From fighting in the army to managing their kingdom, queens were key players in every aspect of their rule. Whether they co-ruled while their husbands went off to war or they inherited the throne under special circumstances, they prospered in their leadership. Many women rulers made great strides in culture, from establishing religion to building temples and impressive architecture, many of which still stand today.
Through their reign, whether it was considered legal or not at the time, these women paved the way for the future of queen monarchs and gender equality. This list contains eight of the most powerful women to ever rule. Let their legacies inspire you to create your own.
Hatshepsut is one of the few female pharaohs that came to rule in ancient Egyptian history. When her father, King Thutmose I, died without sons, Hatshepsut married her half-brother Thutmose II to help him become pharaoh, as women were not allowed to rule. After he died, his three-year-old son was the only heir next in line, so Hatshepsut stepped up to rule in his name. Eventually, they became co-rulers, sharing the throne for 22 successful years.
She is recognized as one of Egypt’s strongest rulers, bringing great riches and art to the land. Under her rule, Egypt added major temples and architecture that still stands today. One of those structures is the mortuary Temple of Deir el Bahri, where she was eventually buried. Referred to by historians as “His Majesty herself,” Egypt did not see a greater queen until Cleopatra came to rule.
Elizabeth I almost didn't make it to the English throne. The Roman Catholics considered her illegitimate and had her imprisoned for a year. Nevertheless, she succeeded to the throne in 1558 and was determined to make her mark on history.
Her 45-year reign is one of the most successful in English memory. Under her rule, a secure Church of England was established, exploration voyages flourished, and massive expansions in trading were made. Major strides in art, theatre, and architecture were seen throughout her reign. Elizabeth’s time as queen is generally remembered as a great triumph and success.
Empress Suiko was the first empress to reign in the history of Japanese rulers. She occupied the throne for 30 years and made many contributions, such as expanding Buddhism and Chinese influence in Japan. Many Buddhist temples and monasteries were built, and a diplomatic relationship with China flourished. Chinese monks and scholars were brought in to spread their teachings. Empress Suiko’s forward progress in Japan’s culture is widely celebrated and remembered today. Her success made the emperor's title more powerful.
Maria Theresa came to rule Austria under the Pragmatic Sanction, a royal act that entitled women to succeed if they were the only person next in line. This kind of sanction was to be seen as an act of convenience—Maria was simply a pawn in Europe’s chess game. However, she is remembered for having incredible diplomatic skills, drastically increasing her army, and forming alliances with many noblemen who originally opposed her rule. She also fought for equality, abolishing tax exemptions for the rich, limiting the use of slave labor, and promoting higher education for all. Her great power of unity and natural ruling abilities are remembered fondly today.
Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII. Henry famously broke off his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne. This is noted as a major factor in England’s dramatic schism from the Roman Catholic Church in 1533. It was Anne's influence over Henry that pushed him to break off from the Church and declare himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Thus, her marriage inadvertently led the country toward the Reformation period, and she has since been venerated as a martyr of the English Reformation, with her dramatic life retaining a hold on the public imagination even centuries later. Although she is most remembered for her infamous beheading, her time on the throne changed the course of English history.
Börte Khan married Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, when she was just 17 years old. While he was out conquering and fighting, Börte became Grand Empress of the Mongol Empire, making sure everything stayed afloat in her husband's absence. She is responsible for migrating thousands of people and their livestock, giving commanders and shepherds direct orders. It’s even reported that Börte once took the battlefield alongside her husband.
Although Genghis Khan is recognized for founding the largest land empire in history, none of it would have been possible if Börte hadn’t stepped up while he was away. It’s time to recognize Börte Khan as the powerful empress that she was.
Empress Wu Zetian
Empress Wu Zetian was the first and only woman whose rule over China was considered legitimate. She was born during an incredibly liberal time in China, where she was able to dress as men do, ride horses, and, most importantly, participate in politics. Although there have been many female rulers, Wu Zetian is one of the most controversial.
Some of her feats were stabilizing the Tang dynasty, promoting printing, and establishing a strong army. She was also known to be ruthless and cunning, executing anyone who got in her way. A historical source claimed the empress “killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother. She is hated by gods and men alike.” It’s unknown how accurate this description of Wu really is. But besides her cruel nature, Wu wielded great power to achieve greatness for her country.
Nefertiti became the Queen of Egypt in the 14th century. She is responsible for Egypt's religious shift from worshipping multiple gods to just one, Aton the sun god. Nefertiti translates to “A Beautiful Woman Has Come,” and depictions drawn of her always have a striking face and an exaggerated feminine body shape. She bore six children and was revered for her fertility.
Some historians believe that Nefertiti may have acted as her husband’s co-ruler rather than his consort, but they are still unsure. Nonetheless, she made major changes to Egypt’s religion, and is still remembered as a powerful ruler.