The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History

Aimee Heidelberg - February 3, 2023

When Queen Elizabeth II died in September 2022, she left a legacy of lifelong public service and dedication to her people. She joins a long history of queens, empresses, and rulers who defied gender conventions to lead armies, establish political systems and engage in intrigue to gain and retain power. Whether queen by succession, by marriage, by serving as queen while the king is away, or by being the mother of a ruler, women have used the title to change the world.

The most powerful queens in history are found all over the world. They reign over diverse governments and people. But they have some things in common; bravery, leadership, and the strategic intelligence it takes to carry the weight of the crown. The following is a sample of queens and rulers throughout history who have carried that power and changed the world.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Sphinx of Hatshepsut, with Pharaonic beard, c 1503-1482, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pharaoh Hatshepsut (reigned 1507 – 1458 BCE)

Hatshepsut is one of the rare female Egyptian Pharaohs. Her reign began in the traditional manner, as wife to Pharaoh Thutmose II. When he died, she served as regent for her underage stepson, Thutmose III, but declared herself Pharaoh. Scholars now think was not a power grab but a necessary move to prevent a threat from other royals seeking to steal the throne. Despite the Pharaonic beard she wore, she asserted herself as a woman, signing documents “His Majesty, Herself,” or “Daughter of Re.” She notably established alliances with other nations through trade and diplomacy rather than warfare. She left behind a legacy of public works projects that helped her people. Though later Egyptian leaders tried to erase her memory, they failed. Hatshepsut’s tomb and temples leave a record and artifacts of her reign.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Bust of Nefertiti, 1341 BCE, Neues Museum, Berlin, Philip Pikart

Queen Nefertiti (reigned 1353 – 1336 BCE)

Queen Nefertiti was Pharoah Akhenaten’s primary consort. The two reigned over one of Egypt’s greatest era of prosperity and wealth. She wasn’t born royal, but historians believe that instead of marrying exclusively for political or economic purposes, she and Akhenaten married for love. Images depict the couple playing with and kissing their children, a rare demonstration of affection. He further showed his love for her in how he depicted her in religious inscriptions. In these inscriptions she had a prestigious role in religious ceremonies alongside her husband, depicted on tomb walls and other monuments. When Akhenaten commissioned a colossal statue of himself, he ordered one of equal size for Nefertiti. This was a bold demonstration; Akhenaten was declaring her the “Great Wife,” second only to himself.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Queen Semiramis, from 1679 book Turris Babel by Athanasius Kircher.

Sammu-Ramat, or Semiramis (reigned c. 811 – 806 BCE)

Women rulers were rare in the Assyrian Empire. Women were prohibited from leadership positions, until Sammu-Ramat the throne. She is notorious for her “beauty, cruelty, and sexual appetite,” but this may have been the embellishment of Greek historians launching a smear campaign against the Assyrians. Sammu-Ramat’s actual story is more inspiring. When Shamshi-Adad V died in 811 BCE, his wife Sammu-Ramat, known for her influence and power, ruled until her son came of age. Although details of her reign are difficult to find, historians believe she may have led military campaigns, expanded Assyrian territory, and authorized building projects around the Empire. She was revered enough to have an obelisk dedicated to her in Ashur.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Meroe Pyramids, B N Chagny.

Kandake Shanakdakhete of Meroe (reigned c. 170 BCE to 150 or 160 BCE)

Shanakdakhete is the first of the Meroe region Kandake (‘Queen’) to rule independently rather than serving as consort or queen mother. She increased the territory under her rule and strengthened the economy. Meroe, located in present day Sudan, shared culture and religious beliefs with ancient Egypt. Shanakdakhete performed high level religious functions. To illustrate her status, she referred to herself as “Son of Ra, Lord of the Two Lands, beloved of Ma’at” in her inscriptions. Archaeologists are piecing together details of her rule from the scant evidence she left behind. One statute shows her wearing an elaborate crown, with a prince standing next to her holding the headpiece. This indicates she had an heir, which may have been her successor Tanyidamani.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Bust of Livia Drusilla. Shakko.

Livia Drusilla (born 59 BCE, died 29 CE)

Rome’s first Empress, wife and close advisor of Augustus, Livia had unprecedented power in the Empire. She supported her husband as he transitioned Rome from a Republic to an Empire, but was careful not to overshadow him. Despite this, she freely offered her opinions about governmental matters. Her role as Empress came with certain advantages; she got front row at arenas and theaters, she had fiscal independence, and owned prime real estate on the Palatine Hill. Behind the scenes, she secured the role of Emperor for one of her sons, Tiberius, over Augustus’s three grandsons. Despite her elevated status, Livia was plagued by rumors. She was suspected of killing Augustus’s grandsons to make way for her son’s ascent, and accused of causing Augustus’s death in 14 CE.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Bust of Augusta Agrippina, mother of Emperor Nero. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn

Augusta Agrippina (reigned 50 CE – 59 CE)

Agrippina was born into Roman royalty. She was the ambitious great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, daughter of Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus, and Emperor Caligula’s sister. After her first husband died, she married her uncle Emperor Claudius, and maneuvered to have her son Nero named successor. He declared her Augusta (Empress), and served as an advisor. Nero became Emperor when Claudius died in 54 CE. Historians suspect Agrippina had a hand in Claudius’s demise. Nero’s reign gave Augusta Agrippina more power and influence than any woman in Roman history. Over time, Nero crawled out from under his mother’s influence and Agrippina’s power faded, and Nero had her removed from court. To prevent her from provoking a civil war, Nero had her killed in 59 CE.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Bust of Cleopatra VII, last of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs. Sailko, Public domain

Cleopatra VII Philopater (reigned 51 to 30 BCE)

The infamous Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of Egypt before the Roman occupation in 30 BCE. Technically she was co-regent with one younger brother, then another, then her son, but Cleopatra dominated over them with her diplomatic skills, ability to speak many languages, and military leadership, which she used to seize the throne from one of her brothers. Cleopatra’s reign was a prosperous time for Egypt, and she built alliances (and affairs) with powerful Roman leaders, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, funding Roman military campaigns in exchange for the return of Roman-occupied Egyptian territories. At the time of her defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and her subsequent death, her influence and power over one of the ancient world’s major powers cemented her place in the history books.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Illustration of Boudica leading her army into battle. William Sharp, after Thomas Stothard. Public domain

Queen Boudica (born c. 30 CE, died c. 60 CE)

Rome’s empire included most of the western world in its middle to later years. This power extended into what is today eastern England, including the territory of Iceni. Queen Boudica of Iceni’s husband was a “forced ally of the Empire,” and when he died, the Romans annexed his territory, confiscating his property and land. Queen Boudica was a trained warrior and fought back. She led her people in revolt against Roman forces. Two major Roman settlements were destroyed, including Londinium, now known as London. This rebellion almost drove the Romans off of the British Isles and killed around 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons. Roman governor Suetonius thwarted the rebellion, defeating Boudica’s troops, but her legend persists.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Byzantine mosaic of Empress Theodora. San Vitale.

Empress Theodora (reigned 527 – 548 CE)

Theodora had a strange rise to power and religious authority. She was an actress, a mistress to wealthy men, and (common for actresses of the time) a prostitute. After converting to an early branch of Christianity, she captured the heart of Justinian, a man on the rise in the Eastern Roman politics. When Justinian became Emperor, Theodora, now Empress, focused her efforts on behalf of women in her realm. She promoted laws that protected girls from sex slavery, established houses for former prostitutes, banished brothel keepers from major cities, and established anti-rape laws. For all her efforts on behalf of powerless women, she kept a sharp eye on the upper-class ladies threatening her position; rumors have her involved in the deaths and torture of those who threatened her power.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Empress Suiko, Eifuku-ji Temple Collection, Tosa Mitsuyoshi

Empress Suiko (reigned 592 – 628 CE)

Suiko, Japan’s first female Emperor, proved herself a successful diplomat by establishing relations with China. She reigned in an era of political stability and religious progress, centralizing the state and adopted a constitution for Japan. Suiko set precedent for public administration in Japan by adopting the twelve grades of cap rank, the first of its kind in Japan. She confirmed Buddhism as an official religion in Japan, paving the way for the construction of temples and monasteries. In addition to her diplomatic and governmental reforms, she adapted Chinese governmental systems to Japan and cultivated the arts and culture from China and Korea, welcoming religious figures, artists, and scholars into Japan.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Illustration of Empress Kogyoku. Sanei Sha. Public domain.

Empress Kōgyoku (reigned 642 – 645 CE, reigned again as Saimei, 655 – 661 CE)

Kōgyoku wasn’t in the political arena before she became Empress; she was better known as a shaman and able to speak to deities Empress Kōgyoku took the throne when her husband, Emperor Jomei, died without a named heir. Her first reign is marked by clan warfare and political strife. That conflict led her to abdicate the throne in 645 in favor of her younger brother. When her brother died, also without an heir, Kōgyoku assumed the name Saimei and for another six years. While she was more of a figurehead during her second reign, her position secured the throne for her son Prince Naka.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Name glyph, Naranjo Stela 24, possibly Lady Six Sky or ‘ix wak chan lem ajaw,’ Arqueogato.

Lady Six Sky (reigned 682 CE – 693 CE, regent 692 – 728 CE)

Lady Six Sky of Naranjo ruled longer than any other Mayan queen. She married into Mayan royalty to build an alliance between the city-states of Naranjo, Calakmul, and Dos Pilas. Lady Six Sky was mainly regent to her husband, then her son, but reliefs and stele show that she held a great deal of power in her own right. She is shown as a warrior-king, having waged war against at least ten cities in the Mayan Empire. Monuments and stele show she held high rank in the Mayan religion, wearing the Maize garb traditionally worn by male Mayan religious leaders. This role meant Lady Six Sky oversaw the Mayan calendar rituals and other roles traditionally held by men.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Poem by Empress Jito, British Museum, Public Domain

Empress Jitō (reigned 686 CE – 697 CE)

Empress Jitō started the same way many of history’s queens do, with marriage to a king. She married her uncle, Emperor Tenmu, with the hope that the marriage would create political bonds between Tenmu and his brother Tenji. Emperor Tenmu, died in 686. Her son, Prince Kusakabe, assumed the throne, and Jitō held rank as the emperor’s mother. Prince Kusakabe died before his son, Jito’s grandson, was of age. She stepped in and served as Empress until the boy was old enough to rule. As Empress, she finalized the Asuka Kiyomihara Code, detailing the rules of public administration and penal laws in Japan.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Empress Genmei, San’ei-sha, 1894, Public domain

Empress Genmei (reigned 707 CE – 715 CE)

Like her half-sister Empress Jitō, Empress Genmei took the throne when her son died and her grandson was too young to perform the Emperor’s duties. Genmei’s accomplishments include ordering the first coins in Japan’s economic history, limits on property ownership by temples and nobles, moving the court from Asuka to Nara, and imposing laws against peasants who did not fulfill their duties. Despite her administrative leadership, she is best known for having Japan’s history written in the Kojiki, detailing the history of imperial clans and aristocrats from the earliest days of Japan. The Kojiki was not just a history book, it also cemented her family’s name and authority in the lineage of Japan’s aristocracy. Genmei instructed the governments of Japan’s provinces to produce similar books. These volumes detailed geology, weather patterns, agricultural and industry in the areas and provides detailed records of Japan in Genmei’s era.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, Adam Bishop, 2011

Eleanor of Aquitaine (reigned 1137 – d. 1204)

Wealthy and sought-after, Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen of France after marrying King Louis VII. They divorced after an unhappy marriage and a failed crusade. Having endured kidnapping attempts and moving to England, Eleanor married Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Henry became King Henry II of England in 1154, but their marriage was also an unhappy one. Eleanor returned to Aquitaine in 1168, bringing along two sons. She supported her sons in a failed revolt against Henry and imprisoned for 16 years. Her son Richard became King in 1189, released her, and gave her power in English politics. Richard spent a lot of time away on various crusades, leaving Eleanor to serve as Vice Regent. She had significant power and influence in England and Aquitaine until her death in 1204.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Coin of Razia Sultan, Overlord 12, Public Domain

Razia Sultan (reigned 1236 – 1240)

Razia Sultan was the first and only woman to hold the Sultanate of India and rule the court of Delhi. This was a level of power never held by a woman in Islamic civilizations. She held the ruling authority by herself, rather than through a husband or son. The daughter of a former slave that rose to governor, then to Sultan, she was trained in warfare and military strategy, government, and diplomacy. When her brother was assassinated, she claimed the throne. She was widely respected by officials and her people, expanding territory and trade, and improved infrastructure. But all was not well. One of her brothers tried to claim the throne for himself. During this conflict, Razia Sultan died in battle fighting for the Sultanate.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Wedding portrait of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, 15th Century, Public Domain

Isabella I of Castille (1474 – 1504)

Isabella of Castille was a fighter from the start. She wrestled rule of Castile from her half-brother, King Henry IV’s heirs in in 1479. Marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon created a physically and culturally united Spain. Isabella and Ferdinand set up reforms that would reduce the power of the nobility and increase the power of monarchs. Her religious reforms included widespread conversion. In a controversial move, she oversaw the 1480 Spanish Inquisition. Her goal was to find Jewish and Muslim people who claimed they converted to Christianity but were secretly still practicing their original faith. She also enacted the Alhambra Decree in 1492, where Jewish citizens were given the choice to convert to Christianity or leave Spain.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Portrait of Anne Boleyn. Hever Castle collection. Public Domain.

Anne Boleyn (reigned 1533 – 1536)

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife. When King Henry and Anne began their affair in the late 1520s, Henry tried – repeatedly – to petition the Pope to divorce Queen Katherine so he could marry Anne. He was denied each time, which delayed their marriage, much to their dismay. It led to Henry’s breaking from the Catholic Church and establishing the Church of England. After their marriage, Anne bore him a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, but did not give him the sons he desperately wanted to secure the succession. Henry’s eye wandered to Jane Seymour, and Anne was executed on what many believe to be false accusations of treason and infidelity.

The Most Powerful Female Rulers in History
Queen Mary I in her 20s. 1544, by Master John, National Portrait Gallery

Queen Mary I (reigned 1553 – 1558)

The daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Queen Mary I succeeded her brother, Edward VI, who died at age 15. She was a staunch Catholic ruler, who believed she was the champion of her subjects’ souls. She believed heresy, such as Protestantism, was a religious and civil offense, on par with treason. Those found guilty were punished brutally, in three years of her reign, 300 ‘heretics’ were burned. This extreme punishment made Mary an unpopular ruler. Despite her deep desire to have children and secure the Catholic faith through succession, Mary had no heirs at her death, and the crown passed to her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth.

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.

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