Powerful Women Rulers Everyone Should Know

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Queens, Empresses and Pharaohs

Theodora and Her Court
Theodora and Her Court. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

 For almost all of written history, almost all times and places, men have held most of the top ruling positions.  For a variety of reasons, there have been exceptions, a few women who held great power.  Certainly a small number if you compare to the number of male rulers during that time.  Most of these women held power only because of their family connection to male heirs or the unavailability in their generation of any eligible male heir. Nevertheless, they managed to be the exceptional few.

If you want to demonstrate basic historical literacy, you'll want to know about at least these powerful women rulers -- key queens, pharaohs, empresses, listed chronologically in the next pages, from earliest to latest..

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Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut as Sphinx
Hatshepsut as Sphinx. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Long before Cleopatra reigned over Egypt, another woman held the reins of power: Hatshepsut. We know her mainly through the major temple built in her honor, which her successor and stepson defaced to try to erase her reign from memory.

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Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt

Bas relief fragment portraying Cleopatra
Bas relief fragment portraying Cleopatra. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt, and the last of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egyptian rulers. As she tried to keep power for her dynasty, she made famous (or infamous) connections with Roman rulers Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

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Empress Theodora

Theodora
Theodora, in a mosaic at the Basilica of San Vitale. De Agostini Picture Library/DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

Theodora, empress of Byzantium from 527-548, was probably the most influential and powerful woman in the empire's history.

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Amalasuntha

Amalasuntha (Amalasonte)
Amalasuntha (Amalasonte). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A real Queen of the Goths: Amalasuntha was Regent Queen of the Ostrogoths; her murder became the rationale for Justinian's invasion of Italy and defeat of the Goths. Unfortunately, we have only a few very biased sources for her life.

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Empress Suiko

Although the legendary rulers of Japan, before written history, were said to be empresses, Suiko is the first empress in recorded history to rule Japan. During her reign, Buddhism was officially promoted, Chinese and Korean influence increased, and, according to tradition, a 17-article constitution was adopted.

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Olga of Russia

Saint Olga, Princess of Kiev (ancient fresco)
Saint Olga, Princess of Kiev (ancient fresco) - from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A cruel and revengeful ruler as regent for her son, Olga was named the first Russian saint in the Orthodox Church, for her efforts in converting the nation to Christianity.

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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Tomb Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Tomb Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Travel Ink / Getty Images

Eleanor ruled Aquitaine in her own right, and occasionally served as regent when her husbands (first the King of France then the King of England) or sons (kings of England Richard and John) were out of the country. Eleanor of Aquitaine certainly had a long and interesting life!

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Isabella, Queen of Castile and Aragon (Spain)

Contemporary mural by Carlos Munos de Pablos depicting proclamation of Isabella as queen of Castile and Leon
Contemporary mural by Carlos Munos de Pablos depicting proclamation of Isabella as queen of Castile and Leon. Mural is in a room built by Catherine of Lancaster in 1412. Samuel Magal / Getty Images

Isabella ruled Castile and Aragon jointly with her husband, Ferdinand. She's famous for supporting Columbus' voyage; she's also credited for her part in expelling the Muslims from Spain, expelling the Jews, instituting the Inquisition in Spain, insisting that the Native Americans be treated as persons, and her patronage of arts and education. 

More >> Isabella I of Spain

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Mary I of England

Mary I of England, painting by Antonis Mor
Mary I of England, painting by Antonis Mor. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

This granddaughter of Isabella of Castile and Aragon was the first woman to be crowned Queen in her own right in England.  (Lady Jane Grey had a short rule just before Mary I, as Protestants tried to avoid having a Catholic monarch, and the Empress Matilda attempted to win the crown that her father had left to her and her cousin usurped -- but neither of these women made it to a coronation.)  Mary's notorious but not lengthy reign saw religious controversy as she tried to reverse her father's and brother's religious reforms.  On her death, the crown passed to her half-sister, Elizabeth I.

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Elizabeth I of England

Tomb of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey
Tomb of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth I of England is one of the most fascinating women of history. Elizabeth I was able to rule when her long-before predecessor, Matilda, had not been able to secure the throne. Was it her personality? Was it that the times had changed, following such personalities as Queen Isabella? 

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Catherine the Great

Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II of Russia. Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images

During her reign, Catherine II of Russia modernized and westernized Russia, promoted education, and expanded Russia's borders. That story about the horse?  A myth.

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Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria of England
Queen Victoria of England. Imagno/Getty Images

Alexandrina Victoria was the only child of the fourth son of King George III, and when her uncle William IV died childless in 1837, she became Queen of Great Britain. She's known for her marriage to Prince Albert, her traditional ideas on the roles of wife and mother which often conflicted with her actual exercise of power, and for her waxing and waning popularity and influence. 

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Cixi (or Tz'u-hsi or Hsiao-ch'in)

Dowager Empress Cixi
Dowager Empress Cixi from a painting. China Span/Keren Su/Getty Images

The last Dowager Empress of China: however you spell her name, she was one of the most powerful women in the world in her own time -- or, perhaps, in all of history.

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More About Women Rulers