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Great Women Leaders in History

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 9/11/2012

We would be nothing today without the great women how shaped our history. Take a look at just a few important women of the past.

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    Ancient Rulers

    Let's begin our look with two great ancient rulers, Hatshepsut of Egypt and Wu Zetian of China.

    Hatshepsut -Pharaoh of Egypt, 1479-1458 B.C.

    It was uncommon for women to assume rule in ancient Egypt. Hatshepsut was not, however, a common woman. She claimed her father intended for her to be pharaoh after his death. The Oracle of Amun confirmed it, which was good enough for the folks of Ancient Egypt. Her peaceful reign included the promotion of the arts. Thutmose III, one of the world's early misogynists, attempted to erase Hatshepsut from Egyptian records because he felt it impossible for a woman to reign well. Hieroglyphics and twentieth-century discoveries thwarted his efforts.

    Wu Zetian - Empress of China, 690 - 705 A.D.

    Wu Zetian joined the Imperial Court at the age of 13, used manipulation and violence over a period of several years to eliminate her enemies, and married the emperor in 655. When her husband died, she continued her political prowess and outfoxed the emperor's sons to gain control of the throne. She challenged traditional Confucian beliefs which taught that women were inferior. In 690 she declared herself emperor. Her rule was marked by agricultural advances, which included elaborate irrigation systems, the compilation of farming manuals, and reducing agricultural taxes. She was forced to resign in 705 A.D. at the age of 82. She died a short time later.

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    European Monarchs

    Queen Elizabeth I Public Domain Image 

    Our historical examination continues with a visit to Europe.

    Elizabeth I - Queen of England, 1533-1603

    Not many leaders, male or female, can claim to have had an entire genre of literature named after them. Elizabethan Drama boasts some of the world's greatest and most famous playwrights and poets, including William Shakespeare. In addition to turning the English court into a center of learning, Elizabeth I presided over long and bloody battles. Her reign included the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, making England the world's greatest sea power. She also suppressed rebellion in Ireland and executed Mary Stuart, her rival. Despite her strong use of military, Elizabeth I appeased her enemies with tolerance and government reforms.

    Catherine II - Ruler of Russia, 1762-1796

    Russian rulers had a propensity for calling themselves "The Great." Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great lived up to her nickname. Catherine was born in Germany and married the Grand Duke Peter in 1745. When Peter's mom died in 1761, Peter became Emperor of Russia, but not for long. Peter was overthrown and Catherine was intended to rule until her son reached the proper age to succeed his father. Catherine had other ideas and declared herself empress in 1762. Although she supported progressive ideas such equality and education, she ruled as an authoritarian and was forced to put down several revolts. Her greatest accomplishment was modernizing Russia and transforming it into a nation that could contend with European powers.

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    Thatcher Yucking it up with the Boys 

    The presence of great women leaders continued into the 20th-century.

    Indira Ghandi - Prime Minister of India, 1966-1977, 1980-1984

    When India gained its independence in 1947, Indira Ghandi's father became the country's first prime minister. His daughter became his confidant and political disciple. She became prime minister in 1966, and although she espoused democratic principles, she practiced autocratic rule. She lost her reelection bid in 1977 and was imprisoned. She was released from prison and regained the position of prime minister in 1980. She was assassinated in 1984, leading to political upheaval and the death of over a thousand Indians. Ghandi's notable accomplishments include victory in the war with Pakistan in 1971, sending the country's first satellite into space, and transforming India's economy.

    Margaret Thatcher - Prime Minister of Great Britain, 1979-1990

    Margaret Thatcher was head of Britain's Conservative party beginning in 1959 and became the country's prime minister in 1979. Her strong stance against the Soviet Union helped bring about its dissolution. A staunch conservative, Thatcher dismantled England's welfare state and deregulated many of its industries. She resigned in 1990, but not after eleven years of prosperity under her reign.

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    Leaders of the Future

    With the continued elevation of women in the political arena and the lessening of misogynistic attitudes toward female rulers, the future will be full of great women leaders to equal or surpass those of the past. Maybe you will be one of them!

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    • Public domain photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons