Arguably history’s first political powerhouse woman: Generally known simply as “Cleopatra”—as in the Cleopatra, star of story, legend, and drama—the Egyptian queen departed from her fiercely Greek Ptolemaic predecessors, learning the Egyptian language and declaring herself a reincarnation of the goddess Isis. After Roman conspirators assassinated Caesar in 44BC, Cleopatra forged an alliance with Marc Antony and Caesar’s opposition. The political hook-up, however, paled by comparison with the historic consequences of their love affair. According to most storytellers, Cleopatra made conquest of all the ancient world’s most powerful men, seducing and them compromising them with her irresistible beauty and her even more compelling wit, charm, and intellect.
History’s first “uppity woman,” married to the Baron of Coventry, England, and champion of her oppressed people. To his wife’s considerable chagrin and over her repeated protests, the greedy and gluttonous Baron relentlessly taxed the people to support his own excesses. Finally, Lady Godiva wore down the Baron’s objections, and the two struck a deal: He would remit the taxes if she rode “naked” through Coventry; precise definitions of “naked” remain the subject of spirited debate among scholars, but artists always have chosen the no-clothes version, usually covering her with her own luscious, languorous locks. Jealous of his trophy wife’s considerable good looks, the Baron decreed that the townspeople had to shutter their windows as she cruised the main street. As the story goes, all but once citizen complied: the infamous “Peeping Tom” secured a permanent place in the history of voyeurism by drilling a hole in his shutters to catch a glorious glimpse of milady’s tenderest parts. For his troubles, Peeping Tom allegedly was struck blind. Lady Godiva took her brazen ride, and the Baron enacted the tax cuts as promised. History offers no record of the Coventry citizens’ living happily ever after.
Joan of Arc
Fifteenth century warriorette, who claimed she had visions from God instructing her to free France from English domination. Then uncrowned Charles VII sent nineteen-year-old Joan to the siege of Orleans, ostensibly as part of a relief mission. Once there, Joan scrutinized les vieux garcons battle plans, threw-out the old playbook, and lifted the siege in just nine days. She subsequently led French forces to several more quick and decisive victories, securing Charles VII’s coronation and the end of the dispute about his rights to the French throne. For her efforts on France’s behalf and because of her claims about divine intervention, an English Ecclesiastical Court found her guilty of heresy, promptly burning her at the stake. Twenty-five years later, Pope Callixtus III overturned her conviction and declared her a martyr. Joan of Arc was canonized in 1920 and promoted to one of the patron saints of the French.
A classic example of the story far outstripping the facts: According to the popular press, and especially according to J. Edgar Hoover and his fledgling squad of G-Men, Ma Barker was a tough-talking, cigar-smoking, Tommy-gun toting criminal mastermind who orchestrated approximately 100 hundred heinous crimes—big bank heists, high-profile kidnappings, and murders—between 1931 and 1935. On January 8, 1935, the Feds nabbed “Doc” Barker, who unfortunately carried a map to the Barker-Karpis gang’s Ocklawaha, Florida, hideout. Eight days later, federal agents surrounded the house, ordering the gangsters to surrender. Instead, Fred Barker opened fire on the agents, initiating a protracted fire-fight; witnesses and participants agreed it lasted several hours. Both Ma and Fred died in the gun battle, and FBI spokespeople reported Ma was found with a machine gun in her hands. The government publicly displayed their bodies, ostensibly to discourage other gangsters and criminal entrepreneurs, but also to boost the FBI’s public image. Witnesses and historians since have proven she never participated in any criminal activity, and they allege that FBI agents planted the gun in her hands after she died.
Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde)
Barely twenty-one when she began her notorious criminal exploits, Bonnie Parker was every bit as tough, sassy, and attractive as Fay Dunaway made her appear in the 1967 movie of her three-year crime spree with partner and lover Clyde Barrow. In the same way Bonnie and Clyde introduced explicit violence to the movies, the real-life Bonnie and Clyde introduced extreme and sometimes gratuitous violence into the relatively simple business of holding-up small rural banks and markets. The stylish villains of pulp fiction killed at least nine police officers and at least two innocent bystanders during their rampages across the Midwest and rural South. Arguably the first criminals to manage their own public relations, the couple posed for titillating and sensational pictures that inevitably found their way into the newspapers and newsreels of the early thirties. According to historian Jeff Guinn, “Without Bonnie, the media outside Texas might have dismissed Clyde as a gun-toting punk, if it ever considered him at all. With her sassy photographs, Bonnie supplied the the oomph, that allowed the two of them to transcend the small-scale thefts and needless killings that actually comprised their criminal careers.” Bonnie and Clyde ultimately died in an attack by Louisiana law enforcement officials in 1934.