While the number of female leaders around the globe has grown, they’re still in the minority. Young women looking to make their mark, as well as experienced women, are looking for role models. Get inspired by these eight female leaders in history who proved their effectiveness in creating positive transformation for their countries and the world. (Estimated reading time: 12 minutes)
“A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.”— Diane Mariechild
The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world, leaving loss and distress in its wake. But it was also the wake-up call we needed to reveal the cracks in our society. It highlighted the need for good leadership to see us through a crisis of this unprecedented scale.
The inability to contain the spread of the virus as swiftly as required showed a need for more resilience and problem-solving ability in our leaders. Out of fear of taking the wrong steps and making the public anxious, many delayed action and downplayed the threat. But not all leaders responded in this way.
A study revealed that countries with female leaders recorded 40% fewer COVID-19 deaths than male-led countries. Countries like New Zealand, Finland, Sierra Leone, and Germany were led by women who demonstrated prolific leadership capabilities. They were able to take decisive action to introduce lockdown measures to protect the vulnerable. They were also risk-averse and careful not to take hasty action that could result in more loss of life.
In times of uncertainty, hopelessness, and despair, female leaders step up to the challenge and tap into their feminine instincts to adapt and iterate. They gained a broader view of the pandemic’s impact on society and were receptive to innovation.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, took bold action to get ahead of the virus before its impact was far-reaching. She was also able to secure her people’s support and cooperation. In an eight-minute televised statement to the nation in which she announced a four-level COVID-19 alert system, she spoke with strength and compassion.
Her communication was compassionate, honest, and transparent. Her powerful parting words, which inspired others around the world, were: “Please be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19.” Since the pandemic started, the country has reported only 54 cases and one death.
This recognition of female leaders in history has not always been present. From a broader historical angle, women were seen through a lens of unfair and unequal gender stereotypes that disadvantaged them, with access to fewer opportunities, especially in leadership.
Fortunately, there have been several female leaders in history who stand out and inspire. These women were trailblazers who proved their effectiveness in creating positive transformation.
Why aren’t there more female leaders (and how can we change that)?
While the number of female leaders around the globe has grown, they are still in the minority. As of January 2021, the number of women in national parliaments worldwide is 25.5%, a slight increase from 24.9% in 2020. Europe has the most countries led by women, and the Nordic countries of Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland all currently have female leaders.
The increase in female leadership is promising; however, the change could be faster and smoother. From experienced female leaders who have made strides to young women looking to make an impact, they still face these three challenges:
1. Stereotypes around female leadership
Despite the efforts to level the playing field, we still live in a patriarchal society where people are influenced by unconscious gender bias. A study revealed that young men worldwide are especially unlikely to endorse female leaders, which is surprising, considering that younger generations are generally more progressive.
Women are labeled as unfit for leadership because they are measured by the same yardstick as men. We must shift the leadership paradigm to include feminine qualities such as empathy, sensitivity, and leading collaboratively. Instead of viewing these qualities as weak, we should see them as assets that can enhance the masculine aspects of leadership.
2. The challenges around balancing work and family
Women in traditional family units not only deal with the demands of their professions but are also responsible for raising children and running a household. Juggling their work and personal lives can impact their productivity and effectiveness as leaders. Unlike men, they’re more pressed to develop a healthy work-life balance.
This challenge can be overcome when partners are more willing to share the load at home and in child-rearing. They should break away from traditional gender roles so that women have more time and capacity to dedicate themselves to professional commitments.
3. Women are considered too emotional to be effective leaders
Another sexist stereotype women must contend with is that they are too emotional for effective leadership. People believe that emotions cloud their thinking and objectivity, which can result in poorly informed decision-making.
The first problem with this perspective is that emotions are seen as a sign of weakness when they can be a strength. When women learn to manage their feelings, they can express calm and compassion and gain cooperation from their subjects.
Secondly, the notion that men don’t have emotions is fundamentally false. When roused by anger and aggression fueled by testosterone, they can be destructive and harmful. However, if men learn to channel their rage effectively, they can hone their powerful leadership traits.
Why does the world need more women leaders?
Women may not always realize their leadership abilities because of the obstacles they face, but their strengths and skills are undeniable when they can overcome them. Women offer a fresh perspective and can bring several of these benefits to the table:
- They make strong mentors and teachers who know how to bring out the best in people.
- As nurturers and biologically inclined caregivers who handle domestic crises with compassion and dexterity, they are well-suited to handle emergencies.
- Women are excellent communicators because of their abilities to build intimacy and connection, and make people feel heard. Conversely, male leaders are often competitive and display a one-upmanship mentality.
- They make empathetic leaders who perceive the problems in the world differently. Their ability to get deeper into issues and listen to people allows them to take a nuanced approach to solving problems.
- Women face an ongoing issue of the gender pay gap, and having more female leaders sensitive to this disparity will help close it more effectively.
- Their position gives them a solid platform from which to advocate for women’s rights by raising awareness and introducing policies to mobilize action and create change. Whether fighting for women’s right to vote, getting educated, or making decisions about their own bodies, female leaders can be effective agents of change.
Eight great female leaders in history and how they inspire us
There have been several inspirational female leaders in history, but these eight have been widely admired for their contributions. It took a lot of work for them to come into power and to prove their worth, and they were rarely chosen by the people around them and often gained their position by default.
In a time when military prowess was essential, female leaders in history had to rule like men to maintain control and were still criticized for it. However, their critics didn’t stop them from implementing far-reaching changes and leaving their mark on history.
1. Hatshepsut (1508 BCE – 1458 BCE)
Hatshepsut was an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh considered one of the country’s most successful rulers. She came into power as queen consort after marrying her half-brother, Thutmose II, at the age of 12. When he died, Hatshepsut became Pharaoh.
She attained the full title and regalia of her position, giving her unprecedented power and reigning longer than any other woman in the Egyptian dynasty. Unfortunately, after her death, Thutmose III, her successor, had almost all evidence of her rule eradicated – such as images of her as a royal figure in temples and monuments, possibly intending to erase her as a model for other powerful female rulers.
Why Hatshepsut is inspirational:
During her rule, Hatshepsut brought artistry and great wealth to Egypt. She expanded Egyptian trade, bringing back ebony, gold, and incense. She also oversaw ambitious building projects like the Temple of Deir el-Bahri, where she was later buried. Her reign was mainly peaceful because her foreign policy focused more on trade and building than war.
2. Zenobia (240-275 CE)
Queen Zenobia was the ruler of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria. She formed the Palmyrene empire, adding most of the Roman Near East from Anatolia to Egypt to its borders. This move filled out the power vacuum after the disintegration of Roman power and the death of her husband, Septimius Odaenathus. She also expanded the empire significantly during her reign by conquering Anatolia, Lebanon, and much of Asia Minor.
Why Zenobia is inspirational:
Zenobia’s rise to power happened during challenging times. She could wield supreme authority in an era when men dominated, and violence and power-mongering were rampant. While she is known as a warrior queen, there is little evidence to support that she fought in battles.
Instead, she was a skilled political tactician who made smart and bold decisions in the face of overwhelming pressure. She was also a cultured woman who supported intellectual pursuits at court and treated her multi-ethnic and multilingual subjects with fairness and tolerance.
3. Wu Zetian (624-705 CE)
In China’s 3000-year history, Empress Wu was the only woman who ruled the country in her own right. She reigned during the Tang Dynasty and the Second Zhou Dynasty as the “Holy and Divine Emperor.”
Her rise from the concubine of the Gaozong Emperor to the mother of her emperor son, and finally as the monarch, is nothing short of remarkable during a time when women had no place in leadership.
Why Wu Zetian is inspirational:
Empress Wu made China one of the most powerful nations because of her effective governance and strong leadership, which earned the respect of her subjects and advisors. She modernized China and stabilized the Tang Dynasty when it seemed to be crumbling, leading to a golden age of Chinese civilization.
She expanded China’s borders and improved peasants’ lives by improving farming techniques, building new public works and lowering taxes.
Empress Wu had critics who painted her as a controversial figure who was cruel and ruthless. This could have been an exaggeration that originated from male officials who were deeply prejudiced against strong and ambitious women.
4. Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
Elizabeth I is considered one of the most powerful English monarchs and only the second queen in English history to rule in her own right. Known as the “Virgin Queen” because she was never married, Elizabeth ascended the throne after the death of her half-sister Mary I.
Ruling for almost fifty years, her reign brought cultural shifts like the English Renaissance, also named the “Elizabethan Era”, and known as one of the most glorious periods of English history. Her court was filled with musicians, poets, writers, and scholars.
Why Elizabeth I is inspirational:
Queen Elizabeth I was known for her shrewdness, intelligence, and determination, making her one of the exemplary female leaders in history. She was well-educated and fluent in five languages. She used her smarts to steer the monarchy and country through turbulent and stable periods, and encouraged English exploration of the New World, which led to a flourishing economy and put England in a position of power.
She proved her worth during a time when people believed women couldn’t rule as well as men. An inspiring leader, devoted to duty, she always put people’s needs above her own and stayed consistent in her approach.
5. Amina of Zaria (1533-1610)
Amina was a Hausa queen of the city-state of Zazzau, now Nigeria’s northwest region. Known as the warrior queen, Amina of Zaria was the first woman to become the Sarauniya (queen) in a male-dominated society.
Amina’s grandfather identified her leadership abilities and allowed her to attend state meetings when she was young. Later when she was appointed ruler, she became the first woman to rule the African Kingdom. Amina moved away from her father’s peaceful rule by strengthening her military skills and becoming the leader of the Zazzau cavalry.
Why Amina of Zaria I is inspirational:
Queen Amina is remembered as an intelligent, brave, and talented leader who made history, expanding the territory of the Hausa people of north Africa to its largest in history. She also created trade routes throughout North Africa, making it a significant trading center. Gold, new crops, human power, and metal armor boosted the kingdom’s wealth. She is also known for ordering the construction of ancient Hausa fortifications, known as ‘Amina’s walls.’
6. Queen Victoria (1819 –1901)
Queen Victoria was crowned when she was 18, ruling over a vast British Empire stretching across six continents for 63 years. She was the second-longest-reigning English royal in history, topped only by Queen Elizabeth II.
While short in stature (a little below 5 feet tall), she was a giant in shaping the English monarchy. So profound was her impact that her reign was called the Victorian Era.
Why Queen Victoria is inspirational:
Queen Victoria’s reign was a period of significant cultural, scientific, political, economic, and societal progress. Although the British Empire doubled in size, she strived to keep peace and introduce reforms, including abolishing slavery throughout all British colonies and granting voting rights to most British men. Her leadership won her subject’s trust, restoring dignity and popularity to the monarchy.
7. Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)
Indira Gandhi was India’s only female Prime Minister to date and the second longest-serving Prime Minister after her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. She was a controversial, yet influential figure known for her policies that led to her centralization of power and her political intransigency. Consequently, she was called a “dictator” by her opposition and some of her own party members. She served for three consecutive terms and a fourth one in 1980 until she was assassinated by two of her bodyguards in 1984.
Why Indira Gandhi is inspirational:
Indira Gandhi played a pivotal role in India’s struggle to achieve independence from the United Kingdom. Once she became Prime Minister of a free India, she gained widespread public support for agricultural movements, known as the Green Revolution, which helped India overcome food shortages and become self-sufficient in food grains.
Indira Gandhi is also credited for her success in the Pakistan Civil War, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. She introduced social reforms that created equal pay for equal work for both men and women. She was strong and energetic, interested in various subjects, and viewed life as an integrated process.
8. Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013)
Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Nicknamed “the Iron Lady” for her hardheadedness, assertive leadership style, and uncompromising policies, she served for 12 years and gained fame worldwide.
Despite being a controversial figure, she was instrumental in making significant changes to the UK’s infrastructure, including economic policies known as Thatcherism, which involved privatizing social housing and public transport and destroying traditional industries.
Why Margaret Thatcher is inspirational:
To her supporters, Thatcher was viewed as a revolutionary leader who revitalized Britain’s stagnant economy and restored the country’s power in the world. She worked with U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush to end the Cold War.
In every woman, there is a queen, and each of them has something unique to offer. We become queens in our own lives when we take responsibility for our inner kingdoms and treat the people around us with kindness, respect, and dignity. When we acknowledge and hone our inner queen, we will eventually come into our own and become leaders in our own lives.
All my best on your journey,
Question: Which of the female leaders in history is most inspirational to you? Which of their qualities would you most like to emulate in your own life?
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