The destination for history

A brief history of women in power


Historically, the most common way for a woman to become a ruler was as a regent. There were, however, many cases where the regent decided to stay in power.

A prime example is Empress Wu Zetian who, as consort, ruled over China’s Tang Dynasty. She married Emperor Gaozong in 655; however, when he suffered a debilitating stroke five years later, she became the Administrator of the court until his death in 683 and went on to rule for another twenty-two years. Initially this was as regent in place of her son, Emperor Zhongzong, but she then deposed him in favour of his younger brother. But that was not the end: after 690, Wu Zetian assumed control again and ruled in her own right, the only woman to do so, thereby establishing the Zhou dynasty as a short break within the Tang Dynasty.

In medieval France, Catherine de’ Medici also ruled for several years as the Regent for her young sons. She was born in the Republic of Florence in 1519, the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino. To improve relations between Florence and France her uncle, Pope Clement VII, arranged for the 14-year-old Catherine to marry the Duke of Orleans, the younger son of the King of France. Ten years later, Catherine gave birth to their first child, the first of seven children to survive infancy, and in 1547 her husband became King of France. He died only five years later, leaving the 15-year-old Dauphin, Francis, to inherit the throne. Catherine served as regent, expecting to hand over the reins when Francis was old enough, but tragedy struck when he succumbed to illness in 1560 and was succeeded by his 10-year-old brother, Charles. Catherine continued as the regent while the young king, known as Charles IX, matured. When Charles came of age, her experience, wisdom and power was valued, and she continued to rule through him. Charles died of an illness on 30 May 1574 at the age of 23 and was succeeded by his brother Henry III.

During that period Catherine dealt with a myriad of state affairs, including ongoing civil and religious wars, with strength and intelligence. She died in 1589 and was buried next to her husband. Sadly, only eight months later Henry III was assassinated, and Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV of France. Clearly impressed by the late regent’s accomplishments, he declared:

I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown – our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse.

The laws of royal succession in Europe (and most countries that have or had monarchies) gave the right of inheritance to the eldest male, followed by younger males and, only in their absence, to females. Perhaps the most famous and colourful female leader in history was Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of Egypt (her son Ptolemy Caesar, though formally pharoah, did not rule). When her father, Ptolemy XII (Auletes), died in 51 bc, Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, became co-rulers. However, her brother’s advisors acted against her and she had to flee to Syria. In exile Cleopatra raised an army of mercenaries and returned to defeat her brother’s forces the following year. (At least, they were nominally his forces, but since he was so young, it would have been his advisors who were behind them.) During the dispute both parties welcomed Caesar from Rome, but Cleopatra, aware of the advantages of such an ally, convinced the visitor to side with her and after several months of battling, Ptolemy XIII was defeated; he fled and died soon after.

Cleopatra and her next younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, were then made co-rulers. Caesar stayed on with Cleopatra and in 47 bc they had a son, Ptolemy Caesar (Caesarion). When Caesar returned to Rome, he was famously assassinated at the Senate, causing Rome to split into two factions: one led by the military general Mark Antony and politicians Octavian and Lepidus, and the other by politicians Brutus and Cassius. Both sides vied for Egypt and Cleopatra’s alliance, and eventually she gave her allegiance to Mark Antony, who then defeated Brutus. Mark Antony and Octavian divided Rome between them, and Mark Antony travelled to Egypt to establish the alliance. The relationship went better than probably either imagined, as he and Cleopatra spent the entire winter in Egypt, leaving Anthony’s wife Octavia (Octavius’s sister) back in Rome. The relationship was somewhat sealed when Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra Selene (moon), in 40 bc. Four years later, after Mark Antony had spent more time in Egypt, Cleopatra gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos.

Later, after a falling-out between Octavius and Mark Anthony over Octavia and power, the latter pronounced Caesarion as Caesar’s son, thus declaring Octavian an imposter. Failing diplomacy, both sides gathered their forces for battle and Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s combined forces were defeated by Octavius at the battle of Actium in 31 bc. They fled to Egypt, where in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, Mark Anthony heard that Cleopatra had killed herself and so fell on his sword, surviving just long enough to hear that the message was incorrect. Cleopatra then took her own life, supposedly by clasping an asp (a venomous snake) to her bosom, though how she actually died is not known.

Egypt was wealthy but much weaker than the neighbouring Roman Empire, and only survived during Cleopatra’s time due to her nimble negotiating. As a leader, Cleopatra was obviously very astute, with a good grasp of military issues. She knew how to rule a nation (control the currency, suppress insurrection and alleviate famine), and she skilfully assessed who could assist to her greatest advantage. Rome, however, was going through a period of internal turmoil and successive civil wars, and Cleopatra knew it was not enough to be friends with Rome: she had to befriend the most powerful Roman leader of that day. She deployed all her feminine charms in developing strong relationships with those leaders, creating advantageous relations for her nation, albeit giving her a reputation for seduction. Despite what her critics may say about her methods, Cleopatra successfully negotiated the shifting sands of Roman politics for twenty years.

Another queen who came to power as the eldest daughter with no surviving male siblings was Maria Theresa of Austria. She was the only surviving child of Emperor Charles VI, who ruled over an extensive empire including Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania and Mantua. Maria Theresa came to the throne in 1740 upon her father’s death as Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Croatia. Despite Charles’s efforts to secure the succession to Maria Theresa, many disputed her claim, especially when the alternatives were in their favour. Frederick II of Prussia was one of these and he expressed his viewpoint by invading soon after her ascension. After the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), most of the territory initially lost to the Prussians had been recovered, but Prussia succeeded in keeping the wealthy province of Silesia.

Maria Theresa came to the throne with the treasury empty, an army weak and under-resourced, and with her citizens deprived and discontented. She worked hard to improve Austria’s international standing, revamped the army, promoted commerce and agriculture and filled the treasury coffers. However, her dislike of Protestants and Jews gave her a reputation for intolerance. The Seven Years’ War, which began in 1756, was a power struggle between Britain, Prussia and Portugal on one side, against France, the Austrian-led Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Spain, Saxony and Sweden on the other side. Maria Theresa sent forth her revamped army, but despite a valiant effort, they failed to win back Silesia.

The underlying cause of the Seven Years’ War was a shifting balance of power across Europe. Great Britain had previously allied with Austria as a counterweight against French power, but as Austria’s power weakened after the War of the Austrian Succession, the British started courting smaller German states instead and agreed with Prussia that it would not support Austria in a conflict over Silesia in the Westminster Convention of 1756. Therefore, needing powerful allies, Maria Theresa started to court France as an ally by sending her trusted foreign policy minister, Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, to Paris. Maria Theresa also started building up an anti-Prussian alliance, but Prussia responded by invading Saxony, which angered the Russians who then attacked and thus began the Seven Years’ War.

For political reasons Maria Theresa had married Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, in 1736, and the marriage had been fruitful, with ten of their sixteen children surviving to adulthood. The Archduchess had promised the Duke an equal share in the government when they came to the throne, but she ultimately decided to remain as the absolute queen of her realm. However, he was not left lacking a kingdom, since he was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1745, making her also a Holy Roman Empress. Maria Theresa managed many complex diplomatic relations for Austria, through Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, with great skill; and in doing so she reversed Austria’s fortunes. Events often happen beyond the control of leaders and greatness is often measured with how they respond to those events.

While the female leaders discussed earlier were either queens in their own right or ruled as regents, some women seized power for themselves without the pretence of being a regent. The prime example is Catherine the Great of Russia, who started out as the German Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She was sent to Russia to marry the 16-year-old Grand Duke Peter (later Tsar Peter III), as an arranged marriage. Peter was Prussian, did not speak much Russian and was generally unpopular. Catherine, presumably, was also unimpressed with Peter, since she organised a coup d’état that resulted in his death under suspicious circumstances. Catherine then proclaimed herself sole ruler of Russia, and during her reign of thirty-four years Russia grew to become a major power of Europe.

These women were remarkable in what they achieved, ruling their respective lands competently, reaching the pinnacle of power, holding positions that traditionally were the reserve of men and which demanded skills that were generally thought of as masculine.

Extracted from Women of the Foreign Office: Britain’s First Female Ambassadors by Elizabeth Warburton and Richard Warburton

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