No Girls Allowed: graphic novel of inspiring historical women who overcame societal limits by dressing as men

Susan Hughes and Willow Dawson's graphic novel No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure tells the story of six real-life historical woman heroes who defied the limits society put on them because of their gender, dressing as men and kicking ass (there are seven stories in total, but one of them, Mu-Lan, is likely mythological).

It's a great and inspiring read intended for young adults, and it runs from 1470BCE (the Egyptian Pharoah Hatshepsut) to the mid-1800s, and the stories will appeal to anyone who revels in tales of people who overcome the unfair limits others place on them. No Girls Allowed ties the quest for gender equality in with stories of racial and economic injustice, as with the amazing story of James Barry, a woman who lived her whole life as a man, becoming a young army surgeon who went on to lead controversial reform movements in South Africa and Canada, standing up for what was right in the face of punishment and even though she had so much to lose.

This is a great companion volume for Dignifying Science, a great graphic novel collecting the true-life stories of pioneering woman scientists. I'm putting it away to read to my daughter in a couple of years.

No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure

Update: Tate sez, "Just saw you posted No Girls Allowed! Great book, thought you might be interested in the YouTube video we did on it--posted just last week as part of Whazamo--part of the same thing as the TCAF 2009 video."


  1. I was listening to a podcast once, I think it was NPR’s Science Friday, and they had an interview with this physicist who happened to be female. When they were taking audience questions, a woman asked a very long (at least 2 minute) question about feminism and what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. The physicist replied, and I’m paraphrasing of course, that she’d much rather talk about science than feminism because she’s a career scientist, not a career feminist.

    I consider myself a feminist as well, but I worry that sometimes these efforts come off less as “women are just as good as men” and more as, “check out these people who overcame their natural disadvantage of being female.”

    Cory, I’m sure your daughter will love the stories, but hopefully she’ll love them as stories about people, not stories about “the feminine other.” Maybe she won’t see them as proof that she can overcome the limitations of her gender because I don’t imagine you to be the sort to let her believe her gender has limitations. :)

  2. Lobster: You do have a point, but the limitations that are referred to are the limitations placed on women by the rest of society, rather than something that is inherent with women.

    But I do agree that sometimes we put accomplished females up for admiration simply for being and give them a sort of “exception to the rule” quality. I look forward to the day that this isn’t needed.

  3. I agree with Lobster@#1. While these are probably good stories about remarkable people overcoming related prejudices in the same kind of goofy way, I don’t think it need be especially relevant to modern women, as role models or otherwise. In fact, I think it’s counterproductive. The “see, women can do it too!” just plants the idea that maybe they can’t in young minds innocent enough that the thought otherwise wouldn’t even have occured. If I’m a girl who loves physics, is there some reason Albert Einstein is less of a role model for me than for a boy? Need Marie Curie be more of one?

  4. I loved these kinds of stories as a girl. They provide a heroic narrative not just about personal accomplishment in the face of adversity, but about gender fluidity.

    Young people model their ideas about adulthood aspirations and roles on what they see around them, both real people and fictional characters. Whether you guys like it or not, “Hey, that person is like me! And cool!” still means something to a kid’s mind, something more than “Hey, that person is another white male! He’s cool though!”

    It can also be very depressing to read about history and feel like from the dawn of time until roughly 1972 women didn’t do anything of note except marry important people. The occasional Marie Curie or Amelia Earhart is too infrequent to change the overall narrative.

    But finding out that all of these stories they tell you about what the boys were doing, that some of those boys were actually girls? That’s a good story.

  5. I had to go hunting, but sure enough the last story is about a woman soldier in the American Civil War. There is at least one famous, previously published Canadian of that description, so it’s interesting they went after another of the 400+ individuals fitting that description.

    Sarah Emma Edmonds wrote a book and got a late honorable discharge after deserting during an illness.

  6. Another interesting life story (I don’t think that it is in this book- I can’t find a list of the women who’s stories are featured) is that of Isabelle Eberhardt. She was born near the end of the 1800s, an illegitimate daughter of a Swiss aristocrat. In her late teens, she traveled to Northern Africa and converted, along with her mother, to Islam. Soon after, her mother passed away, followed by her adoptive father. At this point, she returned to Northern Africa to both hone her journalistic/literary skills, and to seek meaning, purpose, and adventure in the land that she had come to love. In order to travel freely, she dressed as a man, posing as a young muslim student. She eventually was accepted into a mystic Sufi cult, which was almost unheard of for a woman. She came under suspicion of subversion in the eyes of the French colonial powers, and was viewed as an enemy of Islamic ways by rival factions. She survived an assassination attempt at the hands of these rivals (though she testified in court for leniency and forgiveness of her would-be assassin), eventually married an Algerian soldier, and died at the age of 27 in a flash flood that destroyed her desert home and left her writings scattered. These were recovered and have been collected into various books of both fiction and non-fiction.

    You can learn more about her here:

    and her story is being told via an opera and accompanying film being performed in New YorK:

  7. In a world where women make less than men doing the same job, pretending that everything’s equal is just acting like an ostrich. My mother was a research scientist from the 40s through the 90s. Her career was always limited by her refusal to attend conferences and seminars because of how she was treated as the only woman in a room full of hundreds of men.

  8. Stories that don’t involve women in frilly dresses waiting to be rescued by men? And, they’re historical too? All I know is that I’m totally buying this for my daughter.

  9. @ #9 Antinous

    I would like to think that your mother’s experiences would not be the same of female research scientists now. Most of the PhD students at the research institute I’m based at are female, myself included. Our backgrounds are speech-language therapy (very female dominated), psychology (also female dominated), medicine, physics and engineering. We regularly attend conferences and seminars and I can say I’ve never felt out of place at them.

    I hope things stay that way. In New Zealand universities over 50% of undergrads are females now. I don’t know the stats for postgrads (or graduates as Americans call it), but I think men may still have over 50% in that area.

    1. I have a friend in climate science and she deals with a fair amount of weird. Not harassment exactly, but definitely not welcoming.

  10. On a related note, I’ve always felt ambiguous about celebrating anniversaries of women “getting” the vote, because I think it’s shameful that my country (ie, the male government) only granted this basic civic right to women less than 100 years ago. Public education about these events does seem to suggest that women “earned” the right to vote (ie, made themselves worthy of it).

    I’m humbled by the efforts of the suffragettes, but I feel sick at the thought that women had to fight, protest, serve jail-time, hunger-strike, etc., just to get rights that men took for granted.

    Book sounds great.
    (though of course, it’ll never take the place in my heart reserved for stories girls kicking ass dressed as *girls* – or better yet, dressing as non-gender-identified *kids*.)

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