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Saucy Gals of History

For our March meeting, our speaker was Leah Leach, co-host of our podcast Your Gal Friday. She presented 13 gals that are more risqué or controversial than you’d hear about on our family-friendly podcast. Leah told the tales of pirates, erotic poets, spies, burlesque performers, and revenge-fueled painters. These gals stories are incredible, inspiring, and oh yeah, saucy.

Here’s who she talked about:

Josephine Baker

Burlesque Performer and French Spy

800px-Baker_BananaBorn in 1906 in Missouri, she had a terrible childhood, I mean terrible. Little formal education, no indoor plumbing, poor, always hungry, abused, and homeless for a time. She made some money dancing on street corners at the age of 13. Her dancing leads her to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, where she became a breakout and landed an opportunity to go to Paris. She would say later, “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States…. A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore…. I felt liberated in Paris.”

Liberated in Paris she was. Gal performed in a skirt of bananas and nothing else. Sometimes she had with her a pet cheetah that wore a diamond collar…and nothing else.

She did movies, had successful records, Ernest Hemingway called her, “The most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She was huge.

Then World War II happened.

Josephine was now a French citizen and France declared war on Germany. However Germans were still smittened by Josephine – her all-nude parties were very popular there. So she was recruited by French military intelligence and became a spy. It’s amazing how non-secretive people are when they are nude. ProTip? She’d relay information back on sheet music using invisible ink. She’d also pin secret information inside her underwear because no one was going to search her there.

After the war things got weird. Josephine toured Paris and the United States. In the U.S. she was not putting up with segregation – it first got her acclaim, then criticism. The criticism in the United States including labeling her as a communist. She was not allowed back into the country for a decade.  But the rest of the world didn’t mind and she continued to captivate audiences.

In the 1950’s she supported the Civil Rights Movement. She was refused reservations at 36 American hotels because she was black, so she toured the south giving talks and performances. She demanded were that none of the audiences were segregated. When the KKK threatened her she publicly, said she was not afraid of them.  She worked with the NAACP and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s reported that when MLK was assassinated, Coretta asked Josephine to take her husband’s place as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But after thinking it over she declined saying her children were, “too young to lose their mother.” She had 2 daughters and 10 sons, many of them adopted. She called her family “The Rainbow Tribe” as her children’s nationalities were broad and proved that, “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.”


Greek Poet

sappho cropBorn around 610 BCE Sappho’s writing were on Papyrus and designed to be set to music. It is said that she was very popular, as popular as Homer perhaps. Plato would later call her a “10th Muse”.

She was born on the Greek island of Lesbos. Her poetry expressed love for men and women. Is that where we get the term Lesbian from? It’s complicated, but basically, Lesbos meant “wooded” in ancient times. People in the 1800’s started writing about Sappho and concentrated on her erotic poems about women and the term just stuck.

There is lots of mystery, legend, and speculation about Sappho. A lot of her work is found in fragments. The fact that her work from the 610 BCE still exists at all is amazing! Though her work has been treasured, it also been made fun of and used by religious leaders to spread hatred.

Here’s one poem. It’s called Sappho fragment 23 that I thought was just beautiful and shows how they can mean, just about anything you want them to mean.


Like a sweet-apple
turning red
on the tip
of the topmost branch.
Forgotten by pickers.
Not forgotten—
they couldn’t reach it.

Zelda Fitzgerald

Author and the Flapper Girl

zelda-sayre-fitzgerald1Born in 1900 in Alabama, she was born into a life of privilege, her father was a Supreme Court Judge of Alabama. As a teenager, Zelda was a dancer and socialite. She was the flapper girl you think of the 1920s. She drank, she smoked, she pushed gender norms and was risqué.

She met F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance, he proposed and she said no. He didn’t have any social standing, but she changed her mind when he got his first book deal.

The book was a hit and both of them became famous. F. Scott was known as the chronicler of the Jazz Age and Zelda was the icon of the 1920’s liberated woman.

Hubby wrote The Great Gatsby and Zelda took up ballet. Zelda was even invited to dance with the Royal Ballet of Italy but she said no because she was writing short stories for magazines and painting.

Now people will say Zelda was F. Scott’s muse. Well, he would actually steal verbatim from her diary and put them in his novels. She didn’t like this and they fought and drank, and fought some more.

The couple didn’t know how to manage money. They traveled a lot, they lived like high society but when the stock market crash of 1929 hit they were in ruins. Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in mental-health clinics. While in one clinic she wrote Save Me the Waltz (1932) The book was semi-autobiographical about painters with a troubled marriage. Apparently F. Scott was going to use that material too for his next novel but she beat him to it. He then blamed her medical bills on his lack of being able to finish his own work.

Zelda’s book didn’t sell too well, so she wrote a play Scandalabra and then focused on painting. Critics didn’t understand her play or her paintings.

She checked in to Highland Hospital in 1936 and started work on another book. F. Scott moved to Hollywood, struggled with alcoholism and died in 1940. Zelda would die eight years later when the hospital caught fire. She never finished her second book.

The game Legend of Zelda is named after her. Also, the song “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles was inspired by Zelda after Don Henley read a biography about her.

Tru’ng Sisters

Vietnamese Rebels

hai-ba-trung-sisters- croppedArriving on the scene around the year 39. The Tru’ng Sisters lead a rebellion against the Chinese Han-dynasty and established an independent state.

Trung Trac was the oldest sister. Her husband was assassinated by the Chinese for attempting to overthrow them. Trung Trac took over and asked her sister, Trung Nhi, to join her.

Within a year they took over 65 citadels and they proclaimed themselves Queens of an independent state. Their army was mostly women.

They stayed firm for three years before they were bested by General Ma Yuan.

There are different accounts for what happened next. Some say they were killed by General Ma Vien. Some say there were killed in battle because their army fled. Some say they got sick after the battle and died. The legend says, the sisters threw themselves into the Hat Giang River to avoid capture and turned into statues. Those statues were then found and placed in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung Temple for worship.

Regardless of their end, their legacy remains in Vietnam. They are a national symbol of Vietnam’s independence and they are often shown as two women riding giant war elephants.

Ching Shih

Chinese Pirate

Ching ShihHer birth isn’t known but she appears on the scene in 1801 as a prostitute. She was kidnapped to marry pirate commander Cheng Yi…but girl had some conditions. She wanted an equal share of his pirate plunder and a say in the business. He agreed. The pirated together for 6 years before he was killed in a typhoon and so she took over. Her name means “widow of Cheng.”

She ran the biggest pirate crews, the Red Flag Fleet. She commanded 300 ships and 20,000-40,000 pirates. Extortion, blackmail, protection rackets, they did it all. They got filthy rich and hard to stop. So hard that the Chinese government tried to stop them but they failed. The British and the Portuguese tried to stop her but failed as well. With each victory, Ching would seize their ships, the goods on board, and give the soldiers the chance to join her or die.

The Chinese government offered a truce. Ching seems to have gotten on the good side of the Emperor. She disbanded her fleet but many of the pirates in her command got amnesty – they got to keep their loot and they got jobs in the army. She also got the title of “Lady by Imperial Decree.” She retired and opened a gambling den and a brothel. Like you do.

And she is featured in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Revenge-Fueled Painter

Artemisia self potroaitBorn in Italy in 1593, her father was a painter and trained her and her brothers. Artemisia showed the most promise of all her siblings. Her mother died when she was 12 spent most of her time around men and painting. When Artemisia was 18 years old, her father found her another tutor, Agostino Tassi. There’s no sugarcoating Artemisia’s story, Tassi raped her. To restore her dignity someone thought it was a good idea if the two got married. Her rapist changed his mind and wasn’t going to marry her so her father pressed charges. The crime was not so much the rape as the charge of taking her virginity. The trial went on for 7 months. It was a huge deal and there exists a transcript of the trial.

Tassi was exiled for Rome for a combination of the rape, stealing from Artemisia’s father, and the possible murderer of his own wife.  However, Tassi was still in favor with the Pope.

A month after the trial, Artemisia’s father arranged her marriage to another Italian artist. She continued painting but she was very angry. She would take that pain and paint religious images that were very much self-portraits and therapy. She painted Holofernes being beheaded by Judith from the Old Testament. There are three different paintings, meaning she painted it over and over with subtle changes most notably the color of Judith’s dress.


A Guardian article wrote: “By the 1620s, she was a successful artist working as far from Rome as she could get. And she was taking revenge with the only weapon she had: a paintbrush. She could not write her story because, as she revealed during the trial, she was more or less illiterate. She could paint it, though, and change its ending.”

Her work has been championed around Europe. She showed women as equal to men and lacked the typical depiction of women as weak or timid. In her work, they were strong, rebellious and powerful.

Nancy Wake

Secret Agent of World War II

nancywake1943Born in 1912 in New Zealand she left home at age 16 traveling to London, New York and liked Paris the best. She was found work as a freelance journalist and got married.

When the Germans invaded France she started helping local resistance groups. She escorted soldiers and refugees out of the country. She said, “A woman could get out of a lot of trouble that a man could not.” Case in point her husband who was doing the same help for the resistance was arrested and executed.

Nancy fled France and became a British spy helping the French Resistance. In 1944 she was among 39 women and 430 men who parachuted into France to help with preparations for D-Day. She collected weapons, hid them for the Allied armies to find, and set up wireless communications.

I love her interviews, she said about those days “I was never afraid. I was too busy to be afraid.”

Germans called her “The White Mouse” and she was the Gestapo’s most wanted person with a 5 million franc price on her head. She admits to killing a German soldier with her bare hands who tried to execute that order. Again she says, “I was not a very nice person. And it didn’t put me off my breakfast.”

Movies and documentaries are out there on her but she hates that they concentrate on her love affairs. She did love a good drink and handsome French men but she says she didn’t sleep around during the war, “You see, if I had accommodated one man, the word would have spread around, and I would have had to accommodate the whole damn lot.”

She’s was decorated that she was able to live out her 98 badass years on this planet with the sales of her medals.


Mongolian Warrior Princess

khutulun Turandot croppedBorn about 1260 her father was a powerful ruler of Central Asia. She fought as a cavalrywoman on the battlefields keeping Genghis Khan and Khublai Khan at bay. Khublai Khan was also her great uncle, so I’m sure that was awkward.

Her favorite way to attack was to grab an enemy soldier and ride off on horseback with him. Marco Polo wrote about her saying she did it “as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird.”

When she wasn’t on a battlefield she was at camp – wrestling. She continuously made the challenge that she would marry any man who beat her in a wrestling match. If she won he would give her his prized horses.

She was never beat and girl got a lot of horses. Some say 10,000 horses. She did find someone she wanted to marry and she was going to throw the wrestling match, but she just couldn’t do it, so she won the match and got married.

Axis Sally

Radio Personality Convicted of Treason

Axis-Sally2Born as Mildred Gillars in Maine in 1900. She tried a theater career in Greenwich Village but then moved to Paris to be a model. In 1934 she moved again this time to Germany to study art. In 1940, at the urging of her German fiancé, she took a job as a radio broadcaster. Her fiancé would soon be drafted and die on the Eastern Front. Maybe she was mad he died, maybe she was worried about finding a job, regardless she went headlong into the Nazi propaganda machine where she gained many nicknames by the GI’s; The Berlin Babe, The Berlin Bitch but the one that stuck was Axis Sally.

Mildred show “Home Sweet Home” addressed directly the American and Allied troupes, her program began “Hello, gang. Throw down those little old guns and toddle off home. There’s no getting the German’s down.” The program was designed to make GI’s feel homesick. Mildred would tell stories about girlfriends and wives running around back home. She also exploits their fears about doubting their missions, their leaders and what job prospects would be for them after the war.

The broadcast that would make her the most famous, and get her in the most trouble was called “Vision of Invasion”, a radio play where she took on the role of an Ohio mother who talks about her son dying in an attempted invasion of occupied Europe (this was just before D-Day and the invasion of Normandy).

After the war, Mildred was arrested and returned to America. She was tried for ten counts of treason and found guilty of 1 count of treason. Her sentence was 30 years and $10,000. She served 12 years and was released in 1961.

I have mixed reports of what happened to her after prison. One source says she entered a convent but a Random House book says she became a kindergarten teacher!

Maud Wagner

First Female Tattoo Artist in America

Maud Stevens WagnerBorn in 1877 in Kansas, Maud was a circus performer. She was an aerialist and contortionist. On the traveling circus circuit, she met Gus Wagner who described himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America.” She said she’d go on a date with him if he taught her how to tattoo. Several years (and several tattoos’s later) they married.

Maud gave the traditional “hand-poked” tattoos even though there was the invention of the tattoo machine. The couple traveled and not only worked as tattoo artists but also has attractions at vaudeville houses, county fairs, and amusement arcades. By 1911 she was photographed with a full chest and sleeves of tattoos.

Now because tattooing has been tribal, I can’t say she’s the first. But she’s the first on record female professional tattoo artist in the United States.

Putting herself on display as well as her amazing work changed the world of tattooing. The world wasn’t just made up of men getting and giving tattoos, Maud showcased unbridled independence and self-expression for women.

Emily Davidson

Suffragette Martyr

Emily_Wilding_DavisonBorn in 1872 in London, she went to Royal Holloway College to study literature but when her father died, she was forced to leave college because her mother could not afford to pay the fees.

Emily became a governess and saved enough money to enroll at another college but she was not allowed to graduate with a degree because she was a woman.

In 1906 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, a group started by Emmeline Pankhurst. She wrote nearly 200 letters to over 50 newspapers urging for women’s right to vote.  The WSPU used militant and confrontational tactics to get women the right to vote. Emily was arrested 9 times. She was described as “one of the most daring and reckless of the militants.” Emily assaulted police officers, threw stones at windows during political meetings that were open only to men, threw stones at cabinet ministers and set fire to public mailboxes. She hid in the heating system of the House of Commons and planned to disrupt the morning’s meeting demanding votes for women.

She went on hunger strikes in prison and after several arrests and hunger strikes she was force-fed and fire hoses were pointed on her in her prison cell.

Her ninth and final arrest would be for attacking a Baptist minister with a horsewhip, which she thought was a British statesman Lloyd George.

She was getting more daring and desperate in her work for women’s suffrage. The WSPU wasn’t happy with her mailbox fires. Perhaps to make amends, perhaps to take make a public display for women’s suffrage, Emily brought two “Votes for women” flags to the 1913 Epsom Derby. The derby was a major event; all social classes were there, from the common folk to the King and Queen. The King’s horse was participating in the derby and three film cameras were capturing the event.

Emily positioned herself at the home straight. As the King’s horse approached, she ducked under the railing and entered the track. She was struck by the King’s horse and died 4 days later in hospital.

Video of the event. 

She had in her hands the Votes for Women flags. It is believed that she was trying to attach the flag to the King’s horse. She had with her a ticket to a suffragette dance later in the day and a diary with events later in the week. It’s not believed she was attempting to become a martyr for women’s suffrage, but that is how WSPU immortalized her. In newspapers of the day she was hated. She received hate letters in the hospital, basically picture the worst trollers on YouTube and yeah, you got the picture.

She was given a major funeral, 5,000 women were in the procession followed by hundreds of male supporters. A biographer wrote that 50,000 people lined the route. Her gravestone reads the WSPU slogan “Deeds not words.”

Emily’s death was a turning point. Well, that and WW1. The government released all women hunger strikers and declared an amnesty. Emmeline Pankhurst suspended all WSPU operations and helped get women into war work. In 1918, 5 years after Emily’s death and after the end of WW1, Women got the right to vote in England.

Policarpa Salavarriea

Colombian Revolutionary

Policarpa_SalabarrietaBorn about 1790 Nicknamed “La Pola” She didn’t like Spain’s rule. In Bogota, she applied and took for jobs as a seamstress and a house servant. There was one catch, they needed to be household loyal to Spain. She would flirt, overhear conversations, collect maps, identify major players, and hand over all information to the guerrillas. She would even get a few of them to join defy Spain and join the rebels.

She and other women like her were eventually found out. When she was captured she fought with the soldiers long enough so that her friend could burn all her evidence and letters.

She was dragged into the city’s square to be made an example of. It is said she protested so loudly against the Spanish government, saying they were going to lose the upcoming revolution, that the soldiers playing the death march on the drums were told to drum louder to drown her out.

She refused to kneel before the firing squad. Instead, she faced them and yelled, “I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more. Do not forget my example.”

She is considered a heroine of the independence of Colombia. Nov 8th is known as Day of the Colombian Woman and it is celebrated in her honor.

Eva Ekeblad

Saved Sweden with Vodka

Eva EkebladBorn in Sweden in 1724 to a well-to-do family. At the age of 16, she married a count. She’s Swedish nobility, Y’all. She could have just entertained nobility and take care of her seven children but gal had a brain for science.

In the castle kitchen, she experimented with potatoes. Potatoes were introduced to Sweden in 1658 and only available to nobles. She noticed how hearty the crop was and became determined to find more uses so she could bring it to the people.

Her first discovery was creating potato flour. Then she made alcohol out of it – you know potato vodka. Now I can’t say she invented Vodka or even invented potato vodka because that’s a rabbit hole that’s highly debated.

Sweden was facing multiple famines and food shortages. Bringing multiple uses of the potatoes to her people greatly improved the country’s diet. Now it did lead to a spike in alcohol consumption across Northern Europe, but hey.

Eva was the first woman elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, she’s sometimes called an honorary member because the Academy was open to men only.

So let’s raise a glass (potato vodka or otherwise) to Eva as all these saucy gals of history.

Author dr leah leach

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