Women who broke the mould

Women have ruled the world for millennia. Some queens and empresses were born to greatness while others murdered and seduced their way to power.

In a world often ruled by men, it' s unusual for a woman to become a ruler and exceptional for her to hold onto power and shape the lives of her subjects. Yet that's what these women did. Discover how these 10 women left their mark on history.


Hatshetsup, Pharaoh of Egypt.

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Amanda Foreman explains the legacy of Pharaoh Hatshepsut. World Made by Women (BBC Two, 2015).

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The first and longest reigning woman pharaoh in Egyptian history.

Hatshetsup ruled alone for 20 years after the death of her husband Thurmose. All images of her as pharaoh showed her wearing a beard, the symbol of royal rule. She restored her country’s prosperity by rebuilding trade routes. One expedition returned with myrrh trees for making scent - the first recorded transplant of foreign trees. Hatshetsup left an extraordinary legacy of buildings including her mortuary temple at the entrance to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

Exploring the life of Hatshepsut, In Our Time, Radio 4 A royal feud between Hatshepsut and her stepson

Hear ye, all persons! Ye people as many as ye are. I have done things according to the design of my heart.

Pharaoh Hatshepsut after Persians invaded Egypt


Empress Theodora of Byzantium

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Amanda Foreman explains the importance of Empress Theodora. World Made by Women. (BBC Two, 2015)

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Theodora was a street performer who caught the eye of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. He changed the law to marry a woman of such lowly status.

Together the couple rebuilt much of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) including the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which boasted the greatest dome built in Europe for a thousand years. Theodora extended rights for women, passing laws that allowed them to divorce and own property and made rape a crime punishable by death.

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For a king, death is better than dethronement and exile.

Empress Theodora c532


Emperor Wu of China

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Amanda Foreman examines the life of Emperor Wu. World Made by Women (BBC Two, 2015).

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The only woman to have ruled China in her own right, Emperor Wu has gone down in history as a women who schemed and murdered her way to power.

She was the second daughter of a lumber merchant, who entered the imperial court as the lowest ranking concubine to Emperor Taizong. Using cunning and murder, she married her son and when he died, ruled in her own right. In the 7th Century she used a rare moment of tolerance to push forward women’s rights. She allowed women to use their own names for the first time. Emperor Wu also gave women the political and legal power to advance in Chinese society.

Who was the real Empress Wu?China finds tomb of Emperor Wu's female prime minister

Having a woman rule would be as unnatural as having a hen crow like a rooster at daybreak.

Contemporary Confucian historian before Emperor Wu came to power


Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Helen Castor examines the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She Wolves (BBC Four, 2014).

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Eleanor was the wealthiest woman in 12th Century Europe and is the only woman to have been both queen of England and France.

Heiress to the prosperous Duchy of Aquitaine, Eleanor ruled the whole of south-west France. After marrying King Louis VII she introduced the troubadour poems of courtly love to the French court. She also accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade. When she failed to provide a male heir to the French throne her marriage was annulled. Within eight weeks Eleanor had married Henry, who within two years became King Henry II of England. Two of her sons became kings of England: Richard I and John I.

The 12th Century queen who ruled two kingdoms

Pitiful and pitied by no one, why have I come to the ignominy of this detestable old age, who was ruler of two kingdoms, mother of two kings?

Eleanor's plea to the Pope for the release of her son Richard I from captivity


Queen Elizabeth I

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Amanda Foreman looks at how Elizabeth I used language. World Made by Women (BBC Two, 2015).

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The youngest daughter of King Henry VIII and last of the Tudor dynasty, Elizabeth I maintained her power by wooing princes and English aristocrats.

However she famously refused to marry and share power with a husband, claiming instead she was married to England. Elizabeth used her femininity to unite her supporters against Catholic enemies at home and abroad. In 1588 when the Spanish Armada threatened to invade England, she successfully rallied her troops to defeat it.

Timeline: How a troubled child became a beloved queenThe reign of 'Good Queen Bess'

I would rather be a beggar and single than a Queen and married.

Queen Elizabeth I to a German ambassador in 1564


Nur Jahan, Mughal Empress

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Amanda Foreman explains the legacy of Empress Nur Jahan. World Made by Women (BBC Two, 2015).

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The 20th wife of Emperor Jahangir, Nur Jahan became his chief consort and issued royal decrees in her own name.

Forced to live in purdah to keep her away from prying male eyes, Nur Jahan would whisper instructions to her incompetent husband from behind a screen. She used connections with noble women in other Asian countries as a new means of international diplomacy, building commerce and trade for the Mughal Empire.

Explore the tomb of Nur Jahan

His wife, who knows so well how to manage him that she obtains whatever she asks for or desires, gets always 'yes,' and hardly ever 'no'

Dutch merchant Francisco Pelsaert on Nur Jahan's influence over Emperor Jahangir


Tsarina Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great

'Empress Catherine before the mirror', wearing the wide skirt fashionable in royal circles in the 18th Century

Catherine was a minor German princess who married the heir to the Russian throne, Tsar Peter III, who turned out to be mentally unstable.

When the Tsar was assassinated after only two years in power, Catherine assumed command of Russia. Helped by her lovers Giorgy Orlov and Giorogy Potemkin, she conquered the Ukraine extending the Russian empire to the shores of the strategically important Black Sea. She gave the nobility greater powers following peasant unrest.

Explore the Hermitage Museum: Catherine's art legacyThe life of Catherine the Great, In Our Time, Radio 4

I praise loudly. I blame softly.

Catherine the Great when asked about her leadership


Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria cartoon

Caricature of Queen Victoria riding the royal symbol of a unicorn

Victoria’s 63 years on the throne made her the longest reigning monarch in British history, until Elizabeth II overtook her in September 2015.

She was called the grandmother of Europe because her nine children married into the royal and noble European families. When her beloved husband Albert died in 1861 she went into 40 years of mourning. Victoria didn't think women should have the vote and called the suffragette movement "mad, wicked folly". As the British Empire expanded to cover quarter of the globe, she came to rule over more subjects than any other woman in history.

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Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.

Queen Victoria in a letter to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium


Margaret Thatcher

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Margaret Thatcher addresses Conservative Party Conference 1980.

Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister of Great Britain and gave her name to the ideology 'Thatcherism'.

Her nickname, the ’Iron Lady,’ was coined by a Soviet newspaper for her stance against communism. Margaret Thatcher was said to be left ‘cold’ by feminist ideology and appointed only one woman to the cabinet, Baroness Young, the leader of the House of Lords. During her tenure the power of the trade unions was dramatically reduced, while much of the economy was opened to market forces. She polarised the country, but remains a titanic figure in modern British history.

Margaret Thatcher: From grocer's daughter to Iron LadyNews highlights from Margaret Thatcher's careerHow did women battle their way in to Parliament?

In politics, If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.

Margaret Thatcher in a speech to the Townswomen's Guild, 1965


Chancellor Angela Merkel

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Andrew Marr examines the career of Angela Merkel. Clip the Making of Merkel ( BBC Two, 2013)

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The daughter of a pastor in the communist East Germany, Angela Merkel became the first female German head of government.

Widely regarded as the most powerful leader in the European Union - even the most powerful women in the world today - she is admired for her use of diplomacy and compromise to resolve disputes both at home and abroad. Her nickname in Germany is ‘mutti’ or mother. She refuses to live in the elaborate Chancellery in Berlin, preferring a small flat nearby.

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You could certainly say that I’ve never underestimated myself, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.

Angela Merkel in an interview with Time Magazine, 2010