For far too long, women’s contributions to history have been marginalized, diminished, and tossed aside. But these influential women in history are impossible to ignore. From a warrior queen of Algeria to one of the most-beloved First Ladies ever, these women left their mark on the world.
Egypt’s second female pharaoh was also one of the most successful. Wife of Thutmose II, Hatshepsut was mother and co-reigner to Thutmose III. Although Hatshepsut was only meant to serve as regent for her son, she assumed the full power of a pharaoh within seven years of ascending to the throne. Hatshepsut’s motives for taking the throne are still debated to this day, but what is certain is that she ushered in an era of peace and building unlike anything seen before in Egypt. The most permanent mark of her reign? Deir el-Bahari, a beautiful and architecturally complex monument in which Hatshepsut was eventually laid to rest.
In the early 600s, Li Yuan, a governor under the Sui dynasty, was becoming fed up with the way the current administration functioned. After a number of defeats at the hand of Goguryeo (modern northern and central Korea), Li Yuan and a number of agrarian rebels joined together to take down Emperor Yang. But without Princess Pingyang, daughter of Li Yuan, the Tang dynasty would never have been able to claim rule of China. Princess Pingyang, who stayed in Chang’an (Xi’an today) despite her father’s warning to flee, was able to convince 70,000 men to join her father’s cause. Li Yuan won the rebellion and became Emperor Gaozu, the first of the Tang dynasty. Lasting nearly 300 years, the Tang dynasty is regarded as a golden age of post-classical China.
Dihya, also called Kahina, was a Berber warrior queen of Numidia, modern-day Algeria. Accounts of her reign are legendary, and details are therefore difficult, if not impossible, to verify. Generally, it is accepted that Dihya and her people were Jewish–whether they converted in Dihya’s lifetime is debated. She fought fiercely against Muslim people arriving in North Africa. Although she was ultimately unable to stop the changing tide as Islam became widespread in Africa, Dihya is well remembered for her military prowess.
In the 15th century, Mandukhai was one of several Mongol royals attempting to gain control over the embattled people. After the death of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the Mongols had slowly divided, thanks to their own diversity and the hatred of the Mongols by other local people, especially the Chinese. But some Mongols still wanted to rule China–and Asia. Mandukhai was the daughter of the ruler of the Ongud Mongols. After her father died, Mandukhai adopted Batumunkh, the last living descendant of Genghis Khan, then, years later, married him. This gave her stronger control over the Onguds, allowing her to defeat other Mongol groups and bring all the tribes back together under one ruler.
1501 or 1507-1536
Anne Boleyn may be most well-known for her ignominious end, but her religious beliefs had a huge impact on England. When Henry VIII fell in love with his wife’s serving lady, he didn’t just need to get a divorce. He needed to either convince the pope to give him an annulment or find a new religion that didn’t outlaw divorce. Boleyn, who had long followed reformist radicals like Martin Luther and William Tyndale, used her opportunity to push both herself and her religious opinions forward. Eventually, Henry broke with the Catholic church and created Anglicanism, declaring himself the head of church. Although not the first branch of Protestantism, Henry’s choice to stray from papal guidance helped legitimize some more radical ideas.
Jeanne was the daughter of Henry II of Navarre and niece of Francis I of France. At the age of 12, Jeanne was forcibly married to William, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg–she was literally carried down the altar. Four years later, her first marriage was annulled. She married instead Antoine Bourbon, a French noble mere steps away from the throne. Jeanne and Antoine became the monarchs of Navarre after her father’s death, upon which Jeanne made Calvinism, her preferred religion, the official religion of the kingdom. Jeanne and Catherine de’ Medici, regent to the throne of France, went on to have immense power over the French Wars of Religion. Eventually, when Jeanne’s son and Catherine’s daughter were married after intense negotiation on both sides, the wars would come to an end, leaving France more religiously tolerant than ever before.
This Angolan queen was born with an umbilical cord wrapped around her throat, giving her her name, meaning ‘to twist’. According to Angolan culture, this was a sign that the child would grow to a proud, haughty woman. Just how far her pride would take her would have shocked any augur. After the Portuguese’s main slave trade source in Northern Africa was cut off by the British, they decided to turn to the Congo and its surrounding area. They did not anticipate Nzinga’s ability to fight back. For decades, she stopped the Portuguese from expanding their trade within her borders. Eventually, she was able to negotiate a peace treaty that allowed her to begin to rebuild Angola after years of war. She also began advantageous trade between Angola and the Dutch. After her death, there was no one as fierce to take up the mantle. Angola eventually succumbed to the Portuguese, but Queen Nzinga’s legacy is honored there to this day.
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great was born Sophie, princess of Prussia. At the time of Sophie’s birth, Prussia had been left devastated after the Thirty Years’ War–her family had little money despite her royal title. But thanks to her extended family, Sophie was engaged to Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Upon arriving in Russia, Sophie took a new name, Catherine, and despite her disappointment with Peter (the 16-year-old still played with toy soldiers and apparently already had a drinking problem), a new husband. Catherine threw herself into becoming fully Russian, so that she would be fully qualified upon becoming Tsarina. Only six months after her husband became tsar, he had been assassinated. After the dust settled, Catherine was on the throne. She would go on to extend the borders of Russia, change the serf system, and encourage further Westernization of the empire.
Mary Wollstonecraft led an unconventional life, based on her own ideas about how women should live. Today, she is regarded as one of the first feminists, thanks to her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The pamphlet argued that women were no lesser than men, but that thanks to their lesser education, women were left less intelligent. Wollstonecraft said that if women were allowed to access the same level of education as men, there would be no detectable difference between the sexes. Wollstonecraft’s argument was well-received in her lifetime. Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft passed away only five years later while giving a birth to a daughter. Her husband, William Godwin, wrote a memoir about his wife, which included many sordid (at least for the time) details about her, including that she had had an illegitimate daughter and lived with two men who were not her husband. This left her reputation, and A Vindication, in tatters. It would take decades for her work to be taken seriously again. In the meantime, the daughter Wollstonecraft died giving birth to, Mary Shelley, would go on to create modern science fiction.
The first and last queen of Hawaii ruled for only two years but left an incredible mark on her nation, now the 50th state. Born as Lili’u and baptized as Lydia, the young girl’s parents were royalty. She was adopted by a high chief and chieftess as part of a common Hawaiian custom, hānai, which essentially gave children two sets of parents. She was primarily raised by the chief and chieftess, Abner Paki and Laura Konia, and was sent to the Royal School with other children who were eligible for the Hawaiian throne.
Although she was royal, there was no certainty that she would go on to take the throne. Upon her brother King Kalākaua's death in 1891, however, the 52-year-old Lil’uokalani became the queen. Yet in the years preceding her ascension, the Bayonet Constitution, which greatly weakened Hawaiian power in their own country, had been forced upon King Kalākaua by the Dole family (literally with bayonets).
When Lili’uokalani took the throne, she decided to fight against the Bayonet Constitution, which had never been officially ratified by the legislature. Unfortunately, the wealth of the Dole family and others like them made it impossible for the Hawaiians to regain their power despite their much larger supporter. Even President Grover Cleveland agreed that the actions of the Reform Party were illegal. Lil’uokalani was deposed only two years after being crowned. Lili’uokalani later sued the United States to attempt to regain the throne. She was unsuccessful but was granted a lifetime pension. She spent the rest of her life attempting to find justice for her country, writing Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen and protesting Hawaii’s annexation vociferously. She was also an accomplished musician and wrote Aloha ‘Oe, one of the most famous Hawaiian songs of all time.
Cut Nyak Dhien
One of the National Heroes of Indonesia, Cut Nyak Dhien led guerilla troops against the Dutch during the Aceh War. The war, which lasted over 30 years, was fueled by Dutch desire to exploit Aceh (modern Indonesia) resources like pepper and oil. Aceh had been guaranteed independence by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. But as other colonial powers began to outstrip the Dutch, they decided to attempt to take over Aceh for themselves.
Cut Nyak Dhien was an aristocratic Islamic woman from a major city, beloved by the Aceh people. Dhien’s first husband would not allow her to help in the fighting. After his death, another man proposed to her, and she accepted, but only on the condition that she be allowed to fight and lead troops. This greatly boosted troop morale, and her valuable military insight kept the Dutch from fully colonizing the Aceh. Dhien was captured by the Dutch in 1905 and forced into exile. She died three years later.
Ida B. Wells
Although you may have heard the name, Ida B. Wells receives little of the recognition she deserves. Born into slavery in 1862, Wells would go on to become the loudest voice against lynching, compiling an unbelievable amount of data (especially in a pre-computer world), to prove how the practice was used to control the lives of black people, particularly those in the South.
Wells’s parents died in 1878, leaving their children to be split up among relatives. Sixteen-year-old Ida, however, would have none of that. She got a job as a teacher and took care of her five younger siblings. This was just the first time that Wells would push herself nearly to the breaking point to achieve her goals. While teaching, she also attended college to increase her wages and learn more about how to support her ideas about women’s and African-American rights.
By the time Wells was 27, she had amassed a following for her writing about race. After a particularly brutal lynching in her town, Wells urged fellow African-Americans to leave the town and boycott white businesses. She became one of the earliest investigative journalists with her pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases”. Three years later, she published a follow-up, The Red Record. Her work brought to light the true horrors of race-based violence at the time. She also worked with the suffragist movement, to improve conditions in Chicago, and to help people from the Great Migration settle in the North.
Qiu Jin grew up during a particularly tumultuous era in China. During her first marriage, Qiu expanded her world, discovering secret societies that wished to overthrow the Qing dynasty and restore the Han government to power. In 1903, Qiu left her husband and children behind to go to Japan, where she learned Japanese and martial arts and adopted Western clothing–specifically, men’s trousers. She also joined a revolution society while there. She returned to China, where she became responsible for coordinating all revolutionary efforts within the Zhejiang province. In 1907, she became principal of a school ostensibly for sports teachers–in reality, it was a military training site for revolutionaries. Only a few months later, she was captured and executed before she could witness the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1917.
Qui is considered a national hero in China and has a museum dedicated to her in the same town as her short-lived military school. Qui is also remembered for her writing, including beloved essays and poetry.
Helen Keller’s legacy has, over the years, been diminished to that of the young girl who learned that W-A-T-E-R meant water. But she, and her teacher Anne Sullivan, were much more than that. After a youthful bout of either scarlet fever or meningitis, Keller was left blind and deaf. She had begun to find ways to communicate with her family when Sullivan was hired as her teacher. The two worked together to help Keller learn sign language and braille.
But once Keller was an adult, she engaged with the rest of the world in a way that’s often been forgotten. She began going on speaking tours, traveling to 25 countries to describe how the Deaf community lived. She helped found the ACLU, worked to support the suffragist movement, supported the use of birth control (and also, unfortunately, eugenics), was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and much, much more. She also wrote a number of autobiographies about her life, her spirituality, and her politics.
Although Eleanor was an important part of her husband’s time as president, her influence lasted far past his untimely death in 1945. In the early years of her marriage to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor, unable to run her home the way she pleased thanks to an overbearing mother-in-law, turned outside to find her purpose. As FDR worked his way up the political totem pole, Eleanor campaigned on his behalf, bought and taught at a school for girls, established a factory to help Hyde Park families supplement their income (paving the way for some New Deal ideas), and more. When FDR was elected president, Eleanor revolutionized the role of the First Lady.
Previously, a First Lady’s function was almost wholly social. Eleanor was not willing to fade into the background. She continued speaking around the country, became the first First Lady to regularly hold press conferences, wrote a regular and beloved newspaper column, went to labor meetings, worked with unemployed youths, and supported a number of civil rights movements. After her husband’s death, Eleanor was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations, campaigned for many presidents, including John F. Kennedy, fought to bring down the Tammany Hall political machine, and continued to support women’s and civil rights until her death in 1962. Often controversial in her lifetime, Eleanor Roosevelt is now widely beloved and respected.
Queen Soraya Tarzi
Soraya Tarzi was born in Syria. Her father had been exiled from Afghanistan due to his attempts to reform education and restrictive rights on women in public. He, and Syria’s more Western social outlook, heavily influenced Soraya’s life and politics. When Habibullah Khan became king, he invited all exiles back to Afghanistan. It was then that Soraya met Prince Amanullah. They married shortly thereafter–and Soraya remained his only wife. When Amanullah became king, Soraya accompanied him in public, the first consort in Afghanistan to do so. As Amanullah began modernizing the kingdom, Soraya’s ideas and support were key.
She and King Amanullah worked to end polygamy, make wearing a veil optional for women, make education available to all, and outlaw slavery and dowries. Soraya also founded a magazine meant for women and encouraged others to join politics to make life better for themselves and others.
Unfortunately, some of this was too much, too fast for rural Afghanis. They, and the British government, worked to undermine Amanullah’s rule. Eventually, he gave up his throne to avoid a civil war, and he and Soraya spent the rest of their lives in exile. However, Soraya did live to see Afghanistan begin to rejoin the modern world in the 1960s, as Kabul briefly became a fashion hub and the government worked to create a vast amount of infrastructure. Despite a less than illustrious end, Soraya brought new ideas to her country.
This unfortunately forgotten woman was one of the most prominent activists for Ghanaian independence in the mid-20th century. While making a living as a dressmaker, Kudjoe had Kwame Nkrumah, who would go on to be the first president of Ghana, stayed at her home as a guest. His visit galvanized her and made her think about the importance of women in politics. After the Big Six (leaders of the popular Ghana party who worked for independence) were arrested by British officers, Kudjoe led the campaign for their release and raised money for them. Kudjoe also was involved in mass civil disobedience that helped bring an end to the colonial rule of Ghana.
After Ghana won their independence, Kudjoe founded the All-African Women’s League. The league worked to create schools and nurseries around the country, distributed clothing to those in need, taught hygiene practices, and helped women learn how to farm their own food.
Phyllis Schlafly, a constitutional lawyer, was an influential woman in a slightly different way than any other woman on this list. But her actions certainly changed the course of American society–namely, her campaigning against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She went to college early and worked as a model to support herself. She ran for Congress, but lost in 1952. Her first major event was the publishing of A Choice Not an Echo, which denounced “Rockefeller Republicans” in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.
By the 1970s, Schlafly, always conservative, had became staunchly anti-feminist. She organised “STOP ERA”, which stood for “Stop Taking Our Privilege”. Schlafly, like many other anti-feminist women, believed that passing the ERA would mean a loss of rights for women, like exemption from the draft. 28 states had already ratified the ERA when Schlafly began her campaign, leaving only 10 necessary for it to pass. After her campaign, five states rescinded ratification. 35 states, eventually, ratified it, leaving the ERA three votes short of passing. Schlafly’s campaign was almost wholly responsible for this failure. Schlafly, who passed away in 2016, wrote 26 books on a variety of subjects related to women’s status in society and politics.
Maria Rosa Henson
During and before World War II, a number of women, especially in Asia and the Asian isles, were subjected to truly brutal treatment. So-called “comfort women” were young women and often girls abducted by the Imperial Japanese Army and forced into sexual slavery. The women were often told that safe and stable factory jobs awaited them in Japan. Once they had been lured from their homes, they were trapped in brothels. As many as 200,000 women were forced into slavery in this way. Maria Rosa Henson was the first Filipina woman to come forward with her story of being a comfort woman. Her book, Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny, emboldened other Filipinas to add their voices to her experience. Her book also led to increased calls for the Japanese government to atone for their sins.
Although the Japanese government has never officially apologized, they did set up the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 as a way to collect money to offer to victims of the comfort stations as atonement. Henson died a year after receiving her atonement payment.
When Barbara Jordan was in high school, she heard a speech given by Edith S. Sampson. It inspired her to become a lawyer. After passing the bar in 1960, she opened a private law practice, then won a seat in the Texas State Senate and served six years, the first black woman to do so. In 1972, she was elected to the House of Representatives.
Today, Jordan is most remembered for the speech she gave before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, opening the impeachment process against Nixon. The subtle and intelligent speech was often said to be the reason that Nixon resigned rather than be impeached. Supposedly, he recognized that the speech was so effective that he could not fight the charges.