As “Wonder Woman” hits the big screen, we step back into herstory to look at the daring lives of seven real-life super heroines.
Wonder Woman may be a fictional superhero, but women throughout history have demonstrated similar bravery, fighting abilities and commitment to doing what’s right. With the release of the much-anticipated Wonder Woman movie today, here are seven real-life “wonder women.”
On the night of April 26, 1777, during the American Revolutionary War, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington went on a long, dangerous ride in order to alert militiamen that they were needed to face British troops attacking a nearby town. Sybil traveled approximately 40 miles — more than twice as far as Paul Revere — while avoiding British-sympathizing “Cowboys” and marauding men known as “Skinners.”
Thanks to Sybil, by morning about 400 men had gathered, so the militia was able to meet the British in battle. Sybil’s ride began to receive wider recognition in 1907, after a family member wrote an article about it. Wonder Woman would likely tip her tiara to Sybil’s bravery as well.
Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai who lived and fought in 12th century Japan, would have impressed Wonder Woman with her skills. In the Tales of the Heike, Tomoe is described as riding without fear, no matter how rough the terrain or steep the slope, and so adept with her sword and bow that “she was a match for a thousand ordinary men.” (Tomoe was apparently also beautiful, with long dark hair — like a certain superhero.)
The end of Tomoe’s life is uncertain: She may have been sent away by her commander before his final battle, as he didn’t want to die alongside a woman, and then ended up a nun who lived to 91. However, she’s also said to have died in battle, or to have jumped into the sea to avoid capture and dishonor.
In the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries, a group of female fighters’ strength and fearlessness paralleled that of Wonder Woman and her family. These women were known as ahosi (king’s wives) or mino (mothers), but European observers dubbed them the Dahomey Amazons. Living comfortably in the palace — where no men could reside — they spent their lives training in everything from gymnastics to weaponry, and were extremely skilled at hand-to-hand combat.
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, whose name meant “God speaks true,” was a leader of these female warriors. She spearheaded an attack in 1851’s battle of Abeokout. However, her troops couldn’t overcome superior defenses, which included European cannons. In 1892, better-armed French forces also defeated the Dahomey Amazons. By the end of the 19th century, Dahomey was under French control and its female fighting forces had been permanently disbanded.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Just as Wonder Woman has her “Diana Prince” alter ego, Mary Elizabeth Bowser (also known as Mary Richards) used a cover story during the Civil War. Her former owner, Elizabeth Van Lew, had an espionage network in Richmond, Virginia, and though Mary had been freed from slavery and educated in Philadelphia, she took on the persona of a slow-witted servant so she could spy on the Confederacy. Thanks to an introduction from a friend of Elizabeth’s, Mary then became part of Confederate president Jefferson Davis‘s household.
As Mary served meals and cleaned, she also gathered information. Davis knew spies were at work, once noting, “no printed paper could be kept secret,” but Mary was apparently able to remain in Davis’s house until early 1865. She taught and lectured after the war ended; further details of her later life remain unknown. In 1995, Mary was inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Arizona’s Fort Huachuca for having “succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort.”
Like Wonder Woman, Edith Cavell wanted to help others and save lives, even if it meant putting herself at risk. Cavell, who was British, stayed in Belgium to serve as a nurse during World War I because she believed, “At a time like this, I am needed more than ever.” In her work she took care of all fighters, no matter their nationality.
However, Cavell also helped 200 Allied soldiers escape Belgium. This resulted in her being arrested by the Germans; despite Cavell’s protests that she’d acted for humanitarian reasons, she was convicted of treason for delivering “reinforcements” to Germany’s enemies. Cavell was killed by a firing squad on October 12, 1915. The night before her death, she told a chaplain, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred and no bitterness towards anyone.”
There’s no shortage of female Soviet military heroes from the Second World War. The all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment, nicknamed the Night Witches, terrified German troops for years. Women also fought on the ground; one such combatant was Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who became a sniper in 1941. Credited with 309 confirmed kills by 1942, Pavlichenko’s success led to her visiting the United States to build support for the war effort.
Pavlichenko was welcomed by big crowds, but also had to deal with ridiculous questions (one journalist asked if female Soviet fighters wore makeup; Pavlichenko answered, “There is no rule against it, but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”). Also criticized for her uniform’s lack of style, Pavlichenko got angry and told Time magazine in 1942, “I wear my uniform with honor . . .It has been covered with blood in battle.” Wonder Woman would likely appreciate Pavlichenko standing up for herself and the worth of women warriors.
Noor Inayat Khan
Wonder Woman isn’t the only princess willing to fight for justice. Noor Inayat Khan was a descendant of Indian royalty (her great-great-great-grandfather was an 18th-century Muslim sultan in Mysore) who valued tolerance and nonviolence, but who also saw the importance of combating fascism during World War II. With French-speaking abilities, in June 1943 Khan was sent by Britain’s Special Operations Executive to work as a radio operator in occupied France.
Most members of Khan’s network were captured soon after her arrival, but she refused evacuation to continue her radio work in Paris. By moving around the city, using aliases and changing her appearance, Khan evaded arrest for several months, but in October 1943 she was taken by the Nazis. After two failed escape attempts, she ended up in Pforzheim prison, where she endured harsh treatment and solitary confinement but didn’t reveal intel to her captors. Her final stop was the concentration camp of Dachau. Before she was executed on September 13, 1944, Khan’s last word was, “Liberté.”