For centuries man have dominated the history books, but do we really know how often a woman with power, intelligence and influence takes on the world – with much success. In spite the things remarkable women have accomplished, discovered or invented, they don’t seem to be quite as well known as their male counterparts. The famous women in history on this list have done some truly incredible things: their achievements seeming all the more impressive given the modern world we now live in, where fashion, trends and politics can alter with a hashtag as quickly as a heartbeat, meaning finding timeless inspiration can sometimes seem like an impossible task.
Let’s take a look at the most formidable women that the world has ever seen.
(born in 1954)
The German Chancellor has been officially crowned the most influential woman on Earth for the fifth year in a row. Money, media momentum and spheres of influence are just some of the factors that Forbes takes into account when deciding on the top spot. Angela Merkel has transformed German politics since being voted into office in 2005. Her achievements at home and abroad have seen her top Forbes’ most powerful women list eight times. Here are 10 reasons why the East German-raised politician with a doctorate in physical chemistry is considered the most powerful woman on the planet.
(1925 – 2013)
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.
Her iconic white garb with its blue stripe trim is now equated with her ideals of service and charity among “the poorest of the poor.” Born Agnes Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents living under the Ottoman Empire, the petite nun made her way to India in 1929, building her start-up missionary community of 13 members in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) into a global network of more than 4,000 sisters running orphanages and AIDS hospices. Sometimes criticized for lacking adequate medical training, not addressing poverty on a grander scale, actively opposing birth control and abortion and even cozying up to dictators, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize nonetheless inspired countless volunteers to serve, and will wear her white habit all the way to Catholic sainthood.
Cixi (or Tz’u-hsi or Hsiao-ch’in)
(1835 – 1908)
Cixi was the last Dowager Empress of China. She took power as an empress, contrary to tradition and policy. She wielded enormous power, opposing foreign influence and supporting the 1898-1900 Boxer Rebellion. After her husband’s death, she acted as regent for her son, Emperor Tongzhi, and later for her nephew, Guangxu. Her rule began in 1861 and lasted until her death in 1908. Many historians both in China and abroad have portrayed her as a despot responsible for the fall of the Qing dynasty. Others have suggested that her opponents among the reformers succeeded in making her a scapegoat for problems beyond her control. Furthermore, they claim that she intervened decisively to prevent political disorder, was no more ruthless than other rulers of her time, and that she was an effective reformer in the last years of her life, even if she was reluctant to take on this role.
Catherine the Great
(1729 – 1796)
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, ruled over Russia which was and still is the world’s largest country geographically. Catherine is remembered for bringing Enlightenment ideas to Russia as well expanding the empire. Her rule lasted or 34 years, beginning in 1762 and ending with her death in 1796.
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.
Catherine the Great promoted education and the Enlightenment among the elite. She kept up a correspondence with many figures of the Enlightenment in Europe.
Elizabeth I of England
(1533 – 1603)
The youngest daughter of King Henry VIII and last of the Tudor dynasty, Elizabeth I maintained her power by wooing princes and English aristocrats.
Elizabeth was truly the first crowned queen to successfully rule with absolute power. She never married and has often been referred to as the “Virgin Queen.” 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. Elizabeth also transformed England from a Catholic nation to a Protestant one. Despite her Protestant sympathies, Elizabeth was known to be tolerant of all religions in England. Her reign and religious transformation were highly contested by other Catholic European nations.
(died in 1558)
Roxolana well known as Hürrem, meaning “the smiling and endearing one” was one of the most powerful woman in Ottoman empire. Her intelligence, composure, and personality captivated Sultan Süleyman The Magnificent, and she soon became his confidante and one and only love. In contrast to Ottoman imperial practice, Süleyman married Hürrem, becoming the only sultan (with the exception of a 19th-century ruler) to officially take a wife. His devotion for Hürrem continued after her death, as observed in the poems he wrote bemoaning her absence and his loneliness.
Hürrem’s power and influence over the sultan intrigued both the Ottomans and the Europeans. The Europeans called her Roxelane (the Russian) or La Rosa (the red one), presumably referring to the color of her hair, which must have been red or auburn, as suggested by one of Süleyman’s poems in which he calls her “my orange.”As a Haseki (a title given to a royal wife, literally “belonging to the ruler”), Hürrem accumulated immense wealth, and used these funds to build and support architectural complexes in Istanbul and Jerusalem in addition to those in Ankara, Edirne and Mecca. In 1539, she commissioned the newly appointed royal architect Sinan to design and build a group of buildings that included a mosque, a medrese (university), and a school. Hürrem was a self-made woman who excelled in her role as the supportive and assertive wife of the most powerful man of the age.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful and influential figures of the Middle Ages. Inheriting a vast estate at the age of 15 made her the most sought-after bride of her generation. She would eventually become the queen of France, the queen of England and lead a crusade to the Holy Land. She is also credited with establishing and preserving many of the courtly rituals of chivalry. Unlike many other monarchs and women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor and her family were very well educated. Eleanor is credited for having transformed Aquitaine into one of the largest intellectual and cultural centers in Medieval Western Europe. She participated in the Second Crusade in 1147 and even traveled with her husband Louis VII to the Byzantine Empire. Eleanor became a key figure in developing trade agreements between Western Europe, Constantinople, and the Holy Land.
(500 – 548 AD)
Empress Theodora was one of the most influential and powerful women in the Early Middle Ages. She was the wife of Emperor Justinian I and joint ruler of the Byzantine Empire. She married Justinian in either 523 AD or 525 AD and following the death of Emperor Justin I in 527 AD, both Justinian I and Theodora took control of the empire. Many decisions concerning the government were made by Theodora. For example, 532 AD, resentment over high taxes, religious controversy, and political corruption led to the Nika riot in Constantinople. Fearing for his life, Justinian, tried to flee the city. Theodora intervened and was able to convince her husband to stay. With Theodora’s support, Justinian was able to successfully crush the revolt.Theodora participated in making Constantinople one of the world’s most sophisticated cities and promoting women’s rights. She had bridges, aqueducts, and churches built. One such building, the Hagia Sophia, built between 532 AD and 537 AD, is considered one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture.
Theodora also gave women more rights in divorce and property ownership. She gave mothers guardianship of their children, instilled a death penalty for rape, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery.
(69 – 30 BC)
Cleopatra was the ambitious last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. In her struggles to win the crown and keep her country free, she sought the support of Julius Caesar, bearing him a son. For a time she lived in Rome. Later, she won the protection of Rome through an affair with Mark Anthony, and had three children with him. Financing his failing military campaigns, both she and Anthony were defeated in a battle against Octavian in 31 B.C. A lesser known fact is that Cleopatra was highly educated and possessed an impressive intellect, being a student of philosophy and international relations.
She was a great politician who knew how to show off her and her country’s power and influence. At the height of her rule more than two thousand years ago, she controlled Egypt and other lands including most of the eastern Mediterranean coast. She was also one of the richest people in the world.