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For A More Civilized Age

Eight Women-Lead Historical TV Series That Would Totally Work

Dan Wohl blogs about baseball for a living, and he also once hosted a “Tudors”-themed party in college. He would love for you to follow him on Twitter: @Dan_Wohl.

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  • Ostercy

    Don’t forget Mrs. Thatcher! (I myself am writing a soap about Natla of Atlantis.)

  • Maryam Hanafiah

    fuck thatcher.

  • qspark

    That was Katherine Hepburn in the Lion in Winter.

    Another great historical woman to look at is Brunhild in 6-7th century France.

  • Elizabeth Gorman

    KATHERINE Hepburn was Eleanor of Aquitane in “The Lion in Winter,” not Audrey. Good article in any case.

  • Anonymous

    Ms. Park is of Korean descent, the woman you want to cast as Ethiopian looks more west African than east, and I feel really bad for you if you think Apocalypto was at all historically accurate. It was the Aztecs who were into the insane amounts of gore, not the Maya. Also, have you ever SEEN a Mayan person? Your proposed casting doesn’t work at all.

  • John Wao

    What about one based on Harriet Tubman? (from her Wiki page):

    -Born into slavery, she escaped to freedom

    -Risked her life to go back and free her family

    -Helped free other slaves via the Underground, again risking her life in the process

    -Worked with the Union army in different capacities

    -Helped John Brown, an abolitionist, plan AND carry out his raids, John Brown referred to her as “General Tubman”

    -Was highly praised by Frederick Douglas

    -later in life she worked in the suffragist movement

    -When she died she was buried with full Military Honors

    She was a remarkable woman.

  • Hallie Anne Fischer

    I love the fantasy casting of Vera Farmiga as Eleanor. But I want to point out that Katharine Hepburn, not Audrey, played Eleanor in the Lion in Winter.

  • Rowena White

    Audrey Hepburn was not in The Lion in Winter! It was Katharine Hepburn!

  • Anonymous

    What, no Grace O’Malley/Granuaile? Just read the ‘Legendary Exploits’ portion of her Wikipedia page, and tell me there’s not at least a miniseries to be had there.

  • Nelly Dreadful

    Ching Shih! Ching Shih! Ching Shih! The most successful pirate in HISTORY! The Widow Ching was such a badass pirate that the Chinese government eventually gave up trying to stamp her out and send an envoy with a message that boiled down to “Retire? Please? Pretty pretty please? We’ll give you amnesty and you can keep all your stolen booty if you’ll JUST QUIT PILLAGING US. PLEASE.”

  • Lisa Lacey Liscoumb

    Phillipa of Lancaster would also make a good subject for one of these.

    An educated woman (one of her tutors was Geoffrey Chaucer), she became Queen of Portugal through an arranged marriage and was an amazing woman. She wielded quite a bit of influence in both the Portuguese and English courts.

    Not sure who I would cast as her – she was described as “rather plain” and she was 28 when she married – somewhat old for the time.

  • Nelly Dreadful

    Yeah, I was about to say about Ferrerra, much as I like her, she’s… kinda fair skinned to be playing a pre-colonial native South American.

  • Anonymous

    Iron Lady played by Meryl Streep?

  • Lisa Lacey Liscoumb

    Thank you – I was thinking exactly the same thing when I read the one on the two pirate gals.

  • Laura Truxillo

    She would make an AMAZING miniseries.

  • RMCoyote

    Between this post, and aaalllll the suggestions in the comments…

    Why the hell has no one made a series based on any of the great number of kickass women yet? I mean, SERIOUSLY.

    (Also, does anyone else want a TV series based on the Sufferage movement? Come on, you can’t tell me that wouldn’t be awesome, especially with how it overlapped with so many other movements of the time.)

  • Anonymous

    As someone with a somewhat irrational interest in the Late Roman/Byzantine Empire I think the life of Empress Theodora would make for a great series.

  • Anonymous

    All of these, immediately. But especially Nefertiti, historical girl-crush since I was about 12.

    And I’d like some historical lady scientists and explorers as well.

    It’s infuriating thta so often the excuse for not having tv about prominent historical women is that there weren’t any, like women just sat around being doormats untill the 20th century. Go on wikipedia, type in female explorers or historical female scientists and you get a list as long as your arm and every single one of those women has a miniseries-worthy life. And that doesn’t even cover pirates and monarchs and soldiers and all the other awesome things.
    I made myself grumpy now.

  • Anonymous

    First person I thought of, too.

  • qspark

    Pulcheria probably would as well.

  • Christina Rafiqul

    Didn’t you hear? Tracy Jordan’s making that movie :P

  • Abigail Wallace

    A few suggestions of my own:

    1) Deborah Samson–another woman in the American Revolution, one who actually fought disguised as a man. She pulled some radical stuff, going so far as to extract a bullet from her own leg rather than go to a surgeon and risk revealing her sex.

    2) Pocahontas–the real woman was far more badass than Disney ever showed her to be. She was independent, at one point remaining with her captors after her people paid the ransom because she was offended that they took so long deciding whether to pay it. She played by her own rules, marrying and going to England as she saw fit, and not being automatically impressed by King James.

    3) Sacagawea–would probably score points with fans of The Hunger Games, given that you could play up the survival-in-the-wilderness angle. She was also kidnapped as a child, and much of her journey with Lewis and Clarke was also about seeking answers of her own.

    4) Theodora–the wife of Emperor Justinian, she essentially saved the Byzantine empire by refusing to leave the palace upon the approach of invaders, inspiring the men to stay and defend it as well. She also fought against human trafficking, arranging to remove young women from the brothels and send each one home to her parents with a new dress (I always appreciated the symbolism in that move).

    5) Beatrix Potter–you may know as the writer of cute li’l Peter Rabbit, but she also was a woman scientist in an era in which such were rare. Her drawings reflected her work in mycology and archaeology, and she was also a conservationist responsible for much of the preservation of the Lake District National Park.

  • Katharine Ellis Tapley

    Katharine Hepburn. With an “A”.

    Wow, you had me up until that moment. I’ll come back…but I’m going to need a little time.

  • Katharine Ellis Tapley

    I had to stick around in hopes that you’d mention Anne Bonny. One of my favorite historical women. I have always wanted to play her.

  • Katharine Ellis Tapley

    I would watch that show!

  • Anonymous

    Hi, this is Dan Wohl, I wrote the post. Obviously I made a massive screw-up there. I feel like a total idiot and I’m really angry at myself for making such a classic and obvious error. Rest assured I am aware of the difference between Audrey and Katharine despite what I wrote! I e-mailed the editors and they will change it.

  • Laura

    I would watch them all.

  • Jason Hunt

    For shame on you peoples! Not one mention of one of the mightiest women in history, Boudicca. If ever a series needed to be made about a powerful woman and her scorn, hers is one to tell.

  • Sam

    How about Gertrude Bell?

    Ripped from her wiki: “English
    writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, archaeologist and
    spy who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British
    imperial policy-making due to her skill and contacts, built up through
    extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped establish the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.”

    Though the innate British imperialism would probably be an issue. Also, she was an Anti-Suffragette, which would be something that would need to be handled delicately in a series, if it was mentioned at all. Still: totall badass.

  • Maricela Gonzalez

    Bookmarking this article under Stuff I Talk About All The Time And I’m Not Crazy ‘Cause Other People Are Talking About It Too. (Oh and I’m glad Dido, Queen of Carthage wasn’t listed because I may or may not be working on a screenplay of her rise [with her ubiquitous fall being in the sequel]).

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    While I love the idea of historical tv series featuring these fascinating women, I think it would also be great to have a documentary series which had an episode dedicated to them, with lavish reconstructions and top historian commentary. Bonus points for getting female historians like Professor Amanda Vickery, Lady Antonia Fraser and Bettany Hughes to contribute, or even host.

  • Nicole Elizabeth Currie

    If we’re talking about female pirates, Grace O’Malley has to be brought up. Not only was she badass herself, but she went toe to toe (politically) with another badass woman, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

  • Alana Boltz

    I would definitely watch these. Also, I’d love to see a series about Empress Wu. Or James Barry, the extremely successful (and eccentric) military surgeon who was only discovered to be female after his death.

  • Dana Kay Bach

    Amen, I was thinking her too. I don’t see a long series, maybe a season or two, but she is so worth it. I could be like female Spartacus in Britain…

  • Dana Kay Bach

    Personally, I’d say that yes The Tudors was about Henry, but it was also, very much, about the women in his life and how they influenced him. Especially in the first and second seasons with Anne. I think they did an admirable job showing how she helped shape the reformation in England. Yes, she used Henry’s lust to do it, but realistically, during that time, she was the most powerful woman in England.

    Also, I can’t believe that you left out Boudica. She is the epitome of a heroine that a watching audience could get behind. Also, the sheer amount of violence in her life would mean any network would pick her up in a second.

  • Dan Wohl

    I had Boudica in one of my earlier drafts of the post but I didn’t think it seemed like her (amazing) life lasted long enough to be able to sustain a whole TV series.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, Barry would be an interesting one. That said, I suspect the character would not come across as sympathetic if done properly; apparently Barry was a superb surgeon with a great bedside manner, but an absolute holy terror and just generally unpleasant to everyone not actively a patient.

    Then again, people seem to like Gregory House, so…

  • Chelsea Grace

    I love this post! Although if they did make these shows the scripting would need to be done carefully. I was extremely frustrated with the way The Tudors cut down some amazingly powerful and clever women to love lorn pawns. (re: Anne Boylen) when they had the perfect opportunity to portray them in a much more interesting and complex manner.

  • Ryan McClelland

    I would watch all of these! I would also recommend Mary Jane “Brick Top” Jackson of New Orleans infamy and my patron saint, Emma Goldman.

  • Anonymous

    I would watch all of these AND all the ones suggested in the comments! I studied History through A Levels and never learned about any really awesome women, except a mention of Florence Nightingale during ‘history of medicine’ at GCSE. You never hear about any of these women in school. :(

  • Anonymous
  • Meg P. W.

    I’d watch all of these! :D I’m especially intrigued by the idea of a series about Belle Starr. She had quite the exciting life!

    I’d also love a series about Elizabeth I and her relationships with her half-sister Bloody Mary and her sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. There’s plenty of material to work with there.

    Ooo, and what about Catherine the Great?

  • Anonymous
  • Javan Nelums

    Chiaki Kuriyama as Yamamoto Yaeko a Gunner during the Meiji period
    Nikki Amuka-Bird as Mary Fields aka Stagecoach Mary a delivy woman in the western frontier

  • Alana Boltz

    Well, I think that he might if you could see how he got that way. I mean, he didn’t exactly have an easy life, from what I have seen.

  • malkavian

    Me too!

  • Anonymous

    Qiu Jin!

    -Born in Xiamen, Fujian, Qiu grew up in her ancestral home, Shanyin Village, Shaoxing, Zhejiang.

    -Married, Qiu found herself in contact with new ideas.

    -In 1904 she decided to travel overseas and study in Japan, leaving her two children behind.

    -She was fond of martial arts, and known by her acquaintances for wearing Western male dress and for her left-wing ideology.

    -She joined the Triads, who at the time advocated the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and restoration of Han Chinese governance.

    -She joined the anti-Qing societies Guangfuhui, led by Cai Yuanpei, and the Tokyo-based Tongmenghui led by Sun Yat-sen. She returned to China in 1905.

    -After returning to China, Qiu started publishing a women’s magazine in which she encouraged women to gain financial independence through education and training in various professions.

    -In 1907 she became head of the Datong school in Shaoxing, ostensibly a school for sport teachers, but really intended for the military training of revolutionaries.

    -One of the few women to be beheaded in public for treason

    Seriously, she rocked out, and exploring the political/social stuff at the end of the Qing dynasty? Suuuuper awesome dude. Also, just check out her poetry:

    Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes,
    I alone rode over the East Sea’s winds for ten thousand leagues.
    My poetic thoughts ever expand, like a sail between ocean and heaven.
    I dreamed of your three islands, all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
    I grieve to think of the bronze camels, guardians of China, lost in thorns.
    Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name.
    I simply make my war horse sweat. Grieving over my native land
    hurts my heart. So tell me; how can I spend these days here?
    A guest enjoying your spring winds?

  • Ta Vrána

    Great list! Also, yeah, why is there so few history shows with cool women? I was reading the Female Warriors page on Wikipedia and all I could think of was “damn, why is no one writing a show about her yet?!?”

    Some of my favourite picks:
    Annie Oakley, exhibition sharpshooter – female-centered story from the back stage of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show? HECK YES.
    Maria van Oosterwijck, Flemish painter – not a fighter, but seriously, we NEED to get over the idea that history has no successful female painters!
    The Night Witches, an all-female soviet night bombing aviation regiment in the WWII – they flew on biplanes so old and slow they were notoriously hard to shoot down.
    Le Maupin – french duelist and opera singer from 17th century. Seriousluy, I don’t think it can get any cooler.
    …aaaaand I gave to shut up now or I’ll keep going for another hour.

  • Sophie

    YES! There was the film ‘Iron Jawed Angels’ about the suffragist movement in America, which hammied in a completely fictional romance so the female characters could go ‘but what if I don’t really want the vote. What if I just want to settle down?’ O_O (though otherwise it was pretty good).
    But I’ve never seen a drama about the suffragettes. And they were so interesting. Plus there’s a whole family drama thing going on with the Pankhursts. Get on it BBC.

  • Marianne

    Julie d’Aubigny! Julie d’Aubigny! Cross-dressing bisexual swashbuckler, and later opera singer, in the age of musketeers! Ran away from home to go from town to town giving fencing demonstrations with her lover, and was known to pull open her top and flash anyone who claimed she couldn’t possibly be a woman and handle a sword like that. Girlfriend’s parents force her into a convent to keep her away from you? Easy–sneak in by impersonating a nun, burn the place down to fake your deaths, run away, get sentenced to death in absentia for your stunt, and later get pardoned by the king for, essentially, being flamboyantly awesome. She also fought duels in Paris over ladies’ hands, and at one point managed to pick up a boyfriend by stabbing him through the shoulder in a tavern courtyard and coming by his room afterwards to see if he was all right.

    Also, with steampunk all over the mainstream, it’s a big fat crying shame that we don’t have at least a miniseries starring Ada Lovelace.

  • Sophie

    It’d make for a great movie though. I admit the lack of a queen Boudica film is something I rather resent Hollywood for.

  • Sophie

    I LOVE this. Really it’s a great post. I particularly like the idea of a Mary Read and Anne Bonny tv show. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for that. I do have one small criticism though. These women are all exceptions to the rule. Women who against the odds managed to make it into typically male roles. And that’s fine. They’re fascinating people. I’d love a tv show about any of them. But it’s easy to ignore the fact that more average women’s lives were still relevant and interesting even though their options were limited. The BBC is doing a programme right now called ‘Call the Midwife’ which is about midwives in the 1950s, and it’s really entertaining. It’s cast is heavily female skewed and it puts emphasis on the importance of the female social contribution in that period, which is easily ignored. I think it might have been nice to have a couple of suggestions which highlighted women in roles more typically gendered female. Because we don’t just ignore women in media. There’s also a tendency to only value women if they’re doing things that are considered more masculine.

  • Laughing Collie

    Don’t forget, please, that gender roles changed over time and cultures. It would not surprise me to discover (though I don’t know how we’d do it) that the early Egyptians, Mayans, Shang Chinese, and ancient Ethiopians — as well as many more cultures of that time frame and earlier — consider proper social gender roles for women to “of course” include queen, priestess, general, and warrior, as well as mother. Indeed, it is entirely possible our current emphasis on women as “only” nurturing, passive, mother-types is the real “aberration” for the human species.

  • Laughing Collie

    We always assume today that the Central Asian nomadic equestrians were hotbeds of frat-boy patriarchy, but the archaeological data flatly contradicts this in many cases. The ancient Greek legend of the Amazons is supposedly based, for example, on the Scythians and Sarmatians, who had many women queens, priestesses, and warriors.

    A single and rather bloody example of a famous “named” woman queen and general: Tomyris of the Massagetian Scythians, the queen who led her people in battle to defeat and kill Cyrus the Great? In retribution for his deceitful capture of her son as a hostage against her obedience to Cyrus, she had promised Cyrus she would “quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.” And so she did.

    How about a show on these peoples? They were known by the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Greeks, the Romans — it’d be a fascinating travelogue through time! Such a show could include strong fantasy elements based in real-life archaeological data, and could also include thought-provoking subtexts on interesting modern questions: a) ethnicity – many of these peoples were apparently tall, blonde or red-headed Caucasians, b) women’s issues – such as the cultural clash between these peoples and the Greeks and (later) Romans, up to and including the speculation that King Arthur was actually descended from a troop of Scythians hired by the Romans, and c) gender-role issues — since there were apparently not just women behaving differently than modern social gender roles, but also a type of priestess know as the “enaree,” or “soft man,” who was for all intents and purposes considered female.

  • Sophie

    Good point. Though I’d argue that since these roles still follow our current assumptions about masculinity and femininity the point still stands. I wouldn’t want a list of shows that limited women to only certain roles, but it would have been nice to have one or two that highlighted women who’ve been in roles historically that we associate with femininity now, because it’s something we currently tend to look down on. And there’s no reason these roles have to only be passive or nurturing. It could be about women courtiers who had to do a lot of background political manoeuvring that’s seldom historically acknowledged, or nurses during any war in history. And actually a tv show about some of the ancient priestesses that lived in Greece and Rome would be pretty awesome.

  • Tamara Legen-Dairy Morriss

    Dude, Alex Kingston as Boudica!

  • Bridget

    Did you see the movie “Miss Potter” that started Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter? :)

  • Abigail Wallace

    No, I didn’t! Is it available on Netflix Instant?

  • Emily Martin

    Great post! I want to watch these fake shows NOW.

  • R Louis Hodges

    This is a great idea and I love making and hearing lists of such things.
    Only two complaints:
    I would like definite effort to consider whether or not Neferti is an African woman or not (because that’s more likely than her being as pale as you fancasted)
    “becoming comfortable with your [female] gender” and “possible transman” do not belong in the same description without more caveat about them being mutually exclusive.
    Those two slips seriously bothered me.
    Thanks for putting out the effort.

  • Catherine McCubbin

    What, no Grace O’Malley?