Throughout history, patriarchal society has dominated much of the historical narrative. Oftentimes, historical events are described in relation to the powerful men who controlled the narrative.

There are, however, a great number of powerful, significant, and inspiring women who have made their impact on history. I have compiled a list of some well-known and some more obscure female historical figures, with the aim of debunking the all-too-common narrative that only men had significant achievements throughout history. 


Cleopatra VII was Egyptian pharaoh at a time when her country faced its greatest ever threat.

A member of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra fought a civil war against her brother Ptolemy XIII for the throne, ultimately defeating him and claiming all of Egypt for herself.

She is said to have been well-educated and an egalitarian leader, even taking the time to learn the native Egyptian language – the first pharaoh of her Greek bloodline to do so. Furthermore, she was incredibly politically intelligent; when Rome’s civil war spilled into Egypt she allied with the powerful Julius Caesar, securing a future for her kingdom against an aggressive and expanding Roman Empire.

She married the Roman general Marc Antony, meaning she and Antony’s children were set to inherit the eastern part of the vast Roman Empire. Seeing her as a threat, the Romans began a propaganda campaign to defame her, depicting her as a villainous and lustful temptress.

When the two sides eventually clashed she, against all odds, led Egypt into war with Rome. Unfortunately for Cleopatra, her success was not to last. After her defeat at the battle of Actium (31 BCE) the Roman general Octavian came to the Egyptian capital of Alexandria and threatened to capture and parade Cleopatra around Rome as a war trophy.

Rather than allow Octavian the pride and victory of taking her captive, Cleopatra bravely chose death. 

Statue of Cleopatra in the Altes Museum
Mosaic of Theodora, empress of the Byzantine Empire

Theodora was the Empress of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. Coming from humble origins as a circus performer, she married Prince Justinian and ascended with him when he became emperor.

Contemporary sources including the historian Procopius, who worked closely with the royal court, say that Theodora had exceptional influence over Justinian and therefore the empire as a whole.

This is evident from several events throughout her reign. In the year 532 riots broke out across Constantinople, with civilians destroying much of the city and threatening the emperor’s life. When Justinian prepared to flee, Theodora refused to abandon their cause, calling the emperor a coward, and telling him she would rather die an empress than a coward.

In 541, an outbreak of bubonic plague debilitated the emperor Justinian to the verge of death. In his absence, Theodora began ruling over the empire, including the all-important reconquest of Italy.

The Byzantine Empire later produced a great number of powerful women, including its controversial first empress Irene, and the first female historian Anna Comnena. 

Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian was a ruthless genius who, against all odds, became the first and only empress of China.

Entering the palace as a concubine of Emperor Taizong, she gained the confidence of his son Gaozong, and had become a prominent figure in the royal court by the year 655.

During Gaozong’s constant periods of illness, she managed to eliminate her opponents and effectively take control of the kingdom for herself.

She held onto her power by any means necessary, deposing and exiling her own son after Gaozong’s death, and eventually usurping the throne in 690. By all accounts, she was a capable and intelligent leader, and a wise and efficient empress.

She proclaimed her own Zhou dynasty, and reigned over all of China until she was deposed by her son Zhongzong in 705. 

Illustration of Wu Zetian
Aged Painting of Joan of Arc in armour
Joan of Arc

In around 1425, at the age of thirteen, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) began claiming to hear holy voices talking to her.

Three years later she left her town to join the war effort against the English. The Hundred Years’ War had been raging between France and England since 1337, and after the death of Charles VI, England’s King Henry VI had been proclaimed King of France.

In spite of the dangers posed by the recent English success, and in spite of the limitations posed by her gender Joan, went to fight for her country. Her name became famous, and she eventually found her way to the court of King Charles VII.

Charles believed her visions were an act of God, and she gained a special status amongst the army. She provided a much-needed morale boost to French soldiers, who saw success in retaking the strategically significant city of Reims and capturing high-ranking English generals.

She was present at Charles’s coronation, and the faith which her presence gave the French army resulted in English retreat. The English deemed her such a threat that she was captured and later burned as a heretic in 1431. Even so, her impact had set in motion a chain of events which was now unstoppable.

The French, believing Joan was a sign that God was on their side, pushed on against the English and won the war in 1453.  


Roxelana was the wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.

Throughout the Ottoman Empire, she was known as a patron of the arts and architecture, commissioning the empire’s best architect Sinan to build new mosques and bathhouses to improve the lives of Constantinople’s citizens.

She exercised great influence over Süleyman; one anecdote tells of her scheming alongside the conniving Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha, to assassinate the Sultan’s eldest son Mustafa.

When the two convinced Süleyman that Mustafa was plotting against him, the Sultan strangled his own son in November 1553, leaving Roxelana’s son Selim the first in line to the throne. 

Portrait of Roxelana in Ottoman Costume

In conclusion, history is filled with rich, powerful, and inspiring women. This list is simply an introduction to a vast number of significant female figures throughout history.

From Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh of Egypt, to the many powerful Augustas of the Roman empire; from queens and empresses to biologists and activists; from politicians to pop stars, history’s list of pioneering women is never ending, and their stories are completely fascinating.

If any of these were at all interesting to you, then I encourage you to continue to research these women who make up some of the most intriguing characters in history. 

Written By – Max Tinkler

Edited By – Caileigh Russell