Throughout history, women have held important roles in guiding and shaping their nations. Some brought peace while others led wars. Some reigned during times of economic prosperity, while others saw their people through periods of poverty and turmoil.
This month being Women's History Month, we are celebrating women and the leadership roles they've played. To do that, we've put together a list of some important female world leaders. Some of them may be familiar to you, but others less so — in fact, we know we can't possibly list them all here, so for the most part, we are focusing on the women you may know less about. One thing that all of these women have in common is that they brought courage, intelligence and leadership to their people at a time when they needed it most.
A limestone sculpture of Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
We've all heard of Cleopatra — the last active pharaoh of Egypt who is most famous for having an affair with Caesar and subsequently one of his generals, Mark Antony. But before Cleopatra, Egypt had a ruler named Hatshepsut who is still regarded as one of the greatest Egyptian pharaohs of all time. Hatshepsut ruled Egypt from 1478-1458 B.C. During that time, she established trade networks that helped to build Egypt's wealth, funded exhibitions that brought new goods and services to her lands and commissioned hundreds of construction projects throughout the country. Her reign was peaceful and one of prosperity for the Egyptian people.
2. Artemisia I of Caria
Artemisia was well known for her courage in battle and the high regard she earned from Xerxes, then the King of Persia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Artemisia I of Caria was the Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek and Carian city in 480 B.C. As an ally of Xerxes, the king of Persia, Artemisia personally commanded five naval ships in a number of battles during the second Persian invasion of Greece. Artemisia was well-regarded during her time as a woman of courage, decisiveness and intelligence.
3. The Trung Sisters
The Trung sisters are national heroines of Vietnam who led an uprising against the Chinese government. (Photo: artisemisentertainment/YouTube)
In 40 A.D., the Trung sisters — Trung Trac and Trung Nhi — led an uprising in Vietnam against the Chinese government. Working together, the 20-year-old women raised and trained an army using the martial arts and battle tactics taught to them by their father, a former general in the Vietnamese army. The Trung sisters' army surprised the Chinese and effectively drove them from the country. Thanks to the Trung sisters, Vietnam enjoyed three years as an autonomous state before the country was once again invaded by the Chinese.
4. Queen Elizabeth I
Controversy swirls around the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. As the child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, she was declared illegitimate when Henry had Boleyn executed in 1536. Elizabeth thus had to fight just to stay out of prison, let alone rise to power and claim her spot on the throne. But once there, she stayed there and her 44-year-rule of England helped bring stability to the nation in a time of turmoil.
5. Queen Amina of Nigeria
Queen Amina is celebrated in Nigerian folk songs for her role as the Warrior Queen of the region. (Photo: Tari Clement/YouTube)
When Princess Amina's older brother — then the King of Zaria (a region in what is now north central Nigeria) — died in 1576, Amina was elevated to the role of queen. In a time when women had very little social status, Queen Amina led by strong example. Her objective was to increase the size of her realm. Thus she instigated many wars, but she led every one of them personally, earning her the title of Warrior Queen. Queen Amina led Zaria for 34 years until her death during the battle she led in Atargara, Nigeria.
6. Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great was the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, ruled Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, making her the country's longest-reigning leader. Catherine assumed power after her husband, Peter III, was assassinated. During her reign, Catherine helped to expand Russia's territories and modernize the nation. She was considered one of the great powers of the European region.
7. Queen Victoria
When Queen Victoria took over the throne of England at the age of 18, one of her first requests (like that of many teenagers,) was personal space from her mother. (Photo: The Queen/YouTube)
Queen Victoria ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 until her death in 1901. Before her great-great granddaughter — Queen Elizabeth II — surpassed her, she had been the longest reigning monarch in British history. Her rule of almost 64 years was known as the Victorian Era, and it was marked by industrial, cultural, political, scientific and military growth within the United Kingdom.
8. The Empress Dowager Cixi
Cixi's policies focused on helping China catch up technologically and militarily with the rest of the world. (Photo: It's History/YouTube)
As a concubine in the harem of China's Xianfeng Emperor, Cixi gave birth to a son who would, in just a few years, assume the throne as the Tongzhi emperor. Because her son was just five years old, Cixi ruled in his stead. And when the Tongzhi Emperor died of syphilis at just 20 years old, Cixi installed her young nephew Guangxu as the country's new emperor and continued her rule. Cixi, whose only job experience prior to becoming empress was that of a prostitute, effectively ruled China for 50 years from 1861 until her death in 1908. Cixi was also responsible for outlawing foot-binding in China in 1902.
9. Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi was the daughter of the prominent politician Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. As her father's personal assistant during his tenure, Gandhi became shrewd in the understandings of Indian politics. In 1966, Gandhi was elected India's first — and to date, only — female prime minister. She oversaw India's affairs for three consecutive terms until she was assassinated by two of her own bodyguards. Gandhi led the country through a war with Pakistan, the creation of what is now known as Bangladesh, and crop diversification programs aimed at alleviating poverty in her country.
10. Janet Jagan
When Janet Jagan (née Rosenberg) was growing up in her middle-class, Jewish family in the suburbs of Chicago, it's unlikely that she ever dreamed that she would one day become the first female prime minister and then president of a South American country. But that is exactly what happened. Jagan met her husband, Cheddi Jagan, while attending Wayne State University in Michigan and moved with him after graduation to his home country of Guyana to work at his dental practice. Cheddi and Janet became heavily involved in local politics, and both were instrumental in helping Guyana — a U.K. province since the 1700s — earn its independence in 1966.
In March 1997, Jagan became Guyana's first female prime minister. In December 1997, she was elected the country's first female president. That same year she also won the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy and Women's Rights from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
11. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office as Liberia's president in 2005, she became the world's first elected black female president and Africa's first elected female head of state. Johnson Sirleaf ran on a platform of ending the political corruption and civil war that plagued her country while bringing economic development to her area. In 2011, Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and journalist Tawakkol Karman "for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work."
12. Angela Merkel
In 2005, Angela Merkel defeated Germany's then-current chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to become that country's first female chancellor. She was reelected in 2009 and again in 2013. During her tenure, Merkel became known as the "architect" of the European Union, helping to create a coalition among the European nations that would help each country economically and politically. Incidentally, she is also known for standing up to the U.S. in 2013 when she learned that the country's National Security Agency had tapped her phones. She chided America at a political summit by saying, "Spying among friends is never acceptable."