Badass Babes You Probably Haven't Heard Of

By Bethany Swoveland

Badass Babes You Probably Haven't Heard Of

We’ve read the inspiring stories of Sojourner Truth (abolitionist, women’s rights activist, literal God-sent angel), Rosa Parks (civil rights activist, Queen B of the freedom movement), Frida Kahlo (bisexual feminist disabled Chicana painter who might be THE MOST revolutionary and important artist of the 20th century), and countless incredible women who have helped shape history, but there are hundreds, thousands, probably even millions (our scientists are double checking) of women who haven’t graced our textbooks or Buzzfeed “which Greek goddess would you be based on your pizza topping preference” quizzes.

In honor of Women’s Equality Day on August 26th, we’re showcasing some of the most revolutionary, radical, remarkable babes, defying limits, odds, and expectations. Brace yourselves, it’s about to get badass.

marsha p johnson

MARSHA P. JOHNSON

Marsha was a trend-setting, ground-breaking, march-starting all-around BADASS. She’s known for her extensive and necessary activist work in the LGBTQ+ community, advocating for trans inclusion, education, and safety, beginning in the sixties. Seriously. Bad. Ass. She was a personality - filled with charisma, kindness, and energy, even telling a cop the P in her name stood for “pay it no mind.”

While identifying as a drag queen earlier in her life, Marsha made waves for transwomen like herself in many ways, including being one of the first protestors to help initiate the Stonewall riots in 1969. She and other amazing trans and drag queen activists like Sylvia Rivera lead the fight against prejudice and injustice in the LGBTQ+ community for decades after the riots.

Aside from her incredibly important activist work, Marsha was a pop and cultural icon who wore many hats in NYC. She modeled for Andy Warhol in a series on drag queens called “Ladies and Gentlemen”, gave spiritual offerings to Neptune on the reg, and performed in the comedic theatrical group Hot Peaches.

While her unexpected death in 1992 was ruled a suicide, the unusual and horrific circumstances surrounding her found body in the Hudson River lead many of those in her circle to believe Marsha was murdered. The case is currently closed, but Marsha’s legacy lives on in every LGBTQ+ person who walks after her. Thank you, Marsha.

Want more deets on Marsha? Check out the 2012 documentary Pay It No Mind for more Marsha “I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong” P. Johnson.

big mama thornton

BIG MAMA THORNTON

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is arguably the most important singer in music history (you can fight me on that), and you’ve probably never heard of her, though you have DEFINITELY heard her. Her legendary work in rhythm and blues music stands the test of time, opening the doors for women AND men vocalists to defy odds and bend genres for generations.

Big Mama was the first person to record Hound Dog, her biggest hit, before her thunder was stolen when Elvis white bread Presley recorded what would become a more popular version of the song just three years later. In a similar “come ON, white people” scenario, Janis Joplin popularized Thornton’s “Ball ‘n’ Chain” in 1967, though it was written six years prior. Seriously. Come on, white people. [Not so fun fact: Thornton went on to open for Joplin, and even complimented Joplin’s version saying, “that girl feels like I do,” but was never compensated for her work by Joplin or her label.]

Over the course of her career, Big Mama was nominated for the Blues Music Award six times, performed with the cream of the blues crop - BB King, Muddy Waters, Sippie Wallace, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame the same year she died in 1984. She sang bigger and bolder than anyone else, on top of playing the drums and harmonica.

What’s most memorable about Big Mama, besides her big voice, personality, and presence, is her tendency to do, well, whatever the heck she wanted, in a time when women were discouraged from singing the blues. She wore whatever the heck she wanted, sometimes opting for suits and stereotypically masculine attire, sang whatever the heck she wanted, often surprising folks running shows by going off program, and made her voice totally, 100% her own.

We have Big Mama Thornton to thank for rock and roll. Without her, Elvis and Janis wouldn’t be who they were, and it’s a disgrace she isn’t recognized more often for her revolutionary, badass work. Thank you, Willie Mae.

Want more Big Mama blues? Here’s an interview with Big Mama from the Arhoolie Foundation.

emma gatewood

EMMA GATEWOOD

Also known as Grandma Gatewood, Emma was the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles. M I L E S. Like, ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low, ain’t know trail wide enough over 2,000 MILES).

Emma was as strong and determined as they come, in part because she was forced to survive a tremendously abusive marriage for 33 years. During those years, she would escape the physical abuse by running out into the woods of her backyard, finding comfort in the trees.

Emma would go on to divorce the piece of shit who beat her, even after he threatened to have her committed to an insane asylum if she left him. There truly are no words for her strength. She had 11 children, and a shit ton of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-GREAT-grandchildren to bask in her total awesomeness.

Here’s where it gets especially dope: at the age of 67, Grandma Gatewood straight up told her family she was going out for a walk...and didn’t come back for 2,168 miles. She took one moderate-sized bag and wore her freshest white kids, THEN HIKED THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL!!! Y’all. It spans across 14 states.

She would go on to walk the Appalachian Trail two and three times, becoming the first person to do either. I seriously can’t handle Grandma Gatewood. She is everything. Thank you, Emma.

Want more dope grandma stories? Check out this biography on Emma Gatewood and bathe in her total fucking realness.

EDMONIA LEWIS

Our final historic babe spotlight goes to Edmonia Lewis, the first woman of color sculptor to achieve world-wide recognition for her incredible artistic talents. Let’s set the stage so that we might fully grasp the sheer brilliance of her work: the country’s at war, women have still not achieved the right to vote, and black women, in particular, are second-class citizens, even in the more progressive New York state.

Edmonia, orphaned by the age of nine, was raised by her Native American aunts outside of Niagra Falls. While she was born a free child, Edmonia was a first-generation Haitian-American and Native American girl, making going to school and pursuing her passions 5,000x more difficult because, let’s be real, America sucked at this point in history.

She would go on to attend Oberlin College at the age of 15 to study art. While there, she was accused of poisoning two school friends, eventually drug out into an open field and severely beaten, left for dead, then, once found bleeding out in the middle of a winter night, arrested for attempted murder via spiked mulled wine. I mean...wow.

She would eventually recover from the traumatic event, but did not finish her studies at Oberlin, opting to move to Boston, then Rome, where she would adopt her infamous neoclassical style sculpting, and spend the remainder of her life creating utter masterpieces, viewable today around the globe.

Her work stands alone as impressive and skillful, but to become internationally successful as a woman of color artist during the late 19th century speaks volumes to Edmonia’s determination and gifts. Thank you, Edmonia.

Want more sculptor soap opera drama? Check out a gallery of her incredible works here.

There are quite literally millions of other women who are just as valuable, just as significant, just as trend-setting and revolutionary, but we have shirts to embroider, so, here are a few of the badass babes who we encourage you to do some research on as well!

You can support local women makers and artists by checking out the goods at our shop - including work by Luella, Abby Lou Pottery, and Hatton Henry. Happy Women’s Equality Day!