Even today, the highest position of executive power is held by a woman in only 15 countries (at the time of writing). Yet throughout history — dating back to the early civilization of Sumer — women have been making moves to speak up, fight back, and take action, continuing the millennia-long battle for gender equality in leadership.
From Hatshepsut in ancient Egypt and Queen of Sheba in southwestern Arabia to Catherine the Great of Russia and British royals such as Queen Elizabeth I and II and Queen Victoria, many female rulers have carved out their place in history — yet so many other greats have also made major strides but remain overlooked. Here are six of the strongest women who have ever ruled.
The daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth of Russia (born Yelizaveta Petrovna in 1709) remained relatively quiet during the reigns of her father (who ruled from 1682 to 1725), her mother Catherine (from 1725 to 1727), Peter II (1727 to 1730) and Anna (1730 to 1740). However, when Anna Leopoldnova stepped in as Russia’s regent for her son Ivan VI, Elizabeth staged a palace coup in 1741 and became empress.
Elizabeth immediately made bold moves, like ending the government cabinet council system and bringing back the Senate system her father had established. While many of her acts were reminiscent of her father’s reign, she also paved new ground, founding Russia’s first university in Moscow and an arts academy in St. Petersburg, as well as building the Winter Palace. But perhaps her greatest act was in May of 1744, when she demanded all the state prisons cease executions without a royal decree, requiring detailed reports of each prisoner on death row. While this didn’t formally abolish the death penalty, not a single person was executed during her 21-year reign from 1741 to 1761.
Among the many paintings hanging in the Red Room of Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland is an oil canvas by Victor Wolfvoet from the 1600s titled The Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris. In it, Persian king Cyrus the Great’s severed head is being forced to drink human blood, literally at the level of Tomyris’ feet. The queen’s triumphant moment symbolizes the victory of the Central Asia nomadic tribe of Massagetae over Persia across the river — a storied part of ancient history, which has cemented her lasting reputation as the “bad-ass Queen of the Steppes,” as described by Red Sonia comic book artist Mark Russell.
While many tales of Cyrus’ death have been told over the years, it’s generally believed he died around 529 BCE under the direction of Tomyris, who was merely trying to protect her dominion. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus turned his focus on Massagetae and how to best outsmart Tomyris. His first attempt: offering to marry her. But she saw right through that. Outraged, he started building ways to get across the river, but Tomyris is said to have responded, “Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern.”
Cyrus refused to give up and captured her son Spargapises in a bloody surprise attack to which she retorted: “Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.” And it is with that motherly instinct mixed with pure sovereignty that she succeeded in making that promise come true.
The male-dominated society of Samoa seemed like an unlikely place for a female ruler in the 15th century, but that was exactly what happened when Salamasina was given the “highest office in the western islands of Samoa.” But the traditions were so well-entrenched that several scholars have even referred to her as a “son” of Tuia‘ana Tamaalelagi.
Her reign came to be as a complex maneuvering of titles through bloodlines, some which were even strategized before her birth. Her adopted grandmother was set on making her tupu o’Samoa — the ruler of all Samoa. “One day she said, ‘This is it. This is the girl who can bring Samoa together,’” a historian explained in a Tagata Pasifika documentary, Women of Power in the Pacific.
While born into the role, Salamasina used it to ignite one of Samoa’s most peaceful periods — 60 years without warfare.
Married to the king of Iceni (where modern East Angila is), Prasutagus, the Celtic queen Boudica is thought to have been born around 30 CE to a well-to-do family. When Romans took over southern England in 43 CE, Prasutagus was allowed to continue ruling, as long as he remained an ally. Upon his death 13 years later, both his kingdom and his family’s land were taken by the Romans since he didn’t have any male heirs. To make matters worse, Boudica was publicly flogged and her daughters were raped.
But Boudica was a trained warrior, unwilling to stand aside and watch this injustice and violence. “Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance,” she said. “They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do.” And around 60 CE, she led a revolution against the powerful Roman Empire.
Against the odds, she defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and destroyed Camulodunum, the center of Roman Britain, as well as London and Verulamium. But in the end, the Roman forces were just too strong. Boudica and her daughters are thought to have taken poison and killed themselves to avoid surrendering.
More than 4,000 years ago, Enheduanna, the daughter of the world’s first emperor, Sargon the Great, was given an essential task as the high priestess of the ancient city of Ur at the mouth of the Euphrates River: She had to find a way to to unite the various city-states of Sumer, which her father had conquered in the 24th and 23rd centuries BCE.
The priestess title meant that she was also the empire’s supreme religious leader, tasked with joining those who looked up to the Sumerian goddess of love and fertility, Inanna, with her dad’s deity, the goddess of war and sexuality Ishtar. And the Akkadian princess found the most innovative way to do so — with words.
As the first known poet, she had such a way with her verses and prayers that she’s seen as one of the most influential figures in religion, literature, and politics, making her “really powerful, and not just in a political domain: ritual supports politics and vice versa,” as St. John’s University art history professor Amy Gansell told National Geographic.
“I have long been fascinated by King Tamar,” Hillary Clinton said at a Town Hall with Georgian Women Leaders in 2010 when she was Secretary of State. “And some… may not know that King Tamar was a woman who led what is referred to as the Golden Age in Georgia.”
Indeed, the only daughter of the nation of Georgia’s King Giorgi was Tamara (also called Tamar), who the king made a co-ruler in 1178. When King Giorgi died in 1184, his daughter took over completely. While she was and is often referred to as “King Tamar,” she was a female ruler, and a prime example of standing up for women’s rights. Forced into an abusive relationship, she divorced her first husband, Prince George Boboglyubski of Kiev, and sent him into exile. When he recruited a rebel army to take her down, she triumphed once again.
After her 1213 death, she was made an Orthodox Church Saint for leading one of the greatest periods in the nation’s history.