s my dear friend Robert once said, the an(n)als of history are filled with the dicks of injustice. But still, we persist.
And by “we” I mean, in this instance, women. And not just any women, but NASTY women, the kind who not only incite the wrath of less evolved specimens with their brazen autonomy, but seize the wheel and steer their motherships into ports of their own choosing, often where they’re neither safe nor welcome. History has no shortage of such brave and beautiful nasties, but too many are confined to its margins, or else have their tales told by prudish historians sometimes centuries after the fact, which naturally becomes more akin to fiction.
Some of the better-knowns get much-deserved air time, while others seem to drift in and out of collective memory. They may get a movie or biopic tome every few decades, maybe an online shout-out here and there, but are hardly household names. And upon revisiting them you remember just how grateful you are that they lived and, more inspiring still, persisted against unfathomable — and even downright ridiculous — odds.
For Be Nasty Day I’ve listed six of my all-time favorite trailblazers who didn’t just demand a place at the table, but brought the whole damn feast. They were sex workers and empresses, pirates and inventors, champions of human rights and causes that, during their respective eras, were ahead of the minds of the time. And yes, I will add loud and proud, their persistence was all the more bolstered by equally nasty, class-act men who were far too ahead of their own times to hold them back.
As an unabashed history nerd, I’ve done my best to condense these women’s lives for cyber brevity; believe me, what ended up on the cutting room floor probably hurts me more than it hurts you. So think of this as a nasty woman sampler platter, and dig in my fellow nasties.
Empress Theodora (c. 500 AD–28 June 548 AD)
Brought up in Constantinople’s notorious anything-goes-in-the-hippodrome by an actress mother and bear keeper dad, Theodora was one of the drome’s star performers, giving both live and private shows, the details of which are mostly lost to time but nonetheless ripe for imagination.
The wholly unreliable historian Procopius describes a particularly salacious Leda and the Swan act, further (and a tad wistfully) detailing Theo’s signature wardrobe number of a single, strategically placed ribbon. Following a marquee run that concluded with her teens, Theodora hitched her chariot to a Syrian official and followed him to Alexandria, which ultimately ended the way most relationships in your 20s do: embarrassingly, followed by a religious awakening.
Hanging up her ribbon and turning to wool spinning instead, Theodora returned to Constantinople ready to make a fresh start.
By all accounts a stunner — though to be fair, mosaic is a tricky medium — Theodora soon caught the eye and crown of up-and-coming Emperor Justinian who, far from being put off by her racy CV, couldn’t believe his luck at scoring a worldly hottie who happened to think he was pretty rad himself.
The two became an instant power duo, ruling side by side and winning all the hearts and wars right up until they decided to start taxing the wealthy which, as you know, is always a hit with the 1%. With riots breaking out between the political factions and faced with a nasty usurping right out of Game of Thrones, Justinian was ready to throw in the chlamys and bail but Theodora was all like, “Nah baby, you got this.”
Together they squashed their opposition and reestablished one of the most magnificent cities still standing today, as well as the largest and longest running church of the ancient world, the Hagia Sophia. Perhaps recalling her early years, Theodora personally bought and provided for young girls sold into prostitution, set up a convent refuge for ex-prostitutes, and fought to reform laws that barred women from seeking divorce, bringing assailants to trial, or owning property.
Theodora would eventually succumb to what historians now believe was breast cancer, and Justinian continued to sing her praises to his own dying day. Oh, and they were declared saints by the Eastern Orthodox Church. #couplegoals, y’all.
2. Veronica Franco (March 25, 1546-July 22, 1591)
Okay, so straight-up confession: Veronica is one of my all-time favorite nasty women, so much that I devoted an entire essay to her for A Women’s Thing. She’s just that dope, and a true celebutante for any woman who’s ever been trolled by a bro — which is pretty much every woman I know, including myself.
A Venetian cortigiana onesta, or honest courtesan, which is basically the 16th century way of saying “sex work IS work,” Veronica was a professional lover to the wealthy and powerful. Courtesans were pretty singular in that they were as cultured and articulate as the men they kept company with, and enjoyed a degree of social and sexual independence that was otherwise off-limits. In no time Veronica was the toast of Venice, as well as a valuable asset when the region came to blows with the Ottoman empire, thanks to her arms-procuring rendezvous with France’s King Henri III.
Veronica was also a vocal advocate for women’s rights, taking a page from Theodora by providing shelter for so-called “fallen” women and their offspring, as well as an education and state-approved trade. When the loser nephew of one of Veronica’s patrons got pissed when she declined his advances (once more for the people in the back: sex workers don’t owe you shit) and published a pamphlet of slut-shamey porn verse in which she was the subject, Veronica adjusted her tiara and penned a clapback of her own that effectively rendered said loser nephew the laughingstock of Venice and Veronica the rightful victor.
When a few years later another salty suitor tried to haul her to court on charges of witchcraft, she defended herself without a lawyer and won her exoneration. Her later years were decidedly less glam thanks to a reputation on the skids, plague outbreak, and losing her home to looters, and by the end of her life she mostly subsisted on the charity of former benefactors. Still, Veronica’s spirit lives on in these fighting words:
“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.”
3. Julie d’Aubigny, a.k.a Mademoiselle Maupin (1670/1673–1707)
I’ll do my best to squeeze the dizzying life of this cross-dressing, opera singing, swashbuckling badass into a paragraph bio, because Jules is truly a nasty for the ages. Born into the court of King Louis XIV, La Maupin was educated alongside the pages her father trained, and eventually married off to one Sieur de Maupin.
When hubby left her in Paris to take up post in the south of France, La Maupin took up with her fencing master (as one does), and hatched a plan to flee with him to Marseille after an illegal duel marked him a wanted man. Whilst on the road, the couple made a living as fencing instructors and tavern performers, around which time La Maupin began donning the garb of a gentleman. During one of their fencing demonstrations a heckler, unable to believe a girl could beat a boy at the art of poking, demanded proof of La Maupin’s sex and she, like any self-respecting woman, lifted her blouse and showed the twin proofs.
When things with her fencing boo soured, La Maupin hooked up with a merchant’s daughter, even going so far as to enroll in the convent her parents had sequestered her in, and their exploits included dis-entombing the body of a recently deceased nun and re-interring her in their bed before setting the convent on fire.
After a speedy pardon from the king, La Maupin secured a spot with the Paris Opera, where she quickly became the standout. Unfortunately she stood out in other ways that were no-nos for women, namely cross-dressing and dueling. At one point she was challenged to three duels in one night at a Versailles rave, won all of them, and promptly went back to wooing the noblewoman her opponents had been vying for all evening. (Seriously, was her husband just tanning himself on the Riviera during this time all like, “Eh, she’s fine, pass the bubbly and bronzer”?)
After one too many run-ins with the law, La Maupin fled to Belgium and became the mistress of a Bavarian elector (basically a prince who can vote), right up until he left some cash by the bed with her walking papers, whereupon the elector suffered a mysterious but I guess non-fatal tumble down the stairs. From there, the details of La Maupin’s life get blurry. By that time she was already wildly sensationalized, with dramatized accounts placing her in a rotation of opera gigs, cross-dressing shenanigans, and a gossip parlour’s assortment of decadent-but-doomed love affairs. When La Maupin finally exited the mortal stage she was only in her early 30s, but by that point you almost have to heave a sigh of exhausted, albeit exhilarated, fin.
No but really, what the hell happened to Sieur de Maupin?
4. Madame Ching Shih (1775–1844)
Everyone loves a Gurl Pirate, and Madame Ching was the boss of them all. At the height of her dominion she commanded over 300 ships, manned by an estimated 80,000 men, women, and even children (where my Goonies at?), which far surpassed superstar Blackbeard’s numbers.
Born Shih Yang in the Guangdong province of China, the future Madame met her husband, Cheng I, while working on a floating Cantonese brothel. Cheng I, who came from a long line of pirate CEOs, just had to put a ring on it, and soon husband and wife (now referred to as Cheng I Sao, meaning “wife of Cheng I ‘’) were ruling the China Seas. The couple held their own in some serious turf wars with the triple-threat trifecta that was the British Empire, Portuguese Empire, and Qing Dynasty, all the while using their powers of connection to unify former Cantonese pirate rivals and build what would eventually be known as the Red Flag Fleet.
When Cheng I Sao’s husband died, she henceforth stepped into the ultimate title of Madame Ching and took over the family biz, claiming the couple’s adopted adult son Cheung Po as both lover and second-in-command. (Yes, this smacks of Woody Allen ickiness but actually dates back to a practice of adult men being formally adopted into families to protect both business and familial interests).
Contrary to nautical mores of the west, women pirates were hardly taboo in South China, and Madame Ching quickly earned the fear and respect of her convoy. She instated a strict code of conduct for those under her command, which forbid the raping of — or even consensual sex with — captives under penalty of death.
Madame Ching’s code further forbid the plundering of villages that willingly supplied her fleets, and all acquired goods were to be inspected and accounted for before any distributions were made. Finally in 1810 an exasperated Chinese government made a deal with Madame Ching that kept her off the water but let her keep her sizable spoils, which no doubt left the East India Company sobbing into its hankie.
In her post-retirement years, Madame Ching would act as advisor for Lin Zexu during the First Opium War while running a gambling house on the side. She and her family resided in peace in Macau, where she died at the age of 69, having lived all the best lives.
5. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (May 17, 1912 — January 13, 2006)
The long and frankly bizarre history of how humans have addressed the biological non-phenomenon of menstruation is a whole separate article, so we’ll just stick to the equipment. After squatting over a hole but before tampons, there was the sanitary napkin, or simply put, pad.
The no-duh idea of placing a piece of cloth between one’s legs dates back to our ancient ancestors, with Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician Hypatia famously gifting a “you’re not like other girls” admirer her used menstrual rag to bring him back down to earth.
Menstrual pads as we know them now were thought to have been implemented by French nurses in the mid 19th century as a way to stay mobile during their menses, and anything from cotton to wool, sometimes stuffed with wood pulp for extra absorption, was used.
Naturally commercial manufacturers were quick to see the profit potential, and went about producing the first disposable pads around the late 1880’s, with Johnson & Johnson on the other side of the pond developing their own version in 1896 called Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towels for Ladies (sexy, right?)
From there menstrual pads became a well-known but costly luxury, not to mention complicated as fuck-all, with so many straps and snaps that the results were more akin to bondage than practical period wear. Oh, and with leakage aplenty. Even as late as the 1950’s women were complaining about the bulky, messy, frankly stupid contraptions. And that’s where Mary Kenner comes in.
Born in North Carolina to a family of inventors, Mary was the kind of practical problem solver who should have been overseeing operations from her own company high-rise but alas, there were two — no wait, three — marks against her: being a woman, being black, and being a black woman in the 1950’s.
After dropping out of Howard University due to financial hardships, Mary worked a series of odd jobs to save up the money for her first patent: an improved sanitary belt that featured a built-in moisture-proof napkin pocket for inserting and removing disposable pads, which in turn led to significantly less leakage and uncomfortable bunching.
Patents were as expensive to procure then as they are now, but by 1957 Mary had saved up enough to patent her sanitary belt, and was soon approached by an interested company that sent a rep directly to her home. In Mary’s own words: “Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped. The representative went back to New York and informed me the company was no longer interested.” And wouldn’t you know, 30 years later Mary’s patented model became the standard for sanitary napkins today. Despite this all-too-familiar slight, Mary would go on to file patents for five more inventions between 1956 and 1987, the most of any African American woman to date, which included a specially designed tray and carrier attachment that could be fitted to a walker frame, initially created for her sister Mildred when she developed sclerosis.
I’ll leave you with these final words of Mary’s: “Every person is born with a creative mind. Everyone has that ability.”
6. Coccinelle (August 23, 1931 — October 9, 2006)
Trans rights are still an ongoing and arduous issue right here in the 21st Century, but we have French entertainer and activist Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy a.k.a. Coccinelle to thank for being among the first of many pioneers to come.
Born in Paris under the name of Jacques Charles Dufresnoy, Coccinelle (“ladybug”) endured a torturous childhood at an all-boys school before peacing out at 16 to apprentice herself to a celebrity hairdresser who would eventually fire her for standing up to an abusive client, returning years later to savor the sweet revenge of seeing her former boss grovel.
With the help of her sex worker friends and support of her woke parents, Coccinelle made her debute in 1953 at Chez Madame Arthur, which soon led to regular appearances at Le Carrousel de Paris, where she performed alongside such legends as Bambi, April Ashely, and Amanda Lear.
Coccinelle, whose iconic bombshell beauty easily held rank with Bardot, Ekberg, and Mansfield, graced the silver screen, produced several albums and autobiographies, and toured extensively throughout her career. Despite her fame, Coccinelle still faced grief from passport authorities and military draft officers; when called in to report for duty she arrived at the offices in full regalia and stripteased her way out of the draft, noting that the biggest insult was performing for free.
In 1958, Coccinelle underwent the first publicized sex reassignment surgery, later recalling that “Dr Burou rectified the mistake nature had made and I became a real woman, on the inside as well as the outside. After the operation, the doctor just said, ‘Bonjour, Mademoiselle’, and I knew it had been a success.”
Coccinelle was henceforth recognized by the French state as a woman, and her first marriage to sports journalist Francis Bonnet became the first known legal marriage of a trans person in France, the only requirement from the church being that she legally change her name to Jacqueline.
Her star only continued to rise, and with it her determination to turn some of that spotlight on trans rights, and this legacy endures in her founding of the transgender support and advocacy organization Devenir Femme, as well as her help in establishing the Center for Aid, Research, and Information for Transsexuality and Gender Identity.