the British at Bay, Nanny, said to be Ghanaian royalty (and there of her own free will), set up a lookout system across the island to telegraph the advance of British soldiers so that the Maroons, as the transplanted Africans were called, could prepare for battle. She also devised a potent herbal soup, the fumes of which would knock out enemies, among other tricks. Her face is on the Jamaican $500 bill, and it’s common to see her name on schools, offices and towns around the island.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Tomoe Gozen, 1157-1247, Japan, “The Samurai Who Made Samurai Flee”
A fierce female warrior, she miraculously escaped unsurvivable situations, and ran head-first into battle with enemy generals, further exacerbating their defeat and bringing shame upon their families because she was a woman. Legends say that she either became a Buddhist nun, or married and had a family.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Christine de Pizan, 1364-c. 1430, France, “Literary Architect of the City of Ladies”
At 25, de Pizan was left alone with three young children when her father and husband were taken by the Bubonic plague. Most in her situation would have given up and joined the convent, but instead, she took pen to paper and became one of the most prolific writers of her time. She started with simple love poems to gain a following, and then veered into politics and feminism, and foreshadowed British victories that would give rise to Joan of Arc.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Alice Clement, 1878-1926, United States, “Detective. Movie Star. Suffragist.”
She started her career as a Chicago detective, catching pickpockets, but went on to specialize in “mashers,” roving men who sexually harassed women. Sadly, the legal system was stacked against her and the men routinely were pardoned on “entrapment” grounds. Once, when yet another judge nullified her work by blaming her for flirting with her assailant, she hit the judge in the head with a blackjack and threatened a lawsuit. She wrote and starred in her own movie, Dregs of the City, promoted it against the orders of the Chicago Police Department, and was demoted and died inauspiciously from diabetes.
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