Women have always played vital roles in revolutionary uprisings, contrary to popular patriarchal narratives. Throughout history, thousands of women have fought against regimes they perceived as oppressive, either with the pen, the podium, or their own fists. In honor of July 4th, here are a few of their stories.
1. Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814): The Conscience of the American Revolution
Called a “real genius” and “the most accomplished woman in America” by her good friend John Adams, Mercy Otis Warren was born into an intellectual, political family in West Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1728. As an adult, she moved to Plymouth, raised five sons, and was by all accounts an elegant, genteel woman of impeccable manners and taste.
But Warren was also a radical revolutionary. She called her home “One Liberty Square” and headed a salon of patriots fed up with oppressive British rule. She wrote hugely influential, pointed political plays and poems which were printed in Boston papers.
“She cast her patriot friends as heroes and her Loyalist enemies as villains,” her biographer Gretchen Woelfle writes, “with names like Rapatio, Simple-Sapling, Crusty Crowbar, Hector Mushroom and Hum Humbug.” In The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs, Warren’s meditation on the Boston Tea Party, she wrote: “The fair Salacia, victory, sings, in spite of heroes, demigods, or kings; She bids defiance to the servile train, the pimps and sycophants of George’s reign.”
In 1805, her masterwork, the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution was published, becoming the definitive Jeffersonian Republican version of America’s birth. In it, Warren reminds future American citizens:
“The elective franchise is in their own hands; that it ought not to be abused, either for personal gratifications, or the indulgence of partisan acrimony…The principles of revolution ought ever be the pole-star of the statesman, respected by the rising generation.”
2. Claire Lacombe (1765- ?): Her Greatest Role Was Revolution
It was a steaming July day in Paris in 1792. In the midst of a meeting of the revolutionary Legislative Assembly, a beautiful, unknown black-haired woman with the mannerisms and rich voice of a seasoned performer stood up to speak:
“Legislators! A Frenchwoman, an actress at the moment without a part; such am I; that which should have caused me to despair fills my soul with the purest of joy. As I cannot come to the assistance of my country, which you have declared to be in danger, with monetary sacrifices, I desire to offer it the devotion of my person. Born with the courage of a Roman matron and with hatred for tyrants, I shall consider myself happy to contribute to their destruction…Perish all despots to the last man!”
For the next three years, Claire Lacombe, a struggling provincial actress, would become a star among the most extremist elements of the French revolution. Known as “Red Rosa,” she danced atop the ruins of the Bastille, was shot in the arm during the storming of the Tuileries, and co-founded the radical, influential feminist “Republican Revolutionary Society” (also known as the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women). These “enraged” women of the maligned lower-class fought for equal rights and the destruction of all aristocrats.
Militant and fierce, Lacombe and her “dragoons” terrified the men of the revolution. In 1794, Lacombe was thrown in jail, and women’s clubs were outlawed. When she was released 16 months later, “she mingled with the crowd outside,” Lacombe’s biographer Galina Sokolnikova wrote, “and vanished into obscurity.”
3. Margarita Neri (Date of Birth and Death Unknown): The Rebel Queen of Morelos
In 1911, the Los Angeles Times breathlessly reported on revolutionary battles taking place in Guerrero, a southern coastal state in war-torn Mexico. “Petticoat leads band of Rebels,” the headline blared, in a story picked up all across North America. Margarita Neri, “La Neri” or “Pepita” to her 700-plus followers, was a young, wealthy convent girl who was incensed over outrageous taxes. So, she raised an army against the Mexican government. La Neri ,“although beautiful in feature,” was a daring raider.
“The Rebel Queen of Morelos” was the daughter of a Mayan Indian and a former Mexican general who had rebelled against the strongman government of President Diaz over a decade before. Years after her father’s death, she took up his fight, and in the process became a legendary figure during her own short lifetime. Brutal and fiery, the red-headed Neri was known for her passionate dancing—and her threat to personally “decapitate Diaz.” Her troops were infamous for their violence—looting, burning and pillaging whole towns. So feared was La Neri, it was said the Governor of Guerrero hid in a crate and fled her forces in a panic. Neri was reportedly eventually executed, but the place and time of her death are unknown.
4. Qiu Jin (1875-1907): China’s Joan of Arc
“With all my heart I beseech and beg my 200 million female compatriots to assume their responsibility as citizens. Arise! Arise! Chinese women arise!”- Qiu Jin
In 1904, Qiu Jin, a wealthy Chinese wife, mother, poet, and feminist, tired of the severe patriarchal restraints placed on her intellectual and political development, shocked Beijing society. Leaving her family behind, she sailed to Japan to enroll in college and meet with like-minded Chinese revolutionaries, who sought to overthrow their corrupt government. She described the journey in her poem, “Regrets; Lines Written En Route to Japan”:
Unbinding my feet I clean out a thousand years of poison,
With heated heart arouse all women’s spirits.
Alas, this delicate kerchief here,
Is half stained with blood, and half with tears.
When she returned to China in 1906, Jin had morphed into a fearless revolutionary leader, famous for her swordplay, cross-dressing and bomb-making skills. She ran the Datong School—recruiting young revolutionaries—and started a radical feminist magazine called the Chinese Women’s Journal. In 1907, Jin passed from brilliant activist to martyr, when she was tortured and beheaded at the age of 31 for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the Qing government.
5. Esraa Abdel Fattah (1978-present): Egypt’s Facebook Revolutionary
In 2008, Abdel Fattah started a Facebook group in support of a textile workers’ strike in Egypt. Her gutsy activism gained her fame—and a nickname— “the Facebook Girl.” It also landed her in jail. But it was her revolutionary actions in 2011 that would make her a profound symbol of social action—and a target of Egypt’s government—to this very day.
As one of the leaders of 2011’s January Revolution and Arab Spring, Abdel Fattah led a small group of protesters into Tahrir Square, protesting the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. As their numbers swelled to the thousands, she bravely recorded her experiences in the Square on Facebook and Twitter, bringing the Egyptian revolution into the world’s consciousness. “We feared being arrested or killed,” she recalled later that year, “but we were achieving the dream of justice and democracy.” For her actions, which helped lead to the overthrow of the Mubarak government, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
However, Abdel Fattah has seen her dream of democracy replaced by a repressive regime much like the one she fought to overthrow. She has been persecuted by the government, and in the fall of 2017 was referred to military prosecution and is not allowed to leave Egypt. “I lived through those 18 days in 2011 like a wonderful utopia,” she said in January 2018. “But we were idiots—idiots to believe Morsi’s promises of democracy. Sometimes I think there’s no hope… But if I stopped my activism, I’d feel I was betraying everyone who’s died or gone to prison.”