Women From History So Tough They Sound Made Up - But Aren't

List Rules
Vote up the toughest women from the pages of history.

Often overlooked or relegated to the footnotes of books, these tough women of history are relatively unknown. They led military charges, oversaw kingdoms, performed surgery on themselves, and more. A song comes to mind when describing these daring women: "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).”

The following stories range from antiquity to modern times. They're a testament to the timeless nature of feminine strength and resiliency.

  • Queen Tomyris Rejected A Marriage Proposal From Cyrus The Great, Defeated Him In Battle, And Took His Head
    Photo: Mattia Preti / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Many have heard of Cyrus the Great, illustrious founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty in Persia - but fewer have heard of the woman who took his head. We have the historian Herodotus to thank for the story of Queen Tomyris.

    Tomryis belonged to the Massagetae, a nomadic Central Asian people skilled in horsemanship and battle. She married into the royal family of the Massagetae people, but her husband perished young and she had to rule alone. 

    Cyrus heard about the unmarried queen and decided he would offer her a marriage proposal - the better to acquire her realm. Queen Tomryis was not fooled; refusing to let her people be absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire, she turned down Cyrus's proposal. Livid, Cyrus schemed to subdue the Massagetae by subterfuge and conquest.

    He lured the Massagetae army into his camp by leaving only a token force they could easily dispatch. Apparently victorious, the Massagetae soldiers feasted on the sumptuous Persian wine and food they found in the camp. Cyrus attacked while they slept off their repast. His force slaughtered a large portion of their men and took Queen Tomryis’s son captive. Tomyris wrote Cyrus an angry letter:

    [G]ive me back my son and depart unpunished from this country; it is enough that you have done despite to a third part of the host of the Massagetae. But if you will not do this, then I swear by the sun, the lord of the Massagetae, that for all you are so insatiate of blood, I will give you your fill thereof.

    Herodotus tells us that Cyrus was unmoved by Tomyris's threats. But he did release Tomyris's son upon the latter's entreaties - only for the son to take his own life.

    A grief-stricken Tomryis determined to avenge her son. She attacked Cyrus, and the ensuing battle was described by the Greek Herodotus as "the stubbornest of all fights that were fought by men that were not Greek." 

    Tomyris was victorious, and afterward found Cyrus's body on the battlefield. She removed Cyrus's head and stuffed it into a sack. (Herodotus mentions there are other stories of Cyrus's end, but this one is "the worthiest of credence.")

  • Ching Shih Sao Ditched Prostitution For Piracy And Dominated The Guangdong Sea Lanes For 15 Years
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It wasn't only England that had female pirates. Ching Shih was an extremely successful buccaneer who controlled the Guangdong sea lanes around the important ports of Hong Kong and Macau for 15 years, from 1795 to 1810. Initially a poor prostitute, she married the pirate Cheng I, becoming not just his spouse but also his partner. (She became known as "Cheng I Sao," or "wife of Cheng I.")

    Cheng I and Ching Shih were a power couple. They marauded up and down the coast dominating land and sea and gradually building up their pirate gang. Sadly, Cheng I perished in 1807, leaving Ching Shih, now a widow, to take over the business. At her peak, she controlled 400 junks (ships) staffed by over 70,000 pirates. (Just for comparison, the Spanish Armada that threatened England in 1588 had about 130 ships and 24,000 crew.)

    So how exactly did Ching Shih retain her power? First, she gained the support of her husband’s top chieftain. Then she created a strict code for her pirate gang to follow. If someone was caught breaking the rules there was harsh - possibly even fatal - punishment. 

    She even negotiated with China to keep her fleet safe. Chinese government officials realized they could not capture her and concluded peace would be the best option. Many of her pirates were pardoned and chose to join the Chinese military. Essentially, Ching Shih climbed the ladder of social mobility from feared pirate to successful businesswoman. Later, she took a new husband, Chang Pao, and they opened a gambling house.

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    Ina Ramirez Perez Successfully Performed A C-Section - On Herself

    Tough is the only word that can be used to describe Ina Ramirez Perez, who performed a cesarean section - on herself. In March 2000 in Mexico, she performed the intricate surgery. Miraculously, she and the child both survived the procedure.

    Perez spent 12 hours in labor but was unable to give birth; she did not have a phone to contact her husband in town. Knowing time was running out, she cut into her own abdomen and delivered a healthy baby boy before losing consciousness. Once she awakened, Perez had one of her young children go into town to get help.

    Several hours later, health care workers arrived to find Perez and the child awake. They sewed up the gaping 7-inch incision and took Perez to the local clinic two hours away. They then decided to send her on to the nearest hospital, which was eight hours away. At the hospital, doctors repaired the incision site and performed another surgery seven days later to fix complications from the C-section.

    Miraculously, Perez and her baby survived with no ill effects, and they were released from the hospital 10 days later. 

    Unfortunately, many women in poor, marginalized, or rural communities encounter childbirth problems with inadequate medical care. Many don't come out of their predicament as well as Perez managed, through grit and luck, to do.

  • Soviet Sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko Took Out 309 Germans And Was Honored At The White House By FDR
    Photo: Израиль Абрамович Озерский / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Want tough? Try "Lady Death." Lyudmila Pavlichenko embodied this term as a Soviet sniper during WWII. The Soviet Union was not opposed to employing women in the war effort, and many worked in factories, as nurses, and even served in the military.

    A member of the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, Pavlichenko is credited with taking out 309 soldiers (mostly German) during WWII. A valuable asset to the Soviet Union, she was promoted twice, ending her career as a lieutenant. Some say she was the most feared female sniper in history.

    In 1942, Pavlichenko traveled to the United States and visited the White House - the first Soviet citizen so honored. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed her, and Eleanor subsequently invited Pavlichenko to accompany her on a goodwill tour of the country.

    Pavlichenko traveled the United States, speaking to different groups through a translator, and gamely acting as a goodwill ambassador for US-Soviet relations just as their WWII alliance was kicking into gear.

    Some American women complained, rather absurdly, that she did not wear enough make-up. Soon, Pavlichenko found her voice, and challenged her American audiences. To a Chicago gathering, she said:

    I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?