Get To Know 100 ‘Bad Girls Throughout History’

Illustrations from the book of Harriet Tubman, Joan of Arc, and Julia Childs. All images courtesy of Chronicle Books.
Being the first in anything is hard. Being the first woman in anything is harder.

Do you know the name of the first female pirate? The first self-made female millionaire? The first female professional writer? For that matter, can you name the women who pioneered computer programming, Wi-Fi, and traveling over Niagara Falls in a barrel?

Ching Shih was the first female pirate. Madame C.J. Walker the first self-made female millionaire. Aphra Behn was the first female professional writer. As for the first computer programmer, the inventor of Wi-Fi, and the first person to survive a barrel trip over the falls — at age 63? Those honors belong to Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, and Anna Edson Taylor, respectively.

These women, and many more like them, are featured in Los-Angeles based illustrator Ann Shen’s aptly-titled book, Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World. More than an illuminating history lesson, the book serves as inspiration for the modern female or female-identifying person, while challenging pervasive gender myths.

“’Bad Girls Throughout History’ started out as a 12-page zine that I made and sold myself,” Shen wrote in an email to The Establishment. “The response slowly grew and I would constantly get suggestions for more women to add.”

After creating volume two, she worked with her book agent to create a larger volume. Choosing only 100 women proved “an almost impossible task” for Shen. Ultimately, she set two very important criteria in place.

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First, the women needed to embody the definition of the word “trailblazer.” “Women who led, who were the first in their field, first of their kind, first on their path,” wrote Shen. “Being the first in anything, creating a path where none existed, is hard. Being the first woman in anything is harder, because you have the extra hurdles of all the men who are already in the arena, and the rest of society looking at you and thinking, how dare you? Who do you think you are?”

The second criteria: diversity. The book mentions women who come from a wide range of educational and socio-economic backgrounds, and there’s an emphasis on a diversity of life stories and passions as well. “Diversity matters. Representation matters,” wrote Shen. “It was as important to me to share stories of women who are widely known and famous, and to share their complicated, human selves, as it was to bring to light women who are rarely recognized in the limelight for their achievements.”

Shen admits that she wrote the book mostly for herself, but also for anyone who has “ever felt at some point in their lives less than, lost, or scared.”

The book’s title, meanwhile, slyly subverts our very notions of gendered “goodness” and “badness.” Says Shen:

“As a reformed goody-two-shoes, I’ve always had trouble with the way girls and boys are treated differently since birth. When women dare to speak up or act out, they’re viewed as ‘bad girls,’ whereas boys are ‘mavericks’ or ‘leaders.’ Growing up, it was the worst thing in the world to be a ‘bad girl,’ but there comes a time that you, as a female, need to re-examine what that really means and where these constructs of what makes you good vs. bad come from.”

Shen often felt like she “didn’t fit in or excel” because of standards — be they academic, societal, etc. — set by someone else. But she realized, slowly, that the women who did succeed did so by breaking a few rules. They were bad — and that was a good thing.

The book serves as a jumping-off point for readers of all ages to research more about the women in history who often get overlooked. And they are overlooked. As one Rutgers University paper put it, “Publishers of American history books continue overall to stress the pivotal part men have played in history and to pay little more than lip service to the contributions of women.” And a lack of education on female pioneers persists outside the classroom as well; as Slate reported earlier this year, 71.7% of recent popular history books featured male subjects (and, unsurprisingly, were overwhelmingly written by men as well).

Ann Shen
Ann Shen

Readers who got a preview of the book have shared their feelings of inspiration and gratitude with Shen. “It’s great that it sparks interest in a lot of these women’s lives,” wrote Shen. “Unexpectedly, a lot of people have told me they’re sharing it with their kids (whether their own or with their classrooms), and I really hope my book can plant a seed of courage in their growing minds.”

The words “bad girl” might not have been the first thing that these women thought of to describe themselves, but they are undoubtedly badass. And Shen figures it comes down to the fact that they pursued their passions and fought for their causes without asking for permission.

“In researching these women’s lives, remembering that they were just as human and flawed and complicated as the rest of us, made me realize that the one thing they all have in common is that they just didn’t give a crap what other people thought,” wrote Shen. “They didn’t let other people’s discouragement or expectations hold them back from what they believed or how they wanted to live their lives. They kept rising.”

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World is now available. You can order it here.

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