By Tim Lambert

Women Rulers in the Ancient World


Kubaba is the first recorded female ruler in history. She was queen of Sumer, in what is now Iraq about 2,400 BC.


Sobekneferu was ruler of Egypt around 1800 BC


Hatshepsut was ruler of Egypt. She was born about 1508 BC and she ruled Egypt from 1479 BC. Under her rule Egypt was prosperous and it traded with north west Africa. Hatshepsut also built many great buildings in Egypt. She died about 1458 BC.


Twosret was female ruler of Egypt. She reigned around 1191-1189 BC


Shanakhdakheto was queen of Kush in what is now Sudan around 170-150 BC


Cleopatra was another female ruler of Egypt. She was born about 69 BC. From 51 BC she ruled Egypt with her brother but from 48 BC she ruled alone. Then in 41 BC she became allied to a Roman, Mark Anthony who was involved in a long struggle with another Roman called Octavian. Finally Cleopatra and Mark Anthony were defeated at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC. Afterwards, in 30 BC Cleopatra committed suicide.


Teuta was queen regent of the Ardiaean kingdom in the west of the Balkan Peninsula from 231 to 227 BC. She fought the Romans.

Bouddicca, the Celtic queen

Boudicca was a queen who led a rebellion against the Romans in Britain. In the 1st century AD a people called the Celts lived in what is now England. A Celtic tribe called the Iceni lived in what is now Eastern England. The Romans invaded Southeast England in 43 AD. At first they let the Iceni keep their kings and allowed them some autonomy. However when the king of the Iceni died he left his kingdom partly to his wife, Boudicca and partly to Emperor Nero Soon, however Nero wanted the kingdom all for himself. His men treated the Iceni very badly and they provoked rebellion. This time a large part of the Roman army was fighting in Wales and the rebellion was, at first, successful. Led by Boudicca the Celts burned Colchester, St Albans and London. However the Romans rushed forces to deal with the rebellion. Although the Romans were outnumbered their superior discipline and tactics secured total victory.

The Trung Sisters

In 39 AD two Vietnamese sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a rebellion against the Chinese overlords and proclaimed themselves queens of an independent state. However they were eventually defeated by the Chinese and they both committed suicide in 43.


Zenobia was queen of Palmyra in what is now Syria from about 268 AD to 272 AD. She fought the Romans and conquered Egypt. However Zenobia was eventually defeated and captured.

Women Rulers in the Middle Ages

Amalasuntha c 495-535

She was the queen of the Ostrogoths

Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia 543-613

Queen Brunhilda, also called Brunhilde was born in Toledo in Spain about 543. In 567 she became queen of Austrasia, a kingdom in northwest Europe. She was a powerful woman.

Wu Zetian, Empress of China

Empress Wu Zetian reigned in China 690-705. She was a strong and capable woman.

Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Tuscany c 1046-1115 was a powerful female ruler in northern Italy in the 11th century. She was also a formidable warrior.

Irene of Athens

Irene ruled the Byzantine Empire from 797-802. She married the emperor and after his death ruled as regent for her son but in 1797 she had her own son blinded. He died shortly afterwards and she ruled in her own right. Irene was deposed in 802. She died in 803.

Matilda, Queen of England

Matilda claimed to be queen of England but she never ruled the whole country.

Matilda was born in 1102. Her father was King Henry I. Her brother William drowned in 1120 when his ship, the white ship, sank. Henry was left without an heir. Before he died in 1135 Henry made the barons promise to accept his daughter Matilda as queen.

However when Henry died in 1135 his nephew Stephen also claimed the throne and many barons supported him. Matilda was abroad when her father died and Stephen was crowned king of England. Yet Matilda would not give up her claim to the throne and she had many supporters too. As a result a long civil war began which went on till 1154. These years were called the 'nineteen long winters'. Fighting only ended when, shortly before his death, Stephen agreed to recognize Matilda's son Henry as his heir. Matilda then lived in Normandy until her death in 1167.

Jadwiga, Queen of Poland

Jadwiga was born about 1373. Her father was king of both Hungary and Poland but after his death the two kingdoms split. The Poles agreed to accept Jadwiga as their queen. However on 16 October 1384 she was crowned king of Poland to make it clear that she ruled Poland in her own right and she was not just a queen through marriage. In 1386 she married Jogaila Grand Duke of Lithuania and the two countries became allies. However Jadwiga died in 1399.

Isabel, Queen of Spain

Isabel was born in 1451. In she married 1469 Ferdinand, heir of Aragon. Isabel became Queen of Castile in 1474 and Ferdinand became king of Aragon in 1479. In 1482 they began a war against Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. Granada surrendered in 1492. Then in 1512 Navarre was absorbed and Spain became a united country.

In 1492 the king and queen ordered all Jews to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Many chose to leave.

Ferdinand and Isabel decided to finance an expedition by Christopher Columbus. He believed he could reach Asia by sailing across the Atlantic. However Columbus underestimated the size of the earth and landed in the West Indies.

Women Rulers 1500-1800

Mary, Queen of England

Mary Tudor was Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon's daughter. Mary was born on 18 February 1516. As a child she was well educated.

Henry VIII died in 1547 and he was replaced by his 9 year old son Edward.However Edward died in 1553. Henry's daughter Mary, was a Catholic. Mary was determined to undo he religious changes of the previous reigns. them. In 1555 Queen Mary began burning Protestants. Altogether between 1555 and 1558 nearly 300 Protestants were executed. Many more Protestants fled abroad. Queen Mary died on 17 November 1558.


Amina was queen of Zazzau in what is now Nigeria. She was born c. 1553 and died around 1610.

Elizabeth, Queen of England

Elizabeth Tudor was born on 7 September 1533 in Greenwich Palace. She became queen of England in November 1558. Elizabeth was a moderate Protestant. Most people in England accepted her religious settlement although some Catholics continued to practice their religion in secret. During her reign England grew in prosperity.

Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603. She was 69. Elizabeth was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Queen Anne of Great Britain

Anne became queen of England and Scotland in 1702. At first they were separate kingdoms but in 1707 they joined together. Anne reigned over Great Britain until her death in 1714.

Catherine I

Catherine was the first woman to rule Russia. She reigned from 1725 to 1727.

Anna Ivanovna

Anna was Empress of Russia from 1730 to 1740.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia

Empress Elizabeth ruled Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762. During her reign Russia fought a successful war with the Turks in the years 1736-39. As a result the Russians regained Azov. Meanwhile Russia's first university was founded in Moscow in 1755.

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia

Catherine the Great was born in 1729 in Prussia. In 1745 she married Peter the heir to the Russian throne. Peter became Tsar in 1762 but he reigned for only a few months. Supporters of his wife Catherine assassinated him in 1762. She became known as Catherine the Great.

Although she liked to be seen as an enlightened despot and she corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot many of Catherine's subjects were poor and oppressed. In 1773 man named Yemelyan Pugachev led a rebellion. The rebellion had considerable success but it was finally crushed in 1774. Pugachev was brought to Moscow in an iron cage. He was beheaded and his body was cut into quarters.

Meanwhile Russia continued to expand in the 18th century. Russia fought war with the Turks and took territory from them. Russia also took parts of Poland.

During the 18th century Russian territory and population greatly increased. Russia's new territory in the south was called New Russia and many people migrated there. Meanwhile Russians settled in the east. Russian industry also grew at this time and foreign trade expanded rapidly. By the time Catherine died in 1796 Russia was very powerful.

Maria Theresa of Austria

Maria Theresa ruled Austria, Hungary and Bohemia (Czech Republic) from 1740 to 1780. Maria Theresa was a very capable woman. She turned Austria into a strong and prosperous power. During her reign architecture, art and music flourished.

Women Rulers in the Modern Era

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

She was the first female prime minister in the world. She became prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960.

Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India

Indira Gandhi was born in 1917. She became prime minister of India in 1966.

In 1971 India fought another war with Pakistan. At that time Pakistan was divided into two parts, West and East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh). Then in March 1971 East Pakistan broke away and declared its independence. West Pakistan refused to accept the move and sent troops to force the East to submit. Refugees flooded into India.

Then on 3 December 1971 the Pakistani air force attacked air bases in North West India. Pakistani ground forces attacked but were unable to make much headway. Meanwhile on 4 December Indian troops entered East Pakistan. The Pakistani forces in the East, under General Niazi surrendered on 16 December. Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire on 17 December 1971. Bangladesh then became independent.

However in 1973 oil prices rose sharply triggering rapid inflation in India. That harmed agriculture by making fertilizer much more expensive. Indian industry also entered a recession. Growing discontent in India led to strikes such as a railway strike in 1974.

Then a High Court declared that Mrs Gandhi's election in 1971 was invalid because of election malpractice. However Mrs Gandhi persuaded the president to declare a state of emergency on 17 June 1975. Civil liberties were suspended and Mrs Gandhi's opponents were arrested. Her son Sanjay led a mass sterilization campaign in Northern India to combat the population explosion. The emergency was lifted in January 1977. During it inflation was curbed and industry revived.

Elections were due to be held in 1976 but they were delayed until March 1977. However Mrs Gandhi lost anyway. The Janata party held power from 1977 to 1980 when Mrs Gandhi returned.

In the early 1980s India, like the rest of the world, entered a recession. Worse was to come. Sikhs in Punjab were demanding independence. A man named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (1947-1984) and his supporters took over the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Then in May 1984 the Indian army surrounded the temple. They attacked the fundamentalists in the temple but in the process they destroyed the holiest place in the Sikh religion. Two of Mrs Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards killed her in revenge.

Isabel Peron, President of Argentina

Isabel Peron was the first female president in the world. However she was not elected president. She became president of Argentina in 1974 because the president was dying. She was removed by an army coup in 1976.

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Britain

Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925. She became leader of the Conservative Party in Britain. In May 1979 the Conservatives won a general election. Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first woman prime minister. However in 1980-82 Britain suffered a severe recession. Unemployment rose sharply. By January 1982 it was 11.5%, double the May 1979 figure. Not surprisingly the government was deeply unpopular.

However in April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The British sent a task force and on 14 June 1982 the Falklands were recaptured. The war greatly boosted the government's popularity and it contributed to the government's victory in the general election of 1983. (The Conservatives won a third election in 1987).

Meanwhile recession ended in the autumn of 1982 and recovery began. Furthermore unemployment leveled off. Unemployment remained very high until 1986. In the summer of that year the official figure was 14.1%. However unemployment then fell steadily. The government also succeeded in greatly reducing inflation.

The Conservatives also sold council houses cheaply and the number of council houses fell significantly. The government also privatized industries. A showdown between the government and the trade unions took place with the 1984-85 coal strike. The strike ended in March 1985 when the miners were forced to return to work.

Furthermore during the 1980s the government passed a series of laws restricting the powers of the trade unions.

In 1990 the government introduced a new tax in England called the community charge (popularly known as the poll tax). It was very unpopular and in 1993 it was replaced by the council tax. Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President of Iceland

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first woman elected president in the world. She was elected president of Iceland in 1980.

A brief history of women's jobs

A brief history of women's clothes

A timeline of women's education

A timeline of women's rights in Britain

A timeline of women's rights in the USA


Last revised 2018