I love collecting stories. My bookshelves are overflowing with powerful characters and twisting plots, but nothing captures my imagination better than real-life figures with extraordinary tales. To celebrate #InternationalWomensDay, I spent the day with my sister and nieces discussing awe-inspiring historical female figures.
Here are our four favourites!
IRENA SENDLER (1910-2008)
Irena Sendler was a Polish social worker and activist who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Holocaust, by providing them with fake passports and smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Eventually, Nazi agents grew suspicious of Sendler’s activities and arrested her, brutally beating her and breaking both her arms and legs in an attempt to get her to reveal the details of the children she’d smuggled out of the country. Sendler never revealed anything about her work or the children she had helped, and was sentenced to death. She escaped on the day of her execution, thanks to friends and co-workers bribing her guards, and continued her work until the end of the war.
Khutulun was an ancient noblewoman, warrior and wrestler, and the great-great-granddaughter of Gengis Khan. She was the favourite child and advisor of her father, Kaidu, and she often accompanied him on campaigns. It was from her that he sought most of his battle strategy and political advice, and she was his choice of successor when he died. She was denied the throne by her male relatives and spent the rest of her life resisting the succession of her brother and cousin.
She is described by Marco Polo as: a superb warrior, one who could ride into enemy ranks and snatch a captive as easily as a hawk snatches a chicken… so strong and brave that in all her father’s realm there was no man who could outdo her in feats of strength.
Khutulun insisted that any man who wanted to marry her would have to beat her in a wrestling match. However, if she beat him, he would have to give up his horse. She amassed 10,000 horses.
QUEEN ARAWELO (C. 15th Century)
Arawelo was the first-born daughter of a Somalian king. He died without a male heir and so Arawelo took over the kingdom herself. Her first act as queen was dismissing the traditional gender roles and filling her government with women.
When the men in Somalia protested the prominence of women under Arawelo’s rule, the women staged a kingdom-wide walkout, abandoning their homes for a day to prove just how valuable they were.
Under Arawelo’s rule, Somalia enjoyed a long period of prosperity and her history is now shrouded in legend. A variation of her name is now the Somalian term for a girl or woman who is assertive and independent.
CORNELIA SORABJI (1866-1945)
Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to practice law in Britain and India.
Her mother was devoted to the cause of women’s education, and established several girls’ schools in Puna. It was through her mother’s contacts that Cornelia was able to become the first woman to take the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford University in 1892.
Two years later, Cornelia returned to India and dedicated her time to the rights and education of women and children. Over her twenty year career, it is estimated that she helped over 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, often for no fee.
If anyone is looking for a book on historical women, I highly recommend ‘Bygone Badass Broads’ by Mackenzie Lee or ‘Rejected Princesses’ by Jason Porath. They’re full of enlightening and entertaining tales of amazing (and often little-known) women in history. They are both well worth the read!
Who is your favourite woman in history and what’s her story?