This week I’ve got an offbeat one for you all. For your consideration I present Étaín, heroine of Irish mythology, who: spent her life being shunted around a ludicrous number of suitors; was transformed at various points into a worm, a butterfly, a swan, and a pool of water; and induced one of the strangest pregnancies since Jesus. Onward!
This week, we meet Noor Inayat Khan, one of the bravest women to ever live. She was a British secret agent during World War 2, working as a radio operator in occupied Paris. In fact, working as the ONLY radio operator in occupied Paris. The average lifespan for that job was 6 weeks, and she lasted almost 5 months. She escaped the Gestapo numerous times, and went out fighting. All this, even though everything about her work went against her basic pacifist nature. Read on for more about this phenomenal human being.
This week we turn our attention to La Maupin, Julie d’Aubigny: sword-slinger, opera singer, and larger-than-life bisexual celebrity of 17th century France. Her life was a whirlwind of duels, seduction, graverobbing, and convent-burning so intense that she had to be pardoned by the king of France TWICE. Read on for more.
I’ve been dying to do this entry for a while now. Introducing Shajar-al-Durr, who: was a Muslim sultan that ruled in her own name; stopped the Seventh Crusade dead in its tracks; captured one of the most powerful monarchs in the world; and ransomed him back to his own freakin’ country.
This week we focus on Osh-Tisch, whose name translates to “Finds Them and Kills Them” in Crow. Osh-Tisch was a biologically male-sexed person who lived as a woman, and was one of the last Crow Nation baté (Two Spirit spiritual leaders) – oh, and you can be sure, she earned her name.
She is also far from the only awesome lady in this story.
Ida B. Wells: Princess of the Press (1862-1931)
(this is a long post, so click here for easier side-by-side reading of text and image)
This week we switch gears from warriors and murderers, and focus on one of the luminaries of the early Civil Rights Movement: Ida B. Wells, who refused to vacate her train seat in 1884 (a good 71 years before Rosa Parks), and who led the charge to end lynching in the United States.
Ida was a tough one from the get-go. When, at age 16, her parents died from a Yellow Fever epidemic, she rolled up her sleeves, got a job, and worked to keep her siblings out of foster care. Kind of like a Reconstruction-era version of Party of Five. At age 21, the conductor on a train on which she was a passenger ordered her to vacate her seat – so that a white woman could use it. Ida refused. When the conductor tried forcibly removing her, she hooked her feet into the chair and refused to budge. When he tore her sleeve in the attempt, she scratched at him and bit him. When a gang of men finally removed her from the car, she sued the entire train company, and won. (although it was later overturned via legal shenanigans)
But by far her most significant achievements were in her anti-lynching journalism.
So let’s talk about lynching. I’d wager that mostly what it conjures up is an image of someone being hung by a tree. The reality was usually far, FAR worse than that. We’re talking torture that would make Elisabeth Bathory or Wu Zetian shudder. If you have a weak stomach, you’re forewarned — but try to stick with it. It’s important you understand what this woman devoted her life to stopping. During my childhood, and I’m betting during yours too, these descriptions were constantly censored. Well, I’m not going to do that.
Here’s summaries of just a few lynchings that Ida would report on:
- 1892: Tommie Moss, Henry Stewart, and Calvin McDowell, who were shot to pieces (McDowell had literally fist-size holes in him). Moss died pleading for them to spare him for the sake of his pregnant wife. The thing that started this all off was, in all seriousness, a kids’ game of marbles. More on this in a bit.
- 1893: Henry Smith, whose clothes were torn off and kept as mementos by the 10,000-man crowd; who had red-hot iron brands placed all over his body for 50 minutes, until they finally burnt out his eyes and thrust irons down his throat; who was then set on fire, and when he managed to jump out (he was still alive!), was pushed back in. Someone made a watch charm from his kneecap. Photographers sold postcards of the event. His screams were recorded and sold on gramophone, like the world’s most fucked-up ringtone.
- 1898: Frazier Baker, whose only “crime” was being appointed a postmaster in a small South Carolina town. His house was set on fire, and when he and his family fled, they were all shot — everyone was wounded, with Frazier and his one-year-old baby killed. Their charred bodies were found near the wreckage of the house the next day.
- 1899: Sam Hose, for whose mob execution they arranged a special train so that more people could attend. He was first tied to a tree, stripped naked, and then mutilated: they severed his left ear, then his right. Then his fingers were lopped off and his penis sliced off. Then he was set on fire. As his body burnt, the crowd of 2,000 people cut off pieces of him as souvenirs. Bone bits were twenty-five cents and slices of liver, ten. Even the tree to which he was tied was chopped up and sold.
- 1904: Luther Holbert and a woman (presumed to be his wife), who were forced to hold out their arms as their fingers were chopped off. Their ears were cut off, their eyes poked out, and a large corkscrew was used to bore spirals of “raw, quivering flesh” out of their arms, legs, and bodies. Finally, they were burned to death.
- 1911: Will Porter, who was taken to an opera house, tied to the stage, and shot by people who bought tickets for the privilege.
If you need to go look at pictures of kittens for a second, I understand. I’ll still be here.
Back? Good. Now, remember the Moss incident, the one with the marbles? It’s important for a couple reasons: it’s the first lynching that really grabbed Ida’s journalistic attention (Moss was a friend of hers); it caused a mass exodus of blacks from Memphis (Ida bought a gun and stayed); and it’s a useful microcosm to examine lynchings as a whole. Now, while it’s true that the inciting incident was a kid’s game of marbles, the real story was that the three men killed were associated with a thriving black-owned grocery store that was taking away business from a nearby white-owned one. The white grocery’s owner was the ringleader behind the mob that ended their lives. He orchestrated the horrifying murder of three people for… basically, a better financial quarter.
So Ida got to work. The end result: Southern Horrors, a seminal pamphlet that blew the lid off of lynching myths. Prior to that, the widely-believed stereotype was that black men were out-of-control brutes who were constantly a hair’s breadth from assaulting white women – and somehow this was believable to a large swath of the population. I don’t know, man, they were still doing trepanning in those days.
Anyway, the common wisdom about lynching was that it was in response to black men raping white women. Except that was unadulterated horseshit, and Southern Horrors proved it. By analyzing a huge number of cases and laying them out in an academic manner, Ida showed that rape had nothing to do with a majority of lynchings, and that most of the time the reason was either political, economic, or plain ol’ racist violence against loving interracial relationships.
As you could imagine, this did not win her a lot of admirers in certain circles.
A week after she first reported on this, while she was away on business, a mob broke into the offices of her newspaper, the Free Speech, and burnt it to the ground (yes, they were literally eradicating Free Speech). The mob threatened to lynch her if she ever returned to Memphis. In response, she looked into returning to Memphis – only to be informed that a group of black men were organizing to protect her, should she return. Wanting to avoid a race riot, she stayed away, but kept writing, madder than the devil and twice as eloquent.
Her keeping away from Memphis is understandable – race riots were a recurrent problem of her era, and she didn’t want to be party to another one. Even calling them race riots doesn’t quite get at it, because it was usually more of a one-sided assault. A sampling of just a couple that occurred during her life (try and imagine any of this happening nowadays):
- 1898: The city of Wilmington, North Carolina had its newly-elected biracial city government overthrown by white supremacists in a coup d’etat. President McKinley and the federal government just looked the other way. The white insurrectionists won, gunning down a great number of blacks in the process. That’s right, there was never any happy ending here: the black people of Wilmington just packed up and moved away.
- 1908: In Springfield, Illinois, a 5,000-10,000 man mob of would-be lynchers, stymied from killing their intended targets by the county sheriff, rioted in black neighborhoods. They burnt down churches, business, and homes, killing many black citizens.
- 1917: In St. Louis, after a confusing early back-and-forth that resulted in some black citizens accidentally killing a police detective, a mob of white people stormed the black part of town, cut the water lines, set black peoples’ houses on fire, and shot at anyone who exited the buildings. Between 40-200 people were killed.
- 1919: In Chicago, 5 days of riots ended with 38 people dead, 537 injured, and over 1000 newly homeless. Arsonists took aim at black businesses and homes, laying steel cables across the street so the fire trucks could not pass.
Despite all this, and the ever-present death threats, Ida continued putting herself in danger for the next forty years (!) by investigating and writing about lynchings. On more than one occasion, she passed herself off as a widow or a relative of the deceased in order to gain better journalistic access — an act which earned one of her contemporaries, who tried the same trick, his own lynch mob (thankfully, he escaped).
And she would not tone herself down.
Although people wanted her to! Oh, how they wanted her to! Early on, papers that championed her would slip in statements saying she’d “never get a husband so long as she lets those editors make her so hideous.” Even other activists asked her to quiet her fiery rhetoric. She never did.
For a good thirteen years, she was practically the only person doing investigatory journalism into lynching. Once others gained interest in the subject – in no small part due to her herculean efforts, which included speaking tours abroad, the establishment of a great many civil rights organizations, and endless reams of articles and pamphlets – she was relegated to a footnote. Despite her massive contributions to the cause, she was almost left off the NAACP’s founders list, due in no small part to some wanting to distance themselves from her forceful language.
In the end, she did have a family, marrying a man who supported and advocated for her. Together they had four children, with Ida bearing the first at age 34 and the last at 42. She would even bring her children with her on her speaking tours, declaring herself the only woman in US history to travel with a nursing baby to make political speeches. Her entire family got into the activism, too – once, while Ida was feeling despondent about going out to investigate yet another lynching, her son demanded she do so. “If you don’t,” he asked, “who will?” When she came around on the subject, the entire family was waiting, their things packed, to join her on her travels.
I don’t know about you, but that gives me the cutest mental image.
She died at age 68, almost done with her autobiography. The last chapter ended mid-sentence, mid-word.
The inspiration for this post came a long time ago, from this Hark! A Vagrant comic. I started reading more about her, and I couldn’t stop.
Thanks go to my activist/feminist/socialist/rad-as-fuck friend Peta Lindsay. She, being far more knowledgeable about these matters than I, helped provide the proper context for this entry by (rightly) insisting on establishing the background of what Ida was up against. You can find her work here or follow her on twitter here!
- She is depicted here being tossed off a moving train car, although it was definitely stopped when they forced her off. I wanted the image of her speeding towards the future, into the light (while the conductor is in the shadows).
- She is, of course, striking a very animated princess kind of pose. I imagine a musical number happening at that very moment.
- The train cars and outfit are period-accurate.
- The flying papers represent her reams of writing, with the nearest one to camera being the actual cover for Southern Horrors.
- Underneath the tree is a cut rope, being slowly blanketed by her work. I didn’t want to illustrate an actual lynching, or even a noose. I thought this was more poetically accurate to the spirit of her work, without being overly graphic.
- The opossum in the tree is a callback to a Loyal League parade float, which featured a black man against a tree with a bunch of dead opossums (which I take were meant to symbolize lynchers). She was never directly involved with the Loyal League as far as I know, but they traveled in the same circles, and I liked the image as a euphemism.
- The title “Princess of the Press” was an actual title applied to her during her life. The name was partly a reference to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Princess Ida”, a comic opera about a feminist teacher.
I consulted the great-grandaddy of all Ida B Wells books, Ida: A Sword Among Lions. It’s 800 pages long, 150 of which are dedicated to bibliography, glossary, and assorted notes. It was a very long read.
In case you missed it, I instituted an official “you are smarter than I am” certificate! Giving them out for awesome corrections, questions, or for whoever can first correctly identify all the references in the certificate. Give it a shot!
NEXT WEEK ON REJECTED PRINCESSES
The last of her kind, she found her enemies and made them eat Crow.
Elisabeth Bathory: the Blood Countess (1560-1614)
First off: I know the text on these can be long. I adjusted the styling on the RP tumblr to make it easy to see the pic and the text at the same time, so if you’re getting this in your tumblr feed, you may want to click here to see it on the RP page. It’ll be easier to read.
Second off: trigger warnings. All of the trigger warnings. No trigger unwarned. (okay, fine, it’s actually just triggers for gore, violence, rape, incest, and murder. I think that’s it. but, um, tread lightly regardless.)
Now then, let’s take a step into the life of one of the most vilified women in history. On December 29, 1610, a garrison of soldiers stormed the Hungarian castle of Cachtice and arrested Elisabeth (Erzsebet) Bathory. They accused her of roughly a hundred Saw movies worth of torture, and took her into custody. As the story goes (and please keep in mind, absolutely NONE of this should be taken at face value), they caught her in the act, finding a freshly-buried corpse and a cowering servant, badly beaten but still alive.
The subsequent questioning of over 300 people into the doings of the Blood Countess (as she’d later become known) has put her in the record books as easily the most prolific female serial killer in history, by an order of magnitude. The low-end estimate for her body count (and this was the number given by her closest associates and allies, mind you) was *just* in the thirties. The high-end estimate was 650, all servant women. The collected testimonials contained a litany of charges against her so vile that they have literally become legend – she would later be used as one of the primary inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and her story has been referenced in hundreds of books, movies, songs, you name it. There were literally so many charges levied against her that when I typed them all out, it took up 10 single-spaced pages (I’ve since edited it down).
So let’s make a drinking game of it. The rules are simple: every time you’re grossed out, take a shot. I hope you have a full bottle or a strong stomach. Here we go, then!
According to the surviving testimonials, she and/or her closest servant/confidants:
- Kept her servants chained up every night so tight their hands turned blue and they spurted blood.
- Beat them to the point where there was so much blood on the walls and beds that they had to use ashes and cinders to soak it up.
- Beat a servant in Vienna so loudly that her neighbors (some monks) threw clay pots at the walls in protest.
- Strangled a servant to death with a silk scarf (a harem technique known as “the Turkish way”, a euphemism I now endeavour to work into my daily life).
- Burned her servants with metal sticks, red-hot keys, and coins; ironed the soles of their feet; and stuck burning iron rods into their vaginas.
- Stabbed them, pricked them in their mouths and fingernails with needles, and cut their hands, lips, and noses with scissors.
- Used needles, knives, candles, and her own freaking teeth to lacerate servants’ genitals.
- Stitched their lips and tongues together.
- Made servants sit on stinging nettles, then bathe with said stinging nettles. During the bath, she’d pushed the nettles into their shoulders and breasts.
- Had them stand in tubs of ice water up to their necks outside until they died.
- Smeared a naked girl with honey and left her outside to be bitten by ants, wasps, bees, and flies.
- Kept them from eating for a week at a time, and, if they got thirsty, made them drink their own urine.
- Forced them to cook and eat their own flesh (usually from the buttocks), or make sausages and serve it to guests.
- Heated up a cake to red-hot temperatures and made a servant eat it.
- Baked a magical poisonous cake in order to kill a rival magistrate, George Thurzo (who was also the guy who arrested her — more on him in a bit).
- Cast a magic spell to summon a cloud filled with ninety cats to torment her enemies. Okay, that’s actually kind of awesome.
- Had an ongoing affair with some guy named “Ironhead Steve” (no, really).
- Stuffed five servants’ corpses underneath a bed and continued to feed them as if they were still alive.
- Buried them in gardens, grain pits, orchards, and occasionally cemeteries. Sometimes with rites, often without.
And that’s just the charges levied against her in her lifetime! After she died, more details were added to the picture:
- She bathed in virgins’ blood! (a lie dreamed up centuries afterward. also would’ve been impossible due to coagulation. I checked.)
- She was syphilitic from centuries of inbreeding! (maaaaybe? seems perfectly with-it in her letters though)
- She was epileptic! (well, she did once mention her eye hurt in a letter…?)
- She was raped when she was young. (uh, doubtful. she was one of the most powerful women in the region, practically from birth)
- Her aunt Klara was a bisexual or lesbian (possible!). The two had an incestuous relationship! (uh… reaallly doubt it…) After having numerous affairs, Klara was raped by an entire Turkish garrison before having her throat cut! (augh, no! what the fuck!?)
- She was menopausal, and thus crazy! (sounds like someone is afraid of lady bits)
- Her cousin Gabor (whom I will talk about below) slept around a lot (true), was bisexual (maybe?), had an incestuous relationship with his sister Anna (not true), who was herself accused of sleeping with a silversmith (super not true) and being a witch (super ultra not true).
So after all this went down, the sentences went into effect almost immediately. Her female “accomplices,” all old ladies, first had their fingers torn off with iron tongs, and, once fingerless, were bodily tossed into a large fire. Her one male “accomplice”, being less of a participant to the supposed crimes, was shown a tremendous amount of mercy: he was decapitated *before* they tossed his body into a fire. And Elisabeth Bathory herself was “immured” — which is to say, bricked up into a room in her own castle, where she died four years later.
In conclusion: the aristocrats!
Well, actually, no. That is not the conclusion. Buckle up, for I am about to dump the biggest bucket of cold water on all this malarky as I can possibly muster. Based off of the evidence, there is a case to be made (one which I believe to be true) that Elisabeth Bathory is innocent.
You heard me.
Now, this is not to say she was a nice person. The overwhelming impression one gets from reading all these documents (an act I do not recommend you do in one sitting — learn from my mistakes) is that she was a take-no-crap kind of lady. Her husband was off at war, and she had to manage an INCREDIBLE amount of stuff in his absence, even before he died – thousands of servants, governing the local populace, and handling an amount of property second to none.
And so, Elisabeth Bathory needed everyone around her to know one thing, and one thing only: she was Head Bitch in Charge, and she had no time for your shit.
Her surviving letters illustrate this beautifully with their overwhelming curtness (even to her husband!). My favorite thing she ever wrote was to an encroaching squatter: she ended it by saying “do not think I shall leave you to enjoy it [settling illegally on my land]. You will find a man in me.” — a saying that translates roughly to “I will crush you.”
So no, she was not warm and cuddly. I absolutely believe she made life shitty for misbehaving servants (or, more likely, had her head servants do it for her). It is beyond questioning that she beat the hell out of them, and some undoubtedly died from it – I mean, she had thousands of servants in an age before penicillin. In fact, one scholar claims that the more outlandish tortures (stinging nettles, metal rods, amateur acupuncture) were contemporary folk remedies. Tough, mean lady? Yes. Cartoon supervillain? Hell no.
So what happened? George Thurzo – Palatine of Hungary and dickass extraordinaire – did.
Now, I already said Elisabeth was powerful, but you need to get the magnitude of the target she was: the Bathorys were like the Hungarian Kennedys and had been for centuries. By the time all this went down, Elisabeth’s cousin Gabor (earlier mentioned) was gunning for the throne (literally was starting a war), and Elisabeth was widowed, with more money than god. So Thurzo was like, “oh hell no, I am not letting those two partner up,” and decided to take Elisabeth down.
Now, the details of the plot are a bit murky. Thurzo was a known schemer who’d made a career out of backstabbing people, so a plot wouldn’t be much of a surprise. There’s evidence in correspondence with his wife (who kept forgetting to write in code) that Thurzo was moving against Elisabeth over a year earlier. He’d been in contact with the local church leaders, who were whipping up the general populace against the Bathorys by telling them stories – stories that would, with minor variations, be repeated over and over in the proceedings against Elisabeth, passed off as “I heard this” but with very few saying they’d actually seen it.
And that’s just the cooperating witnesses. In all likelihood – it was standard operating procedure at the time – the members of Elisabeth’s household were tortured before testifying. Their testimonials, which are confused and contradictory, lend credence to that.
The only way to get rid of such an entrenched power as Elisabeth was to catch her committing a horrific act red-handed – which Thurzo said he did, although it took him 24 hours to produce said evidence. Afterwards, they never had a trial (despite the king demanding one for three years straight). Elisabeth never got to speak in her defense and her family records were mostly destroyed. There is very little to go on in determining what sort of a person she actually was.
So, even if she did commit said acts (which is possible, although nowhere near the scale of the accusations), ask yourself what is more likely: an incredibly outlandish list of violence perpetrated by a cadre of old women over decades; or, an orchestrated persecution against a powerful, harsh, and independent woman – in the age of actual witch hunts, no less!
It is a bit sad to think of Elisabeth’s last several years, imprisoned in her own castle (she was not literally bricked up, Amontillado-style). I imagine her looking out the window, confident that history would clear her name — blithely unaware of the centuries of mudslinging to come after her death. She deserved better. It feels odd to come to her defense, since, best-case scenario, she was occasionally abusive to the point where she would have been arrested nowadays, but I can’t help it. Call it sympathy for the devil.
Around a hundred people wrote in to suggest Lady Bathory over the past three weeks, but the credit for the original suggestion must go to my friend Astrid Phillips Mayer (genius brand strategist and champion of female empowerment!), who suggested it way back in February, when I first had the idea to do this project.
Oh boy, I spent a lot of time figuring out just how to represent Lady Bathory. I am happy with how it turned out. Here’s the thought processes and callbacks:
- I wanted to have the viewer see through her eyes, as best as possible.
- We never see her, just a reflection in a dusty mirror. Her expression is meant to be somewhat inscrutable, without you being able to tell what’s on her mind. She’s purposely stiff and posed.
- She’s got her back turned to Thurzo (in background, with feathered cap in silhouette) bricking her up, with her image caught in her own shadow – sort of symbolizing how her true story’s been locked away and obscured.
- The whole composition is meant to feel claustrophobic, with her not only caught inside the mirror, but surrounded by the shadows cast from the bricked-up wall.
- Her outfit is from one of the two surviving portraits of her, and all the furniture and whatnot are period-accurate.
- The mirror is a Venetian glass mirror (one of the only types of mirror at the time – each one was as expensive as a battleship!), and the scratches and cloudiness are actually characteristic of that type of mirror.
- She’s washing her hair, a reference to the blood-bathing legends. Is that water reflecting the red candlelight and her dress, or…?
- The symbol at the top of the mirror (the dragon) is the actual Bathory family crest, believe it or not. The candle holders are callbacks to that dragon.
- Everything on the desk (and the bleeding candles) are related to a different torture rumor. The chest with the small mirror is a scrying box that witches were said to use.
- Very barely visible in the darkness of the reflected room, up above a balcony, are a bunch of cats, a reference to the 90-cat curse.
Primarily, I cited Tony Thorne’s “Countess Dracula: the life and times of the Blood Countess, Elisabeth Bathory.” I looked at some other sites and books to gather a more complete list of the rumors against her, but given Thorne’s extremely extensive work (his book is exhaustively sourced), I felt comfortable relying mostly on him.
Next week on Rejected Princesses
Stepping away from violent women for a while, and heading back 7 decades before Rosa Parks.
Petra Herrera: the Soldadera Princess (late 1800s?-early 1900s)
Ladies and gentlemen, today we fight for Pedro. I give you Colonel Petra “Pedro” Herrera, Mexican revolutionary, demolitions expert, and leader of a battallion of an all-female brigade that boasted hundreds of women.
Oversimplified, glib background: Mexican Revolution. 1910s. President Diaz was being shitty. Revolutionaries (Pancho Villa, Zapata, others from the “bad boys of the revolution” calendar series) pop up and say, “hey, stop being shitty and step down already.” Bam, war. The armies engulf huge swaths of Mexican people, including many women.
Most of the embedded women (soldaderas) were covering the minutia that the let’s-go-fight-already soldiers hadn’t thought through — like, you know, eating. With the war swallowing up town after town, more and more women (and children) joined up with the growing armies, although, some of the forces straight-up kidnapped them (and worse). The result of the whole thing was that the armies of the time looked like a giant block party (a journalist at the time described the revolutionary Carranza’s camp as appearing like “an immense picnic”).
Petra Herrera, though, was not about to cook or clean. Petra was there to kick ass.
Disguising herself as a man (Pedro) in order to be eligible for battlefield promotions — a commonplace tactic among female soldiers of the time — Petra established her reputation with the revolutionaries through solid leadership, good marksmanship, and, you know, blowing up bridges. Eventually, she became so popular (rebel brigades: “you’re cool! come work with us!”) that she dropped the “I’m a man” pretense (rebel brigades: “well, that answers a lot of questions we were having about ourselves”). Afterwards, she started wearing braids and fighting under her own name. By 1914, she was a captain underneath Pancho Villa, leading 200 men into battle.
Her crowning achievement was to sack the city of Torreon, which is a big freaking deal. Taking Torreon — in the biggest fight in the war to that date — gave Pancho Villa access to heavy artillery, a half million rounds of ammunition, armored rail cars, the works. And yet, Herrera was not given much, if any, credit for her work in the massive fight. Now, mind, she’s not mentioned in the official papers on this, so take it with a pinch of salt, but according to another soldier in the battle, “she was the one who took Torreon, she turned off the lights when they entered the city.” Still: she received no promotion to general afterwards.
In response, Herrera said “I’m out.” She left Villa’s forces and made her own — an independent all-female brigade. By the end of the war, it was estimated to comprise around 300-400 women, down from (possibly wild) estimates of 1,000 at its peak. She looked after her women like a mama bear armed to the teeth. She wouldn’t let men sleep in her camp, and enforced that rule by staying up late and using any wayward male soldier that tried to get in as target practice.
At the end of the fighting, she again requested to be made a general and remain in the military — but in return, she was only promoted to colonel, and her brigade was disbanded. What happened to the women of her brigade afterwards is unknown.
Sadly, Petra met at ignominious end soon after. Working as a spy for Carranza’s forces in the role of a bartender in Jimenez, she was shot three times by a group of drunken men, and later died of her injuries.
And here’s the thing — as cool as she was, Petra was not unique in being an amazing soldadera. She wasn’t even unique in being an amazing soldadera named Petra who went by the male name of Pedro. There were so many awesomely distinguished women in the Mexican Revolution, it was hard to pick just one. Some others include:
- Petra Ruiz (who also went by Pedro). She was nicknamed “Echa Balas” (Bullets), had a bad temper, and was so skilled with knives and guns that other soldiers would just let her have her way. One account tells of some soldiers arguing who would be first to rape a young girl, when Petra shows up, demands the girl for herself, and then, winning her through intimidation, lets her go.
- Rosa Bobadilla, who, when widowed by the war, took up arms and fought in one hundred and sixty-eight battles — surviving them all to die at the age of eighty-three.
- A woman named Chiquita, who rode into an enemy camp, saying she was a trained nurse. Hours later, she was fleeing town after having stolen papers, documents, and maps.
- A 13-year-old girl named Elisa Grienssen, who, when US President Wilson sent an army into Mexico, rallied the women of Parral to kick them out. They surrounded the American commander (who was apparently already leaving, but taking his sweet time with it), throwing rocks and sticks, shouting “Viva Villa, Viva Mexico!”
Unfortunately, for most of the post-war history, soldaderas were largely memorialized through folk songs that, to my mind, didn’t quite do them justice, the most famous of which being La Adelita. In the song, the eponymous Adelita follows the army because she is in love with the sergeant. Although certainly that sort of thing happened, love wasn’t exactly the prime motivator for Petra “make me a fucking general already” Herrera.
Other portrayals of soldaderas, especially early on, tended to play into sexed-up gender stereotypes. Los de Abajo, a novel serialized in newspapers beginning in 1915, was a war novel that had two female leads: Camilla, the maternal, demure girlfriend, and La Pintada (the Painted One), who, though an excellent soldier, is portrayed as vulgar, out of control, and generally monstrous. She ends up stabbing Camilla out of jealousy and being exiled. Lame.
- Because Petra dressed as a man for much of her career, she is seen here in a period-accurate officer’s outfit. She has an officer’s sword, characteristic ammo bandolier, and is unfurling her braid from her hat, in a nod to her “guess what, I’m a lady” reveal. Her revolver is a copy of the one that Emiliano Zapata used (a Mexican S&W replica).
- The soldaderas below her are in outfits more typical of the standard soldadera representation. I gave them each different tones that together comprise the colors of the Mexican flag.
- The woman in green is based on this picture. Just look at this lady. Holy hell.
- The woman in the picture is carrying a Winchester rifle — a rifle which carries with it a history for another quite interesting woman.
- The setting is an actual Mexican bridge that was around at the time, but it was clear on the other side of Mexico from where she operated (mostly Durango and Chihuhua). Still, I liked the visual, and it’s hard to find accurate pictures of bridges that were blown up a century ago.
- Battleground Women: Soldaderas and Female Soldiers in the Mexican Revolution by Andres Resendez Fuentes
- Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History by Elizabeth Salas
- I added more info (citations!) to the Nzinga Mbande entry. Still doing research to uncover the basis of those rumors, though!
- Still working hard on figuring out how to make an RP book happen. These things take time. If you want to be kept in the loop, though, there’s a mailing list!
Next week on Rejected Princesses
Giving the people what they want: 90 cats from a cloud.
Khutulun: the Wrestler Princess (1260-1306)
So that was a hell of a first week for this site.
First, a small announcement: yes, I am working on an RP book. Don’t know when, don’t know how, but someday! Want to know more, sign up on this mailing list - no spam, I promise. (also I tweaked all the text throughout the entire signup process to be as amusing as possible)
Second: I had several mistakes in the writeups when I launched this — some big, some small. More details at the end of this post, but for now: go back and re-read Nzinga Mbande’s entry, please. Other ones were tweaked, expanded, qualified, but hers was outright corrected.
Now on to the newest Rejected Princess: Khutulun, Khan princess of 10,000 horses.
Quickly, a bit of background on the Khans’ Mongol Empire, in case you don’t know much - bottom line, it was a big deal. At its height, it was the largest contiguous empire in human history, stretching from China to Europe and the Middle East. The whole thing was started by Genghis Khan (maybe you’ve heard of him), who unified a number of nomadic tribes under a single banner. While he did bring many advances to the regions he conquered (religious tolerance, increased trade, meritocracy — all good things), you probably know him more for his reputation for brutality. Certainly he was known for it back in the day, too.
And it was not undeserved. Here’s an example: buddy once conquered a nation called the Khwarezmid Empire. Right after taking control, he decided to erase it from existence, burning towns to the ground and killing everyone in its government. He went so far as to divert a river through the deposed emperor’s birthplace, wiping it off the map. This sort of thing was what he was known for, and it was those warlike traits that he passed down to his descendants.
Khutulun was his great-great-granddaughter.
By 1260, the year Khutulun was born, the Mongol Empire was starting to fray at the seams, and civil war was imminent. Basically, some of the Khans — Khutulun’s father Kaidu among them — favored the old ways of riding, shooting, and other trappings of the nomadic lifestyle, while Kublai Khan — Kaidu’s uncle — was more into politics, governing well, and other things that no doubt bored the average Mongol to tears. Eventually Kaidu and Kublai began outright warring against each other, in a conflict that would last thirty years. Throughout this, Kaidu relied on one person above all others when it came to military expertise, and, spoiler alert, it was not any of his 14 sons — it was Khutulun.
So, Khutulun: as you could imagine, growing up with 14 brothers in an old-school nomadic Mongolian household, she had no shortage of testosterone around her at any given time. She grew up to be incredibly skilled with riding horses and shooting bows — Marco Polo, history’s greatest tourist, described her thusly:
"Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time."
I mean, picture that. You’re up against a horde of Mongolian warriors riding into battle. You’re tracking the movements of this huge chunk of stolid soldiers, trying to read which way they’re going. Suddenly, one of them — a woman, no less — darts out from the group, picks off a random person in your group, and runs back, before you even know what’s happened. That’s intimidating as fuck.
But all of this paled in comparison next to her skill with wrestling.
The Mongols of Kaidu Khan’s clan valued physical ability above all things. They bet on matches constantly, and if you won, people thought you were literally gifted by the gods. Now, these weren’t your modern day matches, separated out by things like weight class and gender — anyone could and did wrestle anyone else, and they’d keep going until one of them hit the floor. This was the environment in which Khutulun competed. Against men. Of all shapes and sizes.
She was undefeated.
Now, okay, back up. How can we be sure of that? Well, according to Marco Polo (and this is corroborated by other historians of the time, including Rashid al-Din), papa Kaidu desperately wanted to see his daughter Khutulun married, but she refused to do so unless her potential suitor was able to beat her in wrestling. So she set up a standing offer, available to all comers: beat her and she’d marry you. Lose, and you give her 100 horses.
She ended up with 10,000 horses and no husband.
Now, in these sorts of texts, 10,000 is like saying “a million.” It’s shorthand for “so many I can’t count them all” — you may also remember that Mai Bhago also fought 10,000 Mughals at Khidrana. While 10,000 may have been hyperbolic, suffice to say, it was a truly ludicrous amount of horses, supposedly rivaling the size of the emperor’s herds.
She remained this stubborn about marriage even as she got older and pressure mounted on her to marry. Marco Polo tells of a time where a cockier-than-average suitor challenged her. This dude was so confident that he bet 1,000 horses instead of the usual hundred. Apparently he was a decent fella, too, because Kaidu and his wife really dug him. Khutulun’s parents approached her privately and begged her to just throw the match. Just lose intentionally, they said, so you can marry this totally decent guy.
She walked away from that match 1,000 horses richer.
Unfortunately, due to her stubborn refusal to take a husband, people began to talk. Rumors began to spread around the empire that she was having an incestuous affair with her father (these sorts of slanderous rumors, you may begin to note, are a recurrent problem for historical Rejected Princesses). Realizing the problems her refusal to marry was causing for her family, she did finally apparently settle down with someone — although who, exactly, is subject to some debate. Whoever it was never beat her at wrestling, though.
Near the end of his life, Kaidu attempted to install Khutulun as the next Khan leader, only to meet stiff resistance from others — particularly Khutulun’s many brothers. Instead, a rival named Duwa was appointed to be Great Khan, and Khutulun’s story here begins to slide into obscurity. Five years after Kaidu’s death, Khutulun died under unknown circumstances, at the age of forty-six. Afterwards, the Mongol Empire, particularly the more nomadic factions, began to crumble. Khutulun could be considered one of the last great nomadic warrior princesses.
After her death, she was forgotten for centuries. She only began her comeback to historical prominence starting in 1710 when a Frenchman named Francois Petis de La Croix, while putting together his biography of Genghis Khan, wrote a story based on Khutulun. This story was called Turandot (“Turkish Daughter”), but it was greatly changed from the facts of her life. In it, Turandot challenged her suitors with riddles instead of wrestling matches, and if they failed her challenge, they were killed.
Centuries later, in the early 1900s, the story of Turandot was turned into an Italian opera — except, getting even farther from Khutulun’s actual history, the opera became about a take-no-nonsense woman finally giving in to love. Ugh.
But while the West may have totally rewritten history with its recasting of Khutulun into Turandot, Mongolia continues to honor Khutulun’s actual story to this day. The traditional outfit worn by Mongolian wrestlers is conspicuously open-chest — the reason being to show that the wrestler is not a woman, in deference to the undefeated Khutulun.
- The scene is set at night as a reference to Khutulun’s Turkish name of Aijaruc (used by Marco Polo), meaning “moonlight”.
- She wears a silver medal around her neck — this is a gergee (also known as paiza), a medallion given by the Great Khan that signifies the power of the holder. It was usually reserved for men. Most women instead used seals to signifiy their status — Khutulun is the only woman ever mentioned as owning a gergee.
- Her outfit is not a wrestling outfit by any stretch, but Mongolian fashion is so bright, colorful, and interesting, that I wanted to show that off. The outfit I chose is mostly based off of a man’s outfit, but given that she had many masculine qualities, I thought that was okay. For alternate takes on how she might have looked, check out “additional information,” below.
- She was described by Marco Polo as being broad and powerfully-built. This obviously doesn’t square very well with the standard aesthetic of animated princesses, so I tried to meet in the middle on it. She’s noticeably broader than everyone else I’ve drawn, but she’s also angled in such a way that it’s a bit hard to tell.
- The idea for her pose was inspired by portraits of noblewomen sitting demurely with their hands in their laps.
- The background is filled with horses and yurts — the Mongols of Kaidu’s tribe almost certainly slept in yurts. Well, technically, the Mongolians called them gers (thanks theredfolio!), but I just love the word yurt (which is Russian, a group whom the Mongolians hated). I’m sorry, ancient Mongola. I can’t help saying it. Yurt. Yurt yurt yurt.
- Kaidu (seen in the background laughing his ass off) was actually a smaller, thinner man, supposedly with only 9 hairs on his entire head. That isn’t what I portrayed, but the point of him being in the image was to have him laugh, so I went for a more bowl-full-of-jelly kind of design instead.
- They are, of course, on the Mongolian steppe. The wrestling match described by Marco Polo actually happened in a palace, but I wanted to capture her nomadic nature. Also, moonlight.
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
- This article is probably the most in-depth overview of her life that I’ve found yet. It’s written by Jack Weatherford, who wrote an entire book on female Mongols.
- This short comic about her life (by the inimitable Molly Ostertag, whose webcomic Strong Female Protagonist just finished a successful Kickstarter campaign) is pretty great.
- The Book of Sir Marco Polo the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms (volume 2) - my primary source. Only talks about Khutulun for a few pages, but the whole thing is pretty great. Marco Polo is just a trip to read.
A handful of people wrote in to suggest her, but the first was my brother, so credit goes to him. He wants to remain anonymous, and I have seven brothers in all (a lot, but nowhere near Khutulun levels), so hopefully that should be a decent smokescreen.
BOOKKEEPING (I know, this entry is never ending)
Like I’d said earlier, I’ve made corrections to almost all of the entries since initially launching this last Wednesday. I highly recommend going back to read, at bare minimum, the entries for Nzinga, Fredegund, and Sita. Many thanks to those who wrote in with additional information.
A word specifically on Nzinga. No other way to put it, I fucked up her writeup. I knew a fair bit of the more outlandish claims should be treated as rumor, and thought I’d indicated as such on the page. It was not until it had been up for maybe 3 or 4 days that I realized the language didn’t indicate that at all. It took me that long because nobody wrote me about it — maybe you reblogged me, but I’m new to tumblr, and trying to keep up with stuff here is like drinking from a firehose. I found out about this by stumbling upon communities of people (understandably) angrily talking about it, and about me, which was a bummer. I fixed it once I realized that and am trying to get to the bottom of the historical source of those rumors for future edits to her entry. If you take one thing from this, it’s that, if you see inaccuracies, let me know. If you take another thing from it, it’s that history’s hard to get right. I cover a bit of this in an interview here.
This site was originally just some cute doodles I did for my friends about some stories I’d read about online and poked around with at the library. I put it on tumblr so my friends could share with their friends, and suddenly it’s on Huffington Post and I’m being held up to a professional standards. I’m doing my best to meet them (I hope that shows in the incredibly long post about Khutulun). However, I should have done better from the get-go.
From the bottom of my heart, I apologize for getting her entry wrong. I want this to be a place where people can trust the information portrayed, and get interested in history themselves. From here out, I’m going to try and provide sources wherever possible. I hope that you’ll forgive me this inaccuracy and keep reading in the future.
And as a gift for reading this far, here’s a daily affirmation.
Tune in next week for another princess. Here’s a hint: fight for Pedro!