The Top 10 Women Outliers of History (Part 2)

Continued from part oneMarywollstonecraft

6. Cleopatra


“For her actual beauty, it is said, was not itself so remarkable that none compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contract of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistable, the attraction of her person…and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching.” -Plutarch about Cleopatra

I think most of the world is aware of Cleopatra, so she’s doing pretty great for a dead queen from Ancient Egypt. Cleopatra started her epicness by helping her father, Ptolemy XII, regain the throne after he was expelled from power. Dad died in 51 B.C., so Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, took the thone. Unfortunately, as often happened in the Egyptian royal family, Ptolemy expelled Cleopatra so that he could be supreme Pharaoh. However, Cleopatra created an army in Syria, got Julius Caesar on her side, and stood against her brother. Ptolemy XIII was killed in 47 B.C., and Cleopatra was pronounced queen.

Although she and Caesar were thought to be lovers, Cleopatra married her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV, as was custom. She had a child she named Caesarian, thought to be Caesar’s child. Then Caesar was assassinated and Ptolemy XIV was poisoned, so Cleopatra married Mark Antony even though he was already married to Octavia.

Octavius, Octavia’s brother, declared war on Egypt because Antony left Octavia for Cleopatra. Cleopatra was defeated in the Battle of Actium, Mark Antony committed suicide upon thinking Cleopatra had died, and Cleopatra killed herself as a result.

So, though the ending is sad, let’s recap: Cleopatra helped her father regain power, ruled Egypt with her brother until he kicked her out, took Egypt back from him by force, convinced foreign dignitaries to aid her cause, and basically ruled Egypt alone (an 11-year-old brother king does not count). Awesome.

7. Catherine the Great


Catherine was originally a German princess. She married the Russian Grand Duke Pete of Holstein in 1745. He became King Peter III of Russia in 1762, but was not well-liked, as he antagonized his people and the courts. So, what did Catherine do? She got the imperial guard and overthrew her husband, of course, becoming Empress Catherine II.

Catherine didn’t stop there though. She didn’t idly sit on her throne, she made improvements to Russia. She won two wars against the Ottoman Empire, increased Russia’s land holdings, promoted westernization, and did so much for the country that she’s more widely known as Catherine the Great than Catherine II.

After the Pugachew rebellion, Catherine attempted to decentralize the government and even tried to form three branches of government, though this attempt failed. She was also interested in education and culture, established boarding schools, licensed public publishing houses, founded hospitals and medical colleges, and led the war in disease control.

Unfortunately, right as she was preparing to fight France during the French Revolution in 1796, Catherine suffered a stroke and died. She was succeeded by her son, Paul.

8. Chien-Shiung Wu

Scanned at the American Institute of Physics, Emilio Segre Visual Archives.

If you’re like me, you may not be as well-versed in Chien-Shiung Wu’s history as the rest of the ladies on this list, but rest assured, she’s awesome.

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in 1912 in China, received her B.S. in 1934 and traveled to the U.S. in 1936. She received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and eventually became a professor at Princeton in 1944. Chien worked on the Manhattan Project during the war, held several honorary positions at multiple Chinese Universities, and became a professor of physics at Columbia University.

Chien is also credited as being the first woman elected president of the American Physical Society. She became a full professor at Columbia in 1957, was the first woman awarded the Research Corporation Award, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and received an honorary doctor of science degree from Princeton. In 1964, she became the first woman to receive the Comstock prize from the National Academy of Sciences. In 1997, she became the Pupin Professor of Physics at Columbia.

For those unaware of Chien’s contributions, her research and work focused on weak interactions, atomic research, and beta decay. Chien died in 1997. In a world where women are still under-represented and marginalized in the sciences, Chien did much to prove that women are just as capable at scientific success.

9. Juana Inés de la Cruz


Jumping back a bit in time, we come to Juana, a woman born in Mexico in 1651. Juana grew up in a society where women were not allowed to know how to read. Yet, at the age of three, she convinced a teacher to give her reading lessons and, when her mother put a stop to those, continued on her own until she could read her grandfather’s entire library at the age of six. After he grandfather died when she was ten, she went to live with an aunt and uncle, who hired a Latin scholar for her. However, after about ten lessons, Juana’s knowledge was such that the scholar couldn’t teach her anything new. She continued learning on her own.

Juana met the governor of Mexico when she was a teenager, and he was so impressed that he allowed her to stay at his house as a servant. This might not seem like a big deal now, but keep in mind that this was 17th century Mexico. This was a big deal. Being at the governor’s house allowed Juana to read many Spanish novels, attend important parties, meet important people, write poetry and plays, and have her plays performed at the governor’s palace.

Once the governor fell out of power, Juana reluctantly joined a convent, since she didn’t want to marry (marriage or nunhood were basically women’s only choices at the time). She was horrified by the first convent and left for one more suited to her interests. The second convent allowed Juana a lot of free time, which she spent writing books. Many of her books became bestsellers, despite the clergy criticizing her work.

Juana was tricked into having her argument about a sermon published, which put her under threat of the Inquisition. Several months later, she wrote La Respuesta, considered her best work. It argues that women need education and outlines how to educate them. Juana gave up writing near the end of her life. She died while caring for her sisters, who contracted the plague in 1695, but lives on as the first person on her continent to argue for women’s rights through writing. She’s also considered one of the greatest poets and playwrights of her time.

10. Felicia Day


Am I wrapping up this amazing list of women with Felicia Day? Oh yes I am!

Kathryn Felicia Day is an actress, writer, comedian, and business woman. You might recognize her from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Vi), Eureka (Dr. Holly Marten), Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog (Penny), or Supernatural (Charlie), as well as from various other roles. Maybe you recognize her as the founder of  Geek & Sundry, an awesome company which provides shows on YouTube, streams on Twitch, and generally supports the geeky community.

I could probably just keep writing about all the awesome stuff Felicia’s been in/written/produced, but that could honestly be an article by itself, and this is already running long. So, instead, let’s talk about why Felicia really made this list, other than her numerous credits.

Felicia is a role model for geeks and nerds everywhere. That’s right, all geeks, all nerds, men, women, lizard-people, and bards alike. Felicia’s a person who found success in Hollywood (maybe not complete stardom, but she gets pretty steady work and is one of my favorite actresses) and could have assimilated into the “cool” culture, never doing more than acting in a few roles and promoting those shows.

That sounds boring, and I’m glad she didn’t do that. Instead, she started producing her own stuff, writing shows loosely based on her life (if you haven’t watched The Guild yet, go open another tab and start now) and proving that it’s totally okay to be your dorky self. She’s played oddball characters who we love and has caused many geeks to stand up and be proud. Her character on Supernatural, Charlie, has allowed many geeks to have the courage to come out (Charlie is an adorkable lesbian with a fancrush on Hermione). 

And, if that’s not enough, in addition to playing and writing strong female role models, Felicia started a company which caters to all people geek. Let me repeat that: this amazing woman who already inspires us through the characters she portrays decided that that wasn’t enough and started a company which proves, every day, that being a geek or a nerd is amazing!

LARP and the Real Girl

Bonus pic because medieval fantasy LARP + Vulcan Salute = Perfect Send-Off.

I could probably write for hours about Felicia, and all of these women, but this short piece I started to celebrate Women’s History Month has exploded into a behemoth of wonder, so I must resist. Who are your favorite women of history? Is there anyone you think I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Author’s Note: I tried to compose a list of women throughout history from all around the world. However, I am an American educated in a system which emphasizes Western world accomplishments. For that reason, I’m more familiar with European and American women of history, and the list is unbalanced in favor of these women. Feel free to leave a comment with a non-western woman of history who you believe belongs on this list and tell me a bit about her!


2 thoughts on “The Top 10 Women Outliers of History (Part 2)

  1. Love this post. As a former English Lit major, I recall several conversations about strong female characters in fiction and historical accounts. For too long, society has discounted the importance of one of the two human genders, and for that we have all suffered.

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