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.


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.’”


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 | 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.

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.

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 | CYNISCA (born 440 BC) (Crystal Renn)

Cynisca was a Greek princess of Sparta and the first woman to ever win the Olympic Games.

Ambitious, wealthy, and an expert equestrian, Cynisca involved herself in the Games the only way that women were allowed: by breeding and training the horses for events. She employed men to be her team and she won the four-horse chariot race in two separate years. It’s unlikely she actually got to see her victories though, as women weren’t even allowed to set foot in the stadium.

She was honoured with a bronze statue erected in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia and left an impact on the ancient Greek world as other women would soon go on to enter and win after her example.

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 | 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 | 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.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA (350 – March 415) (Claudia Black)

Daughter of the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria, Hypatia was a Roman Egyptian philosopher and the first notable woman in the field of mathematics. Not only was she clever and perceptive, but she was willful enough to gain herself a position teaching philosophy and astronomy to young men, a role in which she was admired and revered despite her gender.

No interest in romance, Hypatia remained unmarried her whole life, dedicating herself instead to the seeking of knowledge and the bettering of her mind. Hypatia was sixty when, accused of causing political unrest, she was attacked by a mob who stripped her naked and dragged her behind a cart through the streets before killing her.

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”


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 | CATHERINE OF ARAGON (16 December 1485 – 7 January 1536) (Deborah Ann Woll)

The first wife of Henry VIII, who in her youth was called ‘the most beautiful creature in the world’, also played the role of Spanish ambassador to England, making her the first female ambassador in European history. She greatly cared for the welfare of her people and was well loved by them for it.

For six months she ruled England solely while Henry went to fight in France, and during this time she rode to Scotland in full armor to address the army even though she was heavily pregnant. Afterward she sent to her husband the bloody coat of King James of Scots who died in the battle.

They had been married for twenty-three years when Henry had their marriage annulled, but Catherine would continue until her death to refer to herself as his wife and the true queen of England.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | CATERINA VAN HEMESSEN (1528 – after 1587) (Liv Tyler)

The earliest female Flemish painter with verifiable work, Caterina van Hemessen is considered to be the creator of the artist self-portrait in front of an easel.

Female artists of the time were extremely rare: the training would require dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male form - both of which were forbidden to women - and to find an artist to apprentice under. Caterina, like her few contemporary women artists, was trained by a close relative. (In Caterina’s case it was her father.)

Despite her gender Caterina would eventually be held in high esteem in the Guild of St Luke and took a position as a teacher to three male students. She caught the attention of Mary, queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and the queen became her patron. After Mary’s death Caterina was supplied with a pension to allow her to paint in freedom for the rest of her life.

There are no existing paintings by Caterina after her marriage at the age of twenty-six and it is assumed that she she retired to raise a family.

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.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | HAI BA TRUNG: TRUNG TRAC and TRUNG NHI (c. 12 - AD 43) (Viet Trinh and Thuy Dung)

Two of the most popular heroines in Vietnamese history, the Trung sisters led a national uprising, the first resistance movement against the occupying Chinese after their 247 years of domination.

Trac and Nhi were daughters of a powerful lord, and grew up well trained in not only martial arts but the art of warfare itself. Trac was the elder of the sisters, noted as being brave and fearless, and it was she who gathered the Vietnamese lords to rebel. (Legends speak of her committing acts of bravery to gain their confidence, such as killing a man-eating tiger and using the skin to write a proclamation urging them to follow her.)

The sisters gathered an army of 80,000 and from them they chose thirty-six women - including their mother - who they then trained to be generals. It was these women who led the massive army that would manage to take over 65 cities at Trac’s command. After this Trac declared herself queen, going by the title of ‘She-king Trung’. She established a court of her own, abolishing tribute taxes and working to restore a simpler form of government for the people.

The Trung sisters continued to be involved in battles with the Chinese government in Vietman. In their final battle the sisters were out-armed and defeated, and rather than lose their honour or fall into the hands of the Chinese, they committed suicide by drowning themselves.

In time both sisters became figures of legend and across Vietnam they remain heroes and national symbols of resistance and freedom. They have many temples dedicated to them as well as an annual holiday to commemorate their deaths, and a number of streets and districts named for them.

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 | RAZIA AL-DIN, SULTAN OF DELHI (1205– October 14, 1240) (Janina Gavankar)

From childhood Razia was trained by her father to lead armies and administer kingdoms, and she became the first woman ruler in Muslim and Turkish history. She’d had little contact with women in her youth and never learned the customary behaviour expected of Muslim women, instead preferring to dress herself in men’s clothes and rarely wearing a veil. She was both a clever politician and brave warrior, riding an elephant into battle at the head of her army. Razia mingled freely with her subjects and established schools and libraries. Displeasing some among her advisors, Razia not only tolerated Hinduism but also allowed Hindu works of science, philosophy, and literature to be studied in her academies.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA (1532 – November 16, 1625) (Charlotte Gainsbourg)

Born in Lombardy, Sofonisba was the oldest of seven children (six of them girls) born a family of minor nobility. Sofonisba’s father encouraged all of his daughters to perfect their talents and it was probably because of this encouragement that four of them would go on to become painters, but Sofonisba was by far the most accomplished.

At fourteen she was apprenticed to a respected portrait artist and this set a local precedent for women to be accepted as students of art. After this she went to Rome and was informally trained by Michelangelo, who recognised her talent the first time he saw her sketches.

At twenty-seven Sofonisba was invited to go to Spain to serve as court painter, lady-in-waiting, and art tutor to the queen. Even after the queen’s death, Sofonisba remained a favourite of the royal court and lived on a pension from the king that allowed her to paint freely and teach younger artists herself. Later in life she began to lose her sight and became instead a patron of the arts before passing away at ninty-three, an artist internationally acclaimed and respected for her entire life. Her great success opened the way for many of the female artists who would come after her.