Rejected Princesses: Exploring the Historical Hellions Disney Won't Touch

Author and illustrator Jason Porath brings to light a courageous collection of unsung heroines in his popular blog and book, Rejected Princesses. Here he introduces us to seven fearlessly fierce females that history should not forget.
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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 

Moremi Ajasoro illustration by Jason Porath

Moremi Ajasoro was a heroine of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

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

Mariya Oktyabrskaya Illustration by Jason Porath

After the Nazis killed her husband, Mariya Oktyabrskaya fought back from inside a tank she named "Fighting Girlfriend."

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

Shajar al-Durr Illustration By Jason Porath

Strategic and savvy, Shajar al-Durr went from being a former concubine to becoming the first female Muslim monarch in Egypt. 

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

Neerja Bhanot Illustration Courtesy Jason Porath

At just 23 years old, flight attendant Neerja Bhanot protected hundreds of people on board a hijacked plane. 

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

Petra Herrera Illustration By Jason Porath

Petra Herrera was a heroic Mexican revolutionary who eventually formed her own all-women brigade. 

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

Khutulun Illustration by Jason Porath

Khutulun was a skilled warrior and the great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan.

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

Gracis Mendes Nasi Illustration by Jason Porath

Gracis Mendes Nasi helped smuggle hundreds of Jews out of Inquisition-era Spain and Portugal.

Rejected Princesses By Jason Porath

Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

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. 

Visit the Rejected Princesses blog, and follow on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. The book, Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics, which features 100 such women (the vast majority of whom are not on the website) can be purchased here.