A number of historical women can immediately be called to mind if people were asked about famous feminists in history. Susan B. Anthony is famous for her aggressive campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the second half of the 19th Century. Clara Barton demanded equal pay while working at the U.S. Patent Office, then turned around to become one of history’s favorite nurses. And Florence Nightingale is a household name as the founder of the Red Cross.
Given the names people come up with, you could be forgiven for thinking that Feminism was a 19th century invention. The truth is that Feminism is far older than that. In fact, it’s pretty much as old as dirt. To prove it, here are my pick for the Top Ten Pre-Industrial Revolution Feminists.
10. Hatshepsut (1508-1458 B.C.)
Hatshepsut was a Feminist in the days when dirt was still high tech for most of the world. Her husband (and brother), Thutmose II had been Pharaoh of Egypt during the bad old days, when the empire was in a serious state of doldrums. Trade was terrible, culture was lagging, and no one really felt like doing that funky dance with their arms. Thutmose made a few minor attempts to Do Things, but aside from having a few competent generals stop a couple uprisings and building one decent gate, Thutmose Thutmostly wasn’t.
When he had the good grace to die and get out of the way, Hatshepsut refused to simply chill out and play the mourning widow. When her too young nephew/stepson by Thutmose II’s other wife was declared Pharaoh, she stepped up as the “co-regent.” She played nice for seven years, then basically told the good ol’ boys club to get bent and had herself anointed as the undisputed King of Egypt.
Note I said “King.” During her two decade reign she wore a fake beard, dressed in men’s clothing, kicked the teeth out of several annoying neighbors, and re-established trade routes that made Egypt fabulously rich. Most importantly of all, she wound up building so many of Egypt’s famous monuments and wonders that nearly every Pharaoh for the next 1500 years thought it would be easier to erase her from the history books than to live up to her example.
Needless to say, they utterly failed. In fact, many museums have larger collections of her artifacts than the rest of their entire Egypt collection combined. I have no doubts that her mummy was buried flipping everyone the bird.
9. Artemisia I of Caria (5th century B.C.)
Xerxes means “Rules Over Heroes” and that was no exaggeration. Though he is most famous for losing a fight with three hundred half naked Spartans, the truth is that Xerxes is one of history’s badasses. The man managed to build a half mile long bridge connecting the Middle East to Europe in a time when “bridge” meant “push a tree over the creek” just so he could march the world’s largest and most diverse army across it.
But we’re not here to talk about Xerxes. Let’s talk about the one person willing to argue with Xerxes, Artemisia.
After crushing the Spartans and mangling a Greek fleet at Artemisium, Xerxes had met his objective by capturing Athens. He then called his commanders together and said, “Hey guys! New plan. Kill the Greek Navy.”
All of his commanders nodded their heads and said, “Great idea, boss! Don’t kill us!” Well, everyone but Queen Artemisia I of Caria. Reminding everyone that Xerxes had achieved every last one of his objectives, she pointed out that if he simply waited, the Greek Navy would starve itself out of existence. A battle, on the other hand, might play right into the hands of the wily Greek admiral Thermistocles and allow untrustworthy Persian allies to totally FUBAR the situation. Xerxes needed to leave an army garrison in Greece and go home a victor.
Xerxes praised her wisdom… then ordered the attack to take place anyway. He then watched as Artemisia proved to be right on every count. The Persian navy fell apart because of blunders by Persian allies and Thermistocles being a sneaky SOB. Artemisia, despite her objection to the battle, fought like a lion. When the battle turned against the Persians, she deliberately rammed allied ships in order to preserve her own expert fleet, then found the body of Xerxes’ brother so it could be properly buried at home. Seeing this, Xerxes was heard to lament, “My men have turned into women and my women men.”
Xerxes was so impressed by Artemisia’s performance that after the battle he gifted her a suit of armor, listened when she said “GTFO” a second time, and appointed her guardian over his own children as the world’s first combat nanny.
8. Nicola de la Haye (1150?-1230)
Remember Robin Hood, the bandit who stood up to Prince John in his efforts to become King John? Yeah? Well, while the Sheriff of Nottingham was proving to be a prize fool, Nicola de la Haye was Sheriff of Lincolnshire.
That’s right, in a time when English women had two options (become a housewife or become a nun), Nicola was The Man. Oh, and that was just her side gig. Her main job was to be the commander of all of the associated military forces of Lincoln Castle. She proved how good she was at it twice, first by defeating a siege of the castle and then later by putting down a rebellion of several barons. By the time her thirty years of playing “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” came to an end, Prince John was King John, the Magna Carta’s ink was drying, she’d outlived two husbands, and John-boy had refused to let her retire from her role as official badass.
7. Bettisia Gozzadini (1209-1261)
Bettisia Gozzadini had a crazy idea. She believed that women could be lawyers. To prove it she donned men’s clothing, snuck into the University of Bologna, and graduated at the top of the class of 1236. It is likely she then had her class ring inscribed “Surprise, suckahs!”
After graduating, she conducted private law lectures in her home. Several of her former instructors attended and were so impressed they asked her to return to the University, this time as an instructor. At first she refused, but eventually she was talked into it, becoming history’s first female professor. Her lectures were so popular she wound up having to teach in the town square because none of the class rooms were large enough to hold her students.
6. Helen of Anjou (1236?-1314)
During the “Dark Ages” in Europe almost no one went to school. Even most nobility were illiterate. So you can bet that if anyone was going to school back then that person had (or pretended to have) a pee-pee.
You can imagine people’s shock when Helen, who was then the queen of several regions of modern Serbia, established a girls-only school. She then proceeded to create the first library in the Serbian court, built two monasteries and generally made certain everyone knew who was boss. Eventually she “retired” by becoming a nun, thereby establishing the rule that NO ONE messes with a nun teaching at a girl’s school. She would eventually be canonized as Saint Helen by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
5. Balaram Das (15th century)
So far everyone on this list has been a badass woman proving the girls could hang with the boys just fine. Balaram Das was neither a badass nor a woman. He was, however, history’s first Feminist scholar. An Indian poet back in the 1400s, he wrote the Laxmi Puran.
In this epic poem, the Goddess Lakshmi makes a house call on a woman from one of the bottom-most castes of Indian society. For this kind gesture she was thrown out of the sacred temples by her husband and brother. Incensed, Lakshmi then went on a rampage that ultimately forced the two gods to relent and let her back in.
For daring to suggest that women not only could, but in fact should stand up for themselves, Balaram Das would be declared the greatest poet of his age. He would inspire the Odisha Feminist movement 400 years before European women started to organize.
4. Laura Cereta (1469-1499)
Laura Cereta was a dangerous, dangerous woman. Famous in Verona and Venice, she was considered by her peers to be one of the best scholars of her time. Laura wrote a few billion letters and speeches (well, not really a billion, but a lot) about the lives of women and their education, positions in marriage, place in war, and other pertinent subjects. Throughout them she had one central theme. Women were, in fact, the equals of men.
Naturally, this earned her a lot of haters. Laura basically responded to their criticism and vitriol with eloquently expressed “And the horse you rode in on” rejoinders. Her ultimate insult to her opponents would mark her place in Feminist literature. She proceeded to pull together the best of her writings, put them together in a book whose language was “colorful,” used it to soundly thump her intellectual foes in effigy, and titled it “Death of an Ass”.
3. “Jane Anger” (1589)
No one knows who Jane Anger really was, but one thing is clear. She was sick and tired of your crap. This mysterious English woman’s Elizabethan era pamphlet Her Protection For Women ripped English men a new one for, frankly, being a bunch of sex-crazed chauvinistic pigs. Her pamphlet started by completely deconstructing the hitherto masculine language of male writings about women, then crafted an entirely new rhetorical structure based on feminine language. She then used her new female rhetorical style to respond to direct quotes from the imminent male scholars of the day, pointing out that the men of her day were pretty much a lot of lecherous sots that blamed women for their own lack of self-discipline. “If we clothe ourselves in sackcloth, and truss up our hair in dishclouts, Venerians [read: players] will nevertheless pursue their pastime. If we hide our breasts, it must be with leather, for no cloth can keep their long nails out off [sic] our bosoms.”
Sick burn, bro!
2. Christina, Queen of Sweden (1626-1689)
Many people tend to look at Queen Elizabeth I of England as an early Feminist. Christina, Queen of Sweden, made Elizabeth look like a conservative spinster. Christina inherited the throne at the age of 6. Being so young, a regency council was selected to rule on her behalf.
Christina quickly proved to be more than anyone had bargained for. She happily spent her childhood studying more than ten hours a day. At fourteen her tutor wrote about her bright intelligence, describing her as “not at all like a female.” When Christina took over at eighteen she proceeded to tear up nearly everything the regency council had done. She ended several wars favorably, joined the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, and announced she had no interest whatsoever in marrying and producing an heir, instead simply naming a cousin as her heir presumptive.
So far this could be a carbon copy of Queen Elizabeth’s playbook, but it is at this point that she starts leaving ‘Lizzy in the dust. Acting was scandalous in that day, so naturally Christina would take on the title role of plays and perform them for her court. She had little time for niceties like grooming or sleep, and worked long hours ruling Sweden. When she did bother to sleep she shared her bed with another woman who, according to Christina herself, was HAWT.
After seventeen years as queen, Christina upset things yet again by deciding to abdicate. The Council talked her out of it, but only after promising to stop nagging her about marrying. This lasted for only another three years before she packed her bags, put on men’s clothes, flipped off her cousin and heir, and left the country.
She then spent the next thirty-five years of her life traveling Europe, engaging in scandalous intellectual discussions with men her own age, patronizing artists, writing essays about famous historical figures, protecting Jews, Muslims, and heretics, and generally refusing to behave herself. When the Pope himself tried to put a stop to her carrying on in such a morally questionable fashion she responded as only Christina could.
She bought a prison in Rome and turned it into a public theatre.
1. Sophia Elisabet Brenner (1659-1730)
Sophia Elisabet Brenner was born lucky. Her father, an unusual man for his times, saw her potential and pulled strings for her when she was still a child. As a result of this she became the first girl to openly attend an all-male school. There she proceeded to learn not just to read and write, but to do it in six languages while composing poetic verse.
After finishing school she married an artist and opened Sweden’s first salon, hosting Sweden’s elite literati at swanky parties. There she practiced poetry and sharpened her wit. In 1693 she wrote and published “The Justified Defense of the Female Sex,” the first full length book on Feminism to be mass produced.