Hatshepsut (1508-1456 BC) – she was the pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt and one of the most influential rulers of Ancient Egypt. According to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted she was “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed”. She was ascended to the throne in 1478 BC. During twenty years of her reign she considerably increased the wealth of her country by establishing new trade routes. Although she successfully engaged in several wars, she was considered as the pharaoh who started a peaceful period in Egypt’s history. She also supported the architectural development of the country (one of the most famous buildings of her reign is the Hatshepsut’s temple, situated in the Kings’ Valley).
Nefretiti (1370-1330 BCE) – Egyptian queen and wife of pharaoh Akhenaten. Although formally she had no power, she was the most trusted advisor of her husband. Her influence was reflected in the place she was given in the religion. Indeed, she represented the feminine part of the God and along with her husband she incarnated the bridge between god Aten and citizens. Nefretiti and Akhenaten ruled Egypt through its most prosperous period. They also introduced monotheism as the official religion of Egypt. Nefretiti is however mostly known today for her beauty. She is commondly described as the most beautiful woman of the Ancient world (actually her name means “The beautiful one has arrived”). Her bust, now in Berlin Neues Museum, is one of the most copied Egyptian monuments.
Sammuramat (800s BJE) – queen of Assyria who ruled 811 and 808 BCE or from 809 to 792 BCE. She was the wife of King Shamshi-Adad V. After his death, she ruled as the Regent before her son came to the adult age. Although there is very few information on her, it is sure that she was one of the most prominent rulers of her empire. She led many wars and extended the empire to Ethiopia and India. One of her great exploits was to found the city of Babylon.According to legends, Sammuramat was a semi-goddess of love and war.
Cleopatra (69-30 BC) – last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt. She is mostly known in popular culture for her romantic relations with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, however she was also an ambitious political strategist and a key player in power struggles that ended with the II Roman Republic. During her reign as the Queen of Egypt, her country became one of the richest in the word. When the civil in Rome between Octavian and Mark Antony started, Cleopatra took the side of the man who later became her lover. When Octavian won and negotiations failed, Cleopatra committed a suicide. Egypt became then a province of the Roman Empire.
Zenobia (240–274) – her name meant in Greek “life of Zeus”. She was the most powerful queen of the Syria-based Palmyrene Empire. After the death of her husband, Zenobia held the reins of the kingdom and ultimately became the Empress in 272. She conquered Minor Asia and led a military campaign against Roma. In 272 she was captured by Romans and sent to Emesa for a trial. Since that moment, her fate is uncertain. Her life inspired many legends and she is a national hero in Syria.
Empress Theodora (500 – 548) – one of the most influential Byzantine empress, she was the wife of Emperor Justinian I. In 527, after being married for two years, her husband succeeded to throne and she became a co-ruler. She participated since then in all strategic political decisions of her spouse. Moreover, she enjoyed a great independence that can be testified by the fact that she had not only her official court, but also her own imperial seal. In 532 she saved the throne of Justinian I by playing a key role in stopping the Nika riot. By the same token, Theodora passed several bills protecting women, for instance forbidding forced prostitution, expanding women’s rights for divorce, property ownership and children’s custody and forbidding honour crimes. She is today a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) – she was the only woman recognised as the Empress Regnant of China (the title of Emperor was reserved to men and women could only be named of Empress Consort (wife of the Emperor) and Empress Dowager (Mother of the Emperor)). Wu Zetian appeared on the Court as a courtisan, becoming then Emperess Consort, Empress Dowager and ultimately, in 690 – the Emperess Regant. During her reign she expended the territory of China into Central Asia and placed Buddhism as the state religion. Her position shocked many people as women in Confusian tradition were considered inferior to men. Wu Zeitan tried to limit the impact of the Confucian thought on women and made an effort to put more spotlight on women (for instance by ordering biographies of prominent women or giving them more responsibilities on the Court).
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) – the only woman to be both Queen consort of France (1137–1152) and England (1154–1189), Eleanor was also the Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. She was also one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in Middle Ages’ Western Europe. As the Queen of France, she participated with her husband Louis VI in the Second Crusade. After the annulment of her first marriage, she remarried with Henry II, king of England. After the death of Henry II, in 1189 Eleonor’s beloved son, Richard became king. Almost immediately he left for the Third Crusade. During this time Eleonor ruled as Regent.
Borte Ujin (1161 – 1230) – wife of Genghis Khan and Grand Empress of the Mongol Empire. She married Genghis Khan (then Temujin) when she was 17 and few time after she was kidnapped by a rival tribe. She spent there 7 months and came back pregnant with her first child (recognised after as his own by Genghis Khan). It is believed that the decision of freeing Borte was the first step in the Genghis Khan’s conquest of the world. During her mariage, Borte Ujin had a great influence on her husband and it is believed that many political decisions made by Khan were her own. However, Borte’s power was not limited to the pillow influence. When Genghis Khan was expanding his empire in foreign lands, Borte stayed in Mongolia (a rather unusual situation of a spouse of a khan who were supposed to travel with him), ruled her own territory and had her own court.
Amina (15th -16th century) – Warrior Queen of Zazzau (modern West Nigeria). She was the first woman to become a queen in a Muslim society dominated by men. Despite a poverty of historical documents, stories about Amina survived thanks to the oral tradition. Amina ruled for more than three decades increasing her empire by miliary conquests (she was recognised as an excellent military strategist and was credited by some historians of introducing metal armory and building military encampments in the region). She is believed to originate the trade in Zazzau thanks to the production of kola nut. As for her personal life, Amina constantly refused to get married by fear of losing her power.
Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431) – heroine of France, warrior and Catholic saint. She was one of the leaders of the Hundred Years’ war between France and England and has a significant impact on its development. D’Arc, also called “The Maid of Orleans” supported Charles VII in recovering France from England’s domination. She gained prominence after lifting the siege of Orleans in 1430. The same year, she was captured and put on trial the same year. She was declared guilty and was burnt on a stake. She was only 19 years old when she died.
Isabel I of Castile (1451-1504) – queen of Castile and wife of Fernando II of Aragon. She is the most famous female ruler in the history of Spain. Together with her husband she united Spanish territories and began oversees expansions. Isabel I sponsored 1492 travel of Christopher Columbus that resulted in discovering the New Word and started an era of Spanish dominance on the international scene for more than a century. She also successfully fought against Muslims occupying the Iberian Peninsula. Isabel and Fernando were responsible for the Inquisition resulting in death or expelling from Spain of tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims.
Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) – queen of France of Italian origins, wife of Henry II and mother of three Kings of France. After the death of her husband, she exerced as Regent for her sons. Interestingly, when her sons were finally at the age of taking over the power, Catherine’s influence did not decrease. She was a significant stakeholder during civil and religious wars that took place in France during the reign of her sons. She was accused of applying hard-line policies against religious minorities, in particular during the Saint Bartholomew Massacre in 1572 when thousands of Huguenots were assassined. Art lover, Catherine de Medici participated in the construction of a part of Louvre and Tuileries Palace.
Elisabeth I (1533-1603) – queen of England and Ireland, also called Virgin Queen. Elisabeth I was born as a daughter of king Henry VIII and Anne Bolein. After the execution of her mother she was declared illegitimate and put away from any claim for the throne. However, after the death of her half-sister, Mary I, in 1558, Elisabeth unexpectedly became queen. She deeply shocked all the court by refusing to get married in order to preserve her power. Although her attitude was strongly criticised in the beginning, Elisabeth I reached to create the legend of the Virgin Queen. She strengthened England’s sea-power and reinforced its over-seas expansion. Internally, she was also the first monarch to try to help the poor: in 1601 Elisabethan Poor Law created a new type of tax intending to relief the poorest part of the society. Her reign is often considered as the Golden Age of her country.
Mbande Nzinga (1583-1663) – queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (modern Angola). Coming from a royal family and before becoming the Queen, Mbande Nzinga was a negotiator on behalf of her brother, Ngola Mbandi at a peace conference with Portugal (who treated Western Central Africa as a slavery market). In 1624 she was elected Queen. Her rise to the power displeased to a part of local elites who tried to remove her with a help of Portuguese. During her reign she led the war against Portugal. Although many tried to remove her from power, she maintained her position until her death in 1663. Today she incarnates the fight against oppression.
Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780) – she was the only female ruler of Habsburg dominions. She started to rule after the death of her father, Emperor Charles VI in 1740, in the most difficult time for Austria. Almost in the beginning of her reign she had to deal with a military coalition created against her and led by Prussia. Maria Theresa was conservative in matters of religion and state, but she originated administrative and military changes that strengthened Austria’s efficiency. She promulgated various reforms, for instance she unified the juridical code (called Codex Theresianus) that became a foundation for civil codes in Eastern and Central European countries. She gave birth to 16 children.
Catherine the Great (1729-1796) – this Prussian princess became the Empress of Russia since 1762 and one of the most prominent Russian rules in history. She expanded her empire thanks to military conquests and her diplomatic abilities. As en enlighten despot, she was a patron of art, literature and education. The Hermitage Museum in Sankt Petersbourg started as her personal art collection. She also supported the French Encyclopaedists (Voltaire, Diderot et d’Alembert) and proposed to publish their book when the threat of forbidding its publication appeared in France. As for her personal life, Catherine the Great was known for her tormented love life leading to many legends.
Manuela Saenz (1795-1856) – revolutionary heroine of South American independence and a feminist symbol of this period. She was a lover of Simón Bolívar for 8 years until his death in 1830. After saving his life in 1828, she received the title of “Liberadora of Liberador” (Liberator of the Liberator). After the death of Bolivar, Saenz was obliged to flee to Jamaica. Despite her active role in the revolution, Saenz’s role was minimised until the second half of the 20th century. Nowadays Saenz’s memory has been restored thanks to books, movies and representations in popular art.
Maria Leopoldina of Austria (1797-1826) – archduchess of Austria, Empress consort of Brazil and Queen consort of Portugal. Daughter of Holy Emperor Francis II and Mary Teresa of Naples and Sicily, in 1816 she married Pedro of Braganza who became later the first Emperor of Brazil. She played an active role in the process of Brazil independence from Portugal. Indeed, in 1822 Leopoldina was the Regent when her husband was away and she led negotiations in favour of Brazilian independence. Given her role in the process of independance, she was very popular in her country (much more than her husband). She died in 1826, at the age of 29, after complications from a miscarriage.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) – Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India. She became Queen in 1837 when she was only 18, after the death of her uncle King William IV. Her reign of 63 years was marked by political, scientific and cultural expansion of her country. Despite limited political prerogatives, Queen Victoria influenced the destiny of the United Kingdom by playing an important role on the international scene (for example by preventing 1875 Franco-German war) and supporting democratisation mechanisms in the United Kingdom such as secret ballot and easing voting requirements. She was also known as “the grand-mother of Europe”. Indeed, she gave birth to nine children and treated their mariage as a way to reinforce British place in Europe through diplomacy. In consequence, her 42 grand-children formed part of the royal families of Germany, Russia, Greece, Romania, Sweden, Norway and Spain.
Lakshmibai (1828 – 1858) – also known as the Rani of Jhansi, she was known as one of the leaders of the Indian rebellion of 1857 against the British Raj. She was married to the maharaja of Jhansi. After his death she had to face pressure on behalf for British authorities who tried to limit the power of her family over the province. In 1858, the rebellion against British arrived to Jhansi. Lakshmibai who was in the beginning reticent to fight gathered 14000 soldiers and faugh in the first line on the battle field. She died after two days of combat. She is today a symbol for Indian nationalists.
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) – Chinese regent who effectively ruled the country from 1861 until her death in 1908. She is considered to be the most powerful woman in the history of China, although opinions on her are divided. While some judge her as a despot and responsible for the fall of the Chinese monarchy, others see her as a woman trapped by political intrigues and the patriarchal system. A partisan of women’s education, she opened up trade and diplomatic relations with other countries. She was also accused of mishandling the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and ruthlessly ruling the country.
Liliuokalani (1838-1917) – the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the first woman to rule over the islands. During her reign that started in in 1891 she intended to draft a Constitution that would strengthen the monarchy and assure voting rights for native citizens. Two years later, she was overthrew in a coup d’état that officially aimed to install a republic of Hawaii, but ultimately led to an annexation of the islands to the United States. Liliuokalani was imprisoned and forced to abdicate in 1895.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) – American politician, activist and first lady. Eleanor Roosevelt became politically active in 1821 when her husband started to suffer from polio. She started to represent him on the public stage combing her public engagement with the fight for women’s rights. In 1933 she became the first lady of the United States and held the office during the WWII. After the death of her husband in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed by President Truman an American Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Three years later she co-authored the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.
Evita Peron (1919-1952) – the Spiritual Leader of the Nation – this title was created in 1951 by the Argentinian Parliament to commemorate her achievements. Evita Perón, wife of Juan Domingo Perón, was one of the most influential first ladies in the world and a legend in her country. She successfully contributed to the politital career of her husband and was his most important advisor. During her short life, finished abruptly by a cancer, Evita became a symbol of protection of the poor and a fighter for women’s rights. Indeed, she personnally wrote a part of the 1949 Constitution of Argentina that guaranteed for the first time equality in mariage.
Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) – she was the first and to this day the only woman to hold the office of Prime Minister of India (the first time from 1966 to 1977 and then since 1980 until her assassination in 1984). She had a great influence on the fate of her country and the whole region. In 1971 she went to war with Pakistan. Indian victory resulted in the creation of Bangladesh and reinforcement of the Indian position in South Asia. During her tenure, India started to develop its nuclear program and its agriculture boomed thanks to the use of new technologies. Gandhi installed a very controversial state of emergency from 1975 to 1977 and ruled then by decree.
Golda Meir (1898-1978) – Prime Minister of Israel and the only woman to ever hold the office. She was born in the Russian Empire and raised in the United States. At the age of 15 she became an active Zionist and two years later she got married, moved to Palestine and joined a kibbutz. Until 1948 Meir represented American Jewish international organisation. Her political career started in 1948 in the newly created state of Israel. First, Labour Minister, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, she became the Prime Minister in 1969. Her tenure was marked by the Munich Massacre in 1972 and Yom Kippur War. This last event was the reason of her resignation in 1974.
Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) – she was the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (from 1979 until 1990) and one of the most powerful politicians in the history of her country. She was called “Iron Lady” because of her uncompromising political style. In 1975 she became the leader of the Conservative Party and the first woman in charge of a major political party in her country. She introduced a series of liberal economic measures, called later Thatcherism. She was at the same time loved and hated. In 1984 she was almost killed in an attack led by Irish nationalists from the IRA.
Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) – Pakistani Prime Minister and the first woman democratically-elected woman in a Muslim country. Since her arrival to power in 1988 her efforts to reform the country met a strong opposition of the conservative fraction in politics, including President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and army. She was ultimately accused of corruption and nepotism and was dismissed two years later. She came back to power in 1993, aiming this time at leading this time a successful economic privatisation and reinforcing women’s rights. However, once again accused of corruption she lost power in 1997 and escaped to Dubai. She came back in 2008 to run in elections. She was killed during a meeting in a bomb attack claimed by Al-Qaeda.
Angela Merkel (1954- ) – German chancellor and one of the most influential leaders of the European Union. This chemistry scientist entered into politics in 1989. In 2000 she became the leader of centre-right Christian Democratic Union. In 2005 she was appointed the first woman to hold the office of Chancellor. She has kept her office since then, becoming the longest-serving head of government in the European Union. Merkel played a crucial role in managing the financial crisis that outburst in Europe in 2007. Since 2015 she has pledged for welcoming Syrian refugees fleeing their country because of the civil war.