10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders

Peter Baxter - April 2, 2018

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders
Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs. Research Gate

Cleopatra, The Last of the Ptolemies

Another name, of course, known to all was the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra VII, last of the Pharaohs, and the lover of Julius Caesar. If the life of Joan of Arc is saturated with myth, then Cleopatra’s is probably even more so. She was a celebrated beauty who bathed in milk and killed herself with bite of a serpent. Although no authentic, provable image of her exists (except on period coinage and a marble bust of doubtful origin), Cleopatra was described by the Roman historian Cassius Dio as ‘a woman of surpassing beauty’. And certainly, to have attracted the devotion of both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, she must have been quite something.

Who was she, however, and what were her achievements? Well, she was born around 69 BCE, and was the last ruler of the Egyptian Macedonian dynasty – in other words, the last of the Ptolemies. She was eighteen years old and shared the throne with her ten-year-old brother. Needless to say, that was never going to work, and as the older of the two, Cleopatra took practical control of Egypt. Supporters of her brother Ptolemy XIII, however, ousted her and drove her out of Egypt.

It was then that her alliance with Julius Caesar began, and according to the myth, she seduced the great Roman general and persuaded him to support her in a military bid to regain power. Exiled in Syria, she assembled an army, and defeated her brother, reclaiming the throne herself.

She also happened to be an extremely intelligent and inquisitive woman, and uncommonly in her era and society, she studied philosophy, literature, art, music and medicine. She also spoke numerous languages, including Aramaic, Egyptian, Ethiopic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin.

Perhaps her greatest achievement was simply the fact that she was a female Pharaoh of Egypt. Her reign, however, overlapped the rise of Roman power in the southern Mediterranean. Realizing that she could never prevail by force of arms alone, she deployed her natural assets, along with a soaring intellect and great powers of diplomacy, to soften aggressive Roman interest in Egypt. She might have been unpopular in Rome because she was a woman and non-Roman, but she was certainly popular where it counted.

It is also probably inevitable that Cleopatra, who was not Egyptian, but Greek Macedonian, improved the social position of women throughout the classical world. She was, in fact, one of the great queens of her age, and a great personage in an age of great people. She certainly belongs in the top ten.

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyrene Empire, who challenged and beat the Romans. ThoughtCo

Zenobia, Palmyrene Queen

We are now are going to look at another female sovereign of the classical era, Septimia Zenobia, Queen of Palmyrene Empire. Palmyrene Empire was a splinter state of the eastern Roman Empire, breaking away in about 270 CE. Although it only lasted for three years, the distinction of both the empire, and the queen who led it, was that Zenobia took on the might of the Romans, and for while, Like Boudicca, it really looked as if she might pull it off.

Like Cleopatra, the only verifiable surviving image of Zenobia exists on coinage, and a minted coin of the third century can hardly be regarded as an excellent likeness. Nonetheless, she was reported to be a great beauty, but more importantly, a woman absolutely not to be messed with.

The simple facts of her background are this: Zenobia was born in 240 CE. She was a member of the Palmyrene nobility who married Odaenathus, ruler of the city-state that comprised Palmyra, and who fought a series of wars to stabilize the Roman east during a period of deep discord and division. When Odaenathus died in 267 CE, his son Vaballathus became king, but Zenobia assumed power in his name as regent. She then launched a series of invasions that brought most of the Eastern Roman Empire under her control.

It is unfortunate that so little is known about Zenobia, but Palmyra, or at least the center of the empire, was situated in what would today be Syria. A rather fanciful collection of biographies of the Roman period is contained in the Augustan History, and this states that Zenobia was descended from the Ptolemies. This would have related her to Cleopatra, but it is probably unlikely, and in fact, she was almost certainly of Arab descent.

Upon the death of her husband, Rome was ruled by Gallienus, a lackluster character, succeeded in 268 CE by Claudius Gothicus, neither of whom could really stand up to the will an ambition of a woman such as Zenobia. Her sovereignty was recognized over a region that encompassed most of what would today be Egypt, the Levant and much of Turkey. By 270 CE, it really was beginning to seem that Zenobia was unstoppable, and that the rest of the Roman Empire might soon fall under her control. In 271, Zenobia went so far as to declare her son Vaballathus as Ceasar, which was an extremely bold, but also a rather risky move.

In 270 CE, in the meanwhile, the seat of imperial power in Rome changed once again, and now Zenobia found herself dealing with Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, an entirely different character. During his brief reign of four years, Domitius pacified the Goths, repelled a Barbarian invasion and restored Roman rule in the rowdy provinces of Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania.

He then turned his attention to the ambitions of an extremely dangerous and powerful Syrian queen. When pushed back against the walls of her city, Zenobia wrote to the Roman Emperor: ‘You demand my surrender as though you were not aware that Cleopatra preferred to die a queen rather than remain alive, however, high her rank.’

Did she commit suicide? Who knows, but the record of her life and achievements ceases in 274 CE, and thus, for all intents and purposes, ended the life of an extraordinary woman.

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders
Indira Gandhi, third Prime Minister of India. Leadernomics

Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India

We are going to head further east now, and look at the extraordinary life of one of the modern era’s most powerful and enduring stateswomen, Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India for fifteen years.

First of all, to correct a common misconception, Indira Gandhi was not in any way related to the great spiritual and political leader Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. She was, in fact, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, and she simply happened to marry a man by the name of Feroze Jehangir Ghandy. He changed the spelling of his name to ‘Gandhi’ when he joined the freedom struggle, in deference to the great elder statesman of Indian independence.

Indira Gandhi is often referred to as the ‘Iron Lady of India’, a nod to Margaret Thatcher, for whom the epithet was originally coined. In a society as nakedly patriarchal as India, her rise to national leadership required above-average gumption and a great deal of ruthlessness. She certainly displayed dictatorial tendencies, and part of her legacy remains the determined centralization of power that occurred in India during her terms of office. She also established a dynasty, following more or less immediately in her father’s footsteps, and her final term was followed by the premiership of her son, Rajiv Gandhi.

Probably her most memorialized achievement was taking India to war with Pakistan in support of East Pakistan, which was engaged in a separatist war. India, of course, was partitioned after independence from Britain in 1947, creating Pakistan and India. Pakistan was divided east and west, with East Pakistan being, in effect, East Bengal. When East Pakistan launched a separatist bid, India was quick to wade in, with the net result that the state of Bangladesh came into existence.

She was also prepared to stand up to western political browbeating, in particular the United States, which insisted that India support the war in Vietnam. This Indira Gandhi would not do. More questionable perhaps, she oversaw the beginnings of India’s nuclear program, with the 1974 underground test, codenamed Operation Smiling Buddha. Another little-known achievement of Indira Gandhi’s administration was to put an Indian in space, which happened in 1984, a few months before her assassination.

One thing that Indira Gandhi was unable to achieve, however, was to heal the sectarian rifts that have so bedeviled India. She was killed by her Sikh bodyguard as a response to her crushing of a Sikh religious protest in Amritsar, capital of Punjab, which deeply angered the militant Sikh community.

Mohandas Gandhi, incidentally, was assassinated by Hindu radicals in protest of his inclusionism, and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lankan nationalists. Sectarianism in India is, even to this day, one of the greatest political challenges.

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders
Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi and an Indian warrior queen. Be an Inspirer

Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi

While on the subject of India, a little-known nationalist heroine was Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, a major figure in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

From the 16th century to the mid 20th century, the British effectively controlled India. They did so often in collusion with remnants of the Princely States, which were semi-independent, often Muslim principalities with origins in the Mughal Empire. Therefore, until 1858, India was effectively ruled by a private corporation, the British East India Company, with a style of rule that grew increasingly rapacious and exploitative as time progressed. The British East India Company was kept in power by the Indian Army, a de facto private militia made up of Indian units (Sepoys) commanded by British professional officers seconded to the Indian Army.

In 1857, units of the Indian Army rebelled. This was an event known as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, but these days more generally regarded as the ‘Indian Rebellion’. Indian troops turned on their commanders, and then upon the wider British expatriate community, killing a great many. The mutineers were somewhat vague in what they were hoping to achieve, with most picturing a return to some utopian vision of the past.

What the rebellion, lacked, however, was coherent leadership, and into this vacuum, or at least part of it, stepped Lakshmi Bai.

Bai is an honorific, and Lakshmi was the Rani, or queen of Jhansi, a Hindu princely state that was part of modern-day Uttar Pradesh. Not a great deal is known about Lakshmi, other than that she was born sometime in 1828, and upon her mother’s death when she was still a infant, was raised largely by her father’s courtiers. As she grew, she developed an interest in war and military organization, and at some point, she raised a female regiment for service in the state militia. Later, she entered matrimony as the second wife of the reigning Maharaja.

Upon his death, there was an attempt to marginalize her as a potential ruler, which was rendered moot anyway when the British seized control of the state. This was in 1853, and four years later the rebellion broke out. The Jhansi Fort was besieged, and British officers and civilians were slaughtered. Lakshmi’s apologists have tried to distance her from these events, but there can be no doubt that she was right in the thick of it. A British army doctor, Thomas Lowe, described her as ‘The Jezebel of India … the young, energetic, proud, unbending, uncompromising Ranee, and upon her head rested the blood of the slain, and a punishment as awful awaited her.’

When the British returned in force, they were met by Lakshmi at the head of an army, and a bitter fight was fought, which naturally, the British won. When the Rani was killed, resistance quickly crumbled.

The net result of the rebellion, however, was the ouster of the British East India Company, and its replacement by the British Raj. It would be a little under a century before true independence came to India.

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders
Empress Wu, the only female emperor of China. All that is Interesting

Empress Wu Zetian

From India we shift further east to China, to look a great Chinese female dynastic ruler. Confucius once remarked that a female ruler would be as unnatural as a hen crowing at daybreak, and this certainly defined the Chinese attitude to queens and princesses during the first millennia. Wu Zetian was the first, and only Empress of China.

Empress Wu, as she is universally known, took a very twisted road to power. While she was disadvantaged by her gender, of course, she was nonetheless quite happy to use her attributes to her advantage. She has been described as another great beauty, and bearing in mind that she attracted the sexual interest of two emperors, she certainly must have been.

Wu was born in 624 CE, during the Tang dynasty, a period of Chinese history during which women enjoyed relatively wide freedoms, and contributed to the political and social life of the kingdom to a greater extent both than hitherto. Her family was wealthy, but of modest rank, and she was given a thorough education, which was certainly not common for girls at the time. She became known for intelligence, wit and beauty, and at age thirteen she was recruited to the court of the emperor as a concubine.

This means that she slept with the emperor at least once, but she did not succeed in gaining the top tier of ranked courtesans. When the emperor died, she ended up in a Buddhist monastery where she could, according to custom, expect to spend the rest of her life. It so happened, however, that wife of the current emperor, Empress Wang, on a visit to the monastery, noted her charms, and brought her back to court to serve in the ranks of concubines once again.

A lot smarter by then, Wu was able to wiggle into the emperors’ affections, and she bore him children, which Wang was unable to do. Naturally, a power struggle ensued, and as the story goes, Wu poisoned one of her own children in order to blame it on Wang. This infuriated the emperor, and Wang was out of the door.

As the new empress, Wu successfully intrigued for power upon the death of the emperor, and against convention and lineage, she ruled China from 690 to 705. She presided over arguably the most culturally and socially rich and diverse periods of China’s history, all of which came to an end abruptly with her illness and death. The period is seen as a disruption of the Tang Dynasty and has never been repeated or replicated since.

Her epithet, however, reads unsympathetically. ‘With a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf … she is hated by gods and men alike.’

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders
Yaa Asantewaa, Ashanti Warrior Queen. Face 2 Face Africa

Yaa Asantewaa

Africa is certainly not impoverished in matters of female heroes, queens and warlords, and the strict uniformity of the patrilineal is not universal in Africa. Matrilineal systems abound, and there have certainly been a number of mighty and fearless African women in the history of the continent.

Yaa Asantewaa was born in 1840 in what would today be known as southern Ghana. Then it was part of the Ashanti Empire, one of the great empires of precolonial Africa. This region, however, was what the British called the ‘Gold Coast’, for obvious reasons. In the post-slavery era, the European powers, and in particular the British, were beginning to jostle with one another for influence in Africa, and for territory. Where local societies were fractured and disunited, foreign rule was easy, but were large and cohesive monarchies and kingdoms existed, war was usually inevitable.

In this case, it was the ‘War of the Golden Stool’, the ultimate British effort to bring the independent Ashanti to heel. In 1896, at the age of fifty-Six, Yaa Asantewaa was queen mother. King Asantehene Prempeh I of the Ashanti was captured, and exiled to the Seychelles, and there practically held as a hostage. It was demanded of the Ashanti leadership that the ‘Golden Stool’, the symbol of dynastic power, be handed over.

At the time, Yaa Asantewaa was the keeper of the stool, which was a position of considerable influence. Upon discovering that a majority of councilmen and leaders were tempted to make peace with the British, she recalled the great days of the empire, when men would not allow themselves to be oppressed. She instead led an army against the British, the ‘War of the Golden Stool‘. Despite there being no real hope of victory, the war was bloody and hard-fought. Yaa Asantewaa, however, was captured and exiled along with her family to Seychelles.

Today, Ashanti is a district of central Ghana, which became independent from Britain in 1957. Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa remains a figure of enormous cultural and political significance, and on August 3, 2000, a museum was dedicated to her at Kwaso, in the Ejisu-Juaben District of modern Ghana.

10 Great Women of History Who Could Run Circles Around Today’s Political Leaders
Catherine the Great, arguably the most powerful woman of all time. history.com

Catherine the Great

Probably the doyen of powerful women in politics and war was Catherine the Great, and no list of great women would be complete without her. Born in 1729 to a Prussian noble family, she married into the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, and came to power in coup that unseated her husband. An enormously ambitious and capable woman, Catherine cemented her rule with ruthless efficiency and a complete lack of scruple. Her thirty-four-year reign saw great political and social advances in Russia, but it was overshadowed by a scandal-ridden private life, more salacious than almost any other great leader in history.

Among her achievements, aside from the simple longevity of her rule, was her successful leadership of Russia in the ‘Russo-Turkish Wars‘, the expansionist agenda of the Russians attempting to gain a foothold on the Black Sea. For Russia, this was a vital strategic acquisition, the only access to the Mediterranean and the southern oceans.

It was under her reign, indeed, that Russia emerged as one of the great European powerhouses, and through a process of war and diplomacy, she expanded the Russian Empire to its greatest extent. It was also under Catherine that Russia began to gain its credentials as a center of high culture, widespread education and literacy. It was she who established the first centers of female education in Russia, and it was she who set up the first, modern, Western-style system of government and administration. As such, she played a central role in what was later described as the Russian Enlightenment.

All of this, however, has been edged off the stage in popular myth by the scandals that surrounded Catherine’s life. She was certainly known for her sexual liberty and appetite, and in fact, when she died at age sixty-seven, it was rumored that it was in the middle of copulating with a horse. However, although prolific until her death, her sex life was somewhat more conventional. She was, however, clearly extremely driven, and had made a collection of pornographic furniture that has become rather iconic. She had public affairs with at least twenty-two men, all younger than she, and obviously a great many more on the side.

But nonetheless, Catherine the Great was arguably the most powerful, the most successful and the most enigmatic of all the great female figures of history.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Who was Boudica?”. Sarah Pruitt. History, May 2016

“Cleopatra VII Biography” Biography, February 2018

“What were the achievements of Indira Gandhi as a Prime Minister?”. Nagarajan Srinivas, Quora, June 2017

“Empress Wu Zetian”. Lyn Reese. Women in World History

“Wu Zetian: China’s fierce and fearless Empress, and feminist”. Sarah Brennan, Young Post, October 2014

“Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I”. D.G. Hewitt. History Collection. January 2019

“Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa of West Africa’s Ashanti Empire”. Black History Heroes

“8 Things You Didn’t Know About Catherine the Great”. Barbara Maranzani, History, July 2012

“The Empresses’ Secret Cabinet of Erotic Curiosities”. Messy Nessy Chic. Messy Nessy, June 2017