Last month I blogged about Three Herstorical Divas to Die For. But since herstory is teeming with heroines whose praise needs to be sung and whose legacies deserve to be remembered, I now present three more Herstorical Divas to inspire us.
The Urban Dictionary defines a diva as a woman who exudes great style and confidence and expresses her unique personality without letting others define who she should be. In my mind, a diva is a woman who stands in her sovereignty and blazes a trail for other women. We all need to claim our inner diva to truly dance in our power.
1. Moll Cutpurse 1584 – 1659
Moll Cutpurse, aka Mary Frith, was the real life inspiration of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s comedy, The Roaring Girl, a rollicking play about a crossdressing female outlaw. A shoemaker’s daughter, Moll bobbed her hair, sported baggy trousers and a doublet, and smoked tobacco in a long clay pipe. She swore whenever she felt like it. When her uncle, a minister, attempted to reform her by packing her off to New England, our incorrigible hoyden jumped ship and swam to shore. She got by on thieving—hence her “Cutpurse” moniker—earning enough to keep three maidservants, as well as parrots and mastiffs. Once, to win a £20 bet, she galloped on horseback all the way from Charing Cross in Westminster to Shoreditch in London while flying a banner and blowing a trumpet. Though she eventually married, it didn’t curb her freewheeling lifestyle in the least. Moll was the mother of all Riot Grrrls.
Must read: The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton
Frida Kahlo: detail from “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.”
2. Frida Kahlo 1907 – 1954
Arguably Mexico’s best and most iconic artist, young Frida was on track to study medicine when a bus accident smashed her spine and pelvis. Confined in bed during her long recuperation, she took up painting self-portraits as a creative solace. Having discovered her true vocation, she pioneered a uniquely Mexican style of art filled with folkloric and indigenous motifs. Even the way she dressed was a work of art—she adopted the costume of the matriarchal Tehuana society. During her lifetime, she remained mostly in the shadow of her famous, philandering husband, Diego Rivera. When Diego cheated on her with her own sister, Frida did what any respectable progressive poster girl would do and had an affair with Leon Trotsky. Her stark self-portraits reveal how she wrestled with disability, physical pain, miscarriage, and marital betrayal. She is deservedly a feminist icon for her brutally honest paintings of raw female experience.
Must read: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
3. Josephine Baker 1906 – 1975
An African American girl growing up in poverty in St. Louis, Missouri, Freda Josephine McDonald started her career dancing in the streets for nickels and dimes, and later became a chorus girl. But the racial discrimination she faced proved intolerable, so she left the United States to seek her fortunes in Paris. She joined the all black revue at the Folies Bergere where, in 1925, she first performed her iconic banana dance that made her a living legend. Miley Cyrus would have blushed. Baker’s sensuality mesmerized the French and proved once and for all that black is beautiful. She loved her adopted homeland so much that she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French citizen in 1937, served in the French Resistance in World War II, and was later awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award. An activist to the last, she adopted a “rainbow tribe” of children from all over the world and she regularly traveled back to the U.S. to take part in civil rights demonstrations.
Must read: Josephine Baker’s Last Dance by Sherry Jones (Simon & Schuster/Gallery, December 2018)