By Ashly Moore Sheldon • March 06, 2020
It may not be the norm (yet!), but there are dozens of instances of women who have held the highest office in their nation. These tough ladies have often had to break down barriers and shatter glass ceilings to get there, but they've made their mark on history. In celebration of Women's History Month, here are 11 of these powerful leaders, who just happen to be female.
As the first female pharoah of Egypt to take full authority of the post, Hatshepsut came to power in 1478 BC. Officially, she ruled jointly with her two-year-old stepson, Thutmose III. In making her play for the position, she took advantage of her noteworthy bloodline—she was the daughter, sister, and wife of former pharoahs—and her substantial education. Ruling for over two decades, Hatshepsut extended Egyptian trade and oversaw ambitious building projects. To learn more, check out The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney.
This one is a bit controversial. The story of a woman in the Middle Ages who disguised herself as a man and reigned as pope for a few years is believed to be fictitious by many historians. She is described as a learned and talented woman who quickly rose through the hierarchy of Catholicism, and was elected as pope sometime in the mid-800s. As legend has it, she originally entered the church to be with her lover and her gender was revealed when she gave birth during a processional. Awkward! From Donna Woolfolk Cross comes Pope Joan, a juicy novel based on this story.
Reigning for nearly fifty years, Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558 after a period of relative volatility. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (who was executed when Elizabeth was only two and a half years old) she became queen at age 25, succeeding her half-sister Mary. The last of five monarchs of the House of Tudor, she never married and was celebrated for her virginity. The Life of Elizabeth I by esteemed biographer Alison Weir provides an excellent look into an extraordinary life.
Reigning for more than 35 years, Catherine II has the distinction of being Russia's longest-ruling female leader. She came to power in 1762 after organizing a coup d'état, overthrowing her own husband, Peter III. Under her reign, Russia was revitalized, growing larger and stronger and gaining recognition as one of the great powers of Europe. Learn more: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie.
Born in 1835, Cixi was inducted into Emperor Xianfeng's Harem at age 16. Rising to the top of the concubine ranks, she gave birth to the emperor's first male heir, who became emperor at age five after Xianfeng's death. As his mother, Cixi assumed leadership in 1861 when she effectively ousted the group of regents appointed by the late emperor. During her 47-year rule, she is credited with modernizing China and initiating powerful reforms for women, including the abolishment of foot binding and the introduction of female voting rights. Read more about her in this award-winning biography by Jung Chang.
The first woman elected as Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir served in the post for five years from 1969–74, negotiating arms deals with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger and carrying out secret meetings with Jordan's King Hussein in attempts for peace. She has been described as the "iron lady" of Israel politics, a term later famously applied to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With a passion for the welfare and security of the State of Israel, she was portrayed as the "strong-willed, straight-talking, grey-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people." Her definitive biography can be found in Lioness by Francine Klagsbrun.
Serving as her father's assistant when he became India's first prime minister, Indira learned a lot about the position she would attain nearly 20 years later. She would go on to serve two tenures, from 1966–77 and again from 1980–84, making her the longest-serving prime minister after her father. She was something of a polarizing figure, known for her political intransigency and an unprecedented centralization of power. Her second term ended when she was assassinated by her own bodyguards. Katherine Frank offers a comprehensive chronicle of her life in Indira.
Already the leader of the British Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to be elected to the position of prime minister of U.K. in 1979, a position she held until 1990. Although she remains a contoversial figure in British pop culture, she is viewed favorably in historical rankings. She has the distinction of being the first elected female leader of a major Western democracy.” Read her autobiography to get a glimpse into her mind.
Mary Eugenia Charles was born in a small fishing village in Dominica. Attending university in Toronto and graduate school in London, she distinguished herself by subsequently becoming the first female lawyer on the island. She went on to become Dominica's first prime minister in 1980, holding the position until 1995. She was the first woman in the Americas to be elected, in her own right, as a head of state. Enjoying Power is a book of essays exploring her strong will and indomitable spirit as a groundbreaking leader.
Growing up in a wealthy, powerful Pakistani family, Benazir Bhutto was provided with many advantages. Nonetheless, her accomplishment of becoming the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim-majority nation is significant. She served as the prime minister of Pakistan from 1988–90 and again from 1993–96. A glamorous figure, she faced opposition from Islamic groups for her secularist and modernizing agenda. After her assassination in 2007, she came to be regarded as an icon for women's rights. Daughter of Destiny is her autobiography.
This list would certainly not be complete without Queen Elizabeth II, England's reigning monarch who has occupied the throne for nearly 70 years now. As fans of The Crown know, this stalwart woman has weathered many storms, always maintaining a stiff upper lip, of course. Elizabeth the Queen by Sally Bedell Smith offers a window into her private world.
There you have it! We've had a lot of fun learning about these fascinating ladies. Hopefully you're intrigued enough to pick up some of the great books about them. Of course, this is just a handful of the broads who have fought their way to the top of the heap. We know there are many more! Let us know if we've missed any good stories about women ruling the world.
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