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Three Of History’s Most Inspirational Renegades

Figures that went against the status quo, and thrived.

No one likes being put in a box. It’s even worse when you find yourself in a box that doesn’t resonate with you. Imagine all those who were coerced into lives that didn’t suit them. Those who were ridiculed for their talents. Those who had to pretend to be something they weren’t in order to survive.

History is full of lives crippled by the expectations and exclusions of others. Yet, even amongst all that oppression, there are still those who find a way to thrive. Like a flower that grows through a crack in the sidewalk, there are individuals who rebel against the status quo to their benefit.

Here are three such individuals. Use them for inspiration when you next find yourself stuck in a box.


The limping lady

If her mother had her way, Virginia would be a doting wife. Her role would be one of tending to the home. Of supporting her husband and ensuring his needs were always met. But that didn’t happen. Virginia Hall rejected her mother’s wishes. She wanted adventure. And she got it.

Europe was embroiled in the melee of WWII.

Like Hemingway in his time, Virginia drove an ambulance for the wounded. The lessons she learned there, as well as from her previous job working for US embassies, plus from her international travels, eventually led her into talks with the British secret service.

She was going to be a spy. For the British. In Nazi-occupied France. Oh, and she had a prosthetic leg (which she got in a hunting accident years prior).

Virginia would go on to lead prison breaks, Nazi sabotage schemes, and intel networks. She climbed, by foot, over mountainous terrain into Spanish territory. Her exploits were so effective she became well-known and highly targeted by German leaders. They dubbed her “the limping lady” and desperately tried to capture her. They never did.

Yet for all her success, she was continuously unrecognized by her superiors for her valor and capability. Regardless, she refused to let the expectations of others prevent her from doing what she desired.

Virginia wanted adventure. And she got it. In fact, she made espionage her career. Post-war, she joined the CIA and worked there for 16 years before her retirement in 1966. Virginia’s is a story of perseverance in the face of immense strife, rebellion against the social norms that imprisoned so many others, and living a life of fulfillment that was true to her.1


The outcast artist

Leonardo could not have been more of an outsider for his time. He was born out of wedlock and was likely gay. Two highly persecuted attributes of the era. Yet Leonardo da Vinci lived to be one of the most well-known figures in history.

In the period in which he was born, Leonardo was destined to have the same job as his father. Leonardo’s dad was, among other things, a notary. And that would have been the life Leonardo would be required to live as well, had his parents been married. But because they weren’t, Leonardo had a choice. And he chose to pursue his interests. Namely, art.

But also engineering, anatomy, and so much more.

He never received any formal training beyond the basics, yet that didn’t stop him from learning. He let his curiosity drive him.

Still, da Vinci’s was a tough life. Money was hard to come by and his genius went unrecognized. However, though his experience was fraught with challenges, his work lives on today. If he had not rejected the social norms of his time, if he had not fully embraced who he was, the world would be a less beautiful place because of it.2


The unexpected empress

Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China in an era dominated by men.

Her rise to power was never supposed to happen. As a young woman, she was chosen as a royal concubine to the emperor. Cixi’s role was strictly to sire a royal child. Nothing more. After all, she was illiterate. Her conscription was based on her looks and manners. Her husband, the emperor, sought no opinion from her. In fact, laws strictly forbade him from doing so.

But Cixi was smart. And she saw a grand future for China. So she waited for her moment.

And when it came, she took action. She didn’t let her gender or society’s rules dictate how to live her life. Cixi faced down opposition again and again. She organized a coup that put her in power while preventing bloodshed. She tore down barriers that kept women in the home. Further, she opened China’s door to trade after years of isolation.

She didn’t let societal norms or royal tradition force her into a life she didn’t want. Instead, she took charge of the opportunity.

Cixi’s is a story of risk and reward. Of claiming the throne and using its power for the betterment of her people. Her’s is also one similar to Hall’s. One of rejecting the expectations of women. In doing so, Cixi opened the door for other women in China to follow their desires as well.3


Move forward as a renegade

Norms and expectations exist for a reason. For some, they serve as a means of telling you what to do. Go to school, get a degree, get a job, contribute to society. For others, they act as an excuse. I don’t have to do X because I never have to do X. For others, norms and expectations are nothing but a jail sentence. And it’s those individuals that become trapped in lives they don’t want.

However, as you have seen, it is possible to overcome those limitations.

When you next find yourself stuck in a box or feeling forced into a life that doesn’t fit your desires, recall the three figures written about here. Think of:

  • Virginia Hall,
  • Leonardo da Vinci,
  • And Empress Dowager Cixi.



  1. A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
  2. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
  3. Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

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