Women of Steel

It’s fiercely satisfying to read about women who obliterated stereotypes. Their exploits encourage others to look beyond the roles society prescribes the sexes.

And there’s no shortage of biases: every generation and culture has created its own set of assumptions. It’s imperative to be aware of the lens we view history through. What gender roles does our culture encourage us to follow? What about our family? Our friends?

This programming effects how we react to the stories we’re told. A warrior woman in one culture might be an oddity, something to distrust, whereas in another her choice might be acceptable, if not expected. In modern day western culture, people are searching for these women, eager to hear stories from around the world we were simply never told. It’s part of the growing need to shake the stereotype that women are weak and incapable of making decisions, and therefore in need of male guardianship. For us their accomplishments are not anomalies but confirmation of women’s abilities.

In some cases, these historical female warriors were successful despite patriarchal attitudes, but there are also cultures that supported them. No matter the circumstances, however, they were defiant in the face of terrible odds. Their legends survived and are verified in documentation.

They existed and are still a source of strength and inspiration.

The Trung Sisters:

The Trung sisters are symbols of national pride in modern day Vietnam. In the 1st Century, these fierce women led the first rebellion against the Chinese Han Dynasty’s forces after nearly 150 years of total domination.

At this point in history, Vietnam’s traditions supported a matriarchal family system. Women inherited property and were political leaders. As the daughters of a powerful lord and General, the sisters became experts in weaponry, martial arts and military tactics. They grew up understanding the art of war. The Han dynasty, however, followed rigid and patriarchal Confucian values. Tensions grew as the Chinese raised taxes and imposed their societal mores upon the Vietnamese people.

According to Vietnamese history, the breaking point occurred when Trung Trac’s (the eldest) husband was executed for protesting new taxes. Infuriated, she and her sister, Trung Nhi, gathered an army. True to their matriarchal upbringing, they had 36 female generals, one of whom was their mother.

Riding into battle on elephants, even the Chinese considered them to be ferocious warriors. Their bravery and mastery of martial arts inspired their soldiers. Within one year they had taken 65 northern Citadels and established an independent state. For three years they ruled, with their first goal to reestablish much simpler, traditional Vietnamese laws.

In 43AD the Chinese sent a large, seasoned, and well-equipped army to recapture the lost lands. The sisters were unable to defeat this overwhelming threat. Legend says they committed suicide rather than be taken captive.

They were never forgotten. Every year a festival is held in honour of their courage and determination.


Grace O’Malley:

Commonly known as Gráinne Mhaol, Grace O’Malley was a legendary 16th Century Irish pirate queen. Legend tells the tale of her noble seafaring father refusing to let her sail with him because her hair would get tangled in the ropes. In response, she cut off her hair. Her nickname Mhaol actually means ‘having cropped hair’ or ‘bald’. There was no denying her love of the sea. In defiance of traditional gender roles, she became an accomplished sailor and daring leader.

Married at the age of 16, she returned to her family’s home with her three children when her husband died nine years later. By then she’d inspired so much loyalty that many of her dead husband’s men followed her there.

Her next stunning move was to marry another powerful man, divorce him one year later, somehow taking his castle for herself. She even retained her ex-husband’s loyalty. Yet another legend has her giving birth to her son from this union on the high seas. The next day Algerian pirates attacked. She jumped from her bed and led her crew to capture the assailant’s ship.

With her many ships and castles in Clew Bay, she controlled access to important ports. Merchants were forced to pay a toll, or even give their cargoes to Grace. When she resisted English authority in Ireland she was imprisoned twice and arrangements were made for her execution.

By this time she was in her sixties. When she was finally released an organized attack from the English took her ships and her castles. Deprived of her livelihood, Grace wrote to Queen Elizabeth and sailed to London. She was granted an audience, given back her properties, and permitted to raid French and Spanish ships.

It’s no surprise that documentation suggests she was still a pirate at the age of 71.


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Lozen was a legendary warrior who inspired awe and courage; her story highlights a turbulent culture clash that mainstream North American history must still fully embrace without flinching. Everyone needs to learn about this hero’s epic struggle, and the many others who lived, fought, and died with her.

Nobody knows her birth name. Instead, we have the warrior title the Chihenne Chiricahua Apache gave this fearless woman. It means one who has stolen horses in a raid; she was a gifted rider, warrior, tactician, and midwife. Fighting alongside her brother, she was said to have the ability to pinpoint the exact location of their enemies. He called her his ‘right hand, strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.’

In the mid-19th Century, hostilities between the Apache nations and the US Army erupted. After twenty years of fighting, peace talks placed the Apache on the Ojo Caliente reservation in their ancestral lands, but in 1877 they were suddenly forced to move. The San Carlos reservation was notorious for its deplorable conditions. Lozen, along with many of the Apache, chose to leave and go to war.

During this time, she led women and children across the surging Rio Grande and escorted a pregnant woman across the Chihuahuan Desert. She not only helped deliver the child, but narrowly eluded Mexican and US cavalry. Upon reaching their destination, she discovered her brother had died in battle. She returned to the reservation after searching for survivors, only to leave once again with Geronimo in 1881. She fought alongside the legendary Apache warrior for 5 years before their final surrender.

As a prisoner of war, Lozen was sent to Florida before being transferred to Alabama in 1888. The next year she died of tuberculosis.

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