Whether it’s her adorable illustrations, whimsical hand-lettered cards, or enchanting mermaid pins, Ann Shen is, without question, one of today’s most talented artists. We first became obsessed with Ann back when she created her OG zine series, Bad Girls Throughout History, which featured some of our favorite women like Tallulah Bankhead, Blondie, and Dolly Parton. Since then, Ann’s been kicking total ass — as evidenced by the recent launch of her full-length book on the topic. That’s right, she made an ENTIRE ILLUSTRATED BOOK filled with history’s most accomplished ladies.
From Joan of Arc and Jane Austen, to more modern trailblazers like Angela Davis and Tina Fey, Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World includes ONE HUNDRED (!!!!) women who will no doubt inspire you, as well as remind you that women RULE. The only thing missing? An illustration of Ann at the end of her own book, of course.
We talked to Ann about the inspo for the book, her personal heroines, and the best advice she’s received from a fellow badass lady. Read all about this wonderful woman below!
It started out as a zine, but what inspired you to come up with the concept of Bad Girls Throughout History?
While I was in art school, I had an assignment where we had to make something and reproduce it 10 times. I decided to create a zine, and as a teenager of the ’90s, I knew zines had roots in Riot Grrrl and feminist culture, so I wanted to do my own take on that.
At the time, I was struggling with finding my voice as an artist and reconciling what I thought was great with what my teachers and peers thought was cool or successful. Suffice to say, our ideas were not the same. I started thinking about the ladies I read about and admired, and how most of the them did something that was different than what was accepted at the time. So as a lifelong goody-two-shoes, suddenly this idea of being a rebel became a revelation to me — that especially as women, we have to keep pushing the boundaries because the rules can be stacked up against us. And the rules? Really just arbitrarily made up by whoever has historically been in power. And for most of us, that was the patriarchy.
How were you able to choose which ladies would be in the book?
It was almost impossible to narrow it down to just 100 women, and I know everyone’s list would be different. In the end, I set two criteria to support the idea of shifting your perspective. The first criteria was diversity. It was important to me to represent as many different types of women as possible, so I made sure to include a mix of women of all ages, socioeconomic statuses, educational backgrounds, ethnicities, and occupations. This included everyone from pirates and emperors, to scientists and outlaws, to showgirls and spies. I wanted to show that women could be and do whatever they wanted to do, and have historically, even if history doesn’t always tout it.
The second criteria was that they were the first or one of the leaders in their field. Being a trailblazer is really hard; a lot of the time, it required breaking the rules (like escaping slavery, going to school, marching for desegregation, picketing for women’s right to vote) to make a crack in that glass ceiling. It takes a lot of resilience, and that is one of the traits that all these women share.
Who are some particular women that inspired you personally growing up and as an artist?
My first elementary school was named after Susan B. Anthony, and learning her story early on was a really defining for me as a person. I was also Sojourner Truth in an eighth grade play where we had to write our own speeches and audition with them, and I remember being so proud to share her story.
Authors like Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and Ann M. Martin were also hugely influential on me growing up — as the oldest, first generation kid of immigrants, I was a voracious reader because it gave me insight to a whole world that was so different than my own experience. It sparked my imagination. Initially I wanted to be a writer, and I wrote my first novel in seventh grade on a typewriter my mom had. It was horrible and like 100 pages long, but I was so proud of it that I turned it in for a fiction contest at school. Even though I didn’t win, because again, it was terrible, I remember getting a letter from the principal commending me for writing such a long novel. I didn’t even realize it was weird to do!
In college, Eve Ensler and The Vagina Monologues was super inspiring for me. I was involved with my campus’s V-Day productions my junior and senior year, and being a part of a great community of diverse women telling real stories of other women was an experience I treasured. It was a real turning point for me. I started to realize my own differences were a strength and not something I needed to hide or change.
Artistically, I’ve been inspired by artists like Mary Blair, Elsa Schiaparelli, Frida Kahlo, and Maira Kalman, all of whom had/have strong voices and unique visions of their own.
Do you think you would want to do some sort of follow up?
Yes! There were so many women I didn’t get to include in this book. I have a long running list that is enough to fill many more volumes. I’d love to share their stories in a second book (and third…and fourth…).
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my next book! More details to be announced soon. I’m also working on a few major projects that will be coming out next year that I’m super excited about but can’t share just yet. Stay tuned!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a badass woman?
“Just try.” This was my mom’s response to everything I would propose to her as a kid, and that gave me the freedom and encouragement to pursue my wildest dreams but just enough self doubt to make sure I worked my ass off to make it happen.
You can buy Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World, here.