History is full of tales of men in power, with little mention of the women who stood by their sides. But that doesn't mean there isn't a wealth of incredible women who shattered boundaries and upended life as they knew it. Whether their influence was recognized or not, women have always been key players in the fate of cultures, governments, and world history.
From classic rulers worshipped in pop culture to modern-day politicians, here are 8 female leaders who challenged the status quo.
Cleopatra (69 — 30 B.C.E.)
While many know Cleopatra for her romantic dalliances with Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the intelligence and strength she brought to her role as the last Pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt cannot be forgotten.
Taking the throne at just 18 years old, Cleopatra ruled alongside her siblings before taking on a co-rule with her son, Ptolemy XV Caesar. But Cleopatra maintained the dominating political power in all of her co-regencies, and she wielded it well. No other woman of her time influenced the incendiary politics of the Roman Empire as she did. As she forged strong bonds with Roman rulers—such as Caesar and Antony—she provided them with resources and funds for their ambitions. And it was her standing as one of Octavian's (later known as Roman emperor Augustus) greatest enemies that would have her role in history reduced to that of an immoral temptress.
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Cleopatra's views on ruler worship—views that she passed on to her consorts—would go on to influence the way Western empires would govern themselves for a long, long time. And though she would die quite young by suicide (via poisoning, not the mythified bite of an asp), her rule was responsible for the increased world standing of Egypt and its economic strength.
Aelia Eudocia (c. 401 — 460 C.E.)
Aelia Eudocia—also known as Saint Eudocia—began her rule as a Greek Eastern Roman Empress in 421. In a world full of brutal persecution, Eudocia held the belief that paganism and Christianity should be able to peacefully co-exist. Wielding her husband's power, Eudocia influenced policy to offer protections again persecution for both pagans and Jews.
With her own background of pagan education, she had hopes to blend those teachings with that of Christianity. She was a big advocate for the reorganization and expansion of education in Constantinople.
For reasons unclear through recorded history—possibly pointing to an illicit affair of some sort—Eudocia was eventually banished in 443. She lived out the rest of her days in Jerusalem.
Theodora (500 — 548 C.E.)
Theodora was not just an Empress of the Byzantine Empire, but a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As a highly trusted advisor to her husband, Emperor Justinian I, she would often use his power and influence to accomplish her own goals and visions. Though she was never technically considered a co-regent, Theodora was regularly consulted by her husband on legislative matters and had a direct hand in state affairs.
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Besides quashing rebellions—as was the case for the Nika revolt of January 532—Theodora is also known for her advocacy of equality. One of the very first champions for women's rights, Theodora put forth strict laws prohibiting the trafficking of young girls. She also enacted great change in terms of divorce law, allowing for greater benefits to former wives. Additionally, she was instrumental in fighting persecution against those who believed in Miaphysitism, a doctrine in Orthodox Christianity.
Æthelflæd (c. 870 — 918 C.E.)
Æthelflæd, future Lady of the Mercians, was born during the height of England's Viking invasions. As such, her childhood was spent watching her father, Alfred the Great, fight to take back land from the Danish Vikings. After Alfred won back territory from the Vikings in 886, the alliance that he signed with the ruler of Mercia—the similarly named Æthelred—saw teenaged Æthelflæd married off to the ally.
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After bringing significant military leadership and strategy to their marriage—and after a long bout of sickness on Æthelred's part—Æthelflæd stood as the sole ruler of Mercia following her husband's death in 911. She quickly joined forces with her brother Edward, who had succeeded Alfred the Great as King of Wessex 12 years prior. With shared hopes of a united England, the siblings took to combining their power to drive the Danes out of England. Æthelflæd's rule of Mercia ended when she died in 918.
Catherine the Great (1729 — 1796)
Catherine the Great—or simply Catherine II—was Russia's longest-ruling female leader, reigning as empress regnant from 1762 until 1796. A Prussian-born German princess, Catherine gained rulership over Russia through her marriage to Peter III. After her husband's overthrow and highly contested death in 1762, Catherine took power and pushed forward with the modernization of Russia.
During her rule, Catherine the Great accomplished quite a bit. She successfully led a strike against the Ottoman Empire to maintain control of the Black Sea, and through conquest and diplomacy began a rapid expansion of the Russian Empire. As Russia became the dominant power of south-eastern Europe, Catherine also implemented a series of educational reforms. This new emphasis on education included the establishment of Russia's first institutes for the formal education of women.
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Catherine also reformed and expanded the administrative functions of governance. Trade and communications expanded under her rule, and she helped to establish the Free Economic Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Husbandry.
Lakshmibai (1828 — 1858)
After marrying the Maharaja of Jhansi as a teenager, Lakshmibai became known as the Rani of Jhansi—queen of the Jhansi State of North India. She's notable for being one of the leaders of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, otherwise known as India's First War of Independence against British rule. For her role in this rebellion, Lakshmibai became a symbol of fierce resistance for Indian nationalists.
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Skilled in martial arts, sword-fighting, and horse-riding, she led her army into direct conflict with India's colonizers. Unfortunately, despite being "the most dangerous of all Indian leaders," according to British commander Hugh Rose, Lakshmibai died in battle at the age of 29.
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 — 1908)
During her adolescence, Cixi was chosen as a concubine of China's Xianfeng Emperor. As a result, she gave birth to a son, Zaichun, who became the Tongzhi Emperor at just five years old. As Empress Dowager, Cixi effectively ruled China for 47 years.
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Cixi oversaw the Tongzhi Restoration, which was a series of reforms enabling the regime's survival. Her empire saw both technological and military advancements, helping it to stay afloat. Additionally, she instigated a complete overhaul of her empire's corrupt bureaucracy. She also resisted Western influence and customs, which lent itself to the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.
Benazir Bhutto (1953 — 2007)
From 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, Benazir Bhutto served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. In fact, she was the first woman to ever head a democratic government in a majority Muslim country.
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Bhutto was a big proponent of democracy, and often challenged the social norms that opposed a fair and democratic government. This cause severe backlash, resulting in a barrage of death threats against her. Still, Bhutto pushed forward to educate people on the ideals and benefits of democracy and the separation of church and state. As a powerful woman in a conservative, male-dominated society, she became an icon for women's rights.
Eventually, her beliefs would result in her own assassination. But it was a fate she faced openly, refusing to stop advocating for what she believed was right for her people.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, The Guardian, Atlas Obscura