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  • Mary Kay McBrayer

6 Historical Boss Bitches to Inspire You on Galentine's Day

To quote my beloved Bitch Media, "Is it imposter syndrome or is it the patriarchy?"


By that I mean, even a high-achieving boss bitch like myself gets discouraged sometimes because in writing, rejection is a big part of the game. But honestly... rejection is a big part of the game that is being a woman and wanting to achieve anything outside the commonplace.

Roxie Hart's character stands onstage in full 1920s showgirl attire saying, "One big world full of no."
Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) in CHICAGO.

For that reason, on this Galentine's Day in the year of our Lord 2022, here are 6 boss bitches from history (in random order) who'll help us remember what kind of odds they overcame so we can overcome our own.


Lucille Ball smokes a cigarette and polishes her nails on her shirtfront.

LUCILLE BALL


Everyone knows I Love Lucy, but this tenacious bombshell worked her ass off before becoming the starlet we know and love. She's been brought back into the spotlight lately with Aaron Sorkin's Being the Ricardos starring the incredible Nicole Kidman and my man Javier Bardem, and in that movie, she's Lucille Arnaz the badass, not Lucy Ricardo the goofball. It's amazing to see that shift. We truly contain multitudes.


My favorite factoids about Lucy:

- She fought the accusations of being a Communist without condemning Communism

- She loved Desi Arnaz so much that she married him twice

- When producers wanted to take her hit radio show onto TV, she wouldn't do it unless Desi could play her husband onscreen--yes, even though he was Cuban.

- When she got pregnant (in her 40s!) rather than hide offscreen, she made the showrunners write her pregnancy into the show itself

- Yes, we still know and love the Vitameatavegamin Girl, but Lucille Ball also bought the fucking studio and went against her board to greenlight both Star Trek and Mission Impossible.


If you want to brush up on your Lucille Ball history--and you do, trust me, because that list above is just the tip of the iceberg--check out the third season of Turner Classic Movies Podcast, The Plot Thickens. And soon, she'll be the subject of the documentary, Lucy & Desi, brought to you by contemporary boss bitch, Amy Poehler.


Illustration of Solitude of Guadeloupe raising a fist in the forest.

SOLITUDE OF GUADELOUPE

Did you known about the pregnant woman who led Guadeloupe's slave rebellion? ME NEITHER. She's a footnote in French in any piece of history I was taught until I happened upon her story while I was researching something else, and it gave me metaphorical whiplash. Solitude was mixed-race, born into slavery until Guadeloupe's government freed its slaves in hopes that they would fight alongside their colonialists. Eight years later, when Napoleon came into power, he decided that, actually, that colony could only survive economically if it was based on slave labor, so THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT REINSTITUTED SLAVERY.


Naturally, every freed person was like, Um, no. And Solitude, who was seven months pregnant at the time, was at the head of that rebel faction.


It's true, I wrote an entire historical article about this woman for Narratively last year, and that's where Alice De Yeun's beautiful illustration above comes from. Too, you can read the incredible novel, A Woman Named Solitude by Andre Schwarz-Bart, which I absolutely recommend.


Julia Child licks her spatula.

JULIA CHILD

We know her as the television personality who brought French cooking to American households who didn't have their own chefs--and that was a huge undertaking. French cooking was so hard to adapt for many reasons: at the time, nearly all American foods you could buy were heavily processed, or at the very least, processed way differently from those you could get at the market in France. She and the co-authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking worked for years to hone each recipe to perfection. Her posthumous memoir, My Life in France is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in her life. (Her nephew helped her write it, which I find incredibly endearing.)


You likely recognize her most recently from the film Julie and Julia... and no shade to my darling Amy Adams, but I think I'm not alone in begging the question, Why could this have not been a film about Julia and Paul Child starring Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci??? Also, there's a new documentary streaming simply called Julia all about her life. I haven't gotten to see it yet, but I'm very excited for it!


A quick aside: I made a pear tart from her recipe for Christmas, and it was like three recipes in one. That's how in-depth the instructions are, and I LOVED that. I mean, they're definitely not for beginners, but because each one is so precise, you know exactly what you need to do and when.


In case you don't care too much about cooking, let us not forget that she and her husband Paul worked in the CIA before it was called the CIA. They didn't get married until she was in her late thirties, and she didn't become famous until her forties either. And she defied beauty standards by being on TV--she was 6'2", and she had all her countertops raised to suit her stature. That is a boss move.

Madam Stephanie St. Clair sits unsmiling in a handcrafted chair in 1920s style turban, fur coat, handbag, silk stockings, and jewel encrusted shoes.

MADAM STEPHANIE ST. CLAIR

If you've hung out with me for any length of time in the past three years, you already know all about this Numbers Queen. Through her own initiative, she grew to be one of the biggest banks in Prohibition-era Harlem, and she held her territory against one of the meanest in the mafia, Dutch Schultz. Bumpy Johnson was her protégé, and Frank Lucas was his protégé. She's basically the Godmother, and she's the subject of my next book, so y'all get ready for that.





Josephine Baker wears flapper headdress and 1920s showgirl costume with feather at the hip, doing the Charleston dance.

JOSEPHINE BAKER

She's most famous for being a showgirl in France during the 1920s, but this biracial beauty was as much a bootstrapper as anyone in this post. She ran away from home in her early teens to join an all-Black performance troupe, and because of her wild facial expressions, they signed her on tour after tour.


Josephine Baker was a huge philanthropist, and she and her husband fulfilled their dream of having a "rainbow" of children, adopting the parentless from all corners of the earth and raising them in the mansion home she always wanted. Not only was she an incredible performer and mother, but Josephine Baker also did espionage work during the second World War.


Her remains were recently re-interred Recently re-interred at the Pantheon Mausoleum "where French luminaries such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Marie Curie are among those buried. This will make Josephine the first Black woman to receive such an honor and only the sixth woman overall." You can learn more about this historical boss bitch in her memoir/biography (co-authored by her ex-husband).


Frida Kahlo sits with flower bouquet woven into her hair, artisan earrings, necklace, rings, and square faced watch, smokes a cigarette and laughs into the cameraa

FRIDA KAHLO

She's not the only woman on this list to double-down on a man she loved: like Lucille Ball married Desi Arnaz twice, Frida married Diego Rivera twice. Though her lovers were many, and she would probably identify as what we now know to be pansexual, Diego was the great love of her life, and he was a great inspiration to her artistic work.


Frida grew up in Mexico, and both her work and Rivera's pay homage to the folk art of their home, but Frida's also tells the stories of her tragedies of her life at a time when no one talked about disabilities, miscarriages, or queer orientations. She's often labeled a surrealist, but she said herself that she painted her own reality.


The film Frida directed by Julie Taymor and starring Selma Hayek is a beautiful incorporation of her biography and her artwork. And, I hear that Frida will soon have a touring immersive exhibit like the ones inspired by the works of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet.


This list is by no means exhaustive, and if you have a historical boss lady that needs to make it onto my future wall of inspiration (I totally intend to frame these women's portraits and hang them over my desk for inspo), holler at me.



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