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Meritocracies and Misogyny: Powerful Women throughout History

In 1878 in the village of Birka, Sweden a tomb was excavated. This burial place was filled with all of the tools that would have accompanied the fiercest warriors in the days of the Vikings. More than 1000 tombs were excavated in the village; this was one of only two tombs to be filled with such a full set of weaponry, complete with two sacrificed horses, leading archaeologists and anthropologists to believe for decades that this was the final resting place of a male warrior. Surely no woman would be given such a lavish burial fit for a powerful warrior. It was not until the findings of a study completed in 2017 were published, 139 years after its original uncovering, that the truth came out about this perished warrior. This was indeed the final resting place of a woman. Some rejected the idea that she would have been an actual warrior in her community but this questioning of her rank did not come until it was confirmed that she was not a man. Even today it is difficult for many to believe that women were integral parts of societies hundreds or even thousands of years ago. While it can take more digging to find these important and influential women in our history books, they are undoubtedly there. Keep reading for a small insight into some of the most powerful and influential women in our world’s past.

Aspasia of Miletus

“The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia” Nicolas-André Monsiau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So much that is taught about Ancient Greece in schools is the mythology of the culture and the strong heroes and deities within those stories. Are powerful women in those myths? Absolutely. However, there are far fewer women talked about in the day-to-day lives of actual people in the empire. Enter Aspasia of Miletus. A surface search of Aspasia will give you results that tell you she was the mistress of Pericles, the famed politician and general. However, when you dig a little deeper you find that she was much more than that. Aspasia came from Miletus in Asia Minor. She was not an Athenian citizen so when she came to the city-state as a metic, or resident alien, she was not beholden to the same rules that ran the lives of other women in Athens giving her considerably more freedom. As a result, she was reported to have used her home, noted to be one of ill repute by Plutarch, as a space for educating women which was  uncommon in Athens at the time. She was also free to participate in public life and discourse with notable names of the time, perhaps even Socrates. Aspasia was also said to have the power of persuasion over the men in her life and was valued by many due to her “rare political wisdom.”

This freedom she enjoyed as a metic was not absolute, however. Because she was not an Athenian she was not able to marry an Athenian man. Instead she became the mistress of Pericles and bore him a son who was made a citizen by a special exemption. Multiple contemporary scholars and authors wrote of Aspasia and the influence she had over Pericles when it came to politics, most not so kindly. Some even accused her of being a cause of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War when Pericles issued a decree that barred Megara from trade with Athens and any allied city-states. (Megara had at one point been at odds with Miletus.) Whether or not that is true it is clear that Aspasia was able to influence both Pericles and, after his untimely death from plague, her later protector Lysicles. His rise to prominence was swift; his death was too, coming just a year after he and Aspasia came together. With his death went any additional knowledge of her life, unfortunately, as no further records of her exist.

Agrippina the Younger

Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Roman Emperor Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, is one of the better known emperors even if it’s not for the best reasons. He was said to have been ruthless with political opponents and was rumored to have played a fiddle while he watched the city burn. However, his claim to the throne at the age of 17 would not have been as strong as it was if not for his mother, Agrippina the Younger, a woman on whom he later turned his more ruthless tendencies. Great-granddaughter of Augustus, sister of Caligula, and wife of Claudius, Agrippina was connected to the core of one of the most powerful dynasties in Ancient Rome. She was well educated and knew the best ways to negotiate her way through the elite society in Rome. It was common for women in the Roman Empire to campaign for their sons in attempts for them to gain influence; Agrippina was no exception. However, as a child she witnessed her brothers executed and her mother, Agrippina the Elder, exiled due to both her ambition and the challenge she posed to the Emperor Tiberius. As a result Agrippina looked to advantageous marriage to protect herself and any future children she might have leading her to marry Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a cousin of hers. Through her marriage Agrippina had her only child, the eventual Emperor Nero, before her husband died. She also gained popularity through her brother, Caligula, which put her in prime position to promote Nero as any caring mother would do in Ancient Rome. This ambition led the widowed Agrippina to quickly marry her uncle, the Emperor Claudius in a move to ensure Nero’s rise to power.

In marrying Claudius, Agrippina became Empress and increased both her own power and the legitimacy of Nero’s eventual claim to the throne. Her uncle and husband was in poor health and his untimely death just a few years after marrying Agrippina was a subject of debate among many in Rome. Some believe Agrippina herself killed her husband because of Nero’s quick naming to the throne as Emperor and Agrippina’s continued influence over imperial matters following Claudius’ demise. However, this influence she enjoyed would not last. Advisors appointed by Agrippina soon used their power to take hers away and she and Nero began having some major disagreements, as many mothers and their teenage sons do, about the ways in which Rome should be led. Eventually Agrippina was cast out of the imperial home to an estate in Misenum and Nero began his short campaign to kill his mother. After a botched attempt to sabotage her boat, assassins sent by Nero caught up to Agrippina at her estate and murdered her. The disrespect did not stop there; to cover up the assassination Nero crafted a story to tarnish her reputation by crediting her with multiple crimes. While Agrippina met an untimely end to her power and reputation, her prowess during her time in power was begrudgingly acknowledged by her contemporaries throughout the Roman Empire, allowing her story to carry on through the years.


Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons

When someone mentions pyramids our first thoughts go to Egypt. However, Egypt is not the only North African civilization to have built them. Just to the south of Egypt in present-day Northern Sudan lies the land of the Kingdom of Kush. Protected by the cataracts of the Upper Nile River, Kush was able to create a strong and powerful kingdom even being in such close proximity to Egypt. In fact, Kush was able to conquer the Egyptians at one point and the 25th Dynasty was made up of the “Black Pharaohs” of Egypt from Kush, though many of the records and statues from this time were destroyed by the Egyptians. Skip ahead a few centuries and you will find that the Egyptians had expelled the Kushites from Egypt and sent them back south to their native land. You will also find that at the capital city of Meroë the Kushites were being ruled by a woman named Shanakdakhete.

She was not the only queen of this Nubian kingdom but she was the earliest of the kandakes, the title given to the queens of Kush. With a reign lasting around 20 years, from c. 177-155 BC, Shanakdakhete was able to influence not only the political side of the kingdom but also the religious side illustrated by the number of temples built during her reign. The kingdom became wealthy from trade centuries prior and this continued throughout the reign of Shanakdakhete. Meroë, her capital, was situated on the Nile River for trade within the African continent and had easy access to the Red Sea for trade with the Near East. Unfortunately, not much else is known about Shanakdakhete. Very few records of her life and accomplishments have survived to modern day. However, her tomb was located under one of the largest pyramids in the region highlighting the considerable power and influence she must have had during her reign. A statue found of the kandake also gives us some clues of her life. The statue includes a prince standing to her side reaching out with his right hand to touch the crown of the queen indicating that she had considerable power and most likely had an heir to succeed her. She also appears strong in stature in this statue, again pointing to the power that she held during her lifetime. Her success and influence over the kingdom and its capital in Meroë led to other women to follow her example long after her reign was over. 


Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tutankhamun, Khufu, Djoser, Akhenaton, Ramses. These are just some of the popular and famous names to come out of ancient Egypt. Another of the very powerful pharaohs is one whose name was nearly lost to antiquity and all of this was done by design. Hatshepsut was the half-sister and widow of Thutmose II during the New Kingdom of Egyptian History. While she was queen she was never meant to become pharaoh. That distinction belonged to her stepson, Thutmose III. However, when Thutmose II died his son was too young to take over the throne so it fell to Hatshepsut to serve as regent to the young king and rule in his place until he was old enough. Once she came to power Hatshepsut did not relinquish it and though she was only meant to serve as regent she used her power to name herself pharaoh and continued her rule for 20 years.

The New Kingdom was a time of expansion and trade and Hatshepsut made the most of her time in power. She expanded trade along the Nile, throughout Northern Africa, and into Southwest Asia. Luxury goods such as ivory, ebony, gold, and incense were regularly traded throughout Egypt utilizing ports along the Red Sea. During her reign public works were at the forefront, showcased by the creation of a temple complex at Karnak, a wonder of the ancient world, complete with 100-foot tall obelisks and over 100 gigantic statues of Hatshepsut throughout the complex. While many of these larger-than-life statues survive to this day, their condition leaves much to be desired. The wear-and-tear of these statues is not only due to the passage of time, however. After the death of Hatshepsut her stepson, Thutmose III, finally got his chance at the throne.

During his time as pharaoh Thutmose III systematically destroyed the statues of Hatshepsut throughout the empire. For many years scholars believed that this was done as revenge for Hatshepsut taking the throne, preventing Thutmose III from becoming pharaoh when he came of age. In more recent years, however, the general consensus is that this was done as a way to ensure the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. Because Thutmose was not Hatshepsut’s son there could have been some in Egypt that would have questioned whether or not he was the rightful heir. By erasing her from Egypt’s memory Thutmose III was able to draw a line from his father, Thutmose II, directly to himself as pharaoh, cementing himself firmly to the throne. Such an unceremonious end to the reign of Hatshepsut belies the greatness of her time as Pharaoh. However, more recent archeological digs have helped to piece back together the parts of her that were broken and lost to time, putting back together the successful reign of a powerful pharaoh.

Princess Pingyang

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 600s in China an uprising was brewing. The Sui Dynasty was losing control of their people and rebel armies were forming. The leader of one such army was Li Yuan, a duke during the Sui Dynasty who made a large push for rebellion with the help of his many sons. It was one of his daughters, however, the eventual Princess Pingyang, who proved to be indispensable. When the fighting started Pingyang fled to her family’s country home in the Huxian Province and from there she began working to rally the support of other rebel leaders. Many people in the area were suffering from starvation and Pingyang opened up the grain stores that her family had at that home. The Sui government was fully aware of this. However, because she was a woman her efforts were not taken seriously. That all changed when she led rebel forces with a combined total hovering around 70,000 members against the government seat in Huxian Province and took control there. After her great victory she continued moving her forces against the Sui government and became a commanding general of her father’s army, her branch aptly named “The Army of the Lady.” Through the fighting, Pingyang held her troops to high disciplinary standards and even forbade them from looting as they continued their conquests.

In 618, Li Yuan deposed the Sui leader, took on the title of Emperor Gaozu, and made his daughter princess and marshal of the newly created Tang Dynasty. Within five years of Gaozu taking the throne Princess Pingyang died. Her father insisted on a full military funeral for her, including the traditional military bands playing, despite pushback from officials. It was not customary for women to have bands playing at their funerals. In response, Gaozu reminded these officials of her military contributions in the founding of the dynasty, “The Princess personally beat the drums…to help me establish the dynasty. How can she be treated as an ordinary woman?” The Tang Dynasty was a time of societal advancement of women; they were able to receive an education, divorce and remarry, and widows were even granted land which allowed for economic independence. While this idea was not permanent in China or elsewhere in the world centuries ago, it did allow Pingyang the opportunity to fully showcase her abilities as a warrior and leader.

Catherine the Great

Georg Cristoph Grooth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine the Great did not have a happy marriage. Born Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a penniless family in a Prussian principality, Catherine was the beneficiary of an advantageous marriage to the heir to the Russian throne in 1745 making her a Grand Duchess. However, it soon became clear to Catherine that she and her new husband, Peter III, had very different worldviews. Both hailing from Prussia, Catherine chose to downplay her Prussian connections in favor of the best interest of Russia while Peter made it clear that he was still very much Prussian even after becoming Tsar of Russia in 1762. He, the heir to the Russian throne, was even reported to have worn a Prussian military uniform while the two countries were at war with one another which, understandably, upset many throughout Russia. Catherine was a scholar and promoted Enlightenment ideals while Peter has been described as not having much common sense. The couple did have a son, though the paternity of Paul I was called into question and Catherine herself even denied having relations with Peter before her pregnancy. Soon after Peter took the throne it was clear to Catherine that he would be disastrous to the Russian empire if he was to continue ruling. Six months after becoming Tsarina she ousted Peter with the help of some sympathetic military leaders and took control for herself, ruling with absolute power. Just eight days later Peter was dead. To this day his death is still looked on with suspicious eyes. Some believe he was the victim of a drunken fight while others think it obvious that he was murdered. While there is no conclusive evidence that Catherine was involved in Peter’s death, no one can deny that this was a beneficial event for her.

With her newfound power Catherine was able to begin her reforms throughout the country. However, she was met with many challenges. Russia was embroiled in a war with Prussia that had left the country largely bankrupt. Serfdom was the norm and her idea to end the practice that tied people to the land they worked was not met with much enthusiasm from the more wealthy in Russian society. While she did take a step back from her crusade to end serfdom, she continued to make other reforms throughout her empire. One of her largest victories–both literally and figuratively–included increasing the size of the empire. She continued military campaigns throughout Scandinavia and Eastern Europe but unfortunately this led to many people becoming discontented with the unending fighting. As a result she faced and ultimately put down a rebellion at a great loss of life on both sides. Following this uprising Catherine focused her efforts on more cultural advancements in Russia much like Peter the Great (Peter I) had done during his reign. At the age of 67 Catherine suffered a stroke and passed away leaving her son, Paul I, in charge of the empire. While her reign is not without rumor and some failings, the former penniless princess from Prussia goes to show what is possible through ambition, hard work, and a little help from an advantageous marriage to the future Tsar of Russia.


By: Hanna Gish

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