“Behind every great man there’s an even greater woman.” No one knows the exact origins of this saying, but it applies throughout history. Behind the scenes, women played aggressive roles in violent revolutions and uprisings. It was a young woman who struck the marching drum and led the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789, joined by a mob that besieged the palace in what would become one of the key events of the French Revolution. She was not the first woman, and definitely not the last, to take arms against oppression.
10. Nwanyeruwa – Leader of the Aba Women’s War
In the late 1920s, an elderly Igbo woman from Nigeria challenged British authority in West Africa. Her audacity sparked a short and violent war, a major crisis during colonial rule. It began in 1929, when a census man asked Nwanyeruwa to “count her goats, sheep, and people.” Traditionally, women in West Africa were not charged taxes nor required to answer census questions. Nwanyeruwa concluded she would soon be taxed. Enraged, she stirred other Igbo women from her village. It wasn’t long before the Aba Women’s War broke loose, an impetuous campaign meant to ensure women from the region wouldn’t be taxed.
For two fiery months, around 25,000 women protested against looming taxes and the power of the Warrant Chiefs. They chanted and danced, urging noblemen who collected taxes to resign. They pillaged European owned stores, broke into jailhouses, freed prisoners, attacked Native Courts run by colonial officials and even burned some of them to the ground. At least 50 women were shot dead by colonial police, and 50 others were severely wounded. Their sacrifice wasn’t in vain: after the protests, the British dropped their taxes, Warrant Chiefs were forced to resign and the overall position of women in West Africa saw great improvements.
9. Constance Markievicz – The Revolutionary Countess
An Anglo-Irish Countess, Constance Markievicz was born with a silver spoon in her mouth yet developed a sense of concern for the common man from a young age. It was in 1908 that she became involved in nationalist activities in Ireland, making it her goal to fight for freedom, women’s rights and Irish independence.
A revolutionary nationalist, socialist and suffragette, Constance was second-in-command of the 1916 Easter Rising. During the armed insurrection, she wounded a British sniper and surrendered to the authorities. She was taken into custody until trial and was the only woman out of the 70 captured to be thrown in solitary confinement.
The court sentenced Constance to death for her revolutionary activity, but was acquitted based on her gender. This is where contradictory documents step in. According to the prosecuting counsel she said, “I am only a woman, you cannot shoot a woman.” But court records claim she said, “I do wish you lot had the decency to shoot me.”
Whatever the truth, her beliefs didn’t keep her away from prison for long — she was court martialled during the Irish War of Independence. Records indicate she proudly admitted her guilt, saying “I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it.” She was released from prion in 1917.
Constance’s personal revolutionary war was fought on both the streets and on the political stage. She was one of the first women in history to hold a cabinet position as the Irish Republic’s Minister of Labour between 1919 and 1922. She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and was the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons, a position she refused.
8. Petra Herrera – Mexico’s Soldadera
During the Mexican Revolution, female soldiers called soldaderas played a monumental role in the success of both federal and rebel armies. Most carried equipment, cooked meals and set up camp, and some did plunge into combat alongside men. Although their military skills made them excellent fighters and tacticians, they often faced abuse due to their gender. One of them was Petra Herrera.
To hide her gender, she assumed the name of Pedro Herrera and wore men’s clothing. She particularly excelled in blowing up bridges and soon became the rebel army’s demolitions expert. Having earned herself a reputation as an exemplary leader, she unveiled her gender in 1914. Apparently, her fellow guerrilla fighters didn’t take the news well. She didn’t let this affect her, assuming leadership roles and combat responsibilities. Unfortunately, even though she was promoted to captain in Pancho Villa’s army and lead 200 men into battle, she wasn’t given credit for her accomplishments. What’s more, documents seem to have erased her name completely. Hesitant to offer such a position to a woman, Pancho Villa refused to promote her to general. In response, Petra left Pancho Villa and raised her own army of female soldiers. In 1914, she participated in the Second Battle of Torreon, leading a battalion of 400 women.
7. Celia Sanchez – “La Paloma”
Fighting alongside Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra, and organizing some of the Cuban Revolution’s key stages, was Celia Sanchez, although the rebels called her “La Paloma,” the Dove. She proved to be a fearless guerrilla fighter and an important decision-maker. After Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup, Celia joined the guerrilla forces in fighting against his regime. Notably, Celia was in charge of the Granma landing, choosing the arrival site for the famous yacht that transported 82 guerrilla members from Mexico to Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Batista’s regime in 1956.
Even though the two fought for the same cause, it wasn’t until 1957 that Celia and Fidel Castro met face to face. From that moment on, they remained inseparable. During the 1959 uprising that finally overthrew Batista’s government, Celia was in charge of logistics and resources and even led combat squads herself, fighting alongside Castro and Guevarra.
There have been numerous rumors of an affair between Celia and Castro, but none were ever confirmed. It seems their relationship was based on friendship and mutual respect. She stayed at his side as his trusted adviser, and Fidel Castro is said to have cried at her 1980 funeral.
6. Nadezhda Krupskaya – Bolshevik Activist
Objection and protest ran through Nadezhda Krupskaya’s veins. As a child, she played in front of the factory where her father worked and would often attack the manager with snowballs. She made a living teaching classes to industrial workers and became acquainted with Marxism after joining a series of underground circles. It was there that she met Lenin in 1894.
In 1895, while still in her twenties, Nadezdha was arrested and exiled to Siberia together with the other members of the Marxist organization named Union of the Struggle. It was in exile that she married Lenin, in 1898. After being released, she accompanied her husband throughout Europe while remaining in charge of Iskra, a Marxist newspaper. After World War I ended, the couple returned home. Nadezdha became a member of the Bolshevik Party, where she pressured the committee to spark the October Revolution in 1917, marking the beginning of the Russian Civil War.
Nadezhda helped set up the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class and never stopped spreading Bolshevik propaganda. She was Lenin’s most trusted adviser, and outlived her husband by 15 years before dying in 1939.
5. Vilma Lucila Espin – The “First Lady” of the Cuban Revolution
The very spirit of the revolutionary movement that overthrew Batista’s dictatorial regime, Vilma Lucila Espin is one of history’s most overlooked women. Better known as Raul Castro’s wife than for the important role she played in Cuba’s fate, Vilma was a trained chemical engineer from the Caribbean, an activist, feminist and guerrilla fighter.
Vilma rebelled against Batista’s government and organized the revolutionary movement in the Oriente province. She soon assumed greater responsibilities, acting as the messenger who mediated Fidel Castro’s plans for the revolutionary 26th of July Movement. Vilma joined the uprising at Santiago de Cuba in 1956 and fought alongside Fidel and Raul Castro in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
She married Raul Castro in 1959, and together they had four children. After the revolution’s success, Vilma continued to fight for women’s rights and made public appearances wearing army clothes and shouldering a rifle, busting the myth of the conservative, obedient Cuban wife. She played political roles in the new government and founded the Federation of the Cuban Women. Dubbed the “First Lady” of the Cuban Revolution, a prominent member of the Cuban Communist Party and an advocate for women’s rights, Vilma never stopped fighting.
4. Blanca Canales – the Daughter of Freedom
One of the few women in history to lead a rebellion against the United States, Blanca Canales was a nationalist who believed Puerto Rico should be an independent nation. She joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in 1931, where she left her mark by organizing a women’s branch, the Daughters of Freedom. It wasn’t long before the Nationalists began planning an armed revolution, and Blanca joined the Nationalist Party’s revolt against American rule.
In 1950, Blanca armed herself and marched into the town of Jayuya. She and her fellow protesters took over the police station, burned down the police office and cut down the telephone wires, all the while waving the Puerto Rican flag. Puerto Rico was declared an independent nation, La Republica de Puerto Rico. It didn’t last long — after only three days, President Truman declared martial law and the army moved in. The Nationalists resisted, but were captured and sentenced to life in prison, while the town of Jayuya was left in ruins. The media and the President referred to the events as “an incident between Puerto Ricans.” After almost 17 years in prison, Blanca Canales was pardoned in 1967.
3. Comandante Ramona – The Petite Warrior
On New Year’s Day, 1994, a petite woman dressed in vividly colored native clothing and wearing a balaclava exposing only her eyes led the Zapatista Army of National Liberation into San Cristobal de las Casas, taking control of the Mexican town. Comandante Ramona was the nom de guerre of the guerrilla fighter and activist who led her people in demanding rights for the indigenous Chiapas and protesting against the North American Free Trade Agreement.
After 12 days of violence and approximately 150 deaths, the rebellion was put down and the Zapatista Army retreated to the jungle. In February 1994, Comandante Ramona was sent to discuss a peace treaty with the Mexican government. They couldn’t have picked a better representative — the media called her The Petite Warrior and, thanks to her speech, women’s rights and the position of indigenous Chiapas in the region were improved.
2. Nanny of the Maroons – Warrior Queen of Jamaica
A Jamaican National Hero and a prolific name in the Jamaican resistance against British occupation in the 18th century, legends and folklore tend to depict Nanny of the Maroons in contradictory ways. Some stories describe her as a fearless warrior with excellent camouflage techniques, others as a bloodthirsty woman and a sorceress who could catch bullets with her bare hands. As always, the truth is somewhere in-between. Born around 1680 in Ghana, she was sold as a slave in Jamaica. She was a military leader, the strategist of the guerrilla warfare campaign against the British between 1720 and 1740, and a symbol of unity and strength in a time of crisis.
Maroons are descendants of West African slaves who fled the plantations and started their own communities on the island of Jamaica. Nanny escaped her plantation and founded a small community in the mountains that would become the center of the resistance, Nanny Town. Better known among the rebels as Granny Nanny or Queen Nanny, she led attacks on plantations and European settlements, freeing around 1,000 slaves. It wasn’t long before enraged landlords and the British colonial administration reacted. They organized hunting parties and war was declared against the Windward Maroons. The First Maroon War lasted between 1720 and 1739.
In 1733, African-American slave William Cuffee received a handsome reward after declaring he had shot Nanny. No one really knows whether he lied or Nanny simply survived the gunshot, but according to a historical document, she was alive and well in 1740 when she received 500 acres of land for her and her people from the British.
1. Maria Nikiforova – Ukraine’s Anarchist Revolution Leader
An anarchist partisan leader history books have neglected, Maria Nikifora made a name for herself during the Russian Revolution and the Ukrainian Civil War. Better known among her fellow revolutionaries as simply Marusya, she was about 15 when she joined an anarchist-communist group and began participating in armed attacks. It was the beginning of a long string of wrongdoings that she took great pride in. She led a suicide mission aboard a train, but the bomb failed to detonate. In 1908 she was put on trial for the murder of a policeman and complicity in a number of hold-ups, and was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor. Maria was imprisoned at St. Petersburg and then exiled to Siberia, where she led a riot inside the Narymsk prison in 1910, from which she managed to escape and cross the river to Vladivostok. She fled to the United States and then to Spain, where she participated in an anarchist bank robbery.
Maria returned to Russia in 1917 just in time for the Russian Revolution, from where she fled to her hometown of Alexandrovsk and played a huge role in setting up a revolutionary movement that opposed Bolshevik power in Ukraine. By 1918, Maria was already a famous anarchist military leader. She organized the Black Guards, an anarchist fighting force that hunted down Army officers and landlords.
She also organized a detachment known as the Free Combat Druzhina, which fought against both the Germans and the Russian Imperial Army. For two whole weeks she led her anarchists throughout Ukraine, stirring up street fights and urging people to take up arms against the regime. Moscow banned her from continuing her activity, but she just couldn’t stay away. In 1919, Maria was captured in Sevastopol and sentenced to execution by firing squad.