In cinema, real, dangerous women have been a fascinating anomaly – rare invaders of the norm who arrive, surprise, and vanish. As stalwarts of diversity, they wait in the wings until they’re tapped for the next tale, used so often that their names become immortally infamous – like Bonnie Parker, who died eighty years ago today in an ambush alongside partner in crime, Clyde Barrow.
If Hollywood was to be believed, history holds only a handful of badass women, but the repetitive nature of historical biographies isn’t a necessity, it’s a matter of habit. Hollywood opts for the familiar rather than mine the deep and plentiful repositories of women in history, save for the rare interludes that have brought women like Domino Harvey, Valerie Solanas, and Mary Surratt to the big screen.
But they are a few of many more – tough heroines and villains whose lives are just asking for a film treatment. Here are seven, and the cinematic counterparts they could challenge.
Kate Warne: America’s First Female Detective
Cinematic Counterparts: Veronica Mars, Miss Marple
Before women could vote, or even join the police force, Warne was hired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1856. During her time as a detective, she went undercover on countless cases, “worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.”
However, her impact also extends beyond making history as America’s first female undercover detective. She also helped defeat a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he traveled to his inauguration. Without her, this world might be very different.
At one point, Sony Pictures TV was developing a series about Warne, but thus far, nothing has come of it.
Nellie Bly: Investigative “Stunt” Journalist
Cinematic Counterparts: Lois Lane, His Girl Friday
When a misogynistic column was published in an 1880 newspaper, Elizabeth Cochran wrote a letter to the editor, wowed him with her skill, and soon after became noted journalist Nellie Bly. Rebelling against pressure to cover the “women’s pages,” Bly forged her own career as an investigative journalist. She traveled to Mexico and wrote exposes about the government; she got herself committed to an asylum to report on the abusive treatment of patients (“Ten Days in a Mad-House”); and she made Around the World in Eighty Days a reality by doing it in 72. Any one of her exposés could make a film, or all of them in a comprehensive whirlwind of journalism.
A small independent production, 10 Days in a Madhouse is in the works, but the closest Bly has come to a big-screen biopic so far is a television movie in 1981.
The Forty Elephants: London’s Fierce Girl Gang
Cinematic Counterparts: Foxfire, The Bling Ring
Forget Gangs of New York or The Italian Job. From the late 1700s until the 1950s – for almost two hundred years – London was plagued by the Forty Elephants, a gang of young women who would raid shops in London’s West End. Their world was one of clever thievery with specially tailored clothing, and later, police chases in high-powered cars. They lived lives of opulence, spending “lavishly at pubs, clubs, and restaurants.” Obviously, their thievery was much more extensive than Bonnie and Clyde’s, but only recently has their lawless rule been written about, let alone filmed.
Nancy Wake: WW2 Resistance Powerhouse
Cinematic Counterparts: Inglorious Basterds, Black Book
Nancy Wake was many things over her 99 years: nurse, journalist, socialite, British Agent, and French resistance leader. Her resume reads like that of a cinematic action hero. She led thousands of guerrilla fighters in battle, she “strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands,” and spoke with the tough one-liners action movies love.
A TV movie about her life was made in the ‘80s, but it pissed Wake off because it added a love affair and scenes of her cooking for male Allies. As she once stated: “There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money. Even if there had been, why would I be frying it? I had men to do that sort of thing.”
Bruce Beresford had been tapped to direct a feature about her life in 2011, but no word has hit since.
Zenobia: “Warrior Queen”
Cinematic Counterparts: Cleopatra, 300
She claimed to be a descendent of Cleopatra, but Zenobia’s impact was much more compelling than being an ancestor of one of history’s most famous Queens. Zenobia was married to the King of Palmyra, and after his assassination, she didn’t fade away. She became the “warrior queen” who was active in battle, rather than just a figurehead to male armies.
With her army she conquered Egypt and further territory, creating an empire outside of Rome before being captured. No one knows what ultimately happened to her – reports range from suicide to Zenobia leading a luxurious life in Rome.
Jennie Hodgers: Civil War Soldier
Cinematic Counterpart: Albert Nobbs
Move over Albert Nobbs: There were many women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. One of the most compelling is Jennie Hodgers, an Irish immigrant who enlisted as “Albert Cashier.” As Cashier, she fought in roughly 40 battles, and once escaped capture by overpowering a prison guard.
After her long service, Hodgers didn’t return to her birth persona. She lived her life as Cashier, working (and voting) as a man. It wasn’t until she was hit by a car that her sex was discovered, but it was kept secret until Cashier suffered dementia, was institutionalized, and forced to live as a woman. When she died in 1915, however, she was buried and entombed as her male self in her uniform.
Night Witches: The Soviet Union’s WW2 Female Combat Pilots
Cinematic Counterparts: The Tuskeegee Airmen, The Battle of Britain
There is a lot of badassery in World War 2: spies, fighters, and even daring combat pilots. Though other nations restricted women to support/transport, the Soviet Union had a squadron of young female pilots known as “The Night Witches.” Flying flimsy planes made of plywood and canvas, without parachutes or closed cockpits, the pilots flew tens of thousands of night missions against the Germans, often in “stealth mode” as they idled their engines and glided over their targets. Commander Nadezhda Popova not only flew 852 missions herself, but also survived one flight that left 42 bullet holes in her plane, as well as more in her map and helmet.