The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History

Aimee Heidelberg - February 3, 2023

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Ruins of City Wall and Gate in Nigeria, Dipo Tayo, 2009.

Amina Mohamud of Zazzau (reigned mid to late 1500s – 1610)

Amina Mohamud of Zazzau ruled the territory of the Hausa people in the northwest territories of what is now Nigeria. She has become a legendary figure in the oral traditions of Nigeria given her reputation as a fierce warrior and skilled diplomat. As a child, her grandfather recognized her leadership potential and invited her to state meetings. She expanded Hausa territory through military conquest, a skill she developed training with the Zazzau cavalry. In addition to her military prowess, she was also a skilled diplomat, opening trade routes that brought untold wealth and power to her land. She brought governmental administration to the Hausa society with her diplomatic and leadership skills and built walls around her cities, many of which still stand to proclaim her legacy.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Elizabeth I, Armada Portrait, c 1588, National Portrait Gallery, London

Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558 – 1603)

Queen Elizabeth I was well-educated and intelligent, and her reign is considered “one of the most glorious in English history,” despite periods of economic turmoil and debts. Unlike her sister Mary, she was more amenable to people practicing their preferred faith, while strengthening the Church of England. This compromise ended in 1570, though, when the Pope decreed Elizabeth’s subjects were free from her rule. When this resulted in threats to her life, she enacted laws against Catholics and ended the religious compromise. As a ruler, she often acted by not acting, hoping to delay decisions until matters had passed. But she acted shrewdly when necessary, taking decisive action to quell rebellion and the threats coming from Ireland, Scotland, Spain and France.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Mary, Queen of Scots Portrait, Francois Clouet, c.1560, Public Domain

Mary, Queen of Scots (reigned 1542 – 1587)

At 6 days old, Mary became Queen of Scots after her father’s early death. She was first arranged to be married to Prince Edward, King Henry VIII’s son, to create an alliance between England and Scotland. This arrangement failed. She married the Dauphin of France. When he died in 1561, she returned to Scotland and married Henry, Lord Darnley. He died violently in 1567, leaving Mary a widow with a young son, the future King James. The Lords of the Congregation worried when she married Lord Bothwell, a suspect in Darnley’s murder. This suspicion led Mary to be imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, but she escaped to England. She was again imprisoned for 19 years by Elizabeth I, who suspected Mary of a plot to take her crown. Mary was found guilty of treason and executed in 1587.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
The spice trade created wealth in the Pepper Queen’s realm. Christophe Schindler, 2017

Queen Rani Chennabhairadevi, the “Pepper Queen” (reigned 1552 to 1606)

Portugal traders were problematic for the port kingdoms of India. Queen Rani Chennabhairadevi, known as the “Pepper Queen” by the Portuguese due to active trade economy, resisted outside trade involvement from Portugal and other external factions. She provided sanctuary for those seeking refuge from Portuguese efforts to take over port and trade in her Uttara Kannada district. Despite the pesky Portuguese, her ports and trade routes flourished. The district’s economy was strong. Visitors came to the region from all over India to see the temples and forts she had built, and trade for regional specialties, including pepper, nutmeg, and betel nut. It took multiple armies from strong military alliances to finally defeat the Pepper Queen and take over her valuable trade routes.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Queen Nzinga, warrior and diplomat. Pat Masioni, UNESCO series on women in African history, 2014.

Queen Nzinga (reigned 1624, d. 1663)

Queen Ana Nzinga ruled Ndongo, territory populated by the Mbundu population. The Portuguese were colonizing her region to control trade and the growing slave economy in central Africa. Nzinga knew that the success of her realm meant aligning with Portugal. It sounds counterproductive, but she simultaneously gained a partner against her enemies, and was able to end the Portuguese slave trade in her kingdom. When the relationship with Portugal soured, Nzinga moved her people west and founded a new state. This state offered sanctuary to runaway slaves and soldiers. With her new ally, the Netherlands, she led a rebellion against the Portuguese and its “puppet ruler.” The rebellion failed, but Nzinga turned Matamba into a trade stronghold.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Christina of Sweden, Portrait, 1661 Abraham Wuchters, Statens Historiska Museer

Christina of Sweden (reigned 1632 – 1654)

Swedish queen Christina became Queen Regnant in 1632 at the age of six and assumed the duties of the crown in 1644. The Polish king, who had a reasonable claim to the throne, threatened her reign from the start. Despite the need for an heir to secure the succession, and keep Poland from claiming the throne, Christina never married. Instead she appointed her cousin, Charles Gustavus, as heir. Succession aside, she passionately supported science and the arts, hoping to create an “Athens of the North.” She was instrumental in negotiation a peace treaty and ending the Thirty Years War, but was uneasy serving as ruler and had converted to Catholicism, which was banned in Sweden. Christina abdicated the throne in 1655, moved to Rome, and focused on science and culture.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Portrait of Queen Anne, Michael Dahl 1705, Public domain

Queen Anne (reigned 1702 – d. 1714)

Queen Anne of Great Britain ruled in a time of religious and political conflict. Her reign was clouded by the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714), with England and its allies fighting against France and Spain over their plans to unite and give the Spanish crown to Philip, Duke of Anjou. France and Spain’s power would have been elevated in Europe, and caused a multinational fight that included England. Anne had a victory at home, however, when England and Scotland joined to become Great Britain. While Scotland would keep its own system of law, education, and Church, there would be a common British Parliament and the flags of England and Scotland would be combined.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Portrait of young Catherine the Great, by Georg Christoph Grooth, 1745 Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Public Domain

Catherine II of Russia, “Catherine the Great” (reigned 1762 – 1796)

An unhappy marriage catapulted Catherine II of Russia into power. When her husband, Peter III, was crowned, he quickly alienated the nobility by pushing reforms that helped the poor. He went on to end the war with Prussia, which angered the upper military class. Catherine, who never got along with Peter, allied herself with these factions, working with them to arrest Peter and seize power for herself. Catherine was able to expand her territory while fending off uprisings, wrote legal codes, improve education, wrote operas and children’s fairy tales, and promote the arts. Yet when she tried government reforms, she was often thwarted by her bureaucrats. Catherine’s death sparked colorful rumors about how she died, but the reality was much mundane. She died in bed after suffering a stroke.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
The Zulu Ceremonial dance at Mbelebele, a military camp, in 1836. The General History of Afrcia in the Ninteenth Century Until 1880s.

Queen Nandi Zulu (Queen Mother, 1816 – 1827)

Shaka Zulu made history by conquering territory, organizing it, and ruling the Zulu Nation in today’s South African region. While he is given much of the glory for building the empire through military might, his mother Queen Nandi is credited for her influence over the kingdom during his rule. She was a fighter from the outset. While pregnant with her son Shaka, the expectant royal father refused to marry Nandi. She insisted on being paid damages for the pregnancy, damage to her reputation, and to give her son the name and birthright of his father’s high-status family. When Shaka became king, Nandi served as a close advisor in political and military matters. Shaka Zulu valued her advice so much that gave her the status of a queen and goddess.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Portrait of Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1855

Queen Victoria (reigned 1837 – 1901)

Queen Victoria inherited the British crown at age 18, and led the country into an era of technological, economic, and industrial advances. Early in her reign Victoria navigated ruling a constitutional monarchy, considering advice from Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, and her husband Prince Albert. The constitutional monarchy meant Victoria had limited power, but she was able to influence policy and governmental matters. She would mediate between the House of Commons and the House of Lords and was not shy about speaking her mind about their governance or about her Prime Ministers. She defined the role of Royalty in British constitutional monarchy, developing systems still practiced by the British Government today.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
The Rani of Jhansi leads her troops in the siege of Jhansi. Public Domain.

Rani Lakshmibai (reigned 1843 – 1853)

Queen Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi is often compared to Joan of Arc as a symbol of resistance. In 1857, the warrior-queen led the resistance against the British during India’s occupation. As the East India Company gained power in her region, she had two choices; work with them, or be forcibly replaced with someone who will. Queen Rani, as regent to her underage son, refused to work with them, was deposed and given a pension under the agreement that she would quietly go away. She unsuccessfully appealed through the court system. At the same time, India’s army mutinied against the colonial British, and Queen Rani used the chance to declare open revolt. She recaptured her territory, built up her defenses, and was reinstated as Queen of Jhansi. In 1858, she led forces rebellion against a second attempt at a takeover by British Raj, which was unsuccessful but solidified her legendary status.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Lili’uokkalani of Hawaii, c. 1891. Public Domain

Lili’uokalani of Hawaii (reigned 1891 – 1895)

Lydia Lili’u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka’eha assumed the throne after the death of her brother in 1891. Her reign was difficult from the start. Soon after assuming the throne, Lydia immediately tried to revoke the Bayonet Constitution signed by her brother. The document minimized the power of the king, removed land rights of Native Hawaiians, and gave votes to foreign landholders. She had further setbacks in her reign. First, she was deposed before overriding the Bayonet Constitution. The United States annexed her territory. Second, Lili’uokalani hoped to be restored to power by working with the United States government, but hope faded by 1895. Third, after a counter-revolution, she was put under house arrest at ‘Iolani Palace. She spent the rest of her life protesting the annexation of Hawaii, even suing the United States for the loss of crown land, and died in 1917 never regaining her throne.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Empress Dowager Cixi, Yu Xungling, 1890. Public Domain

Empress Dowager Cixi (reigned 1861 – 1908)

Cixi started her royal life as the concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor, bearing him his only son, Tongzhi. The Emperor died when his son was 5 years old, and Cixi staged a coup to gain power. Empress Cixi understood the power of borrowing from other cultures. She developed schools that trained students in foreign languages and customs, built arsenals full of western-style weaponry, and developed the first foreign service office in China. When her son turned 17, Cixi gave up power, but reclaimed it when he died two years later, holding on to the throne until her nephew, Guangxu, came of age. Guangxu passed reforms meant to modernize Chinese society, but the faction who opposed the sweeping changes helped Cixi, who also opposed the reforms, regain power.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Bust of Yaa Asantewaa at the Yaa Asantewaa Museum,

Yaa Asantewaa (queen mother, 1894 – 1902)

When Asantehene (King) Prempeh I was exiled to the Seychelles in 1896, his mother, Nana Yaa Asantewaa of the Ashanti Empire led her people in standing up to British colonial power. In 1900, the British Governor Sir Frederick Hodgson, in a move to assert power over Ashanti territory (in modern Ghana) declared the Ashanti must surrender the Golden Stool, a royal dynastic seat passed from one ruler to the next. Yaa Asantewaa led the fight against the British to retain this symbol of the Ashanti people. Her forces, 5,000-strong, won the battle. Yaa Asantewaa was exiled to the Seychelles, where she died in 1921. Her son Prempeh I was restored to the throne in 1924, securing Yaa Asantewaa’s legacy in Ghanian history.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Princess Isabel, Acting Regent of Brazil, 1865, Augusto Stahl (1828-1877), Public domain.

Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil (acting regent, 1891 – 1921)

Daughter of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and Empress Teresa Cristina, Princess Isabel was heir to Brazil’s throne after the death of her two brothers. She served as Brazil’s regent when her father went overseas. In 1888, acting regent while her father was in Europe for medical reasons, she signed the Golden Law (Lei Aurea) that freed all slaves in Brazil. This move was popular with the greater public. She even received the Golden Rose for the emancipation by Pope Leo XIII. It was, however, opposed by planters and others who profited off the slave labor. This opposition led to a coup in 1889, deposing her family. The almost-queen lived her exiled years in France.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, Public Domain

Regent Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (reigned 1924 – 1931)

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was a champion of women’s rights in the Kingdom of Travancore in southern India. She declared the Devadasi system illegal, and encouraged women to get an education. To put her words into action, she invited women who went to college to the palace for tea. The Women’s College in Trivandum offered classes in “history, natural science, languages, and mathematics” on her order. Women were able to study law for the first time under her watch. She prohibited animal sacrifice, opened public roads to all, regardless of caste (with some exceptions). Additionally, railways and telephone service became publicly accessible. While some of her reforms were controversial, like the Newspaper Regulation Act that limited press rights, she was a progressive advocate for her region’s advancement.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Queen Elizabeth II, 1953.

Queen Elizabeth II (reigned 1952 – 2022)

The longest reigning monarch in British history, Queen Elizabeth oversaw Britain’s constitutional monarchy upon her coronation at age 25. Given the limits of royal power in this system, Queen Elizabeth served as a figurehead and diplomat for Great Britain. She dedicated her life to public service and representing Great Britain with diplomacy, grace, and humor. She served the country through its post- WWII recovery, a killer smog in 1952, and the election of 15 Prime Ministers. Elizabeth managed scandals within her family, even her own children and grandchildren, while keeping her focus on serving the public. Until her recent death, the Queen and her family stimulated its economy and tourism industry, and serve as patrons to around 3,000 charities (Elizabeth held 600 patronages alone).

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Queen Margarethe of Denmark, 1966.

Queen Margarethe of Denmark (reign 1972 – present)

Like Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Margarethe rules under a constitutional monarchy and serves as a public figurehead. She serves as the ceremonial head of state and diplomat. She is kept informed of State matters through her meetings with the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs ministers, but is not involved in public administration or creating law, and does not affiliate herself with a political party. Her main power is to formally form a government after an election, and as head of Government, oversees the Council of State, and is head of the Church of Denmark. Queen Margarethe famously loves art and culture. In the 1970s, she painted scenes from Lord of the Rings and sent them to J.R. Tolkien. He had them included in the Danish editions of the book.

Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Anne (r. 1702-1714). (n.d./ n/a)

Christina of Sweden, b. 1626 – d. 1689)., 3 July 2000, Karen Woods.

Denmark’s Queen Margarethe II celebrates 50 years on the throne., 12 November 2022.

Devadasis are a cursed community. The Guardian. 21 January 2011. Nash Colundalur.

Empress Suiko – Japan’s first reigning empress. 26 April 2018. Lauralee Jacks.

Japan’s Female Emperors., 1 May 2019.

Lady Six Sky and the Definition of Ritual Space at Naranjo. Vernderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, 1(1) 2005, James Doyle.

Life and Times of Isabella of Castille. Penn State digital archives, Loraine Pearce Bucklin.

The Queen who would be King. Smithsonian magazine, 2006. Elizabeth B. Wilson.

Queen Amina, “woman as capable as a man”. BBC News Africa, 2018.

Razia Sultan: The first and last woman ruler of Delhi Sultanate., 17 March 2017.

Ruling for 54 years, this little-known ‘Pepper Queen’ once defeated mighty Portugal., Angarika Gogoi.

Seven most power African queens in history you need to know. September 2019. Aderemi Okejunle.

The story of Catherine the Great., 15 May 2020. Meilan Solly.

The ten most powerful queens in history, from Catherine the Great to Queen Victoria., 30 May 2020. Paula Froelich.

Theodora: The empress from the brothel., 10 June 2010. Stella Duffy.

The true story of Semiramis, legendary Queen of Babylon., 11 September 2017, Marcos Such Gutierrez.

The untold story of the great Nubian Queen Shanakdakhete who ruled without a king., 4 May 2021.

What is the role of our Queen? Royal Collection Trust.

Who was Boudica?, 7 March 2019. Sarah Pruitt.

Women Leaders in African History: Ana Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo., October 2003, Alexander Ives Bortolot.

Yaa Asantewaa and the fight for the Golden Stool., 11 July 2018.