Historically, women and minorities aren’t recorded very well — their accomplishments, especially. Look into any given high school history book and you’ll get the false impression that only old white guys do things of note.
It takes a bit more digging to reveal the real nature of things: women and minorities do just as much, and usually do so while facing adversity.
These instances tend to be better recorded when the historical figure is in a position of power. This isn’t to say records about queens haven’t been vilified — for example, Anne Boleyn was led to her execution based on false reports of incest and adultery and those rumors still persist today.
But many female leaders and rulers can’t be put in a bad light, simply because they just rocked too hard. In honor of National Women’s History Month (which is March) and International Women’s Day (March 8), here are a few for you to idolize and aspire to!
Theodora was the Empress of Byzantine from 527-548 BCE. Some call her the most influential woman in the Roman Empire’s history; some books mention her as the empress regnant and her husband Justinian I as the co-regnant. Theodora went from being an actress and prostitute in her early years to a wool spinner near the palace. After courting her, Justinian married her. During the Nika Riots, Justinian and the other members of his council were prepared to flee the city. Theodora gave an empowered speech saying that a ruler should stay in his city and die rather than run. The speech was so convincing they all stayed and fought. Justinian credited Theodora with saving his throne.
After the riots, Theodora helped in rebuilding the city, which was widely regarded as being the most splendid city in centuries. Theodora ensured the supervision of magistrates to reduce political corruption. Theodora increased women’s rights and she passed laws prohibiting forced prostitutions and closed brothels. She created a convent for ex-prostitutes so they could support themselves. She instituted the death penalty for rape. She expanded rights for divorced women. She also forbade killing of women who committed adultery.
Hatshepsut — whose name roughly translates to “Foremost of Noble Ladies” — is regarded as one of the most successful pharaohs; she was in power longer than any other female, ruling from 1479-1458 BCE, the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. It is said that her father intended for her to rule with a man, but she began assuming the roles and titles and soon even took on the ceremonial garb, including the fake beard most of the male pharaohs wore. She claimed legitimacy through divine birth and called herself the “female Horus.”
Hatshepsut established major trade routes that had been disrupted by the Hyksos occupation, thereby increasing Egypt’s wealth. She ensured the transplant of foreign trees, notably myrrh. Her foreign policies were peaceful, though there is sufficient evidence noting successful military campaigns in Levant, Syria, and Nubia. She was the most prolific builder out of the pharaohs, her buildings were more beautiful and numerous than those of her predecessors. Some pharaohs after her tried to claim her work as their own.
Empress Suiko was the 33rd monarch of Japan (592-628 CE), the first of eight women to take the title empress regnant. Though not much is recorded about Suiko, also known as Princess Nukatabe, she was a consort to her half-brother Emperor Bidatsu; she bore him seven sons. After Emperor Bidatsu’s death, several power struggles were on the horizon. In order to prevent more violence, after her brother was assassinated, Suiko was chosen to accede to the throne.
Though others were appointed regent, Suiko showed her political prowess and continued to reign until her death. She helped Buddhism gain popularity, increasing Chinese influence in Japan. China then diplomatically recognized Japan. She adopted the Sexegenary cycle calendar. She began to create a 17 article constitution while reigning, which was instituted after her death (but the general consensus is that the work belonged mostly to Empress Suiko).
Queen Elizabeth I
The daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I was cut out of succession improperly by Edward VI and was imprisoned for half a year whilst Mary was queen. She succeeded her half-sister and began her rule with good counsel. She never married and her virginity became famous, giving rise to a cult that celebrated literature and the arts of the day.
Elizabeth was tolerant in religion and moderate in politics. She was cautious in foreign affairs. When war with Spain couldn’t be avoided, she was credited with one of the greatest victories in military history in England. Her reign is now known as the Elizabethan era; during her 44 years on the throne (1558-1603) England saw great flourishing in the arts, some scientific progress, and good food supply.
Catherine II (or Catherine The Great)
Catherine the Great was the longest-ruling woman leader in Russia, ruling from 1762-1796. Much like Elizabeth I in England, Catherine II’s rule was called the Golden Age. Catherine was assisted by extremely successful generals that increased her popularity among the people. She expanded the Russian empire by conquest and diplomacy and colonized large territories along the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas.
Catherine the Great was known as a patron of the arts and education. She made many educational reforms while trying to set up a national school system. Throughout her reign, Catherine took many lovers, offering them high positions around her; even after the parted ways, she would still be friendly and loyal to them.
Who are some historical women you admire?