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7 Historical Female Rulers Everyone Should Know
Female Rulers: Before the 4th millennium, when urban societies started to take shape, we see a vastly different relationship between the genders. It was only after urbanization in Eurasia around 3500 BCE that women settled in a much lesser role than men! With the advent of urban societies, women have witnessed discrimination in every aspect of social life: wealth, stature, and power.
Their contributions to the state institutions – whether the military, the government, or any other – waned in comparison. A reduction in female rulers stature meant an exaltation of male stature, just by comparison – even if not deliberately. The social prowess and prestige that women lost have not been reclaimed. Today, we look at some women who fought against the tides of the socio-economic norms, broke barriers, and captured the seat of power in a male-dominated world:
History of Top Famous Female Rulers in the World
The earliest known named author in world history, Enheduanna lived in Sumer in the 23rd century BCE, and this Akkadian princess was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad. In the city of Ur – the world’s first significant metropolis – she was appointed high priestess of Nanna, the Sumerian moon deity.
She was a culturally refined, spiritually ambitious, and extremely creative woman, or so her writings suggest. Sometimes colloquially dubbed the “Shakespeare of Sumerian literature,” her incantations, prayers, and stories were highly influential in Sumer. It is important to note that the idea of “religion”– as we are familiar with today – did not exist back in those days. Until Martin Luther’s Reformation gave way to secular humanism in Europe, life continued as a relatively primal affair.
Ghosts, supernatural spirits, and energies were not considered part of an ideology; they were understood with the same tenacity with which one tackled the material world. For this reason, a lot of ancient writing seems inherently poetic.
Enheduanna’s works are no different. It has been suggested that her writing, like the Exaltation of Innana and The Sumerian Temple Hymns, influenced everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homeric hymns to the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars are critical of the fact that she rediscovered writings that were written down by scribes during the First Babylonian Empire. Whether she existed as a person or a symbol, as the first known author of history, her power and impact cast an everlasting effect on human history.
The first known poet may not have been a leader in the reductionist sense of the word, but she did lead – in more ways than one. No doubt, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, was the second or third female ruler of ancient Egypt. Considered among the greatest rulers of the region, her reign in the 15th century BCE was instrumental in Egypt becoming an invincible force. Although she was the daughter of a king, she initially ascended to the throne to rule as regent to the next male heir.
As the Pharoah, she had unprecedented power for a female ruler. She was an ambitious monarch and undertook large building projects, ordering the construction of a large memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri, a great feat of ancient architecture.
Her building projects shaped the ancient Egyptian landscape of the time. Her military expeditions in the Levant, Syria, and Nubia were just as emphatic and audacious. Her military campaigns brought spoils to Egypt, and she was able to capitalize on the opportunity by rebuilding broken trade networks. Her first campaign was likely with Nubia, which she quickly and easily conquered.
She continued to the East African coast, setting up trading centers when possible. Gold, ebony, baboons, and myrrh trees, both living and dead, were brought back to Egypt. Unfortunately, most of her progress would be laid to waste as the Late Bronze Age Collapse would leave most of Eurasia and Africa in tatters. After her death, monuments and statues dedicated to Hatshepsut were destroyed and defaced; she was erased from history.
Until the 19th century, historians did not know of Hatshepsut because all depictions of her form and instances of her name were replaced by those of a fictional male king. It is quite easy to revere Cleopatra as the greatest Egyptian queen. She has captured the imagination of modern media, and rightly so. But if it were not for Hatshepsut’s convention-defying reign, ancient Egypt would have looked much different.
3. Artemisia I of Caria
Artemisia I of Caria After the Near East and Egypt, let us travel to Greece in the 5th century BCE, where Artemisia I of Caria ruled as the queen of Halicarnassus. As the name implies, she was the head of the ancient district of Caria, located in southwestern Anatolia – modern-day Turkey.
Originally from the island of Crete, she ruled for about 24 years. At this point, some of you might have noticed that her name resembles Artemis, the Greek goddess. Given her courageous disposition, her parents probably named her Artemisia to materialize the goddess’ archery skills.
In a famous depiction of the warrior queen by the German painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach, she is shown shooting arrows with her bow. She is mostly remembered in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, who showers her with praise, calling her a brave, fearless warrior and leader.
In the 7th book of his famous classic, Histories, he writes: “Of the other lower [Persian] officers I shall make no mention since no necessity is laid on me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder.”
The Greco-Persian Wars were one of the most momentous events of ancient history. Had Persia won the war, the world today would appear much different. Name of Xerxes I, King of Persia, commanded authority at the time, and she decided to side with him against the independent Greek states. Artemisia’s involvement in the Second Greco-Persian War is noteworthy. Herodotus claims that Artemisia had five ships under her command and advised Xerxes not to engage with the Greeks in the Battle of Salamis.
Her advice to avoid a direct confrontation proved wise in retrospect as Xerxes suffered for disregarding it. The Greek historian paints her as a complex woman – ravishing and luminous yet fearsome and menacing – unlike the caricatural representation that women in power often suffer from.
4. Wu Zetian
The first and only female Ruler of China, Wu Zetian is a controversial figure in the country’s past. She became the empress regent in 690 and ruled until 705. She was considered beautiful and had an innate understanding of the matters of state. Under her rule, China expanded geographically and economically, turning into a great power whose existence had to be acknowledged around the globe.
She started as an imperial concubine, but her beauty and intelligence caught the emperor’s attention, and he made her his secretary. She used this opportunity to understand the ebbs and flows of court life. However, her hunger for control and influence may have had negative implications for the people around her. Some claim that she may have killed her child to frame others in a bid for power.
This claim is mostly expressed in folklore, but the fact that she deposed her son to become empress does lend some hint of truth to the fable. She was a ruthless but beloved monarch who was not afraid of eliminating her political opposition – quite literally. Nevertheless, the people loved her because she brought some much-needed reforms. During her time, the economy thrived, court corruption was reduced, and military campaigns yielded good returns. She also opened the Silk Road, which had ceased functioning after the plague.
5. Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I The last of five monarchs to have come from the House of Tudor, Elizabeth I was the daughter of the notorious Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Anne was beheaded when Elizabeth was but a child. As she grew up and inherited the throne after the death of Mary I in the mid-16th century, she became one of the most powerful monarchs in English history. Her reign lasted a long time, charting around 45 years and lasting until the early 17th century.
This era is known as the “Elizabethan Era” and is marked by cultural and religious reformation. Elizabeth relied heavily on her advisors to keep matters under control. She even gave most of them nicknames and used her ingenious femininity to disarm the imposing males. Before becoming queen, Elizabeth had spent a year in jail on charges of mingling and conspiring with Protestant radicals.
After coming into power, she encouraged Protestant ideas and facilitated their propagation through her empire. Despite having a religious bent, she avoided systematic persecution. In her older age, she became a symbol of virginity, as she had not produced an heir. Arts and literature thrived under her rule, and authors like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe stretched the English language to its utmost extremes. Some of the greatest English composers also made music during this time, like William Byrd and Thomas Tallis; she tolerated the religious leaning of the latter since his music was so divine!
Ekaterina As we tiptoe our way around the globe, let’s check in on the Russians. We arrive in the 18th century to discuss one of the most popular figures in Russian history: Ekaterina, perhaps better known as Catherine the Great.
However, her story does not start in Russia; she was born in Poland as a German princess. Her birth name was Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, and she came to Russia after marrying Peter III of Russia, a process during which she changed her name to Ekaterina.
Her rule lasted 34 years, longer than any other female ruler in Russian history, during which she revitalized the arts and culture, known as the Russian Enlightenment, and significantly expanded Russian territory.
As with other rulers on this list, Ekaterina was not without her faults. She had started her reign amidst a coup, which did not help make a good impression. And things did not always go as planned, like in 1773, when the socio-economic conditions of the lower class compelled them to stage protests. Along with the vast territorial expansion that came with defeating the Ottoman Empire twice, Ekaterina was also responsible for her spiritually high-minded and socially progressive ideology.
She was a learned woman and wrote several works to improve the Russian curriculum. The biggest proof, perhaps, of her reverence for the principles of enlightenment is her lifelong correspondence with the French author and philosopher, Voltaire, who called her “the Star of the North” and the “Semiramis of Russia.” His admiration of the female ruler and her ideals went as far as to say, “If I were younger, I would make myself Russian.” Of course, she had already done that.
7. Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi If one figure in Indian history stands head and shoulders above the rest, it is Indira Gandhi. The daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, she was the third Prime Minister of India and the first female ruler. She served multiple terms between 1966 and 1984.
At this point, you’re probably wondering if she was related to Mahatma Gandhi. The answer is no. Indira married Feroze Gandhi – no relation to Mahatma – and adopted his surname. Her unwavering conviction and bold-as-brass personality had the perfect makings of a feminist icon.
In 1999, an online BBC poll named her the “woman of the millennium.” Indira’s greatest test came in 1971 when East Pakistan went to war with West Pakistan. The former discriminated against the latter and even perpetrated genocide against them.
The independence movement of the West Pakistanis received support from the Indians, who followed in Indira’s footsteps as she marched in with the army and turned the course of the war. At the end of the day, Bangladesh and Pakistan became two separate entities. Had it not been for her interception, the loss of life would have been far more egregious. Her office years were a source of inspiration for the feminist movements of the time. Figures like Benazir Bhutto would follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, they would face the same fate: nationalists would assassinate both.