Trailblazing Women Leaders: From Ancient Pharaohs to Modern Monarchs

Featured & Cover Trailblazing Women Leaders From Ancient Pharaohs to Modern Monarchs

Due to the incomplete nature of our historical records, it’s impossible to pinpoint when the first female ruler came to power. Some might point to Kubaba, a tavern keeper who supposedly ascended to the throne of Sumer around 2400 BCE. If true, she would be the first documented female ruler in human history, but this claim is likely mythical. More concrete evidence supports the claim of Sobekneferu, who reigned as a pharaoh in ancient Egypt from around 1760 to 1756 BCE. However, whether she was truly the first female ruler of a significant civilization remains uncertain.

Throughout recorded history, numerous women have ruled despite living in male-dominated societies. These women achieved unparalleled power, overcoming significant societal disadvantages. Here are some of the most powerful women rulers in history, including Pharaoh Hatshepsut and Queen Elizabeth I.


Hatshepsut assumed power in 1479 BCE as the regent for her stepson (and nephew) Thutmose III, who was only two years old at the time. For almost seven years, Hatshepsut was a conventional regent. However, she then took the unprecedented step of assuming both the title and powers of a true pharaoh, ruling Egypt alongside Thutmose III. To assert her authority, she had herself depicted as a man in formal portraits, with a muscular male body, traditional kingly regalia, and a false beard. Hatshepsut became one of the first truly powerful female rulers known to history. Her reign brought about economic prosperity and peace, and she was one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt’s history.


Zenobia ruled the Roman colony of Palmyra (in present-day Syria) from around 267 to 272 CE. During her short reign, she posed a significant threat to the Roman Empire. After her husband Odaenathus and his eldest son Herodes were assassinated, Zenobia took the throne. Unlike her husband, she defied the Roman Emperor Aurelian and seized control of almost the entire eastern part of the empire, including Egypt. Aurelian could not ignore Zenobia’s growing power and marched on Palmyra with his entire army. Zenobia was captured and taken to Rome in chains. Historians differ on her fate; some say she starved herself to death or was beheaded, while others believe she was acquitted at trial, married, and lived the rest of her life in Rome.


Born in the fifth century CE in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), Theodora came from a lower social class. As a young woman, she worked as an actress, a job equated with prostitution at the time. She later moved to Egypt, where she converted to Miaphysite Christianity. Upon returning to Constantinople, she met Justinian, the heir-apparent to the Byzantine Empire. Captivated by her beauty, vibrancy, and intelligence, Justinian made her his mistress, and they married in 525 CE. Two years later, Justinian became emperor, and Theodora ruled as his intellectual and political equal. Many believed she was the true ruler of Byzantium, overseeing significant reforms, including construction projects and new laws. She fought for the persecuted and recognized women’s rights, establishing laws to protect prostitutes, giving women more power in divorce cases, and abolishing a law allowing women to be killed for adultery.

Wu Zetian

Empress Wu Zetian, also known as Wu Zhao, was the first and only female emperor of China. At 14, she joined the royal court as an imperial concubine of Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty. After Taizong’s death, she began a relationship with the new emperor, Gaozong, with whom she had four sons and one daughter. She served as empress consort and, after Gaozong’s death, as empress dowager. Wu then founded her own dynasty, ruling as emperor from 690 to 705 CE. Despite opposition, she eliminated rivals, including relatives. As empress, she was both feared and respected, governing well and employing able advisers. By the end of her reign, China had become a formidable force. Wu Zetian’s legacy remains controversial due to her often extreme methods, including alleged brutal killings of her own family members, though the veracity of these accounts is debated.

Elizabeth I

In 16th-century Europe, the belief that women were unfit to rule was widespread, and Elizabeth I’s 44-year reign significantly challenged this notion. Imprisoned in the Tower of London by her half-sister, Queen Mary I, Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England in 1558. The kingdom she inherited was small and threatened by internal divisions. However, Elizabeth transformed and unified the nation, ushering in the golden Elizabethan age, during which arts and sciences flourished, and England became a global force. Elizabeth chose not to marry, earning the moniker the “Virgin Queen,” partly to maintain her power. She famously defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, declaring, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”

Catherine the Great

Russia’s Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, came to power by overthrowing her husband, Peter III. After his death, Catherine became an effective ruler, surrounding herself with capable advisers, some of whom, like Grigory Potemkin, were her lovers. She expanded Russia’s borders, incorporating Crimea, Belarus, Lithuania, and much of Poland. A patron of the arts, literature, and education, Catherine led Russia into a new era of political and cultural engagement with Europe, embracing Enlightenment principles and attracting Europe’s greatest minds to her court.


Empress Dowager Cixi is often viewed as a cruel tyrant, though her exact actions remain debated. Nevertheless, she was one of the most powerful women in Chinese history. Entering the late Qing dynasty’s court as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor, she bore him a child. Upon the emperor’s death in 1861, Cixi became co-empress dowager and later took control by installing her nephew as the Guangxu emperor, ruling as regent. She held supreme power over the empire for 40 years until her death in 1908. Her rule was marked by political killings and a turbulent period, including the Boxer Rebellion and foreign invasion. Cixi’s legacy is a complex reminder of how power can corrupt.

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