Staff Picks

Misconceptions of Female Rulers

Queen Lili'uokalani

Queen Lili’uokalani

In honor of Women's History Month, we take a look at female rulers who over time, have been misunderstood or misconstrued.

In chess, queens can move any number of spaces in any direction, making them the most valuable pieces on the board. 

Likewise, real queens have also made great strides and acheived startling accomplishments. 

Which begs the question:  

Why are so few of them remembered fondly?

We've all heard the tales before: 

Cleopatra brought Julius Caesar and Marc Antony to their ruin;

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi

Mary Tudor burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake to satisfy her bloodlust; 

Marie Antoinette ate cake while peasants starved; 

Catherine the Great romped around with animals.

Over time, history has degraded, downplayed, and attempted to destroy the memory of female rulers.

But what if history has gotten these women wrong? 

What if instead of bloodthirsty tyrants and femme fatales, they were able, just and fair rulers? 

Many women rulers were able to achieve greatness for their countries that equaled, if not surpassed, those of their male counterparts.

This post features twelve incredible female rulers that history has maligned, devalued or outright forgotten.

Empress Nur Jahan

Empress Nur Jahan

Why focus on women rulers rather than extraordinary women? 

Over the past century, women acheived a higher representation in a variety of fields, from the arts and sciences to athletics.

However, the realm of politics remains elusive to a higher proportion of women. 

I am also limiting this post to female rulers who have been either forgotten or maligned. 

Therefore, you will not find highly esteemed examples such as Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria on this list.

You can research even more female rulers from DPPL's various history databases.


Nzinga of Angola

Nzinga of Angola

Biography in Context and Britannica Library are great places to start.

They both offer background on a particular individual or event.

Need a break from biographies and nonfiction articles?

Or just want to see how popular history portrays some of these women?

Check out the films at the bottom of the list. 

Some are very accurate, some are not.

But all are worth checking out to see these strong historical women brought to life!

(And for the beautiful costumes!)


The Woman who would be king: Hatshepsut's rise to power in ancient Egypt

By Kara Cooney

Hatshepsut, aside from Cleopatra, may be Egypt's most-well known female pharoah.  However, there is still so much that we do not know about this extraordinary woman.  Cooney attempts to re-create the life of this unique Egyptian ruler.

Surprising fact?

Despite her successors' attempts to erase her rule from history, you can still visit her mortuary temple at Deir-el-Bahari.


Cleopatra:  A Life

By Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra is one of the most famous historical figures in global history.  Much of what we know about her (or what we think we know about her) is fabrication of writers who lived centuries after her.  In this biography, Schiff attempts to sift through the myth and legend to unearth the real Cleopatra.

Surprising fact?

Although the Ptloemic Dynasty ruled Egypt for almost 300 years, Cleopatra was the first ruler of the dyansty to learn the Egyptian language.


Empress of the East:  how a European Slave Girl became the Queen of the Ottoman Empire

By Leslie Peirce

"The extraordinary story of the Russian slave girl Roxelana, who rose from the role of concubine to become the only queen in Ottoman history."--Provided by publisher.

Surprising fact?

Mary Tudor

Mary Tudor:  England's First Queen

By Anna Whitelock

Biographies concerning Queen Elizabeth's far less illustrous half-sister are few and far between.  Even fewer still provide a balanced approach to England's first queen regnant.  Anna Whitelock gives Mary the credit she is due for her successes without overlooking her failures.

Surprising fact?

Mary wanted to gradually convert her people back into the fold of Catholicism.  Rather than Reginald Pole and the Pope, Mary wanted her people to be persuaded back to the one true faith - rather than force them back into the old religion.

Nzinga of Angola

Nzinga of Angola:  Africa's Warrior Queen

By Linda Heywood

Nzinga was a queen of the African kingdoms of Matamba and Ndongo who ruled during the seventeenth century.  Linda Heywood recounts Nzinga's life and reign, suggesting that her astonishing life should be taught alongside queens like Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great. 

Surprising fact?

Nzinga proved to be one of the most successful African rulers in resisting colonialism.

Nur Jahan

Empress:  The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan

By Ruby Lal

Ruby Lal investigates how Nur Jahan was able to exert influnce over her husband, the Emperor of the Mugal Dynasty.  She suggests that "the common conception of past times as always more repressive and unelightened than today is a misjudgment" (11).

Surprising fact?

Nur Jahan's niece was Mumtaz Mahal, the woman that the Taj Mahal was built for.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great:  A Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Catherine has had her share fair of biographies over the centuries, but few can encompass the complexities of her character and reign as Robert Massie's biography.

Surprising fact?

Although German, Catherine was a descendant of the Rurik Dyansty, the previous Russian Royal family before the Romanovs.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette:  The Journey

By Antonia Fraser

In this sympathetic yet fair biography, Antonia Fraser details how Marie Antoinette was a much different individual than what the pamphlets and newspapers portrayed her to be.

Surprising fact?

In contrast to her image as a spendthrift, Marie Anoinette gave heavily to charity. In addition to monetary donations, she also adopted four orphaned children, raising them along with her biological children.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi:  The Concubine who launched modern China

By Jung Chang

Few women in world history have had as bad a reputation as Cixi, the dowager empress of China.  Chang's biography gives Cixi credit for bringing China into the twentieth century.  She argues that although she was harsh, she was not brutal, unlike her successors.

Surprising fact?

Despite being known as a reactionary opposed to any reform, Cixi implemented a series of reforms that would have lasting consequences for the future of China.

Queen Liliuokalani

Hawaii's Last Queen

This documentary film details the struggles of Queen Lili'uokalani in mainting the Hawaiian Kingdom's sovereignty.

Surprisng fact?

Lili'uokalani was an accomplished musician and composer.  Her most famous piece is "Aloha Oe" (Farewell to Thee), an important cultural song to native Hawaiians.

Lakshmi Bai

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

Described by many as the Joan of Arc of India, Lakshimibai was the rani (ruler) of the kingdom of Jhansi, located in northern India.  During the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, she led her people in a revolt against the British East India Company.  This film tells her story and struggles against the mighty British Empire.

Historical accuracy: 6 out of 10

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots

While some criticized the film for its inaccuracies, it accurately portrays many of the events that occured in Mary's life.  While she never met Elizabeth in real life, I thought that the rest of the film did Mary justice in bringing her story to light.

Historical accuracy: 7 out of 10

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

This 2006 film by Sofia Coppola portrays the queen in a softer light, focusing on her youth and naivety.  Coppola draws comparisons to modern day rock stars in the queen's overall behavior and media relations.

Historical accuracy: 5 out of 10

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great

Helen Mirren portrays the empress in this four part miniseries from HBO.  Although the series focuses on her love affair with Girgory Potemkin, other historical events are touched on, from Pugachev's Rebellion to the Turkish war over the Crimea.

Historical accuracy: 8 out of 10

The Great

The Great: Season 1

If anything, this hilarious television series may just contibute to the misconceptions of Catherine the Great.  However, I had to add it to this list for its sheer ridiculousness that will leave you in stitches!

Historical accuracy: 1 out of 10

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