4 Powerful Women in History You’ve Never Heard Of

Ancient sculptures

Historian and SCS instructor, Carolyn Harris, shares the stories of lesser-known women throughout history who changed our world.

Powerful women have presented themselves as warrior queens, rulers by divine right, wives and mothers and, most recently, as elected officials. I’m passionate about examining the significant female political figures in history, from Boadicea and Queen Elizabeth I, to Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. By examining powerful women of the past, it leads us to critical questions about why women are still underrepresented in political life. Here are four often-neglected powerful and public women who changed history.

1. Queen Zenobia, Ruler of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria in the 3rd Century

When we think of female rulers in the classical world who led armies against the formidable Roman Empire, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and Queen Boudicca of the Iceni (who lived in Norfolk and Suffolk in modern day England), are the first names that come to mind. There was, however, another powerful female ruler who challenged Rome – Queen Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire. Although she was eventually captured by Roman Emperor Aurelian in 272, she was praised for military leadership, intellectual interests, and effective administration of a multicultural empire.

2. Empress Matilda, the “Lady of the English” in the 1140s

One of the most significant women in power in medieval Europe was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine (a quarter of modern-day France), joined the Second Crusade, and married first King Louis VII of France then King Henry II of England. Eleanor’s mother-in-law, Henry II’s mother Empress Matilda was a formidable figure in her own right. The only surviving legitimate child of King Henry I and widow of a Holy Roman Emperor, she claimed the English throne, fighting a decades long Civil War against her cousin King Stephen. She briefly held power as “Lady of the English” setting precedents for future British queens and later reigned on her son’s behalf in France as Duchess of Normandy.

3. Empress Anna of Russia, Ruler of Russia from 1730 to 1740.

The most famous female ruler of Russia is Catherine II “the Great,” who reigned from 1762-1796. However the women in power who preceded Catherine, including the Regent Sofia (reigned 1682-1689), Empress Catherine I (reigned from 1725-1727), Empress Anna (reigned from 1730 to 1740), and Empress Elizabeth (1741-1762) are far less well known today. Anna was a niece of Peter the Great who introduced the ballet to Russia. She also commissioned the second voyage of Danish Explorer Vitus Bering who determined without a doubt that Russia and North America were separated by a body of water than became known as the Bering Sea.

4. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President of Iceland from 1980 to 1996

The best-known women in power in the 1980s were resident in the United Kingdom – Queen Elizabeth II, who has been Head of the State in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth realms for more than 70 years and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The 1980s, however, were also a time when women were elected as Presidents and Prime Ministers in Nordic countries. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the world’s first elected female president and the first woman to serve as president who was not the widow or relative of a male political figure. She promoted Icelandic culture around the world and advocated for the interests of smaller states in global diplomacy.

Carolyn Harris studied at the University of King’s College and University of Toronto before completing her Ph.D. in History at Queen’s University. She has taught the History of Early Modern Europe and the Intellectual Origins of the Contemporary West at Queen’s University. Carolyn is an expert in the history of European monarchy and she has been interviewed by numerous media outlets including CNN, BBC Radio 5, CBC Radio Canada International, The Toronto Star and the National Post. She has been a panellist on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin and Goldhawk Live on CPAC. Her writing about the British, Canadian and European monarchies has appeared in variety of newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, Smithsonian Magazine, the BBC History Magazine and Canada's History Magazine. She is the author of three books, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada (Dundurn 2015), Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave 2015) and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting (Dundurn 2017). For more about her teaching, research and writing, visit her website royalhistorian.com. 

Learn about all these fascinating female leaders and more in her upcoming course, Women in Power, this Fall.

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