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.

Empress Theodora

Although some women were able to finagle leadership positions via the death of their spouses, many more found influence by co-ruling with their husbands. Theodora, empress of the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 548, helped hubby Justinian hold onto his own power. When two political factions started rioting in the streets, Justinian was ready to get the hell out of Dodge. But Theodora was having none of it, and pushed her man to stand strong, saving his empire in the process. She went on to rule alongside him, guiding programs that basically rebuilt the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), including the iconic Hagia Sophia. Her pre-royal life was no less fascinating. The daughter of a bear-keeper, she worked as an actress and traveled through North Africa after catching the eye of a Syrian official at age 16. When she got bored, she went back to Constantinople to set up shop as a wool spinner (because if there’s ever a cure for boredom, it’s wool spinning). Then, naturally, the heir to the Byzantine Empire fell in love with her and repealed some laws so that he could marry her, and she dropped that wool faster than a hot potato. Theodora: Empress of Byzantium by Paolo Cesaretti has more of the details.

Empress Wu

Power in China, like everywhere else, was held by men for millennia. But one woman not only took the title of Empress, but started her own (yes, yes, short-lived) dynasty. Wu Zetian, a former royal concubine under Emperor Taizong, rose to power in 690 after a series of advantageous marriages and power grabs that put her closer and closer to the throne. Convents couldn’t hold her, rivals to the throne couldn’t stop her, and her own heirs couldn’t keep her from power. Under her leadership, China’s territory expanded considerably, and she was instrumental in supporting Buddhism by building temples throughout the country. She ruled for 15 years, which is a long time, considering. The title of this book probably leaves you wanting more: Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God (by Jonathan Clements).

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