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
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.