There are very few things more painful than sitting through a compulsory two-day leadership course. However, one such thing exists: watching a lecturer respond to a critique of zero female leadership representation, by claiming that there 'were no historical female leaders'.
*Note: the irony is not lost on me that I, a person born with a penis who identifies (more-or-less) as a "man", am making such a claim on behalf of womanhood. But as someone with a keyboard, an internet connection, and who falls into many of the demographics of said lecturer, I wanted to do my bit to right his wrong.
So, let's find examples of woman leaders through history–but, like, ALL history– every major (European) division of history. Furthermore, let's extend our scope beyond just a sea of white faces, to every human continent. Let's then, maybe, retract our scope to continents with written records from pre-classical history*.
*Note: I make this retraction as, in sorting through the many female leaders of the Americas and Australasia, I found histories based soley in the oral tradition difficult to extract from myth. So, whilst the history of women in America and Australasia is rich, I have compiled a list of women from Africa, Asia, and Europe whose literal existence is agreed upon (even if some details are uncertain). America and Australasia will have to wait for next week.
... However, I wanted to shine a light on women that many have forgotten or overlooked. I sought women whose stories I had not heard, or about whom I knew little. So that was my criteria:
Known to, or believed to, identify as a woman.
I knew little of their story and assumed many would be in a similar situation.
I felt that they had been robbed of due honour and remembrance, discussions of leadership.
There is historical consensus that they were historically existent people (not purely myth).
Their achievements stood independent of their marriages, relationships, or physical beauty.
Anyone I stumbled across that met all 5 of these criteria and fell into a time period and location not already occupied was included.
Pre-Classical Antiquity ( – 700s BC)
Makeda, The Queen of Sheba
Classical Antiquity (700s BC – 500s AD)
Post-Classical & Dark Ages (400s – 1000s)
Aud the Deep-Minded
High Middle Ages (1000s – 1300s)
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Renaissance (1300s – 1600s)
Catherine of Bologna
Modern Period (1500s – 1945)
Contemporary Period (1945 – Present)
Zenzi Miriam Makeba
Dr. Vina Mazumdar
Aïsha Al-Manoubya (1199 – 1267)
Al-Saida ('Saint') Aïsha Al-Manoubya was an honoured Tunisian Sufi (Islamic Mystic), academic, and philanthropist. Histories of her life recount miraculous deeds, precocious excellence, and ongoing challenging of social norms. Despite a strong tradition of female saints and Sufi scholars to be isolated figures, Aïsha mixed with society. Frequently seen among the world of men, mingling with poor, and spreading her gifts, Aïshaunquestionably deserves a place on our list today.
Aletta Jacobs (1854 – 1929)
When the Netherlands said no, Dr Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs likely said 'ha, cool story.'An activist, physician, and academic, Aletta worked for the world she wanted regardless of the state she found it in. Wanting to follow in her father's footsteps to become a physician, she became the Netherland's first. Wanting better medical care for women and children, she had laws changed. Why not throw in some free clinics while she's at it. The laws and regulations of prostitution was unfair? She decriminalised it. Women couldn't vote? Not on Aletta's watch. Unsatisfied with the world, Aletta fought to make it better and her work for women's rights, human dignities, and the wellbeing of the poor, have her deserving of all recognition.
Aspasia (470 – 400 BC)
Aspasia was a central cog in Athenian thought, writing, and culture. Mentioned by Plutarch, Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and others, some details of her life are up for debate, but what is known is that her house became an intellectual centre. Some sources cite Aspasia as a brothel keeper, others as an opulent and retiring academic. Whatever her day-job, it seems her nights were hosting elaborate parties and cavorting with the intellectual elite. As a core component of Athenian thought culture (the cornerstone of classical western academia), the entire western cannon owes thanks to Aspasia.
Aud the Deep-Minded (Ketilsdóttir) (800s)
(Deserving the title) Hersir (Norwegian military commander), Ketilsdóttir, was daughter to the Hesir Ketill Flatnose. After the death of her father, Aud mounted a secret resistance against those who had slain him. She headed the building of a mighty knarr (Viking longship) hidden in a forest and lead a crew of men to Scotland. From there she headed a series of raids and slave liberations, after which she set course to Iceland. Respected and loved by her men, freeing slaves, pioneer of Christianity in Iceland, Aud was a force to be reckoned with, that single-handedly lead and formed settlements to populate the new land of Iceland.
Catherine of Bologna (1413 – 1463)
Saint Catherine of Bologna (aka Caterina de' Vigri), is a canonised Catholic saint and was an Italian writer, teacher, artist, and nun. Raised amongst the court of the Marquis of Ferrara, she became life-long friends with the Marquis' daughter. From her position, she was educated in literacy, music, and had access to extensive library collections. Upheaval in court resulted in Caterina leaving her life to join the peasant world amongst the religious masses. This led her to become a nun of the Franciscan order and through piety and hard work, she rose through the ranks. Caterina is recorded as having received miraculous and prophetic visions. She wrote numerous texts, sermons, published illustrated religious texts. Her work for her community, for the church, and for Christian literature earned her high praise and eventual sainthood. Caterina is now the patron saint of artists, Bologna, and resistance of temptation.
Ching Shih (1775 – 1844)
I cannot vocalise enough how badass 鄭氏 (Ching Shih, lit. Madame Ching) was. Madame Ching was a pirate queen during the Jiaqing empire of the Qing dynasty. Commanding upwards of 300 junks, some 40,000 pirates, she unflinchingly entered into conflicts with the British, the Portuguese, and the Qing. Madame Ching has been embedded in literature, and for good reason. She is considered the greatest and most powerful pirate in all history, leading great armies, with multiple death penalties ordered against her and subsequently dropped. She left behind a massive military, economic, and social legacy, and complex code of pirate laws for a united Chinese pirate empire.
Queen Dihya (aka Al-Kahina) was mighty warrior queen of the Berber people, and queen of what is now modern-day Algeria. A savvy leader, and excellent military strategist, Dihya led a resistance against the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb. Her story is told by many groups in Northern Africa and has been elevated to local myth as an icon of resistance, female strength, national spirit, and liberation.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1112 – 1204)
Eleanor, Queen consort of England, Queen consort of France, and Duchess of Aquitaine, was one of the most powerful Europeans in the High Middle Ages. Whilst an excellent stateswoman, army leader, and dubbed "the most eligible bride in all Europe", Eleanor was also a passionate patron of the arts. Though her life was marked with multiple political upheavals, military conflicts, and spats with the Vatican, through her political savvy she maintained wealth and power, moving from throne to throne, dying an opulent dowager queen.
Hwang Jini (1506 – 1560)
명월 (Myeongwol: "bright moon"), born 황진이 (Hwang Jini) was arguably the world's most famous gisaeng (Korean outcast/slave women trained as upper-class courtesans and artists, comparable to Japanese geisha). Recounted extensively in literature, HwangJini's life was the archetypical bastard-rags to opulent-riches. Renown for her beauty, intellect, boldness, artistic talent, and savage wit, she was a self-built icon.
Ever the object of both desire and excellence, Hwang Jini would ask men a single riddle to determine who was worthy of talking to her, in-keeping with gisaeng tradition. Myeongwol's riddles, testament to her extreme intellect, were supposedly so difficult that only one man could ever solve any.
Hypatia (360 – 415)
Hypatia of Alexandria was a prominent polymath of the Eastern Roman Empire. Professor of both astronomy and philosophy, she is dubbed the world's first female mathematician. Hypatia, is recorded as being a world-class teacher, intensely wise counsellor and political advisor, and excellent engineer. Though pagan, she disregarded religion and politics when selecting students. Her dedication to knowledge, academic and political brilliance, and boundless skillsets amassed her extensive power and influence. Sadly, this also resulted in her shock murder by a Christian mob. Her death rippled shock through the Roman empire and sparked outrage. For her renowned brilliance cut-short she was venerated as the people's martyr for philosophy.
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
Professor Lise Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish physicist whose pioneering work is considered to be the discovery of nuclear energy. Though the first women professor of physics in Germany, and head of department, anti-Jewish laws of Nazi Germany had her stripped of her position and job. Even after the war, being one of three co-researchers in her field, she never received due recognition due to her identity as a Jewish woman. Despite mass-consensus of her deserving both Chemistry and Physics Nobel's (nominated 19 and 29 times whilst alive, respectively) she never received due honours. She was an unsung hero of chemistry and physics, posthumous namesake of element 109 meitnerium. Lisa Meitner is on this list to remind us that no degree of excellence was enough for a woman to be recognised, and unless we fight for her name, that wrong will never be made right.
Makeda (Ancient Africa/Middle East)
Queen Makeda, the "Queen of Sheba", is a historical figure mentioned in Hebrew Bible. With multiple retellings and versions ranging from Jewish, to Ethiopian, to Islamic histories, the location of Sheba's kingdom is contested. Here we will discuss the historical Makeda as Queen of Ethiopia. Informed by a merchant of the wonders he saw in the court of King Solomon of Jerusalem, Makeda decided to visit. Though she brought her massive wealth and potential for trade she was more interested in meeting with Solomon and sizing him up. Recounts tell of lengthy exchanges of riddles and questions, each trying to gauge the other's intellectual worth. Both were said to come away astounded, having found both an academic equal and a conversational peer. The narrative serves both as an explanation of trade and the presence of the lush African civilisation known to the people of Israel. For the Ethiopian people, the narrative recounts a child of Solomon and Makeda, from whom the Ethiopian dynasty claims origin. What is shared between retellings is the story of a queen that was not just the wealthy, elegant, and intellectually excellent monarch of a distant nation, but also a woman who came before King Solomon, mental giant of the ancient world, as an equal.
Lei zu (Ancient China)
Empress consort 嫘祖 (Léi Zǔ) aka 西陵氏 (Xi Lingshi) was a legendary Chinese empress in the 27th Century BC, inventor, and discoverer of sericulture (silkworm harvesting). Wife to the Yellow Emperor,Léi Zǔ'smyth tells a Newton's-Apple-esque story of a silkworm cocoon falling into her tea, or perhaps amongst her mulberry bushes. Whilst the nature of this discovery myth varies, what follows is widely agreed upon. Léi Zǔ, being both a symbol of refined court elegance and also unbridled curiosity,unravelled the cocoon to discover the silk thread. She proceeded to domesticate the silkworm, invent the silk reel and loom, enthusiastically share her discoveries, and create the massive Chinese culture and industry of silk manufacturing.
Megalostrata (Ancient Greece)
Whilst we too frequently consider the Spartans a barbaric war-like people, this falsehood further erases the excellence of Spartan artists, like the poet Megalostrata. She is known as one of the greatest poets, conversationalists, and thinkers of her era, though all of her work has been lost to time. How heartbreaking that despite her renowned excellence as an artist and "golden-haired maiden enjoying the gift of the Muses", we have no record of her gifts. Much like many women of her era, Megalostrata's works were not widely published, and thus only secondary sources and commentaries on her vast body of literature exist today.
Murasaki Shikibu (973 – 1025)
Author, poet, imperial-court-lady-in-waiting of the Japanese Heian period, 紫式部 (Murasaki Shikibu, lit. Lady Murasaki) was author of The Tale of Genji, the first written Japanese novel. Despite the traditional exclusion of Heian women from Chinese literacy (the writing system and governmental lingua franca of the period), her father saw her talent and had her educated at home. Her intellect and linguistic prowess showed unprecedented growth, aptitude, and fluency. In her 30s, having amassed a notable reputation as a writer, she was invited to serve in Empress Shōshi's court. Lady Murasaki went on to publish many works, with The Tale of Gengi, distributed famously in print through all the provinces within the decade, and recognised as a classic of Japanese literature within the century.
Pantea Arteshbod (500s BC)
Pantea Arteshbod was a Persian military commander under the rule of Cyrus II the Great. Though a fierce and successful warrior in her own right, Pantea and her husband rose through the military together as high ranking and equal commanders of Persia's most elite force, The Immortals. As is often the case in history, Pantea had to do twice as much to be as good as her male peers. Whilst a deadly warrior, she famously had to dart around the battle field in twice the clothing as her soldiers, as her breath-taking beauty was said to distract her men on the field. Pantea's greatest success came during Cyrus II's siege of Babylon. As an extraordinary military strategist and with a profound knowledge of human nature, Pantea ensured not just a successful capture of this city, but also preserved order and Persian law in the captured capital. As such, Pantea was not just a brilliant military leader, but critical to the rise and dominance of the Persian Empire itself.
Sayyida Al-Hurra (1485 – 1552)
Sayyida al Hurra means "Noble lady who is free and independent/ the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority". This was a title well deserved by was a queen of Tétouan (in modern day Morocco) and by a fierce pirate queen. Sayyida was born in a time of political turbulence: Granada fallen to the Catholics, Ottomans ousting the Roman Empire, the Portuguese colonising western Morocco. Born to a prominent Muslim Andalusian family, the Catholic unification of Spain had her flee to Morocco. Even in exile, Sayyida was an excellent study. She was very rapidly fluent in many languages and extremely knowledgeable in politics and statecraft by age 16. Child-bride to the governor of Tétouan, her quick mind and competence in business had her entrusted with great power. Her husband made her de facto vice-governor, and upon his death the populace welcomed her as governor and al-Hurra (Queen). She became the last person in Islamic history to hold the title, and came to control the western Mediterranean. The life that followed was one of romance, adventure, and power. She married the Sultan of the Moroccan Wattasid dynasty, despite never leaving her post at Tétouan. Taking to the sea as a pirate queen, she contacted and negotiated with Barbarossa of Algiers (the Ottoman pirate controlling the Eastern Mediterranean). Through diplomacy and power, she ruled the sea and unified Morocco against the growing Catholic menace. Sayyida was a powerful woman who never forgot or forgave. Life gave her lemons, but she decided she didn't like lemons, so she took the Mediterranean and Morocco instead.
Taytu Betul (1851 – 1918)
Empress Consort Taytu Betul, despite not being able to attend school, grew to become Empress of Ethiopia, a poet fluent in many languages, a talented begana (10-string) player, and founded the mighty city of Addis Ababa. Her wisdom and knowledge were renowned, and she was a noted counsellor to the Emperor for all important decisions. Taytu lead a conservative movement in court and headed the Ethiopian defence against western influence and power. Strong in mind and will, she was known to scold the Emperor and high-ranking officials, demanding they stand for Ethiopian liberty and dignity. Though she never held official military or political power, her extensive knowledge, political perceptions, and deep wisdom, meant international relationships were formed and destroyed by her hand. By being a steadfast advocate for herself and her skills, she became a respected voice, whose wisdom crushed the Italian invasion and saved Ethiopia.
Vina Mazumdar (1927 - 2013)
Dr Vina Mazumdar was an Indian academic, activist, and feminist. Pioneer and champion for women's studies in India, she lead movements combining activism and academic study for modern women's rights. As member-secretary for the national Committee on the Status of Women in India, co-founder of the Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS) in New Dehli, and director of the national Programme of Women's Studies, she was a passionate "do-er". Vina reframed what feminism and women's studies meant in India, not just as shrinking academic discipline but as an active vehicle for education, philanthropy, and change.
Wu Zetian (625 – 705)
Empress 武則天 (Wu Zetian) knew what she wanted, and had no intention of stopping until she got it. Wu Zetian's birthname, birthplace, and details of her childhood are controversial. What is known is that she was born into a rich but non-noble standing. Furthermore, her mother's family were masters of social climbing and niceties. The Wu family wisely endeared the family to 李淵 (Li Yuan), who they correctly predicted would go on to overthrow the emperor. As she grew, Wu Zetian's father forewent tradition and had her well educated. She was allowed to devour books and was noted to refuse to sit passively or let her mind idle. Wu became an expert in politics, the arts, government, and culture. Her excellence and her family's graces with the Tang Dynasty had her become an imperial concubine at 14. This rank, lower than full wife, allowed her to continue her education. As her knowledge and wit grew, so too did her ambition. A series of wise affairs with successful emperors had Wu always remaining in the current emperor's favour. She grew to concubine of highest rank to the young sickly Emperor Gaozong. She became his favourite and bore him a son. Popular theory suggests Wu then killed her own child to implicate a rival. Through similar gambits, court intrigue, and bloodshed, Wu rose to empress-consort, empress-regent, empress-dowager, and ultimately empress-regnant, the first female head of an empire in the history of China. An extraordinary empress, Empress Wu Zetian's achievements include: massive military expansion, bolstering of state education and literature, and promotion of Taoism and Buddhism.
Zenzi Miriam Makeba (1932 – 2008)
Zenzi Miriam Makeba often known as Mama Africa, was a singer, songwriter, actress, UN goodwill ambassador, and front-line activist against apartheid and white imperialism in South Africa. Born in Johannesburg her life was full of hardships from an early age. She was forced to work as a child after her father's death, battled through an abusive marriage, and fought against (and survived) breast cancer. Showing remarkable vocal talent from a young age, she began singing professionally in her early 20s. Some of her greatest works were with the Skylarks, an all women group who mixed jazz and traditional African melodies. Mama Africa's works in anti-apartheid advocacy granted her international attention, allowing her to perform world-wide. Through her art, she brought both the music and politics of the African world to the Western consciousness. She popularised Afropop and become a beacon of anti-apartheid sentiment that aided in the fight against racial injustice.
Banner image modified from public domain photograph of Florence Nightingale (c. 1860) taken by Henry Hering
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