WASHINGTON - Move over, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella!
Movie animator Jason Porath got tired of seeing the same fairy tale-princess type of character over and over on the big screen-- beautiful, kind and lucky. His quest to find notable women outside that traditional mold led to a blog he calls Rejected Princesses. It is incredibly popular, with nearly 200,000 followers. Now, he's collected stories about dozens of those extraordinary women who defined for themselves what it means to be a strong woman in a new book.
The Wrestling Princess
Once upon a time—more precisely in 1260 -- a girl was born in Mongolia. She was the great granddaughter of the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. Her name was Khutulun, and she became known as the Wrestling Princess.
“Khutulun had a single rule,” Porath explains. “This rule was simple and clear: if you wanted to marry her, you had to beat her in wrestling, but if you lost, you had to give her a hundred horses. She ended up unmarried with 10 thousand horses.”
Khutulun is one of the women Porath includes in his book, Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. He notes that her story has been told and re-told -- and changed -- throughout the years. "[Puccini's] opera Turandot is loosely based on her, but instead of wrestling, she’s outwitting people in games of wit and chance. She shows up in the Netflix series Marco Polo, but she’s immediately roped into this Romeo and Juliet-style thing where she immediately falls in love, which is completely against her character and her history. She was a big, hefty wrestler woman in real life, but in the Marco Polo series, she's thin.”
Khutulun exemplifies Porath's vision for his blog and his book. From the very beginning, he says he wanted to meet these women where they were, without trying to make them look cuter or wiser or kinder.
“I’m trying to portray people in a more well-rounded manner, where they have actual character flaws as opposed to what you see in animated movies where the biggest flaw you could put on someone is maybe that they’re clumsy.”
Ada Lovelace, the 19th century English mathematician, had actual character flaws. “You only hear she was an amazing woman who invented computers before they existed, which is definitely true,” he notes. “She's a first-class intellect super genius. But she also had a lot of downsides. She had a gambling problem. Same with Josephine Baker. She was the world’s biggest mega star, but she also kind of ended up hurting a lot of people. She had an enormously tough childhood. All these people were very complex, fleshed-out human beings. They are not presented as such in history books.”
The women in Porath's book come from different times and different cultures. While some are mythological, most are historical figures: the 12th century spy queen of the Yoruba, Moremi Ajasoro, who married the leader of the tribe to help her village... deaf American scientist Annie Jump Cannon, who revolutionized astronomy in the 19th century... Phoolan Devi, India's resilient “Bandit Queen,” who later was elected to the lower house of Parliament.
Many of these women became icons because of the role they played in defending their countries. Josefina Guerrero became a spy for the Philippines resistance against the Japanese occupation during World War II. In the 17th century, Nzinga Mbande defended Ndono, now Angola, against the Portuguese occupation.
“She went off into the jungle for forty years where she conquered a tribe of cannibals and became the utterly ruthless ruthless warrior and disturbed the lines of trades and killed Portuguese people for about four decades until the Portuguese were like,'You can have it! We’re leaving your country, it's yours!'" Porath says of Nzinga. “She’s celebrated all over Angola to this day. Tracking down what’s factual about that story is really difficult. There was a lot of propaganda that was put forward by the Europeans. Some of those (stories) actually were put forward by Nzinga herself because she wanted to be feared.”
The book covers also introduces women who ruled empires, like Empress Myeongseong of Korea in the 19th century, and Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor who lived and ruled in the 8th century. Centuries before that, around 1478 BCE, Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt, the second woman to become Pharoah.
“She reigned for basically 22 years by herself and it was a golden age, with a boom in architecture and art. She engaged in a trip to a land called Punt, which historians believe is Ethiopia. To Egyptians of that time, that was like going to the moon. It was a tremendous achievement. After she died, the following pharaohs systematically tried to remove her name from pretty much everything. But she had made such an enormous quantity of stuff that despite of generations-long attempts to erase her from history, almost every single major museum in the world has a number of artifacts from her reign.”
Jason Porath continues to search for exceptional women for his blog and says there’s no problem finding them.