Queens, empresses, pharaohs – history is replete with female rulers. But for a long time, in many places, it was rare for women to actually be allowed to rule. Women have ruled occasionally nonetheless. Whether by chance or political maneuvering, women have ended up on thrones across the world. These women may not have made your history classes, but they did make history.
Five Famous Female Rulers from History
Isabella of France
Isabella, also known as the She-Wolf of France, was only 7 years old when she was betrothed to a king. She was still probably around 12 years old when she married King Edward II – while he was well into his 20s. It was a diplomatic match, but generally considered a good one. Edward, however, already had a lover, Piers Gaveston. And he favored him so highly, that he immediately gave some of Isabella’s wedding gifts and jewelry away to Piers. Piers was not popular among the English nobility, and it didn’t take much for them to turn on him. Between the nobility revolting and the ongoing wars against the Scottish, Edward was spread thin. The nobles ended up killing Piers.
That gave Isabella an opening. She argued for their pardons – and succeeded. She got closer to Edward, and gave birth to a son. Edward was still somewhat unpopular, so Isabella negotiated with nobles, traveled, and helped him improve his standing. But it didn’t last long. Edward took another arrogant, violent, unpopular lover, Hugh Despenser. He was a foe to Isabella, and eventually when hostilities broke out between France and England she volunteered to go over as ambassador and restore peace.
Except she didn’t. She asked for her son to visit… and refused to let him return. Then she set up his marriage to Philippa of Hainault. She gathered an army. She took a lover of her own. And she sailed back to England and soldiers flocked to her side. Isabella marched on the throne, deposed and imprisoned Edward II, and killed Hugh Despenser.
She ruled with her lover, Roger Mortimer for three years. But trusting him to rule was a similar mistake as Edward II’s, and eventually her son overthrew her and had her lover hanged. Isabella lived the rest of her life off of the throne. Her son’s marriage and reign were considered happy ones.
Wu Zeitan is the only woman to have ruled China from the seat of emperor. She rose to power after becoming the primary and favorite concubine of the emperor Tai Tsung – and when she traditionally should have retired to a convent at his death, she refused. She continued on with his son, the new emperor, and worked so closely with him on his rule that they became known as the Two Sages. When her newborn daughter died, Wu accused the emperor’s wife – and succeeded in ousting her. The emperor married her, bestowing upon her the title of Empress. He suffered a major stroke not long after, and she took over his work as Emperor. After the Emperor died, she consolidated power even further, placing her youngest son on the throne.
Wu ran things with her young son as the figurehead. But her rule basically worked – she was educated and at this point, experienced. Wu was well-liked by the commoners and reigned over a period of peace. Among the nobility, however, she was known for ruthlessness. She sponsored a secret police force, and they gained a reputation for using torture in their investigations. An anonymous comment box she introduced led to accusations of treason. These charges often led to executions. She ended entire family lines and many nobles lived in fear of her. After a few years ruling through her son, she simply declared herself Emperor. She ruled for many years under this title. Late in life, rebels killed some of her loyal government officials, and she renounced her title and retired.
So her legacy is mixed. This is illustrated starkly on her grave; in contrast to her husband before her, the inscription was left completely blank.
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia for 34 years, making her the countries longest reigning female ruler. She married into the royal family after impressing Empress Elizabeth, and though she disliked her husband Peter III, she did everything possible to set herself up for success. She spent significant effort mastering the Russian language, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and took on her orthodox name.
Still, her marriage was unhappy. And Peter III was very unpopular. So six months after Peter III was crowned in 1762, Catherine aided in a coup against him, and took the throne herself. Catherine reigned over a period of prosperity for Russia, and supported the ideals of the Enlightenment. As such she prioritized education, and in particular, education for girls. She was an enthusiastic patron of the arts as well. Catherine also increased Russia’s land significantly, while reducing the influence of the church and staving off various coups and uprisings. Her son ascended to the throne after her death in 1796, despite her desire to set up her grandson as her successor.
Despite her reign being considered a golden age for Russia, historians were unkind to Catherine. Urban legends and vicious rumors developed after her death – about the way she conducted court, about her lovers, and about her death itself. Now that modern historians have dismissed the wild stories, her legacy can be viewed in a new light.
Hatshepsut’s role in Egyptian history has taken some time to uncover. Her successors deliberately vandalized records of her reign (circa 1479-1458 b.c.) and essentially attempted to erase her from record, very possibly due to her gender. While other women served as pharaoh before Hatshepsut, she is the first to take on the full power of the position. Hatshepsut first came into the role of pharaoh when her husband, the pharaoh Thutmose II died. His only son, of his other wife, was too young to rule at the time, so Hatshepsut served as regent for him.
After several years however, she decided to step into the full role of pharaoh. She might have simply been ambitious, or she might have been responding to political threats against her whole family line. Regardless, after she took the title of pharaoh, it was pretty much impossible to step down. Hatshepsut was in for life. She retained her stepson as her heir, but governed until her death.
During her reign, Hatshepsut spent a lot of time on her image and legacy. Early on, she took a more politically savvy name – Maatkare – to shore up her authority. Like other pharaohs, she funded massive building projects, many of which were monuments to her own accomplishments. She also portrayed herself somewhat unusually – many of the images of her depict her in the traditional (and very masculine) style of previous pharaohs. She also organized a massive trading expedition with the land of Punt, which she made sure to record on her obelisks and monuments.
When she died, her stepson inherited the throne as planned. But at some point during his reign, he ordered evidence of Hatshepsut destroyed. The destruction was so thorough that evidence of her reign didn’t resurface until the 19th century. Even now, our understanding of her time as pharaoh is noticeably spotty.
Suiko reigned as the first Empress regnant of Japan. Her entrance as to royal life was as the official consort of Emperor Bidatsu. When he died, his half-brother took the throne. He died soon after from illness, and the third and final brother of the family took the throne. Clashes with another major noble family broke out over both power and religion, however, and he was assassinated. This left a power vacuum open, and after being asked repeatedly to step in, Suiko agreed. She reigned alone for a year before appointing Prince Shōtoku as regent. Political power during her 35 year reign is generally considered to have been split between Prince Shōtoku, Empress Suiko, and the leader of their family clan, Soga no Umako.
Suiko made history with several major successes during her long reign. She established diplomatic relations with China, who had refused to work with Japan in the previous years. She also introduced Japan’s first constitution. Suiko also established Buddhism as a state religion, after years of strife and conflict surrounding the clash between Daoism and Buddhism.
These female rulers aren’t the only women of note in history – so if this article interested you, check out our quizzes on Famous Women Of The 20th Century and Women in History: Picture Click. And if you just can’t get enough of this topic, check out projects like Rejected Princesses and Overlooked.