Still More Women Rulers
Deborah, Judge and Ruler of Israel
In Deborah's time, the term "judge" implied chieftainship, military leadership, and religious duties as well as the dispensing of justice. Deborah, wife of Lapidoth, became known for both wisdom and prophecy, and is the only woman known from biblical and Jewish tradition who was elevated to political power by popular consent. With the help of Barak, a noted military leader, she led a major army of resistance against Sisera, a Canaanite general, in an attempt to stop persistent raids against Israel carried out by the Canaanite king, Jabin. In the aftermath of Deborah and Barak's military victory, Sisera was famously slain by a woman named Jael. Deborah, who was also a prophet and singer, celebrated the defeat of Canaan in "The Song of Deborah."
Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae
Ruler of the Massagetae, a tribal people who lived east of the lands of Persia, Tomyris is most famous for her defeat of Cyrus the Great, the powerful king of Persia. When Tomyris's son was captured by Cyrus and committed suicide, the queen promised Cyrus "more blood than he could drink." After her troops had destroyed the Persians in battle, she cut off her enemy's head and put it into a bag filled with blood, thus fulfilling her vow.
ArsinoŽ, Queen of Thrace,
A daughter of Graeco-Egyptian royalty, ArsinoŽ was married to the king of far-away Thrace, where she schemed and possibly lied to advance the interests of her three sons. Seeking refuge from the ensuing civil war, she went to her half brother, the king of Macedon. She married him, only to have him murder two of her sons. Having failed to revenge herself on the murderer, she returned to Egypt and married her full brother, Ptolemy II. Their joint reign was very largely her responsibility, as Ptolemy was interested only in scholarship. She enjoyed diplomatic and military success, as well as founding the museum at Alexandria. Even before her death, she was proclaimed a goddess.
Berenike, Queen of Egypt and Cyrenaica
Daughter of the Greek Magas, King of Cyrene (Libya), the young Berenike fell in love with her cousin, the future Ptolemy III, of the Greek dynasty of Egypt. Together, they successfully conquered Syria, Cilicia, and Mesopotamia, with Berenike on one occasion conducting the defense of Antioch. Her husband named a constellation (Coma Berenike) after her, and she has been called "beautiful, brave and great-souled." Their reign was the last hurrah of the Ptolemy dynasty. Berenike was murdered by her decadent son Ptolemy IV and the family went rapidly downhill from there.
Amanirenas, Queen of Kush
Like Zenobia, this queen of Kush took advantage of unrest that distracted Roman troops from her realm, the kingdom of Meroe. The Emperor Augustus had recently attempted to tax the Kushites and Amanirenas, one in a long line of ruling Kushite women, took offense. With her son Akinidad, she attacked a Roman fort at Aswan, left the few survivors a warning message about unwarranted taxes, and returned to Meroe with the bronze head of a statue of Augustus. This they buried under the threshold of Amanirenas' palace. When Augustus mounted the expected retaliation, under the general Petronius, the Romans were at first successful, but Amanirenas herself took the field against them and forced them to the bargaining table. She sent her ambassadors to the island of Samos, where they negotiated return of all conquered lands and the remission of the controversial tax. Amanirenas' title, Kandake, is thought to be the origin of the common woman's name Candace.
Amalswinthe, Queen of the Ostrogoths
She was the daughter of King Theodoric and Audofleda, a sister of King Clovis. Exceptionally well educated, she studied both Greek and Latin and took a keen interest in art and literature. Married to a man named Eutharic at the age of 17, she found herself queen in 522, following the deaths of both her father and her husband. She served as regent for her 10-year-old son, Athalric. Like her father, she maintained a pro-Byzantine policy, which was not popular with the Ostrogothic nobles. She suppressed a rebellion and executed three of its leaders. She also purged her lands of dishonest office holders and limited the power of grasping landowners. When her son died, in 534, she shared the throne with her treacherous cousin, who swore "an awful oath" that he would rule only as a figurehead. This man, Theodahad, then led a palace revolution and caused her to be exiled to an island, where she was strangled in her bath as an act of vengeance by relatives of the nobles she had executed.
Wu Zetian, Empress of China
Educated, accomplished, beautiful, and of noble birth, Wu Zetian at thirteen was brought to the imperial court as concubine to Emperor Tai Tsung. On his death, she formed a liaison with the new emperor, Kao Tsung, and later successfully destroyed and replaced her rival as empress. When her husband was disabled by a stroke, she assumed the effective power in the empire, and on his death, she ruled through a puppet son. But though her personal behavior was reprehensible (though well within contemporary standards), her rule is rated highly for scholarship, justice, peace, culture, and her efforts to advance the position of women. She was also Chinese Buddhism's most important patron.
Gemmei-Tenno, Empress of Japan
A daughter of the Emperor Tenchi, she succeeded her son Mommu and proved an unusually able ruler. She coined the first copper money and caused scribes to write down the ancient traditions lest they be lost. At age 52, she abdicated in favor of her daughter, Empress Gensho-Tenno. Between 592 and 770, Japan was ruled seven times by six individual empresses (Suiko, Saimei , Jito, Gemmei, Gensho, and Koken) for a total of 89 years. This is clearly a fascinating period, which should support at least a collective biography.
Sonduk, Queen of Korea
As a child of seven, she proved her mental brilliance by a display of deductive reasoning before her father the king, who raised her as his heir. She ruled for fourteen years, holding the realm together against external and internal threats. She was active in intellectual exchange with China, and built the Tower of the Moon and Stars in Kyongju, now identified as the earliest astronomical observatory in eastern Asia.
Lady Six Sky, Ruler of Naranjo
She was a princess, daughter of the king of the neighboring Mayan city Dos Pilas. At age 18, she entered the political scene of Naranjo by performing important religious rites, and though she was never formally created ruler, she fulfilled all the city=s royal functions. She was married to a noble or royal husband, but his name is never mentioned. Clearly, she was the central figure, even after the birth and formal enthronement of her son (at age five). She waged war in his name and is pictured on a stone carving in the traditional ruler=s pose with the body of an enemy at her feet. It appears she peacefully transferred power to her son when he reached eighteen (in 706), but remained a force to be reckoned with until her death at the great age of 77.
Olga, Princess of Kiev (Ukraine)
She revenged herself on the murderers of her husband, Prince Igor, but stopped his military campaign against Byzantium. Instead, she converted to Christianity, visited Byzantium herself, and instituted peaceful trade relations between the two countries. Her grandson Vladimir is credited with bringing the Christian faith to Kiev (and thus to Russia). She is a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Zoe and Theodora,
These royal sisters controlled their empire for 28 years, ruling sometimes alone and sometimes jointly with their husbands. (Zoe ultimately poisoned hers on account of his infidelity and after she fell in love with a handsome peasant.) Even though Zoe at one time exiled her to a nunnery, sister Theodora seems to have forgiven her and for a time they ruled jointly. She succeeded to the throne after the death of Zoe's third husband, a senator 22 years younger than his wife.
Matilda, Countess of Tuscany
After all her brothers died or were killed in battle, Matilda succeeded her father, Bonifacio II, as ruler of a territory much larger than the modern Italian province of Tuscany. Supposedly, she was an athletic girl, who studied weapons and strategy with a soldier named Arduino della Paluda, learning to handle lance, pike, and battle-axe. She was also a linguist, and literate in an age when many nobles were not. This was a period of virtually unbroken conflicts between the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. In these, she sided undeviatingly with the Papacy, even leading her own armies into battle to protect the various popes (most notably Gregory the Great) from division and deposition. Her steadfastness and her tactical skill left a lasting impression on the chroniclers.
Maud, Empress of Germany
A daughter of England's Henry I, it was not to be as ruler of her adopted country, Germany, that Maud (also known as Matilda) would gain greatest fame. When she was eighteen, her only legitimate brother was drowned and Maud, already a widow, returned to King Henry's court to be groomed as his heir. When Henry died, ten years later, Maud was forced to battle for her right to the throne against her nephew, Stephen, who was the son of one of Henry's sisters. She never entirely succeeded in pressing her claim, but her son ascended the throne as Henry II, one of England's most complex, controversial, and dominating rulers.
Eleanore, Duchess of Aquitaine,
An heiress in her own right and consort of two kings (as well as being daughter-in-law to Empress Maud, above) Eleanore's chance at personal power did not come until she was called upon to act as regent for her son, Richard I, during his absence on crusade and subsequent imprisonment. She has been called "the loveliest, the richest, the most fascinating, the most notorious, and the most talked-about woman of her age." She called herself "Eleanor by the Wrath of God Queen of England." In her eighties, she personally led a tiny garrison in the defense of the French stronghold of Beaulieu against her nephew, Prince Arthur. She was the grandmother of Blanche of Castile (see below) and King Henry III.
Tamara, Queen of Georgia
She ascended the throne at the age of twenty-five, her father's lawful heir. Her long reign marked the height of Georgian political power in southern Russia at a time when the area was threatened by armies of Tatar and Mongol nomads. She also married three times in an attempt (ultimately successful) to bear an heir. Revered and beloved in life, as perhaps no other queen except Elizabeth I, she was also unusual in being succeeded peaceably by a legitimate son. A famous Russian poem says of her, "A lion's cubs are lions all, male and female alike."
Blanche of Castile, Queen of France
Her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine arranged Blanche's marriage to the future Louis VIII of France. At one time, she claimed the throne of England with Louis' backing, but was defeated. As regent for her infant son Louis, she kept a firm hand on the reins of power -- literally. She rode into battle in order to put down a rebellion. By signing the Treaty of Paris, she secured an era of peace and prosperity and ultimately handed over to her son a kingdom more prosperous and stable than the one she had received on the death of her husband. She must have done something right; Louis IX was both a king and a saint.
Jadwiga, Queen of Poland
She was the youngest daughter of Louis and Elizabeth of Bosnia, King and Queen of Hungary and Poland. On the death of her father, the citizens of Poland elected her "king," on condition that she would remain forever in Poland, ending a long succession of absentee rulers. At the entreaties of her advisers, she gave up plans to marry a childhood sweetheart, Wilhelm of Hapsburg, in order to wed Jagiello, duke of pagan Lithuania. Thus at her marriage, she brought an entire nation under the aegis of Christianity. She continued to rule Poland in her own right. For her sagacity, charity, compassion, and willingness to sacrifice her own happiness for theirs, the Polish people have always viewed her as a near saint, and indeed she was ultimately beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. Her sister Maria was Queen of Hungary during the same time period.
Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands (1480-1530)
A daughter of the Emperor Maximilian I, she was married and widowed twice in seven years. Her father, Philip I, then made her regent of the Netherlands and guardian of her nephew, the future Emperor Charles V. Margaret served ably in her regency, paying special attention to the profitable wool and cloth trade with England. She played a role in the making of the League of Cambrai and (with Louise de Savoie) in the "Ladies' Peace" of 1529. The young Charles at first resented her authority, but later made her one of his chief advisors.
Mary de Guise, Queen Regent of Scotland (1515-1560)
A member of the eminent de Guise family of France, she was married first to King Louis d'Orleans, then to James V of Scotland. When James died in 1542, she became regent for his posthumous daughter, the future Mary, Queen of Scots, but only by supplanting the ineffectual Earl of Arran. Her policies were firmly pro-French and anti-English, in line with what Scots historians refer to as "the Auld Alliance." She was tough, shrewd, and devious, successfully handing over her kingdom to her daughter despite religious divisions and constant threats from England.
Elizabeth I, Queen of England
Succeeding her sister Mary, she reestablished her supremacy over the (reformed) Church of England and burned nearly as many (Catholic) "heretics" as Mary. Wily, intellectually brilliant, and far-sighted, she refused to marry, thus perpetually dangling the possibility of an alliance before the ruling families of Europe. Her reign was marked by relative financial stability and peace, together with an extraordinary flowering of the arts, industry, and agriculture. She encouraged the exploration and settlement of the New World.
Mary I, Queen of Scotland
After the death of her husband, FranÁois II of France, Mary ruled her native Scotland in her own right. Her staunch Catholicism in the face of growing Protestant unrest and her essential ignorance of her native country led to her abdication, but she lived on in English captivity to become the focus of Catholic plots against her cousin Elizabeth of England. Mary's life can be seen as a study in the conflict between religious romanticism and political realism. (Her mother, Marie de Guise, who had ruled Scotland as Queen Dowager in her daughter's name, was a formidable woman in her own right, with much better judgment than Mary's.)
Amina Sarauniya Zazzua,
Succeeding her equally remarkable mother, Bakwa of Turunku, and her brother Karama, Amina became an immensely successful leader of cavalry and guided her West African state of Zazzua to supremacy in Hausaland. In doing this, she took brilliant advantage of her state's position between what is now southern Nigeria and the rich caravan routes of Bornu and other parts of Hausaland and battled to protect her land's trade in kola nuts, horses, leather, cloth, salt, and metals. Her reign represents a productive compromise between Islam and the indigenous religions of West Africa.
Kristina, Queen of Sweden
Daughter of a famed military hero, she admired the attributes of masculinity and was permanently scarred by her mother's morbid religiosity. On ascending the throne, this intellectual young woman gained fame as a patron of artists and scholars, but was forced to abdicate because she would not marry. Disguised as a man, she escaped from Sweden and went into exile in Rome.
Awashonks, Sachem of Sogkonate (mid 17th century)
A sachem of very high standing among the Native American Narragansett people of Rhode Island, she was a major player in events leading up to King Philip's (Metacomet's) War (1675-76). Repeatedly, we hear of her negotiating war and peace at the council fire, backed by her war leaders, most of whom were her sons. Her life affords a fascinating glimpse of matrilineal tribal organization such as prevailed among the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the East Coast. She was contemporary with two other women sachems of the period -- Weetamoo and Magnus. The three together will make a composite biography.
Anne I, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland (1665-1714)
The last of the Stuart rulers, her reign was dominated by the War of the Spanish Succession. It also saw the Act of Union that united England and Scotland. Scholars argue about the extent to which she was influenced by a small circle of intimates, particularly the Duchess of Marlborough.
Anna I Ivanovna, Empress of Russia
Elected by a council of nobles who intended to dominate her, Anna seized effective power for herself. She waged expensive wars against the Turks and the Poles, but succeeded in opening Russia's way to Central Asia. Becoming bored with government, she left much of the work to her greedy and ruthless lover while she held expensive parties. Not all rulers are successful. She was one who was not.
Elizabeth II, Tsarina of Russia
A daughter of Peter the Great, she seized power in a daring
episode in which she dressed as a palace guard, stole into the palace, and
arrested the unpopular regent and her baby son, the Tsar. She rid the court
of German influences, and pursued the Seven Years' War against Prussia.
Through her patronage, Catherine the Great came to the Russian court and was
ultimately enabled to seize the throne from her (Catherine's) useless
husband, Elizabeth's nephew.
Maria Theresa I, Empress of Austria,
A robust horsewoman and untiring administrator, she lost Silesia to Prussia in a war originating with her succession to the throne of her father, and allied herself with France against Prussia in the Seven Years' War. Although she was defeated in that war, she is judged to have ruled very capably, reforming administrative and fiscal practices and maintaining a strong army. She married Francis of Lorraine and arranged for his election as Holy Roman Emperor. One of her daughters was Marie Antoinette.
(II) the Great,
Daughter of a minor German nobleman, she married the heir to the Russian throne and succeeded him when he was deposed and murdered (some say with her connivance) in 1762. The first phase of her reign was marked by proposals for reforms, but she launched a conservative reaction in the wake of a peasant uprising in Russia and the Revolution in France. Powerful, vain, and ruthless, she greatly enlarged the boundaries of her realm and was also known for her patronage of the arts.
Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi
She wore diamonds, jodhpurs and a pair of pistols. She rode a warhorse with the reins in her teeth and a sword in each hand. After an unsuccessful marriage, she tried to protect the inheritance of her adopted son, only to find the British (whom she had heretofore supported) were trying to annex her small state through what amounts to administrative trickery. Only after long provocation did she join the cause of the Indian Revolt of 1857 ("the Mutiny"), bravely defending her land and dying in battle. She has become an Indian folk heroine, memorialized in statues, paintings, and ballads.
Tz'u Hsi, Empress of China
After the deaths of her husband and son, she ruled first through a puppet nephew and then directly. Essentially conservative, she consented to some reforms late in her reign, but was unable to stave off the internal and external threats that ultimately overwhelmed the Chinese imperial system. Nevertheless, her energetic rule is credited with prolonging the Ch'ing Dynasty. She was called the Dragon Empress.
Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii
She fought a long and losing battle against American colonialism. Recent scholarship is reevaluating the power and influence of this queen who is best known to U.S. schoolchildren from the demeaning and racist rhyme in which Uncle Sam invites, "Liliuokalani, give us your little brown hannie." The position of Polynesian women has been severely misunderstood in the West as a result of reports written by male explorers and anthropologists.