—Catherine Milroy, Staff Writer—
There are so many amazing people to read about from the history books: George Washington, Magellan, Da Vinci. But history, unfortunately, has not always recognized some very deserving individuals from minority groups, with rare exceptions like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi. Not everyone will get their names printed in history books, but not all role models and favorite people have to come from a single source.
#1: Shajar al Durr
Shajar al-Durr was first documented circa 1250 as wife to the Egyptian sultan Salih Ayyub. The French army had just begun to invade King Louis IX, in what would be known in the modern day as the Seventh Crusade. Illness had taken hold of the sultan in recent travels, and after some time he died from it―instead of alerting officials of this, however, Shajar hid the knowledge, claiming that her husband was simply very sick and had requested that she tend to his duties in his absence, even going so far as to order a servant to bring food to his tent each day. In turn, she was given power, and began to rule in secret under the deceased sultan’s name. Even after her deception was found out, the man who was to assume power died in battle, and Shajar took control again.
She immediately began concentrating on the military. At first, she used her son Turanshah to rally troops, but after it became clear that he was too incompetent she had him killed; without a male heir to the throne, there was no other choice than to legitimize her as sultana, permanently. The French were defeated under her rule, and Louis IX was captured, used as a tool of ransom in exchange for roughly one third of the nation’s GDP.
There was wide disapproval of having a woman in position of sultan, and she was forced to step down for an appointed former soldier, Aibak. Still, she did not give up easily, managing to seduce Aibak into marrying her and divorcing his first wife. For seven years, she ruled more or less in his place, as her experience far outweighed his own. Her fall from power only solidified after having Aibak murdered for planning to marry another woman and, after a riot ensued, was killed by his supporters in the process.
#2: Ching Shih
Ching Shih was born in the Guangdong province of China in 1775 and remained relatively undocumented until she found employment in the belly of a ship. It was there that she met Zhèng Yi, captain of the Red Flag pirate fleet, who would eventually become her husband and appoint her as a fellow commander of his men. Their collaboration was wildly successful, expanding the Red Flag from a fleet of 200 ships to 1800―upon Zhèng Yi’s death six years into their marriage, the fleet had consisted of over 50,000 pirates.
Seeing an opportunity in her husband’s demise, Chih Shih took charge, with her adopted
son Chang Pao at her side. She became a strict leader that implemented new regulations on the fleet: having plunder collected before being redistributed, banning rape of female prisoners, and cutting off the ears of deserters. She was so powerful, in fact, that she was known as “The Terror of South China”, and the Chinese government presented a peace agreement with its nation’s pirates in an attempt to stifle her. However, when trouble arose in agreeing to specific terms of this agreement, Shih went to the official’s office herself; in the end, she and her men were permitted to keep all of their loot, and she and Chang Pao agreed to marry in exchange. After this she resigned her position entirely and lived comfortably until her death at the age of 69.
#3: Alan L Hart
Alan L. Hart was born as Alberta Lucille Hart in 1890, growing up under the care of his mother after his father’s death. As a child it quickly became apparent that he loathed feminine things like dresses and domestic work, instead taking interest in chopping lumber and playing soldier games, with his grandfather serving as his role model. In high school, he was teased for his behavior and thus tended to avoid social situations, opting instead to absorb himself in his studies. He graduated top of his high school class, and went to attend Albany College for two years, before transferring to Stanford University. While he did have more success in his social life there, having a few relationships with various women, he was still made fun of (he had now switched to masculine clothes and hairstyles), and once again found sanctuary in his schoolwork, graduating as one of the top in his class from Stanford in the process.
After going into medical study post-college and furthering his education at both the the University of Oregon and the University of Pennsylvania, Hart became determined to be seen as a man. With the help of a doctor by the name of Allen Gilbert, he was able to be medically deemed male through the removal of his uterus, known as a hysterectomy―in fact, he was the first person to ever receive the procedure. After moving between several medical positions and earning a master’s degree at Yale University, Hart settled into employment as a radiologist, and became a pioneer in understanding tuberculosis, as well as heading Connecticut’s x-ray programs and publishing four novels. He died in 1962, at the age of 71.
#4: Kittie Smith
Born in 1882, Kittie Smith was born to a relatively normal Chicago family with two other siblings. At the age of nine her mother passed away, and her father, who was already known to drink, became increasingly abusive to she and the rest of his children. On Thanksgiving of 1891, Kittie finally decided to take a stand and refused to obey her father’s order to make him a meal; he flew into a rage, holding her arms down and pinning them to the lit stove. After being rushed to the hospital, it was determined that her arms had been burned too badly, and they had to be amputated.
Her father shortly thereafter waived all right of custody to the Children’s Home Society of Illinois. Under this care, Kittie learned how to do most day to day tasks with her feet, exceeding especially well at writing and using the typewriter. She sold her pieces to earn money to care for herself, named ‘The Kittie Smith Fund’, in which all 25 cent donations were entirely up to the recipient of her work. Upon adulthood, she was able to fully support herself with these donations—people were so gripped by her story that she received over $35,000 in quarters. In 1913, she became the first woman to vote in the city of Chicago, using only her feet to cast her vote. Now out of the foster system, Kittie joined the Ringling Brothers’ circus, and traveled with them to demonstrate her skills and serve as inspiration for other disabled children.
Photos Courtesy of Adam Ogilvie-Burke via Flickr, Julie Gough via Flickr, APHO via Wikimedia, Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr