History books make us think female rulers were few and far between. It is true that patriarchal societies had (and have) far more men in positions of power. Culture dictated the ‘’weaker sex’’ take subordinate roles. They exerted control according to their relationships with powerful men. As mothers, wives, and daughters women influenced important decisions and policies. Reaching outside those stratums was considered loathsome. Religion or custom forbade women holding power in their own right and so they were severely restricted.
In such oppressive societies, it’s remarkable when a woman takes the throne. Despite the mountain of obstacles she rises to power, defying the deep-rooted sexism amidst a collective gasp of outrage and disgust. History’s subjective eye sharpens its gaze. She will be judged differently than the men who occupied the same seat of power.
But wait! There’s a far better way to punish an overreaching woman. Instead of readying the claws of censure and ridicule, shunning is a far more satisfying form of retribution. This strategy is especially important if she’s actually doing a good job. She isn’t reinforcing carefully guarded stereotypes. These bold queen’s who dared prove themselves worthy must be forgotten.
And in certain cases, this is exactly what happened. Either through obliterating the evidence they ever existed or neglecting their role in history, people sought to limit future generations’ knowledge of these brazen women.
Luckily for us, it doesn’t always work. Human beings love a good mystery. Finding these women becomes necessary as we seek to fill the gaps in timelines and stories. Some are harder to find depending on where they ruled, but they have the same thing in common: they challenged assumed roles enough to be worthy of obliteration.
Even though they were censored, they persisted—they refused to vanish.
Everyone knows of Cleopatra. Brace yourself for Hatshepsut.
Considered one of Egypt’s most successful rulers, she was the first female pharaoh to achieve full power (around 1479 BCE).
At the age of 12, she married her half-brother. When he died, she became queen regent for her infant stepson. There are numerous theories regarding her motivation for assuming the full role of pharoah. No matter the reason, she ruled for 22 years, launching a long and peaceful era. She opened trade routes that enriched Egypt, improved the lives of common people, and oversaw ambitious building projects. One of these is the ancient architectural wonder, the memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri.
But her stepson, Thutmose III, attempted to remove her from pharaonic records. Despite her achievements, her name and images were chiseled from public.
monuments and her mortuary temple. This act nearly wiped her from the history books. But a scholar rediscovered her existence in the 19th-century, and her sarcophagus was found in 1903. Oddly enough, her mummified remains were missing. It wasn’t determined she was a mummy laid out on the floor of her tomb until 2007.
In 3000 years of history, China only had one Empress—Wu Zetian. In 638, at the age of 14, she entered the palace as a concubine. For over thirty years, from the age of 36, she was the real power behind the sickening emperor. When she was 65 she finally took the throne for herself, uncontested, and ruled for 15 years.
During her reign, she removed aristocratic military men from government and replaced them with scholars. As she campaigned to elevate the status of women, she also improved the lives of commoners by lowering taxes and strengthening public works.
She is often painted as a cruel and inhumane empress. Historians have even accused her of killing her infant daughter. She was ruthless in many ways and, like many men, destroyed those who actively stood in her way. But she was judged far more harshly because she was a woman in what was considered a man’s position.
In a final sexist blow, her successors refused to carve her achievements into the memorial tablet erected at her tomb. But perhaps its conspicuous blankness is still a testament to this woman’s exceptional life. After all, it draws the eye, and there isn’t another like it anywhere else in China.
In the early 13th Century Genghis Khan’s daughter, Alaqai Beki, became an important leader in her own right. At the age of 16 she married into the ruling family of the Onggud, a merchant tribe living in between China and the nomadic lands. But she was never meant to submit to her husband. She was sent to be their khatun (queen).
But not everyone was prepared to accept a foreign ruler. Just four years into her reign the people revolted, killing all Mongol sympathizers, including Genghis’s longtime ally Ala-Qush. Alaqai saved not only herself but her two stepsons and fled to her father. He sent an army back with her and the rebels were quickly subdued. Genghis was prepared to massacre their families but Alaqai convinced him to only kill those who had assassinated his friend. It was the only time the Great Khan did not severely punish dissenters.
From that day forward, her leadership was never contested. She carefully knit the tribe back together and proved herself a capable leader. As her father conquered further into China he placed her in charge of all Mongol territories south of the Gobi desert. She ruled Northern China until her death.
She was not Genghis Khan’s only daughter who became a queen. However, we have very little record of their accomplishments. They were removed from history. The Secret History of the Mongols, the only account of the Great Khan’s exploits written in the Mongolian language, was censored and all mention of the female rulers destroyed. It’s only through writers from other lands that we even know some of their names. Three daughters, including Alaqai, controlled the Silk Route and dealt much closer with foreign courts.
She was queen of a diverse land, and many people wrote about this female oddity who reigned despite patriarchal attitudes.