Kicking off this distinguished list is a redhead who may or may not have actually been a redhead – off to a strong start, right? But let me explain. You see, while it is widely agreed by historians that Mary Magdalene was a real person, it is likely she was from an ancient Palestinian village called Magdala. Like Jesus, whose white skin and often blue eyes were unlikely attributes, and who almost certainly looked like other typical swarthy Judean men of his time, Mary’s depictions as a redhead are also of her with snow-white skin and blue eyes – possible, but again, unlikely. A few tenuous interpretations in the first few hundred years AD positioned her as a prostitute, and medieval artists gave her red hair, generally taken to be a sign of sexual impropriety in women at the time. And while there has since been somewhat of a shift in stance vis- à-vis her purported sex work, the red hair seems to have stuck.
While the redness of Ms. Magdalene’s hair can easily be cast in a dubious light, the Celtic warrior queen of the Icini tribe, in what is now Norfolk, England, is much more sure to have had the rufous locks she is said to have had. While there are varying translations of Roman statesman and historian Cassius Dio’s account of Boudica’s barnet – ranging from fiery red to tawny – it certainly had a warm hue. Speaking of fiery, when her husband died, his estate was seized, Boudica was flogged, and their daughters were raped. So she rallied an army that ultimately killed 70,000 people. She set fire to London (then called Londinium), burning the city to the ground. The layer of burnt earth can still be seen in strata below London’s present-day streets. She also burned Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St Albans) before eventually being defeated by Roman general Suetonius Paulinus (SuPaul for short).
Known as the virgin queen, she is often lauded as England’s greatest ever monarch (level pegging perhaps with Big Liz the Second – we gotchu, Lizzie!). She reinstated Protestantism, which protected the country from Rome’s interference, but made it known she would not persecute people for their beliefs, saying famously, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” Boom. Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, her defeat of the Spanish Armada was celebrated by everyone (except the Spanish). She has been featured in film almost since film began, first in 1912, by Sarah Bernhardt in the French silent short Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth, and more recently by such stars as Cate Blanchett, Margot Robbie, Judi Dench, and even that flamboyant ‘Englishman in New York’ Quentin Crisp. She had no children, and was thus the last of the Tudor line, but given the bloody reigns of the Tudors before her, perhaps ‘twas for the best.
Galileo has been called ‘the father of observational astronomy’, ‘the father of modern physics’, ‘the father of the scientific method’, and ‘the father of modern science’ – casual. He championed the theory of heliocentrism – which put the sun at the center of the solar system. This was highly controversial at the time (and still is, if you talk to Flat Earthers). The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which concluded that heliocentrism was “foolish and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts the sense of Holy Scripture”. He was tried, found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Assholes.
Laying the foundations for modern-day professional nursing, Flo established the first secular nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital, now part of King’s College London. Her nighttime rounds, tending to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, earned her the moniker, ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, and contemporary media painted her as a saintly, sweet-natured woman. Letters by head of medical services Sir John Hall (made public in 2007), however, paint a rather different picture – of a fiery redhead, domineering, bossy and self-promoting. “A petticoat impérieuse in the medical imperio,” declared the almost-certainly chauvinist Sir John.
What remained of his hair in his 60s, when he served as Prime Minister of Great Britain, was very, very grey. Since those were the years he led that small but influential island and the Allies (France, USA) to victory against the Germans and the Axis powers (Japan, Russia) in World War 2, those are the years of his life which are most widely recognized. Even in biopics, with the exception of 1972’s ‘Young Winston’ (directed by Richard Attenborough), he is rarely portrayed by a redheaded actor. This certainly smacks of gingerism – how could it not? – but perhaps it is simply casting directors not doing due diligence. Either way, it is despicable. Perhaps we ought to fight them on the beaches.
Red-headed Ron didn’t win a war. He didn’t transform healthcare for the better, or do anything broadly influential beyond the sphere of his own fiction. But he did create a religion, however fictitious, followed by A-listers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, that has engendered the jaw-dropping documentaries Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Film, and the scathing series, Scientology and the Aftermath, by ex-Scientologist and actor Leah Remini – a whopping 37 episodes highlighting the ongoing egregious practices of the religion, which include but are not limited to allegations of and/or convictions for: organized harassment of “enemies of the church”, homicide, missing persons, domestic espionage, fraud, theft, burglary, illicit association, coercion, extortion, coerced abortions, torture, and allegations that church leader David Miscavige beats staff. Namaste.
Civil rights activist Malcolm inherited a pale skin tone and a reddish hair color from his white grandfather. His ruddy curls earned him the nickname ‘Detroit Red’ when he moved to Harlem, but his mother’s partial white ancestry was a sore point within the family. She had never met her father, and was ashamed of her link to him. Malcolm resented the genetic legacy that had awarded him his light skin and red hair while he advocated for black supremacy as part of hate group Nation of Islam. But on leaving the NOI and renouncing them, he instead embraced Sunni Islam, directing his efforts in support of social integration and disavowing racism, after completing Hajj. He became known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, and following a brief period of travel across Africa, repudiated the NOI. Three of its members assassinated him at a conference, one with a sawn-off shotgun, and two with semi-automatic handguns. All three were sentenced to life in prison and subsequently paroled between 1985 and 2010.
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