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Illustrations by Nuria Riaza.
Human history is brutal. The past brims with oppression, persecution and violence. But there are subtler kinds of injustice at work, too, quieter cruelties.
Scores of remarkable women from previous eras are routinely overlooked. Female fighters, writers, scientists and spies are relegated to the footnotes of history, and outside certain circles or regions, they’re largely unknown.
Below, you’ll find four women from history whose names you may not know. We hope you’ll dig into their stories — and remember their names.
Details about the lives of Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, two upper-class sisters born in north Vietnam circa 14 A.D., are limited, save for one momentous feat.
In 39 A.D., while in their mid- to late-20s, the duo amassed an army and led a revolution against the Chinese, who had been in control of Vietnam for over a century.
“Their army was largely untrained,” says historian Pamela Toler, author of “Women Warriors: An Unexpected History.” “A large number of them were women. At least one source claims that their mother may, in fact, have been one of those women. And with that untrained army, they successfully drove out the Chinese, which were probably the largest empire at the time.”
(An aside: Trung Trac was married, and some sources say that her husband was executed in an effort to squash the rebellion. But other evidence indicates that he lived and followed his wife into battle. “I would love to believe this is true,” Toler writes. Me too.)
What came after the revolt is even more magnificent: Trung Trac and Trung Nhi created an independent state. They ruled together for two years. They rolled back taxes. They defended their land against Chinese reconquest. But in 43 A.D., they were no longer able to overcome China’s military might. In a final battle, Toler writes, thousands of Vietnamese fighters were killed and more than 10,000 surrendered.
What exactly became of the Trung sisters isn’t clear. Chinese sources say they perished in battle or were captured and then killed. Vietnamese sources say they drowned themselves in a river.
Regardless, their lives are cause for celebration. In Vietnam, there’s a holiday dedicated to the Trung sisters. A Buddhist religious cult sprang up in their honor.
“Today,” Toler says, “they are absolutely national heroines.”
Note: Since there is no record of what the Trung sisters looked like, this illustration represents the artist’s interpretation.
Andrée Borrel didn’t scare easily. A working-class, outdoorsy Parisian who dropped out of school at 14, she spent the bulk of her young adulthood actively resisting Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Working as part of an underground railroad in Nazi-occupied France, she helped Allied prisoners of war escape. When that work became too dangerous — her cover was blown — she escaped to London. At age 22, she became a secret agent for Britain’s Special Operations Executive and the world’s first female combat paratrooper.
“She was one of the women in the ’30s and ’40s who would go around in men’s trousers instead of skirts because it was a more practical kind of thing,” says Sarah Rose, author of “D-Day Girls,” in which Borrel is featured heavily. She “was tough as nails, by all reports. She was brave and determined and fiercely patriotic.”
In September 1942, Borrel parachuted into France to arm and train the resistance ahead of D-Day — June 6, 1944 — when the Allied forces invaded Normandy. She executed acts of sabotage and activated networks. She transported messages and guns. But espionage wasn’t her entire identity.
In June 1943, Borrel was captured by the Nazis and sent to a French prison. Even after her arrest, her ingenuity remained intact. “She charmed or inveigled a way to pay a prison wardress to send her laundry to her sister,” Rose writes in her book. “In dainty handwriting on the thinnest of cigarette paper, Andrée tucked messages into the lining of her lingerie and gloves.” Those letters survived.
Borrel was later transferred to a German-run concentration camp in Alsace. She was killed one month after D-Day.
“It is said Andrée woke up just as her feet were placed in the crematorium oven,” Rose writes. “She clawed at her jailer, digging her nails deep, ‘severely’ scratching his face to the point of drawing blood. As he closed the door, Andrée screamed, ‘Vive la France!’”
History is littered with authors. Enheduanna was the world’s first identifiable one. Born more than 4,000 years ago, she was a poet and princess in ancient Mesopotamia. She was also a priestess at a temple dedicated to a Mesopotamian moon god, Nanna. Enheduanna lived in a city situated in what is now southern Iraq.
The daughter of a king, she penned a significant body of work. Her hymns and poems were composed in cuneiform, an early form of writing on clay tablets. Some of her most notable poems revolve around the goddess Inanna.
In one poem, Enheduanna writes,
“In Enheduanna’s poetry, Inanna is both fierce and cruel, loving and kind,” Meador told UC-Berkeley. “In our society, women are not supposed to be like that.”
“But this is who we are as human beings,” Meador added. “Both men and women have these violent emotions, and if you are taught to suppress the knowledge of these harsh feelings, you live in too narrow a range.”
Note: Since there is no record of what Enheduanna looked like, this illustration represents the artist’s interpretation.