— Gender Studies

Meet the ancient female leaders who basically invented ‘leaning in'

If you’re a lady and a history buff, the lack of female leaders for the, oh, thousands of years that people have walked the earth before now can be kind of frustrating. All those dude rulers get a little one-note after a while, no? But while they might have slipped your notice, or maybe your teacher didn’t give them the props that were due, there WERE some fierce females ruling realms and leading armies before (long before) Indira Gandhi and Angela Merkel. History may be dominated by men, but every once in a while a bold and ballsy woman elbowed her way out of the patriarchy and got the job done. Here are five #ladybosses that leaned in long before anyone told them they should.


I mean, I think this photo says it all. No? OK, I’ll say more: Hatshepsut is regarded as one of the first great female rulers in recorded history. Born in 1508 BCE, she was the daughter, sister, and wife of Egyptian pharaohs before taking the title for herself, a power-grab decades in the making. Details of how she pulled strings and won over officials are a mystery because of how Egyptians kept records, but we do know that she threw massive parties and festivals for the public, which went a long way in keeping folks happy. Some things never change! Although on paper she co-ruled as regent for the child-king Thutmose III (damn, there goes another baby name), in reality, Hatshepsut was the one pulling the strings. We know this because she constructed a bunch of statues of herself (hey, gurl). On these monuments, she’s decked out in accessories usually reserved for male pharaohs, a pretty gutsy move considering how sacred the position was in Egyptian culture. She expanded Egyptian territory and boosted the economy by claiming resources, and ruled for 21 years with no threats to her power. High five, Hatshepsut! Read on in Hatshepsut: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney.


As queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe in the British Isles, Boudicca (seen above in a statue in London) was no stranger to power. But when her husband (if you guessed Prasutagus, you’re right!) died around 60 CE, Boudicca was violently dethroned. But Boudicca wasn’t the kind of queen to let Rome push her around. She united multiple tribes and led a revolt that, although unsuccessful, left Roman leaders in awe of her warrior skills. In fact, Boudicca’s forces were able to push Roman troops out of a number of cities, including what would become London, and she almost made Emperor Nero withdraw from British territory altogether. In the long run, Rome was victorious, but you have to start somewhere. Boudicca lives on (forever, in my mind) as the original Queen B. If you want all the nitty-gritty, I suggest Boudicca: The Warrior Queen by M.J. Trow.


Zenobia was another queen-turned-HBIC. When her husband died (yeah, there’s a theme emerging), she took control of the entire Palmyrene Empire in what is modern-day Syria. Three years later, in 269, Zenobia and her army claimed Egypt for her empire, killing the Roman prefect and bestowing upon herself the title Queen of Egypt. Your move, Rome. Alas, Zenobia’s days in Egypt were numbered. A couple of years later, Emperor Aurelian arrived and took the defeated Zenobia hostage. Depending on who you listen to, she either died soon after or lived out the rest of her life as a free woman in a villa because Aurelian was totally into the gorgeous former empress. I prefer the latter story. Despite her short-lived stint, Zenobia’s legacy lives on as her epic tale has been woven into myths and retellings in the centuries since her reign. For more, check out Zenobia: Between Reality & Legend by Yasmine Zahran.

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