Hatshepsut was one of the most successful of the Egyptian Pharaohs and ruled longer than any other woman, she also ruled not as Queen but as Pharaoh in her own right. Images of her have her dressed in the traditional regalia of the male Pharaohs, including the false beard.

Although Hatshepsut led successful military campaigns early in the twenty-two years of her rule, her reign was mostly considered to be a prosperous and peaceful era in Egyptian history. During it she funded expeditions of exploration, re-established trading that had been lost during foreign occupation, and brought wealth to Egypt which she used for the hundreds of construction projects she undertook, grander and more numerous than what had come before. (Pharaohs after her would attempt to claim some of these projects as their own, and so much statuary was produced during her era that almost every major museum in the world boasts at least one piece.)

She gave her co-regent control of the armies of Egypt and there seems to be have no challenges to her leadership and rule, either from him or from anyone else.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | TOMOE GOZEN (1157–1247) (Mika Nakashima)

Tomoe Gozen was a famous female samurai, even fighting in the Genpei War. (Female samurai were rare, but happened often enough that they had a name: onna bugeisha.)

The Heike Monogatari says of her: “…Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”

Her end is unclear: some reports say she died in battle, while others claim she survived to become a nun.


Gorgo is remarkable for being one of the very few historical women actually mentioned by Herodotus. She was Spartan royalty: daughter of a king, wife of a king, and then mother of a king.

At the age of eight she was already advising her father on matters of war and she grew up to be known for her political skill and wisdom.

Plutarch famously quotes her thusly: “When asked by a woman from Attica, ‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?’, she said: ‘Because we are the only ones who give birth to men.’”


The only woman in the history of China ever to rule as Empress Regnant, Wu was strong-willed and clever, and at thirteen the determined young woman caught the eye of the aging Emperor Taizong and became one of his concubines. During her service there she managed to catch his eye because of more than just her looks: once she told the Emperor - unasked - what she would do to tame his unruly horse. “I only need three things to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger.”

When Taizong died and his son Gaozong became Emperor, he kept twenty-four year old Wu as one of his own concubines and she began taking steps to gain more power. She used her looks and charm to replace the previous favourite concubine, at the same time making allies among the court. By the time the Empress began to make complaints about her husband’s favoured concubine, Wu had already gathered enough influential voices to defend her. Then when Wu’s newborn baby girl was found dead in her crib, Wu accused the Empress of murder and, on top of that, sorcery and plots to kill the Emperor. The Emperor was well under Wu’s charms and he divorced the Empress and Wu took her place.

Five years into the marriage Gaozong suffered a crippling stroke and Wu took over almost all control, her authority rivaling even his. She was ruthless in her determination to rule and Wu saw no problem with torture and murder to remove political enemies or anyone else she saw as a threat or nuisance. (Which included the unfortunate former Empress - she was violently flogged, before having her hands and feet cut off and being left to drown in a vat of wine.)

After her husband’s death, Wu massacred and exiled those members of government not wholly loyal to her and replaced them. Her son - now Emperor - was showing signs of disobedience and so Wu deposed him (and possibly murdered him) to put in his place her youngest son who was easier to manipulate. She ruled in everything but name. Eventually she had him yield the throne to her completely and Wu broke all precedents by establishing her own dynasty - the Zhou Dynasty - and becoming the Sacred and Divine Empress Regnant.

The early years of her reign had the people living in terror of her secret police but as the years went on her iron grip became more moderate. She was, despite her overt cruelties, a capable and clever ruler who set up a cabinet of officials based on their intelligence instead of standing, and her rule was a time of prosperity in China, especially for women. She ordered the writing of biographies of noteworthy women from history and the literary arts flourished under her patronage. And although the Zhou Dynasty was short lived, it resulted in more equality between the sexes afterwards. She treated the peasants more fairly than had been done previous, lowering the oppressive taxes and working to strengthen public services.

At the age of seventy-nine, Wu eventually yielded the throne to one of her sons and a year later died peacefully in her sleep.


Princess Píngyáng was a daughter of General Li Yuan, who would be Emperor Gaozu of Tang, the founding emperor of the Tang Dynasty. She helped him to seize power and eventually take over the throne by organizing an army (‘Army of the Lady’, commanded by herself) in his campaign to capture the Sui capital Chang’an.

She used the fact that she was a woman, and therefore non-threatening, to work for her father’s rebellion against the Emperor. She distributed her wealth among several hundred men, receiving their loyalty, and then - with the help of her servant - she persuaded rebel leaders to join the cause. Attacking and capturing cities, Píngyáng gathered 70,000 men for her army. The peasants saw her and her men as a force for liberation and fed them when they passed through.

When she died many years later her father ordered a grand military funeral for her, complete with the presence of a band - something which was disapproved of as it was not seen as fitting for a woman. To this Emperor Gaozu responded, 'The band would be playing military music. The Princess personally beat the drums and rose in righteous rebellion to help me establish the dynasty. How can she be treated as an ordinary woman?'

WOMEN OF HISTORY | DAE JANG GEUM (fl. early 16th century) (Eun-Kyung Shin)

Jang Geum was the only female Royal Physician in Korean history.

Mentioned several times in official documents and personal journals from the time, very little detail was ever given about her and her life outside the court is completely unknown. It is known, however, that King Jungjong was impressed enough with her knowledge that he entrusted her with the care of himself and his family.

She was, at the time, the third highest ranking officer in the court and was allowed the title Dae (‘great’) before her name. To this day, no other woman in Korea has ever held the postion of Royal Physician.


Third daughter of Genghis Khan, Alaqai was raised by her mother, Borte, and Borte’s mother-in-law on the Mongolian steppes, and it was Borte who instilled into Alaqai a sense of duty to serve the nation. Before marrying into the Mongol Empire, Borte have been born to a tribe who trusted in the wisdom and diplomacy of their daughters, and not the force of their sons, to protect them. It can be hardly surprising that Borte raised her daughters to be rulers, and their father thought the same.

When the Onggud allied themselves to Genghis Khan, it was the sixteen year old Alaqai who was betrothed to one of their men in power to help cement the alliance and become the Mongol’s first ruler in a foreign land. Once there Alaqai dismissed his other wives but their children didn’t lose their status. (The Mongols saw no difference between legitimate and illegitimate children, all being equal in their eyes.) Genghis Khan gave his daughters an important message when they married: The nation was her first husband. Her second husband was her own reputation, and third came any actual man she married. In control of the Onggud lands, Alaqai was able to provide support and horses for her father’s armies when they crossed the Gobi desert.

A few years after she came to power, a rebel faction within the Onggud erupted and came against Alaqai, assassinating her husband and other Mongol sympathisers. Alaqai barely escaped with her life, and took her stepsons to go shelter with a nearby faction of her father’s army nearby. She returned with some of these soldiers to the city and quickly took out the rebels.

Genghis Khan’s strategy against rebelling nations was to kill every male taller than the wheel of a Mongol cart, but this time Alaqai stepped in and convinced her father to only kill those that had been directly involved in the attacks. Because of her actions, the Onggud became the only nation to ever rebel against the Khan and continue to exist. After this act of loyalty to the people under her control, the Onggud never rebelled again.

In time, Alaqai’s father came to rely on her wise rulership more and more and eventually she was in control of millions of people across Northern China, being given the title ‘Princess Who Runs the State’. Illiterate when she began her rulership, Alaqai educated herself, learning to read and write in more than one language so that she could properly oversee the administration of her kingdom, and promoting literacy within her lands. (It was said by visitors that she read daily for pleasure, with a special interest in texts about religion and medicine.)

For twenty years Alaqai ruled and remained loyal to her father and her nation, but having lost her only son in battle meant that her own dynasty could not continue. After death her name quickly faded.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | COUNTESS CATERINA SFORZA, THE TIGER OF FORLI (early 1463 – 28 May 1509) (Carice van Houten)

An illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (the Duke of Milan, famous for his womanizing ways and sadistic tyranny) and raised in the Milanese court, Caterina was not only given a complete education alongside her siblings, but was taught to be proud of her warlike ancestors, skilled in government, and bold in battle.

At fourteen she married Girolamo Riario and moved to Italy where she quickly adjusted and found a place for herself in Rome’s high society, despite her husband banning her from meddling in politics. Girolamo was doing enough meddling for the both of them, plotting ruthless conspiracies from his safe position as nephew to the Pope and Lord of Imola and Forlì. Caterina herself was more interested in plotting the social nature of Italian society and there she transformed from a mere teenage girl into a powerful woman who understood exactly how to influence and manipulate people.

When the Pope died, situations got messier. Girolamo lost much of his footing and was eventually murdered by conspirators, Caterina and her children being taken as prisoners. She told them if they released her she would go back in and negotiate with those that still held the city and leave her children with them as collateral. Except the moment Caterina was inside she started rallying a defense of the city instead and calling out insults and threats to the conspirators. (According to legend, when they threatened to kill the children Caterina lifted her skirt to expose herself and said, “I have the instrument to bear more!”) From the inside she organized a rebellion, regained her children, and then took control of the city as regent for her young son. Her punishment towards those that had killed her husband was brutal and unyielding, torturing and killing not only them but also their wives and mistresses, their houses burned down and their money distributed amongst her people.

For twelve years Caterina ruled with an iron-fist, focusing on bringing down those that would oppose her and making frightened enemies out of much of Italy. She would marry twice more; her second husband’s murder drew out even more violent retaliation than the first, and as well as wives, this time she also tortured and murdered their children, even infants.

When Caterina refused to allow her son to marry the Pope’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia, he turned on her and handed her lands over to his son Cesare. She fortified her cities and vowed to never surrender to him, holding out in her own fortress for a month all the while refusing to negotiate. Even once the walls were broken down she held out, attempting to take Cesare captive when he came close enough and fighting with a sword in hand until she was physically taken prisoner.

She spent eighteen months as a prisoner before eventually being released and moving to Florance, seeking a quieter existence with her children and grandchildren. In the final years of her life said told a monk: “If I were to write the story of my life, I would shock the world.”

WOMEN OF HISTORY | GIULIA TOFANA (d. July 1659) (Nur Aysan)

Giulia was an Italian woman who became a professional poisoner, a trade she possibly learned from her mother, a woman who had been accused of poisoning her own husband. Either way Giulia made a name for herself in potions and for fifty years she supplied poison to those that wanted to get rid of their husbands, employing her own daughter and a handful of other women to work for her. She even invented her own poison, Aqua Tofana, which would become famous across Naples and Rome.

Especially sympathetic to the low status of women, Guilia often sold her poisons to those trapped in unhappy and violent marriages and because of this became known as a friend to the downtrodden of her gender.

When the Papal authorities discovered her business Guilia was popular enough with the people of Rome that they tried to protect her from arrest, but she was soon taken and tortured until she made a confession. She admitted to killing 600 men throughout her career, but how close or far from the truth that was it’s impossible to say. She and her daughter were found guilty of murder and executed.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | MURASAKI SHIKIBU, LADY MURASAKI, 紫 式部 (c. 978 – c. 1014 or 1025) (Tae Kimura)

Author of what is often considered to be the first novel, Lady Murasaki was a writer, poet and lady- in-waiting to Empress Shōshi at the Japanese Imperial court. Her book, The Tale of Genji, was written sometime between 1000 and 1012, and although her fame endures because of this, her real name is a mystery: Murasaki Shikibu is a nickname, although it is possible her name was Fujiwara Takako.

Although women were usually excluded from learning Chinese - the language used in government - Murasaki was fortunate enough to be allowed by her father and became fluent. She married and had a daughter, and it’s thought that she began writing The Tale of Genji sometime after she was widowed. She spent several years in the Imperial Court, recording and writing there all the while. Eventually she retired from her role and the exact date of her death is unknown.

As well as its importance as a classic piece of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji also gives irreplaceable insight into life in Heian court society at its peak.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | ANNE BONNY (b. 8 March 1697-1700) (Erin Cummings)

One of the most famous female pirates, Irish-born Anne married a poor sailor and sometimes-pirate by the name of James Bonny and was disowned by her father for it. With her new husband she moved to the Bahamas and began to spend time with the pirates in local taverns. It was here she met Calico Jack, captain of the pirate ship Revenge, and became his lover - and eventually his wife - before joining him on his ship. Anne was an active participant in piracy, taking part in combat alongside the craw and the accounts speak of her as being a competent fighter, respected by the crew, and having a fiery temper. (The latter being no new development: at thirteen she’d stabbed a servant girl with a table knife.) All the while, Anne made no attempt to hide her gender.

Anne’s capture came when the Revenge was boarded by pirate hunters. Most of the crew gave little resistance but Anne, her fellow female pirate Mary Read, and an unknown man fought violently until the very end before being taken. She was convicted to be hanged by begged for mercy on account of being pregnant.

Her last words to the imprisoned Calico Jack were that she was "sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang’d like a Dog."

Although there are plenty of theories, there is no firm historical evidence of what happened to Anne, whether she was released or executed in the end. There is suggestion that her father may have arranged for her release, and after that she lived a quiet life, but she may have just taken up piracy again under a different name.


Known for her beauty, intelligence, and diplomatic skills, Isabella was the daughter of King Philip IV of France and was married, at the age of twelve, to King Edward II of England. She was described at the time as "the beauty of beauties… in the kingdom if not in all Europe."

While war was being fought across the country and internal conflicts ran wild, Isabella’s position in the court was a precarious one right from the start. Edward had little interest in his new queen, far more caught up with his paramour Piers Gaveston, even choosing to sit with him instead of Isabella at their wedding celebrations. Edward refused to grant Isabella her own household and even gave Isabella’s own jewelry to Piers who then wore it publicly. She worked hard to create an alliance with Piers and eventually the three of them came to exist somewhat comfortably together. On the side, Isabella had begun to build up supporters at court for herself as well. She was charming and adept at convincing people to follow her lead, and frequent comments were made by male contemporaries of her remarkable intelligence and great love of books and reading.

When the widely despised Piers was taken and executed by the Barons, Edward and Isabella had a time of relative peace and she bore him three children. But then Edward took a new favourite, Hugh Despenser, who became quickly hated across the country for his greed and cruelty.

Despite his previous losses, Edward launched another campaign against the Scots. When he found himself losing, he and Hugh fled, leaving Isabella and her ladies behind and at the mercy of the Scots. To escape torture they fled to sea, two of Isabella’s ladies being killed in the process. Upon her return to Edward she demanded the exile of Hugh and it was granted - for a short while. Upon Hugh’s return he saw Isabella’s lands confiscated, her children removed from her, and had her placed under house arrest. Even her household staff were changed to make sure they wouldn’t be loyal to her.

When Edward refused to pay homage to the King of France and the French lands he held were confiscated, Isabella said she would go on his behalf to beg for their return. But once safely in France, Isabella began to plan the removal of Edward from the throne. She raised an army of mercenaries with Roger Mortimer, whom she had taken as a lover, and led them to England. There the Barons took her side, bringing further soldiers and funds to her aid. Edward and Hugh were both captured, and Hugh was put to a torturous death while Isabella and Roger watched and feasted.

Isabella took the throne as regent for her son, and Edward - still technically rightful king - was moved to a secure location where he soon suffered a ‘fatal accident’ that was very likely ordered by Isabella. She ruled with Mortimer for four years, before her son deposed him and took back royal authority. Although no longer queen, Isabella remained wealthy and influential for the rest of her days.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | QUEEN MAVIA (d. 425) (Rosario Dawson)

Arab warrior queen of the Bedouin Saracens, Mavia led her troops in a revolt against the Roman government controlling the region and defeated their armies many times. Her troops were highly mobile and masters of guerrilla tactics who conducted raids upon the Romans, as well as proving themselves superior to the Roman forces in open battle as well. As well as this, Mavia had the affection of the people who wanted Rome out of their land. When it looked sure that they would break away to be ruled by her instead, the Romans sought a truce with her, agreeing to all of her conditions. She then married her daughter to a Roman commander in chief and further brokered a peace between the two nations.

She was a proud woman, an able political leader and a strong field tactician. After Zenobia, she is considered by history to the be the most powerful woman in the late antique Arab world.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | CATHERINE MONVOISIN, LA VOISIN (c. 1640 – February 22, 1680) (Jessica Hynes)

A french poisoner, fortune teller, and alleged sorceress. When her husband lost his business, Catherine began to support the family of six (including her own elderly mother) by reading palms as well as practising midwifery and abortions.

She was a well-spoken woman - when her fortune telling was brought up for questioning by priests, Catherine defended herself successfully - with a deep interest in science and alchemy, funding private projects with her own money.

La Voisin began to sell amulets and magical potions for love spells, moving on from there to poisons - a popular science of the time. Having many clients among the upper aristocracy, Catherine soon amassed a fortune. She arranged black masses for clients to pray to the devil for their desires, and in at least some of these masses babies were used as sacrifices. (Her home having a furnace where their bodies were burned.)

She was constantly working - seeing clients all day and entertaining at parties by night, but her private life was marked by alcoholism and abuse from at least one of her many lovers.

Her most important client was Madame de Montespan, official royal mistress to King Louis XIV. Catherine had helped her win the king with her masses and aphrodisiacs and when the king began to lose interest, Montespan convinced her to poison him. Their first attempt failed and so they began planning a second, but Catherine was arrested before she could try, another poisoner having given up her name upon their own arrest.

Imprisoned and questioned without torture, she confessed to all her crimes but refused to name any of her clients. (Only after Catherine’s death did her daughter reveal the client names, the black masses, and the attempt that had been made on the king’s life, facts confirmed by others among the accused.)

Convicted of witchcraft, La Voisin was burned at the stake.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | MARY READ (d. 1721) (Rashida Jones)

When her older brother died, Mary’s mother began dressing the illegitimately-born Mary as a boy to pretend she was her brother and continue getting money from the boy’s grandmother. Together Mary and her mother lived on this money into Mary’s teens. She even found work on a ship while dressing as a boy, before joining the military. She proved herself brave in battle and fell in love with a Flemish soldier and married him, the two of them buying an inn together in the Netherlands.

When he died Mary once again started dressing as a man and joined the military in Holland, but found it uninteresting in a time of peace and quit to board a ship to the West Indies, but the ship was taken by pirates and Mary was forced to join them for a time. When Mary escaped she took up life as a privateer but soon ended up back in piracy, joining the pirate-ship Revengecaptained by Calico Jack - a ship which also had another woman on board, Anne Bonny.

When Anne began to take a liking to the new crew member, Mary admitted that she was a woman and when their close friendship made Calico Jack jealous, they let him in on the secret as well.

When the ship was attacked by pirate hunters, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and an unknown man were the only ones to remain on deck fighting, something which infuriated Mary so badly that she fired shots into the hold where some of the pirates were hiding, killing one and injuring another. Eventually they were captured and Mary pleading pregnancy to escape execution. She died in prison, official documents recording it as fever associated with childbirth.


Ukranian-born as Nadya, she was captured and sold into slavery, and at the age of twelve was given as a gift to sultan Ibrahim I. She soon became his favourite concubine and bore his heir. When the sultan was killed not long after, Turhan as the mother of the heir should have been the Valide Sultan - a position that was considered second-in-power only to the sultan himself - but because of her youth and inexperience the position was given to the child’s grandmother instead, Kösem Sultan. Turhan refused to back down and fought for the position and the two women struggled for power. Eventually Kösem Sultan was murdered, an act which may or may not have been ordered by Turhan.

Turhan took her place as regent, wielding great power within the Ottoman Empire. Because of her youth, Turhan had to rely on the advice of her government, and her true strength lay in building projects. She oversaw the construction of fortresses and completed the project of a predecessor: the Yeni Mosque in Constantinople, which still stands today. It was the first imperial mosque to be built by a woman.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | BOUDICA (d. AD 61) (Ruth Wilson)

Boudica was queen of the Iceni people in Eastern Britain, who was flogged by the Romans who came to annex her land. It was Boudica herself who led the uprising against them, leading her rebels to destroy three of the Roman settlements and massacring between seventy and eighty thousand people. She told the Romans that she would battle until her death and never live in slavery.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | SHEN YUNYING 沈云英 (1624–1660) (Liu Wen)

A commander in the Chinese imperial army of the Ming Dynasty, Yunying was the daughter of a general and taught from a young age about martial arts as well as devouring any books on the subject she could find. She would accompany her father on missions, and when she was old enough she married a soldier as well.

When her father was killed in battle, Yunying took his place in command and led the soldiers to victory. In recognition of her success she was offered her father’s position and accepted it.

She was an impressive fighter with a skill for tactics, but when her husband was killed in battle just a year after her father and she failed to prevent the capture of Beijing, Yunying lost her will to fight and retired to a more private life where she founded a school for young women which would focus on both academics and martial arts.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | KRISTINA AUGUSTA, QUEEN OF SWEDEN, GIRL KING (18 December 1626 – 19 April 1689) (Shirley Henderson)

Christina was Queen Regnant of the Swedes, Goths and Vandals, Grand Princess of Finland, and Duchess of Ingria, Estonia, Livonia and Karelia. At the age of six she became queen when her father died in battle and at eighteen she took the throne officially. (She had also been asked to join the National Council when she was sixteen, but asked them in return to wait until she had turned eighteen.)

Her first act as queen was to bring about peace in her nations, which she did successfully. A woman of great intellect, Christina transformed her court into a meeting place for great minds, and turned Sweden into a powerful empire. (Even as a child she happily studied ten hours a day, learning Swedish, German, Dutch, Danish, French and Italian. Her tutor wrote of her at fourteen that she was ‘she is not at all like a female’ because she instead had ‘a bright intelligence.’)

At twenty-five, Christina suffered a nervous breakdown from the stress and exhaustion of rulership- her duties were reported to keep her occupied for ten hours a day, and she refused to stop her own private studies. She abdicated her throne and caused scandal when she converted to Catholicism.

For a time she traveled around Europe before settling in Rome. There she spent much of the rest of her life and became a leader of musical and theatrical life, protecting and funding many projects and artists. Her behaviour and dress were unconventional and masculine, and she held open disdain for typically feminine things like marriage and childrearing. Christina preferred the company of men, but was said to invite beautiful women to dine with her so that she could court them.


Born into the incredibly powerful Bathory family of Hungary, Elizabeth was destined to outshine every other member of her noble family that included kings, dukes, and palatines. She is remembered now as one of the most horrifying and prolific serial killers in history.

After the death of her husband, Elizabeth was accused of the torture and murder of hundreds of girls across the decades - some sources putting the number at over 650 - and villagers were brought in privately to speak against her. Of the 289 witnesses inteviewed, 229 stated that they knew nothing but hearsay, twenty-nine stated that they knew nothing at all; two were guessing, and four claimed to have first-hand knowledge. She was never given a public trial or convicted, but was instead locked in her own castle until her death four years later.

Many of the legends surrounding her cruelties - like the idea that she bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth - didn’t appear until at least a hundred years after her death but have become a part of her popular image.

The common accounts - the violent beating of servants, mistreatment and callousness towards the peasantry - are not unusual: it was a brutal time and place in history, and nobility weren’t known to be kind to their underlings. (Though among the accusations against her there are some that speak of her as being a kind ruler.) Whether she was truly guilty of the sadistic murders or a victim of policitial intrigue has been questioned for a long time and will never truly have an answer.