As far back as Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, kings, believed to be divinely appointed, ruled society. Ancient monarchies and dynasties often bequeathed the crown patrilineally, or through male heirs. Only when a king or emperor had no male heir was a daughter begrudgingly considered to take the throne. Throughout history, women have faced tremendous barriers to wielding power, especially in high government positions. (Here are women who broke barriers every year since 1950).
Even when a woman managed to ascend to a role as empress or queen regnant (ruling monarch), she often had to work double time to gain the respect that a king might automatically be granted. Some female leaders were murdered by male relatives, including their own sons, who wished to seize power. Others were locked up or exiled to allow a man to regain control.
Despite these odds, occasionally throughout history women have managed to become the acknowledged heads of tribes, nations, or empires. 24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of 26 of these powerful female rulers by reviewing numerous articles from sources including History and Britannica to find queens and empresses with the most renown and/or significant accomplishments.
Only rulers whose reign began prior to the 20th century were included, which accounts for the absence of such key figures as Queen Elizabeth II, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Angela Merkel — all as powerful or influential in a contemporary context as any ancient empress. (These are the most important events in the life of Queen Elizabeth in every year of her reign.)
Many of the women on this list ruled as regents for sons who were too young to take the throne, in some cases maintaining power even after their offspring came of age. Some notable wives of kings (queen consorts, who don’t officially have the regal powers granted to queen regnants) whose powers and policies strongly augmented or overshadowed those of their husbands have been included. Although a few of these women are remembered for bloody acts of vengeance or persecution, others left a legacy of intellectual and artistic patronage.
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