It all began with Lilith, the lesser-known first wife of Adam who was kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Adam insisted she lie beneath him, but she wanted to lie next to him and be equal. Because she refused to be subservient to Adam, Lilith left the Garden of Eden and became associated with the archangel Samael. We know of Lilith because she is represented as a demon in many religious mysticism texts; she is never mentioned in the Bible. It doesn’t get much more badass than getting rejected from the Bible, does it?
Tomyris (sixth century B.C.E.) was a widowed queen who ruled over a nomadic Eastern Iranian tribe called the Massagetae. They were a warrior tribe notable for their battle skills and cannibalistic tendencies (they had an honored ritual of sacrificing their elderly and eating them in a stew). The tribe occupied what became modern-day Iran, and in 529 B.C.E. they were the next targets in Cyrus the Great’s Persian empire expansion. At first, Cyrus proposed to Tomyris in a thinly veiled attempt to seize her land. She rejected him, and he declared war. Cyrus set up a trap by sending his weakest soldiers to lay out a fancy banquet, luring the Massagetae warriors into drinking themselves into a stupor. Led by Tomyris’s son Spargapises, the Massagetae troops took the bait—hook, line, and sinker—and were slaughtered in their wine-fueled haze by Cyrus’s soldiers. Spargapises managed to avoid being killed, but Tomyris was pissed. She sent Cyrus a warning message to release her son and leave their lands, which Cyrus ignored. After he was captured, Spargapises killed himself, which further fueled Tomyris’s rage. She retaliated in a fiery rampage that resulted in Cyrus’s decapitation and crucifixion. Legend says that she stuffed his head into a wine bag full of human blood and laughed, “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.”
The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.E.) was crowned at eighteen and became a ruler legendary for her intellect and beauty. Characterized as a cunning seductress who secured lovers (including Julius Caesar and Mark Antony) to ensure her political power, Cleopatra quickly overthrew all other claimants to the throne in a time when it was customary for siblings to marry and co-rule. It was rumored that the twenty-two-year-old Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a rug and smuggled into Caesar’s bedroom after he was appointed dictator of Rome, to win his allegiance for the Egyptian civil war. It worked: the fifty-two-year-old Roman ruler fell for her and she was appointed sole ruler of Egypt after he defeated the pharaoh. When Antony summoned her after Caesar’s assassination, she floated down the river to him in a gilded ship filled with flowers and servants, presenting herself in the likeness of the goddess Venus. Legend has it he was captivated as soon as he saw her. Now there’s a woman who knew the importance of branding.
Cleopatra held Egypt together in a time of political turmoil. She was the last ruler during Egypt’s defiance of the Roman Empire’s expansion, she spoke Egyptian in a time when all other rulers spoke only Greek, and she successfully claimed she was the reincarnation of the goddess Isis. Her life ended as dramatically as she lived it, in a double suicide with Mark Antony—he by his own sword, upon hearing a false rumor of her death; she by inviting a poisonous asp bite while in captivity after the Roman Octavius successfully defeated Egypt.
Boudica was a British queen of the Iceni tribe during the golden age of the Roman Empire in 60 C.E. After the death of her husband, King Prasutagus, the alliance between the Roman Empire and the British island tribe fell apart and the Romans moved in, pillaging the island. Boudica was flogged and her two daughters were raped; this drove her to a bloody rampage for revenge. She rallied more than two hundred thousand from the British tribes to battle the Roman forces. Brutal tactics—decapitating and mounting enemies’ heads onto their chariots—became a hallmark of her army. Boudica’s forces left an estimated eighty thousand dead in its wake and burned three major cities to the ground—including what is now London. After Rome got over its disbelief that a woman could lead such a rebellion, their soldiers took down her mob, yet Boudica disappeared, never to be heard from again.
Empress Wu Zetian (624–705) rose to become the first and only female Emperor of China after joining the palace at the age of fourteen as a junior concubine to Tang emperor Taizong. Known for her ruthless political ambition, Zetian was said to have begun her ascent by murdering her infant daughter and charging the crime to the existing empress—who was then executed by dismemberment and drowned in a vat of wine (no, Zetian was not messing around). She eradicated most of the opposing old aristocratic guard and at least fifteen claimants to the throne by forcing them to fall on their own swords in front of her as punishment for treason.
First acting as the empress dowager when her own son ascended to the throne, Zetian threw out the title (and her son) and declared herself the sole Empress of China, founding her own dynasty (Zhou) at the age of sixty-five. Despite literally dismembering her challengers, Zetian gained the loyalty of the men she recruited by expanding the imperial service test to include men of diverse backgrounds, so they were promoted for their talents instead of by birthright. Her power grab was met without resistance, and during her short rule of fifteen years China expanded both globally and socially in a positive manner. Since the level of her power and ambition was unseen in women of the time, it’s possible that the claims of her ruthlessness are greatly exaggerated—then again, who isn’t afraid of a powerful woman who knows what she wants?
Lady Godiva (1040–1067) was an eleventh-century English noblewoman who ponied up for her people, literally. Born into a wealthy family, she was one of the few female landowners of her time. Godiva married the Earl of Mercia, Leofric, who was not a very nice lord over the tenants of their land. When Leofric levied an additional tax on the people of Coventry just to pay for the king’s guard, Godiva pleaded with him to lift the debt. He challenged her that if she rode through the town naked, he would cancel the tax. So she mounted a white horse and rode through the town with only her long golden hair as a cover, to save the people of Coventry. Legend has it Leofric then lifted all the taxes. Once again, a woman’s courage saves the day.
Great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, Khutulun (1260–1306) became a legend among the nomadic Mongol people as an undefeated wrestler of suitors. Khutulun was also known for her impressive athleticism in horsemanship, archery, and wrestling. At the time, women in Mongolian culture were trained to participate in battles on the field; archery on horseback was their co...