Citizen Dame 5: Historical Women That Deserve Feature Films

Women are awesome. They can, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, do anything men can do, only backwards and in high heels. But while we keep getting biopics of Queen Elizabeth (both I and II), we’re missing out on the stories of some remarkable ladies. While some of these women have appeared in films in various forms, they deserve more than glancing nods or minor roles. Inventors, writers, performers, scientists, pirates, and serial killers—women can do it all, and usually have.


Mae West (Writer/Actress)

Mae West is a particular heroine of mine because she was probably the first blond woman I ever saw on screen who was smarter than hell and utterly in control of her own image. She was feminist in all but name, advanced the cause of gay rights, and carved out a place for herself on stage and screen as a bold, sexual woman. She needs a film covering her remarkable life. But please, cast a full-figured blond woman.

Grace O’Malley/Gráinne Ní Mháille (Pirate)

She was a badass pirate queen who harried English ships, refused to bow to Queen Elizabeth, and took vengeance against her husband’s killers. When she decided she was tired of another lover, she stole his castle and told him to fuck off. Somehow, there is not a major movie about her, because men are cowards.

Hedy Lamarr (Actress/Inventor)

While known for being a talented actress and very beautiful woman, Hedy Lamarr supplemented that by escaping from her Nazi-sympathizing husband, fleeing to the UK and then to the US, starting her own production company, and in her spare time inventing any number of things, including technology that eventually became the basis of Bluetooth and Wifi. While there’s already an excellent documentary about her, Hedy Lamarr deserves to be further elevated beyond the one-note joke that men have made her into. 

La Voisin (Murderer)

Widely considered to be the most prolific female serial killer of all time, La Voisin managed to basically do all the things that men can do and more. She was a professional poisoner and fortune teller, ran a black magic ring, arranged black masses, and may have murdered upwards of 2,000 people when all was said and done. She supported her family by necromancy and worked as a poisoner to the aristocrats in the court of Louis XIV. Basically the Don Corleone of her day.

Lady Montagu (Writer)

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an 18th century woman of letters, but she’s been largely relegated to her ongoing public fight with Alexander Pope (the rumor is that he hit on her and she told him to go to hell). Not only did she hold her own with some of the premier humorists of her day, she spent her entire life being a badass. She taught herself Latin as a child, when her father refused to advance her education, and later traveled to the Ottoman Empire with her husband. There, she wrote about the reality of women’s lives, putting paid to any number of incorrect assumptions made by men, who had no access to female spaces. Oh, and she also advanced the cause of the smallpox vaccine. There’s that.


Ching Shih (1775-1844), Pirate

Oh, really? They want to reboot Pirates of the Caribbean? Screw that! Let’s take the pirates somewhere new: the South China Sea. Ching Shih is the most badass pirate ever to rule the oceans and we can only assume there has never been a proper movie about her because it would ruin all other pirate movies forever.

At the turn of the 19th century, Ching Shih was a sex worker on a floating brothel when she met and married notorious pirate Cheng I. Together they ran a huge fleet of hundreds of ships and more than 70,000 pirates — men AND women. When her husband died there were, of course, power struggles and attempted takeovers, but she was able to keep the empire together, institute a code of conduct that made rape AND infidelity punishable by death, and, ya know, defeat the Chinese, Portuguese, and British navies. After all the plundering and violence and defeating of navies, she managed to secure herself a pardon, retire fabulously wealthy, and die in her sleep at a nice, old age.

Nellie Bly (1864-1922), American Journalist

Nellie Bly wasn’t just a journalist. She basically invented investigative journalism. At age 23, she went undercover in an asylum to see for herself how badly women were treated in mental health facilities. After struggling to find work as a female reporter, the story that came from her undercover reporting opened all the doors for her and a new era of journalism. She read the book Around the World in 80 Days and decided she could do that too, but women are just more efficient than men and she did it in 72 days. After her husband died and left her his business, she learned manufacturing and invented some things, but eventually went back to journalism because women were fighting for the vote and she wanted to be there.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), Aviator

The daughter of a sharecropper and a maid, Bessie Coleman had big ambitions and the motivation to match. Economic status kept her out of college, but when her brothers came home from fighting in World War I, they regaled her with stories of daring pilots and thrilling dogfights and she knew what she wanted to do. Of course, no flight school in America would admit a woman, a Native American, or an African American, and Bessie was all three. But the flight schools in France were willing to teach women, so she learned French in order to complete the application, got herself into flight school, and went off to France.

When she came home, she became a stunt pilot, performing for audiences around the country. But she refused to perform at any segregated venue and was a passionate fighter for civil rights. Her ultimate dreams were to own a plane and open a flight school. Tragedy took her early, but her legacy lives on.

Junko Tabei (1939-2016), Mountaineer

There are all kinds of movies about men accomplishing big, physical feats. But we rarely get the stories of the women who managed to do them too, often facing bigger challenges that are usually accompanied by heaping doses of sexism. In 1975, Junko Tabei became the first woman to summit Mt. Everest. She did it after establishing the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition, gathering other aspiring climbers to join her. They spent four long years raising the money for the climbing fees, constantly being told they should be raising kids instead of funds. But they made their goal and headed for Nepal. Along the way, an avalanche buried Tabei and knocked her unconscious. But a few days later, she kept going and was the only woman in the party to reach the top of the mountain.

She spent her later years fighting to protect Everest and other wilderness areas from the ecological damage inflicted by human tourists. She completed the Seven Peaks (summiting the tallest mountain on each continent) and kept climbing until she was too sick to continue.

Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Travel Journalist

Isabella Bird was ill for most of her childhood. When she was about 16, a doctor suggested travel might do her some good and off she went. She hopped on a boat from England to the east coast of the US, enjoying the sights of New England and Canada. She climbed mountains, sailed to Hawaii, ventured to Asia and the Middle East. She was a prolific travel writer and a 19th century badass who did what she pleased, refused one man after another, and eventually went home and married the doctor who sent her out into the world.

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