For basic historical literacy, everyone should know about at least these powerful women rulers -- key queens, pharaohs, empresses, listed chronologically below.
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Long before Cleopatra reigned over Egypt, another woman held the reins of power: Hatshepsut. We know her mainly through the major temple built in her honor, which her successor and stepson defaced to try to erase her reign from memory.
From a public domain image. Modifications © 2006 Jone Johnson Lewis.
Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt, and the last of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egyptian rulers. As she tried to keep power for her dynasty, she made famous (or infamous) connections with Roman rulers Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. (Also: Cleopatra Facts
Theodora, empress of Byzantium from 527-548, was probably the most influential and powerful woman in the empire's history.
Today's teenagers love to hear there really was a Queen of the Goths. Amalasuntha was Regent Queen of the Ostrogoths; her murder became the rationale for Justinian's invasion of Italy and defeat of the Goths. Unfortunately, we have only a few very biased sources for her life.
Although the legendary rulers of Japan, before written history, were said to be empresses, Suiko is the first empress in recorded history to rule Japan. During her reign, Buddhism was officially promoted, Chinese and Korean influence increased, and, according to tradition, a 17-article constitution was adopted.
A cruel and revengeful ruler as regent for her son, Olga was named the first Russian saint in the Orthodox Church, for her efforts in converting the nation to Christianity.
Eleanor ruled Aquitaine in her own right, and occasionally served as regent for her husbands (first the King of France then the King of England) or sons (kings of England) were out of the country. Eleanor of Aquitaine certainly had a long and interesting life!
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Isabella ruled Castile and Aragon jointly with her husband, Ferdinand. She's famous for supporting Columbus' voyage; she's also credited for her part in expelling the Muslims from Spain, expelling the Jews, instituting the Inquisition in Spain, insisting that the Native Americans be treated as persons, and her patronage of arts and education.
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Queen Elizabeth I of England is one of the most fascinating women of history. Elizabeth I was able to rule when her long-before predecessor, Matilda, had not been able to secure the throne. Was it her personality? Was it that the times had changed, following such personalities as Queen Isabella?
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During her reign, Catherine II of Russia modernized and westernized Russia, promoted education, and expanded Russia's borders.
Alexandrina Victoria was the only child of the fourth son of King George III, and when her uncle William IV died childless in 1837, she became Queen of Great Britain. She's known for her marriage to Prince Albert, her traditional ideas on the roles of wife and mother which often conflicted with her actual exercise of power, and for her waxing and waning popularity and influence.
The last Dowager Empress of China: however you spell her name, she was one of the most powerful women in the world in her own time -- or, perhaps, in all of history.