The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History

Peter Baxter - April 27, 2018

This list of ten women who stood behind ten of the world’s most powerful and influential men serves to illustrate the old adage that behind every great man, there is a great woman. Over most of modern history, and perhaps even today, the potential for women to influence events on a national, and perhaps even global level, was limited to what they could achieve by influencing their husbands. Some used the conditions that they inherited to achieve something in their own right, others would have achieved what they achieved anyway, and yet others sought to engage with the work that their husbands undertook to modify, and often moderate his performance.

Either way, it is true, more often than not, that the achievements of great men, be it in politics, business, innovation or the arts, are the equal achievements of the women behind the scenes. We have selected ten women who were powerfully influential through their association with a man, and whose influence shaped the actions and activities of that man. Not all of them were universally loved, and in fact, one or two were despised for the popular belief that they ruined the man in question. Be that as it may, however, it certainly always has been and continues to be true, that behind a great man, there is almost always a great woman.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Hitler and his long time companion Eva Braun. Wikipedia

Hitler and Eva Braun

We are going to kick off with Eva Braun, because she stood behind a man who changed the world irreversibly, but not in a good way. The question of how she influenced Hitler is entirely unclear, and historians have never really been able to decide whether the two were even lovers. Wikipedia states that Evan Braun was ‘the long-time companion of Adolf Hitler and, for less than forty-hours, his wife.’

The two certainly married, exchanging their vows as the sound of Russian guns rocked east Berlin. She was thirty-three years old, and she could quite easily have packed her bags, headed west and left the doomed dictator to his fate. But she did not. The two were married, conducted themselves calmly for the final hours, and on April 30, 1945, took poison in a pact of mutual suicide. Despite the lack of biographical material on Eva Braun, an action like that speaks volumes.

She was seventeen years old when she first met Adolf Hitler, working as a general assistant to the official Nazi photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. How and when they became intimate is unknown, but before long Eva was a permanent fixture at Hitler’s Bavarian retreat. She was, however, closeted, and the nature of their relationship was carefully hidden, even from his closest associates. To Albert Speer, he explained this as a necessary ruse to maintain his eligibility in the eyes of German women.

Her life, on surface at least, appears to have been an unhappy one, and more than once she attempted suicide, probably as a cry for attention. Whether the relationship was ever consummated is also a source of ongoing speculation. Servants at Berghof, Hitler’s mountain getaway, where Eva Braun was installed, report searching the bedsheets for some evidence that they slept together, and finding none.

He seemed also to be deliberately cruel and disdainful towards her, remarking once in her presence that a highly intelligent man should always choose a primitive and stupid woman. And yet she remained by his side, and he by her’s, and in private moments, they seemed intimate and happy. For her, the war was spent in the safety and isolation of the Alps, yet she chose to leave that sanctuary and join Hitler in Berlin, and there participate in his inevitable fate.

It is probably unlikely that she was ever party to the great decisions made during the course of WWII, but she certainly played her part in supporting Hitler and managing his public image through photography, but also through her simple presence. History is certainly poorer for the memoir that she never wrote.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
John and Yoko, an unconventional love affair. YouTube

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

No image or utterance of Yoko Ono is possible without some mental reference to the man who made her famous, the legendary Beatle John Lennon. Likewise, no mention of Yoko Ono in the company of a die-hard Beatles fan can pass without some derogatory observation on how she was the demise of that great pop quartet. It is debatable, of course, whether this was true, but John Lennon was the only Beatle who did not utterly despise her, and she certainly was an extremely unwelcome addition to the dysfunctional Beatles family. Did she influence John Lennon? Absolutely. Was it a positive influence? If one thinks in terms of the quality of his artistic output, probably not, but in terms of his journey as an icon for humanity, peace and love, she certainly had much to contribute.

Yoko Ono is nothing if not an original, and there can be no doubt that her circles would have been much smaller had she not married John Lennon, but what fate dished up for her, she used for all that it was worth. When the two met in London in 1966, Yoko was on the furthest fringe of the New York avant-garde movement. ‘Yoko was having an art show in London at Indica Gallery.’ Lennon revealed on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972. ‘In those days most art put everybody down, got people upset. I walked up the stepladder and picked up the spyglass. In teeny little writing it just said ‘Yes’. And I made my decision to go see the rest of the show.’

And the rest, of course, is history. The influence that Yoko Ono brought to bear on John Lennon was profound, and instantaneous. She immediately interposed herself into the intimate business of the Beatles, attending recording sessions, and no doubt expressing her opinion. Committed Beatles fans revile her for breaking the band up, and although, according to Paul McCartney, interviewed much later, she did not, there are many who will take more convincing than that.

John certainly engaged in peace activism much more intensively after his marriage to Yoko, and his musical collaborations with her introduced a far more experimental and avant-garde phase. In general, though, it is agreed that her influence was positive only insofar as he loved him with enormous passion, and that can never be a bad thing, but creatively, the jury is still out.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Napoleon and Josephine, the ultimate power couple. Pinterest

Napoleon and Josephine

Napoleon was a famously unattractive man, and even his most flattering portraiture is often hard-pressed to gloss over his portly figure, lank and thinning hair and his grey and rather an unhealthy pallor. Nonetheless, he was a man to be reckoned with, and after delivering the Italians and the Austrians a thoroughgoing beating during the War of the First Coalition, he began to look around for female companionship.

Josephine, on the other hand, was a high-born Creole woman from the French Island of Martinique, well entrenched in the Parisian social scene, and rather active in the bedroom. According to the late 19th-century historian Frédéric Masson, she was a woman of easy virtue who spent a huge amount of money.

She admitted to finding Napoleon repellent, but then she was past her prime, and he represented a final, and lucrative meal ticket. Almost at the moment that they married – the date was 9 March 1796 – Napoleon was called away to campaign, and while he was away, rumors of Josephine’s infidelity followed him. For all of 1798, he was in Egypt, trapped by a British blockade, and unable to do a thing as Josephine conducted a high-profile affair with a young French officer by the name of Hippolyte Charles.

When finally the two were reunited, Hippolyte Charles commenced a long stagnation in his career, and Napoleon treated Josephine to a display of histrionics through which she yawned and stared out the window. She committed herself thereafter to just one liaison at a time and realizing that he needed to pick his battles, Napoleon, for the most part, looked the other way and pursued dalliances of his own.

Her affection for Napoleon was acquired, but there can be no doubt that she was fond of him, but she did not return the passionate love that he felt for her. What she gave, him, however, which was perhaps her signature contribution, was a social passport. Napoleon, although admired, was not universally liked, and it was she who presented him to the social elites of Paris, who welcomed him into the various salons for no other reason than he was hers. She acquired the Château de Malmaison on the western outskirts of Paris, and created from it a stately home.

As a hint of how she might have influenced and affected Napoleon’s attitude to policy matters, his rescinding of an act of abolition, passed in 1799, has often been attributed to her background on a slave-owning estate in the Caribbean. Unilateral French Abolition would have made French sugar production sub-economic. Napoleon justified the reinstatement of slavery with the now-famous utterance: ‘How could I grant freedom to Africans, to utterly uncivilized men who did not even know what a colony was, what France was?

Napoleon in the end divorced Josephine in 1814 simply for her failure to deliver him a son. His second wife did, but the child died, and besides which, within a year, Napoleon was defeated and exiled to the island of St Helena. Josephine died soon after the separation.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Alexander and Olympias, sons and lovers. Tornos News

Alexander and Olympias

It is not always wives and lovers who molded and fashioned the great men to whom they were attached, but mother’s too. One such was Olympias, the mother of none other than Alexander the Great. Notwithstanding the phenomenal achievements of Alexander, most historians agree that without the behind the scenes machinations of his mother, he would never have even become king.

History tends to portray Olympias as a powerful cult figure of supernatural birth, engaged in the worship of Dionysus and proficient in the handling of snakes. She married Philip II, King of Macedonia, in a political arrangement typical of the times, and from the onset, it seems that she was a handful. Although she was not at all well disposed to her husband, she certainly was utterly devoted to her son Alexander.

She and Philip divorced, and Phillip remarried from within the Macedonian kingdom, and in an effort to legitimize a claim to the throne by the firstborn of his new family, he tried to disown Alexander. Son and father did not in slightest care for one another, and indeed, during Philip’s second wedding, the two nearly came to blows. In 336 BCE, Phillip was assassinated, and it can be fairly reasonably inferred that Olympias was behind the act, since his second wife and her children met the same fate soon afterward. Alexander duly ascended to the throne, and a monumental episode of human history commenced.

The Alexandrian myth has it that, as Alexander prepared to enter Asia Minor, Olympias told him that his father was Zeus, who had seduced her under an oak tree, and that he was to act in a manner that did justice to his divine origins. And, of course, along with gods, snakes and kings, it was rumored that she and Alexander enjoyed a brief sexual liaison before his departure into immortality.

Alexander, as we all know, died on campaign in 323 BCE, without an heir, and Olympias tried to invade Macedonia to have her grandson placed on the throne. The campaign failed, and in a reply to karma, she and her surviving grandchildren were put to death.

Olympias has been described as ‘arrogant, meddlesome, and headstrong’, which is probably erring on the side of caution, but she was, without doubt, the most influential woman in the life of one of history’s most influential men.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Caesar and Cleopatra, imperial ambition and manipulation. Streamline

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

Alexander’s sojourn in Egypt left a legacy not only of one of the greatest Mediterranean ports of the ancient world, but also the Macedonian Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt from 305 BCE to 30 BCE. The last of the Ptolemies was, of course, Queen Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra was influential in the lives and affairs of two great Romans, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, besides which she also happened to be a great historical personage in her own right. In her dealings with the Romans, however, she deployed not only her royal prerogative, but other attributes too, and the result was one of the most famous love affairs of history.

Today we are going to look at her liaison with Julius Caesar, her objectives and how she achieved them. Cleopatra is typically described by history as a great beauty, but a marble bust reputed to be her, and housed in Antiken Museum in Berlin, does not appear to back this up. She seems rather plain and studious, with a conspicuously prominent nose. Bearing in mind that ancient portraiture tended, on the whole, to be flattering, one can assume that she was not that attractive at all. She must certainly have had something, however, and whatever it was, Julius Caesar wanted a piece of it.

Caesar arrived in Egypt during a war between Cleopatra and her brother over the rule of Egypt, and she certainly saw him, not only as an avenue to Roman support to secure her kingdom but also of advancing it into the Levant. He was not initially interested in any delays or diversion, but when she delivered herself into his bedroom, rolled in a bedsheet, he was immediately smitten. Thirty-two years her senior, married, balding and epileptic, she certainly did not pursue Julius Caesar for his physical attributes.

After a cruise up the Nile in a luxurious barge, she gave birth to his son Ptolemy Caesarian, cementing a liaison that proved ultimately to be very lucrative for her. With Roman help, her civil war was won, and with Egypt at peace, she returned to Rome with Caesar, and to the delicious consternation of Roman society, she paraded herself unabashed as his lover. She certainly was franker than Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, who was forced to swallow the fact.

Then, of course, came the Ides of March, and Caesar’s assassination, which occurred just as the great general was making plans to marry his Egyptian queen. This would have legitimized Ptolemy Caesarian and put him in a direct line to inherit the imperial throne of Rome, which Caesar, of course, was poised to claim himself.

In the wake of the Roman civil war that followed, Cleopatra returned home, did away with an illicit pretender to the throne, and got on with the business of being queen. It is doubtful that Caesars’ death broke her heart, and before long, in any case, she was in bed with Mark Antony, so she certainly knew on which side her bread was buttered.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Edith and Woodrow Wilson, the secret president. ThoughtCo

Edith and Woodrow Wilson

Let’s return now to the modern era, and look at a woman whose husband led the United States through the period of WWI. Woodrow Wilson, as few people perhaps know, was the principal architect of the United Nations, through the founding of its precursor, the League of Nations. The organization was founded with the objective of placing under international administration numerous territories liberated from the control of the German and Ottoman Empires. As he was engaged in establishing this organization, he was, of course, deeply involved in negotiating peace in Europe (for this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). The terms of peace established did not meet with universal approval at home, however, and once back from Europe, he embarked on a nationwide speaking tour to make his case directly to the American people.

Then, in October 1919, at the age of 62, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. It so happens that the United States did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles, nor join the League of Nations.

At his lowest ebb, however, and now vulnerable to his political enemies, Edith, Wilson’s wife of just four years, stepped into the breach, and effectively ran the executive from his bedside, maintaining this role long after he was back on his feet, and until, in fact, he completed his second term in the spring of 1921. According to her memoir:

‘So began my stewardship, I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators,” she wrote later of her role, “and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.’

The matter, of course, in an age of limited press access, was shrouded in secrecy, and very few people, even those in government, were aware of the extent to which Edith Wilson had taken over the duties of her husband. Historians now accept that what she did was a great deal more than simple stewardship, but she performed as the de facto chief executive of the nation. It can certainly be taken for granted that it was she who was the power behind the throne, albeit in a most graceful, subtle and understated manner.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Eva and Juan Perón, a powerful man, but an even more powerful woman. Soles Digital

Eva and Juan Perón

Everyone knows who Eva Peron was, the mighty ‘Evita’ of popular culture, but most will be hard-pressed to remember Juan Perón, her powerful husband, and President of Argentina. When the wife is ultimately more famous than the husband, and without any elected office, then you know you are dealing with a powerful woman.

María Eva Duarte was born on 7 May, 1919, in Los Toldos, Argentina. From a poor background, she dreamed of becoming an actor. At about age fifteen, she moved to the capital Buenos Aires, and there enjoyed modest success in the theatre, and a little more success as a radio theatre actor. Her true vocation, however, came when she met and married Juan Perón, a colonel in the Argentine military, a government minister, but crucially, in 1946, president of Argentina.

Juan Perón was, of course, brilliant in his own right, but he was also mono-dimensional and without obvious charisma, and initially, Evita offered him some badly needed glamor. Soon, however, she began to appear less as an accouterment and more as a center of power in her own right. She used her position to advocate for causes such as women’s suffrage and improving the lives of the poor, but she also had a hand in the practical administration of the state, effectively running the ministries of health and labor.

Very quickly, Evita’s natural charm, good looks and phenomenal skill as an orator won her a following among Argentina’s poor. She seriously considered an invitation to run as vice-president in the 1952 general election, but realizing that this would be a bridge too far, she declined. Nonetheless, behind her husband, she campaigned vigorously, and when the results were in, and Juan Perón was declared the winner, it was found that a significant majority of female voters had put their cross in his square.

Perhaps Evita Perón’s greatest contribution came in later years. She died of cervical cancer in 1952, but her legacy remained and remains potent in Argentina. Argentina has, since her death, had two female presidents.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Eleanor Roosevelt, probably the most influential woman in American history. APM Reports

Eleanor and Franklin D Roosevelt

A First Lady who can pass two presidential terms without a breath of controversy is usually one that has not participated at all. Eleanor Roosevelt was not that type of First Lady. When in 1905, she and her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt married, Eleanor had already turned her back on the expectations of a New York debutante and begun to explore the frontiers of practical feminism. She did not overtly espouse feminism as a doctrine, but, as the saying goes, she certainly walked the walk.

Her marriage to Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a passionate romance, but a meeting of great minds and a merger of compatible agendas. Early in his marriage Roosevelt had an affair with his wife’s social secretary, which was a caddish act for which she never really forgave him. Divorce was discussed, but both parties realized that their respective careers would be better served by remaining together. Never again was their relationship intimate, although a fraternal fondness proved adequate for their most mutually challenging years.

Eleanor Roosevelt began her political awakening in a community-minded, wealthy New York family, and it evolve through phases of uncontroversial welfare work into something much deeper and more engaged when her husband won the keys to the White House in 1933.

Roosevelt can be considered great for leading his nation through the Depression, and later through WWII. These were his major achievements, but behind the scenes, and sometimes on center stage, Eleanor was hard at work too.

Mainly, Eleanor’s thrust was in the direction of emancipation of human rights, and the older she got, the less apologetic she was inclined to be. She began regular White House press conferences solely for female news correspondents, and news wire services were allowed access to the White House only if they displayed a fair gender distribution among senior staff. She also fetched up the baton of practical political work as FDR became increasingly chair-bound by his late attack of polio. Needless to say, the male-dominated political establishment had much to say about this, but Eleanor’s common touch endeared her to the grassroots support base that FDR had acquired thanks to his New Deal policies.

Racial equality was naturally a key issue for her, and one particular incident stands out. When, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) would not permit black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall, Eleanor resigned her membership of the organization, arranging instead a performance at the nearby Lincoln Memorial. On the day, the event morphed into a massive outdoor celebration attended by 75,000 people.

After FDR’s death, Eleanor was appointed to a UN commission on human rights, and she was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration. She remained politically active, and vocal, until her death in 1962.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Lady Fatima, the prophet’s comfort. Ummah Wide

Lady Fatima, Daughter of Muhammad

We are going to close out with a couple of powerful ladies in the two great religions of the modern age, the first of which is Fatima, known traditionally as Fatimah bint Muhammad, or the Daughter of Muhammad. We have touched on wives and mothers, but history is also replete with daughters who quietly promoted the agendas of powerful fathers, and some not that quietly.

One indication of quite how important, and revered Fatima is in the Islamic world is the fact that the name ‘Fatima’ is probably the most popular throughout the faith. In a situation of faith, however, mythology often merges with fact, and the lives and achievements of the various characters of that faith are molded and manipulated to fit the needs of doctrine. Obviously, this is true for Fatima, but a name, and a message, cannot survive for millennia if its basis is not sound.

As the story goes, Fatima was the daughter of Khuwaylid (Khadijah bint Khuwaylid), the first of Muhammed’s eleven wives. The young Muhammed worked for her, and it was she who proposed to him, so clearly, in matters of life and destiny, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Fatima was born around 605 CE, and grew up as her father was beginning to experience his early revelations, and the great Islamic faith was in incubation. Muhammed’s message, of course, was poorly received by the establishment, and in the beginning, times were hard, and dangerous.

She was perhaps the closest of his children to her father, and she was certainly more supportive of the development of the early doctrine of Islam than anyone else around him. When, in 632 CE, the Prophet died, his loving daughter was quick to follow. She was twenty-nine.

Fatima certainly played a pivotal role in her father’s life and was key to the development of Islam. As the wife of Ali, the third Caliph, she produced sons no less formative in the development of Islam. Although entirely supplicant to the needs of her father, and as such, uncontroversial, she has become a somewhat divisive figure in modern Islam. Both major branches of the faith hold her in high esteem, but for the Shia branch, she is much more highly placed. As the wife of Ali, considered to be the first Imam, and the mother of Hasan and Husayn, the second and third Imams, she obviously is a figure of great importance. By the Shia, however, somewhat like Mary, the mother of Christ, she is seen as immaculate, and sinless, and however she is viewed, she is certainly regarded as one of the great women of Islam.

The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men of History
Mary, the most famous mother in history. Redeeming God.

Mary, the Mother of Christ

Probably the most famous mother in history, the name Mary, Maria or Miriam all refer to the woman who gave birth to perhaps the most famous prophet that ever walked the earth; and she did so without the usual preliminary of copulation. The Immaculate Conception is central to Christian doctrine because it stands as proof that Christ was divine. Needless to say, this particular snippet of Christian mythology has been the subject of cruel jokes since it was first devised, and the ostensible father of Christ, Joseph, is portrayed quite frequently as the most shamelessly cuckolded man in history.

In a previous millennium, of course, this author would have been burned at the stake for such a heretical observation, but thankfully, not today. Mary, the mother of Christ, however, her gifted son was conceived, sits at the penultimate zenith of the Christian faith, and in particular the Catholic faith. And of all of the various splintered denominations of faith, be they Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Catholics outnumber any other.

But who was Mary, and why is she still so important to the Christian faith? Well, quite simply, it was she who guided Jesus through his formative years, and she who remained vital to him until the moment he was nailed to the cross, and indeed, beyond. As Jesus hung on the cross, he said to the disciple John ‘Behold thy mother’, implying that Mary was the mother of all, and through her, any devotee could become a disciple. This immediately places Mary at the center of the nascent Christian faith.

Sadly, there is no reliable record detailing any of her specific functions as the ministry of Christ begins, but one can assume that an unmarried wandering prophet, whose mother remained a factor in his life, will have relied frequently on her support. Developing a faith, in particular one with the inevitable end that Christ suffered, is one that would have been frequently characterized by doubt and self-questioning. Jesus, of course, enjoyed the support of twelve disciples, but perhaps more importantly than that, he relied on the support of his mother.

The emergence of Mary as a central figure of veneration serves a modern purpose also, insofar as it identifies a woman at the center of the Christian faith, which offers not only diversity but a role model for women infinitely adaptable to evolving circumstances. As faith, and matters of faith fade somewhat in the modern era, the notion of the Virgin Mary has become vague and ill-formed in the minds of modern generations, and it is often hard to recall quite how pivotal this woman was to the development of arguably the most influential faith in history.


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

“The Women Behind Powerful Men’. Female First, September 2008

“John Lennon and Yoko Ono”. Mercy Street Cafe

“Paul McCartney: Yoko Ono did not break up The Beatles”. The Guardian, November 2012

“History avenges France’s famous outcast empress Josephine de Beauharnais”. The Irish Times. Lara Marlow, March 2014

“Julius Caesar and Cleopatra”. History Hit. Graham Land, 2018

“When a secret president ran the country.” PBS News Hour. Dr. Howard Markel, October 2015

“Why the great love story of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte wasn’t that great after all”. NZ Herald.16 Mar 2019

“Eva Perón Actress, Politician (1919-1952)”. Biography 2018

“Consider Eva Perón’s Influence”. New York Times. Marysa Navarro, November 2013