Who Were History’s Most “Nasty Women?”

They didn’t care what people thought. They followed their own rules. Many enjoyed shocking the bourgeois. They were history’s “Nasty Women,” as today’s saying goes. This got me thinking. Why are these feisty females so fascinating? Here are my 5 favorites in no particular order…

Mae West – This actress, singer, comedian, and playwright was ahead of her time. In the 1930’s, she was an older female (almost 40 no less) who challenged the prudish double standards for men and women.  She loved to purr, “Come up and see me sometime.”

In an era when most women were expected to be pure on their wedding day, and sexual fantasies limited, Mae portrayed saucy women who took pleasure as freely as men. Despite heavy censorship, depression era audiences loved her, even though she was hardly the girl next door.

Throughout her life, Mae West had several marriages and many affairs, mostly with younger men. She died in 1980, age 87.

Queen Elizabeth I – Some argue the real reason Elizabeth ruled 44 years is she refused to marry. Many proposals were given, but the “Virgin Queen” stayed firm. She knew if betrothed, power would most likely go to her husband.

And for this, I give Queen Elizabeth credit. In the 1500’s, women were mostly chattel and baby makers. To choose to stay single was unheard of, even dangerous, for a Queen as well.

Elizabeth never bowed to male pressure to produce an heir.  Because of this, she lived a long life on the throne, something not every Monarch can claim. It was also rumored she had plentiful lovers.  She died in 1603 at age 69.

The Gabor Sisters – These Hungarian-born bombshells were more than pretty faces. They were also witty and shrewd. Zsa Zsa and sister Eva lived life on their own terms – multiple husbands and all. Zsa Zsa alone had nine!

I watched clips of the recently deceased Zsa Zsa and couldn’t help laugh. Dressed in diamonds and furs, she always seemed to be having a great time doing her risqué “dah-ling” schtick on America’s talk shows.

Television star sister Eva was no different. Once, when asked if she was a good housekeeper, she answered without blinking, “Of course. When I get divorced, I always keep the house.”

I loved how these women turned society’s (and yes, the patriarchy’s) limited, domestic view of women on their ear. They lived as they pleased.

Eva died in 1995, aged 76. Zsa Zsa died in 2016, aged 99.  

Cleopatra – Like Elizabeth I, Egyptian Queen Cleo was a busy woman with a country to run. And like Elizabeth, she used what she had — in her case feminine wiles. She wasn’t above seducing powerful married men like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony to consolidate her position.

Most women of her day had limited dominance, if any. Cleopatra knew she not only needed a seductive presence, but had to be smart too. Luckily, she was both.

She opened people’s minds, even in the ancient world, to what a woman can do. She also wasn’t above breaking a few rules — like having Julius Caesar’s baby out of wedlock and bringing the child to Rome, for Caesar to acknowledge (in front of his wife).  Now that took chutzpah.

Cleopatra died in 30 BC at age 39.

Isadora Duncan – In the early 1900’s, Isadora invented modern dance and lived life as she pleased. In her art, she eschewed “the rigidness” of ballet for more natural, sensual movement. She once bared her breasts on stage, shocking the audience. She was also an avowed Communist.  She opened several dance schools across Europe and in New York City.

Isadora had many affairs, (some with women) and two children out of wedlock. That behavior can turn heads today. Think what it did back then.

Her final years were unhappy, given to drinking and debt. Tragedy struck when her two young children were drowned when the car they were riding in, plunged into the Seine River.

Isadora died in 1927 at the age of 49.

Is it different being a “Nasty Woman” today?

Society’s rules have changed. Women wait longer to marry and have babies. Some choose no marriage at all. Many make good money. They don’t need to “hook” that rich husband.

We have rights and privileges that would’ve stunned earlier generations.

Still, there’s much to be done. And maybe we should change the term “Nasty Woman” to “Rebel.” Because in the end, that’s what these women were — intelligent, brave, creative people.

Approve of them or not, these females (in big ways and small) helped change not only how society sees us…but how we see ourselves.

And there’s nothing nasty about that.


Do you have a favorite controversial female?  Comments are always welcome and if you’d like, please share. Thank you.

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  1. Loved this Laurie! I like the term “rebel” and you portrayed some great examples here. Even a few tidbits I didn’t know about. I’m sure there are many more women you could add to this list – thank goodness for these ladies blazing the trail…right?

    • Laurie Stone

      Laurie, Yes, I think these women opened people’s eyes to what was possible for females. I’m sure we’ll have many more to come.

  2. Rebel is a much better term but there was also Catherine the Great which I remember reading way back when. Women are more empowered now but we still have a long way to go before we can embrace the power of choosing our destinies. thanks for sharing

    • Laurie Stone

      Renee, True that women are more empowered, but as you said, we have a ways to go — especially equal pay for equal work. Thanks!

  3. Nasty is just such a negative term. Rebel is much better suited for these women. Great examples of strong women. The list could go on and on.

    • Laurie Stone

      Lori, I agree “Rebels” is a better term, but too complimentary (according to some) for women who bend the rules.

  4. Nanc Van Clief

    Elanor Roosevelt, Madonna, Kate Hepburn,Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Beyonce, Ingrid Bergman

    To name a few

    Great topic. We need a women History Month

  5. I don’t think of them as “nasty” women – more like women who marched to the beat of their own drums and weren’t afraid to own their actions and their lives. They were leaders and not followers – so ahead of their time when you look back. I envy them their courage 🙂

    • Laurie Stone

      Walker, I love Harriet Tubman. I also love Anais Nin. I considered her, but she did some incestuous things I never understood. Still, I agree she was brilliant. As for Meryl and Helen, I agree they’re powerful women, but live in an age where its not so outrageous for females to speak out. That’s why I mostly stuck to women from other ages. Good picks, though!

  6. Yes, these women all challenged the status quo in their day. Interesting to read about your choices. I would add Mary Pickford for being a pioneer in the film industry. As America’s Sweetheart, it would be hard to think of her as “nasty,” but she cracked her share of glass ceilings!

  7. Like some of your other commenters, I wouldn’t have called them “nasty” either, just unbound by the stifling conventions of the age they were living in. Eleanor Roosevelt was someone willing to stand up for herself and others despite what other people thought, so I guess she’d be one of my favorites.

    • Laurie Stone

      True, Bun. The other term was “Bad Girl,” but “Nasty Woman” is how certain (cough) politicians refer to women who rebel. I also loved Eleanor Roosevelt. May have to do a Part 2.

  8. I completely get why you use “nasty” and I love everything about this post. I even learned a few things I never knew. Too many seem to forget all those that paved the way!

    • Laurie Stone

      Thanks Ally. “Nasty” seems the word today for “bad girl.” They were women who lived life on their own terms and many times, paved the way for later generations.

  9. I don’t think Eleanor Roosevelt was “a bad girl” but she is a heroine in my world. I am a great fan of Gloria Steinem. I need to learn more about her. I think she must drive men nuts because she has it all…looks, power and way with words.

    Thank you for this. It was a reminder that having a hero is always a good thing!


    • Laurie Stone

      Barbara, Since writing this, people have come up with so many other great examples, including Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ll have to do a Part 2!

  10. I really enjoyed reading this. Interesting how in the past men would be honored and idolized for similar antics while women were labeled nasty. Praise to our pioneers!

    • Laurie Stone

      Pat, Good point. Men have always been allowed their passions, women not so much. I agree — praise to these intrepid souls.

    • Laurie Stone

      Haralee, I admire them too. Thank God for so many brave women in earlier generations. They helped make our life better. Hopefully we can do the same for generations to come.

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