This Ain’t No Fairy Tale

'Rejected Princesses' offers a glimpse at some seriously badass women

The road of the female trailblazer is not an easy one, and many of the stories about groundbreaking women have been distorted, forgotten or both. Jason Porath seeks to remedy that situation with Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions and Heretics (Dey Street Books, rejectedprincesses.com). Part storybook, part catalog of badassery, the book originated from conversations the author had about possible but wildly inappropriate Disney heroines. The anthology, which started as a website, combines informative and witty retellings with subversive princess-style art.

While you’ll read about many familiar names—Joan of Arc, Wilma Rudolph, Josephine Baker—there are also unfamiliar, yet equally astounding, stories: Mai Bhago, battle leader of the Sikhs; Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi; Yaa Asantewaa, the Ghanian ruler who led an almost-successful rebellion against the British; and dozens more. The heroines range from mythical figures to contemporary icons, and each chapter is thoughtfully rated for maturity, as well as sex and violence. While these are stories every girl should read, some might not be quite ready for all of them.

The obvious draw of Rejected Princesses is the art—each subject gets her own full-page portrait, rife with references to and symbolism from her life. But the accompanying text is just as delightful—Porath displays a fine, wry tone, as in his story about Harriet Tubman: “In recent years there’s been a popular fictional character with almost the same danger-detecting abilities. You may have heard of him. His name is Spider-Man. He is not real. Tubman was. She was also illiterate, uneducated, narcoleptic and unstoppable.” But the author can also convey tragedy, as in his summation of the life of World War II spy (and actual princess) Noor Inayat Khan: “She became a pacifist who fought dirty. A klutz who climbed buildings. A Sufi who lied daily. An artist who braved torture.”

Many of the stories beg to be films, or at least the best Lifetime TV-movie ever. There could be a great ensemble dramedy in the story of the Night Witches, a group of female Russian pilots in World War II—perhaps with a cameo by Mariya Oktyabrskaya and her combat tank, “Fighting Girlfriend.” Julie d’Aubigny, a.k.a. La Maupin, the bisexual, sword-slinging, opera-singing adventuress who tore up Europe, should have been played by Angelina Jolie back when she was still fun.

The stories are relatively brief—a few pages each—but a list of references are thoughtfully provided at the back. (I must learn more about Muslim warrior poet Khawlah bint al-Azwar, or as Porath calls her, “Maya Angelou with a scimitar.”) At a time when some girls—and women—may wonder if there are limits on who or what they can be, Rejected Princesses reminds us there aren’t.