It’s said that “well behaved women seldom make history” – but ex-DreamWorks animator Jason Porath has a corollary: “Ill-behaved women seldom make musicals.” Having grown bored with the same repetitive movies from the animation industry, Porath left to construct an alternative, basing them on historical (and legendary) women. For three years, he’s researched, illustrated, and shone a light on hundreds of unsung women from the back catalog of history – all unlikely candidates for the animated princess treatment – on his blog (and now book), Rejected Princesses.
Here are seven unsung historical heroines you should know:
Moremi Ajasoro (12th century, Nigeria): the Spy Queen of the Yoruba
Witnessing her tribe suffer multiple attacks from otherworldly creatures, this intrepid queen stood her ground, instead of fleeing like the rest of her countrymen. The creatures kidnapped her and she learned the truth: they were merely neighboring tribesmen in elaborate outfits. After getting their king drunk, she undertook a dangerous journey home, to spread word that their enemies were no spirits, but mere men in suits – and extremely flammable suits, at that.
Mariya Oktyabrskaya (1905-1944, Russia): Hell Hath No Fury Like a Tank-Driving Widow
After this Soviet woman’s husband was killed by the Nazis, she wrote to Stalin, informing him that she had sold all their belongings to finance a tank. “I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’,” she wrote, “and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.”
Stalin agreed with a quickness.
She and Fighting Girlfriend proved a capable and ruthless duo, killing an estimated 30 Nazis in their first outing. Mariya would regularly get out of the T-34 tank in the middle of firefights and fix her, before hopping back in to continue her rampage.
Shajar al-Durr (c.1220-1257, Egypt) – the Sultan who Ransomed a King
When her Sultan husband died unexpectedly, his former concubine had two serious problems on her hands: first, her underage son couldn’t take the throne; second, France had just invaded as part of the Seventh Crusade. What’s a woman to do? Well, if you’re Shajar al-Durr, you conceal your husband’s death (claiming he’s sick and insisting all messages go through you), quietly forge an alliance with the military, and go about destroying your foes.
The result? A crushing defeat for Louis IX, made all the worse when Shajar al-Durr ransomed him back to France for 30% of France’s GDP. From there, Shajar al-Durr established the Mamluk Sultanate and ruled in her own name until her death.
Neerja Bhanot (1963-1983, India/Pakistan): Heroine of the Hijack
On September 5, 1986, armed Libyan hijackers boarded Pan Am Flight 73. Realizing the danger, 23-year-old chief flight attendant Neerja Bhanot informed the pilots, who escaped – which left her the senior ranking on the grounded flight, surrounded by angry terrorists. She kept her cool, protecting the hundreds of people on board. After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire, and she gave her life protecting many as they escaped.
Petra Herrera (late 1800s-early 1900s, Mexico): Warrior Queen of the Soldaderas
Wanting to be a part of the Mexican Revolution, spirited warrior Petra Herrera disguised herself as a man to join the armed forces – only to grow in reputation sufficiently so that she could shed such disguises. Starting out as a demolition expert, she climbed the ladder and was largely responsible for the sack of Torreon, one of the turning points of the revolution. She eventually formed her own all-women brigade, which she safeguarded fiercely against foes external and internal.
Khutulun (1260-1306, Mongolia): the Wrestler Princess
This great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan had one simple rule: if you wanted to marry her, you had to beat her in wrestling – but if she beat you, you owed her a hundred horses. She ended up unmarried with 10,000 horses. Regarded by her father Kaidu as more reliable than any of his sons, Khutulun left quite the impression on her fellow Mongols, as well as history’s greatest tourist, Marco Polo, who met her personally.
Her story would later be twisted and mutated in various media, the latest being the Netflix series Marco Polo, which cast her in a star-crossed lovers romantic subplot with an invented Mongolian prince. (Spoiler: it never actually happened)
Gracis Mendes Nasi (1510-1569, Portugal/Italy/Turkey): the Oskar Schindler of the Inquisition
Wealthy, brilliant, and well-positioned, this Jewish heiress to a Mediterranean-spanning mercantile empire used her standing to smuggle hundreds of Jews out of Inquisition-era Spain and Portugal. Keeping her religion a secret in public, she constructed an elaborate network of safe houses and shipping routes to keep her people safe. Weathering the political and financial dangers of bribing an enormous number of would-be enemies, she nevertheless financed many books, schools, and synagogues, even attempting to start a Jewish state in Tiberias, Israel.