Presiding over empires, pushing aside male rivals, demolishing expectations of their gender – meet some of the women who wielded immense power throughout history.
Empress Dowager Cixi
Between 1861 and 1908, Empress Dowager Cixi dominated China’s Qing dynasty. This is pretty remarkable, given that she initially entered the court as just another lowly concubine of Emperor Xianfeng. Her status was enhanced when she bore him a son, and after Xianfeng’s death, she ruthlessly dispatched the regents appointed to rule until the boy came of age (two of the regents were given silk scarves and ordered to hang themselves).
When Cixi’s son died at eighteen, she installed her four-year-old nephew as the new emperor and continued to dominate the dynasty as a fearsome regent – even ordering the young emperor to address her as ‘My Royal Father’.
Historians still debate Cixi’s tenure, many regarding her as a despot who crushed opposition and was probably behind the fatal poisoning of her nephew the day before her own death in 1908. But what’s certain is she was one of the most powerful women who’ve ever walked the Earth.
Catherine the Great
The Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, Catherine the Great wasn’t technically Russian and wasn’t even called Catherine to start with. She was born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a practically penniless Prussian prince. But her marriage to the future Peter III of Russia and conversion to the Russian Orthodox church (complete with a name change to Ekaterina, or Catherine) put her on the path to greatness.
Overthrowing her own husband, she absolutely earned her moniker ‘the Great’. During her reign, Russian territory was massively expanded to take in regions like Crimea and Lithuania, and there was a flourishing of the sciences and the arts.
Taking a succession of lovers, one of whom was 38 years younger than her, Catherine’s carnal appetites made her the subject of many salacious legends. But it’s for her influential leadership that she should really be remembered.
The Palmyrene Empire was a breakaway state from the Roman Empire in the Middle East which only existed for a few years in the late 3rd century. But it’s still remembered thanks to its charismatic queen, Septimia Zenobia.
She came to power after the assassination of her husband, who’d been the king of what was then the Palmyrene Kingdom, subordinate to Rome. Although technically only a regent for her young son, Zenobia was very much in control, rising up against her Roman overlords, brazenly expanding her territory, and even invading Egypt.
The Roman Emperor Aurelian eventually reconquered Palmyra, the seat of Zenobia’s power in modern-day Syria, and took her captive. Sources differ on Zenobia’s fate. She may have been beheaded, starved herself to death or died of natural causes.
Whatever became of her, she remains a legendary figure in Syria: the rebel queen who forged an empire and dared to defy Rome.
Between 1740 and 1780, Maria Theresa held sway as sovereign of the Hapsburg dominions which sprawled across Europe, with Austria, Hungary and Croatia among her lands. Her strength of will was shown from the start when controversy around her ascension triggered a Europe-wide war.
As well as remaining resilient in the face of numerous messy conflicts and maintaining her grip over most of her territories, Maria Theresa pushed forward radical reforms relating to everything from education to healthcare. She personally pushed for the take-up of the new science of vaccination.
She also managed to give birth to no less than sixteen children, with many of the pregnancies taking place during times of war and threats to her position. Maria Theresa once said that if she hadn’t been pregnant so often, she would have gone into battle herself. A believable claim, considering how tough she remained throughout her tumultuous time in power.
One of the most iconic female rulers of antiquity, Nefertiti presided over Egypt alongside her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten, in the mid-14th century BC.
While the extent of her personal power is up for debate, carvings of Nefertiti’s image outnumbered those of her husband. What’s more, she was even depicted riding chariots and personally slaughtering prisoners – a testament to her stature in the royal household.
During her reign she played a pivotal role in re-shaping religious faith in Ancient Egypt, ushering in the worship of the sun deity Aten above all other gods. It’s also widely thought that Nefertiti ruled as pharaoh in her own right after Akhenaten’s death. If so, the true extent of her influence may have been even greater than some historians have traditionally supposed.
While she may not have been as all-powerful as the others on this list, there’s no denying that Margaret Thatcher was one of the most consequential leaders of the modern era.
Starting out as a chemist, she was rejected from a research position for being ‘headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated' – traits that helped propel her through the political establishment and become Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979.
Her tenure was one of the most controversial in the nation’s history, marked by mass privatisation, the monumental miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, and the Falklands War. She was also nearly assassinated when the IRA exploded a bomb in her hotel during a Conservative party conference.
Adored and despised in equal measure, Thatcher’s stubborn self-belief earnt her the nickname the Iron Lady, and by the time she left office in 1990 she had become the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.