6 women of history who shaped the world, from a Hawaiian queen to a Chinese empress

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Joseph Losavio, Community Specialist, Infrastructure and Development Initiatives, World Economic Forum

For Women’s History Month, it is important to highlight the contributions of women across society. It is also important to remember women throughout history and understand that while many history texts would have us remember them simply as wives and mothers, women of the past were rulers, warriors and cultural leaders who shaped the world in indelible ways. Many of us are familiar with the likes of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great, but here are six other women (seven, if you count both the sisters) the world should get to know a bit better.

Empress Theodora: saviour of the crown

Byzantine mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, depicting Empress Theodora (6th century) flanked by a chaplain and a court lady believed to be her confidant Antonina, wife of general Belisarius.
Byzantine mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, depicting Empress Theodora flanked by a chaplain and a court lady. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A Greek Cypriot woman born in 497 to a bear-keeper and an actress, Empress Theodora worked on stage herself and also likely as a prostitute (a common side business for actresses at the time) before becoming the empress of the Byzantine Empire. She went on to become the wife of Justinian I and was considered by many at the time, and by historians now, to be a co-ruler of the empire.

In fact, many credit her with saving Justinian’s rule during a revolt where his advisers urged him to flee his capital. Theodora demanded he stay and save his crown, after which he dispatched the rebels and solidified control with Theodora by his side. As empress, she had a particular focus on improving the situation of women in the empire, reforming divorce laws in women’s favour, increasing the penalties for rape, punishing the trafficking of young girls and supporting the rights of sex workers.

Queen Liliʻuokalani: advocate for Hawaiian sovereignty

Liliʻuokalani with hanai son and group of four women
Liliʻuokalani with hanai son and group of four women Image: Wikimedia Commons

As the last queen of the Kingdom of Hawaii (and its only reigning queen), Queen Liliʻuokalani fought hard to maintain independence for her country in the face of American imperialism. An educated woman, she traveled the world to promote Hawaii’s interests, even meeting the UK’s Queen Victoria at her Golden Jubilee.

She was an avid promoter of Hawaiian culture, writing the Aloha Oe, a song now synonymous with the tropical island chain. After an 1893 coup by American agitators and Hawaii’s annexation by the US, Liliʻuokalani remained an advocate for Hawaiian sovereignty until her death. Her home in downtown Honolulu, Iolani Palace, is the only royal palace in the US.

Empress Wu Zetian: a singular Chinese monarch

Wu Zetian diorama at Sui-Tang Gallery, Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou.
Wu Zetian diorama at Sui-Tang Gallery, Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou. Image: Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The only woman to rule China in her own right starting in 690, Empress Wu Zetian was a highly effective leader during the Tang dynasty, China’s golden age. Her reforms inspired the structure of Chinese governments for generations after, and she built a strong imperial state. She shifted the emphasis for recruiting senior government officials away from personal ties to focus on education levels and intellect.

She also expanded the size of the empire and exercised great influence over neighbouring empires in Korea and Japan. Her economic policies brought great wealth to the country, and she was a patron of the arts and education. She also elevated the position of women in society and encouraged the study of the lives of prominent women to emphasise their importance to Tang society. She died an immensely popular ruler with a rich legacy.

Yaa Asantewaa: protector of Ghanian culture

Yaa Asantewaa statue at the Yaa Asantewaa Museum locate at Ejisu.
Yaa Asantewaa statue at the Yaa Asantewaa Museum locate at Ejisu. Image: Noahalorwu via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu in the Asante Empire, now modern-day Ghana, was a formidable woman who protected the most important elements of her culture from colonial invaders. When the British captured a group of Asante rulers in an attempt to fully subjugate them under imperial rule, they also demanded the Asante present them with the Golden Stool, a symbol of Asante royalty and the nation’s most sacred object. Many of the male chiefs were prepared to accede to British demands, but Yaa Asantewaa refused, allegedly saying: “If you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women.”

Yaa Asantewaa rallied her people and commanded the Asante’s troops during the final war of independence against the British in 1900 to prevent the domination of the Asante people and preserve the sanctity of the Golden Stool. In the end, the British were victorious, and even though she died in 1921, she was an influential figure in the nationalist movement of Ghana when it gained independence in 1957.

Olga of Kiev: a saint of both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches

Icon of St Olga of Kiev.
Icon of St Olga of Kiev. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hell hath no fury like Saint Olga of Kiev. She was the first Russian monarch to convert to Christianity, but her early life was decidedly un-saintly. A princess of the Kievian Rus – the progenitor to modern-day Russia – Olga’s husband Ivan was brutally murdered by vassals in 945 (in some accounts by being torn apart by two birch trees). Ruling as regent for her son, Olga set about exacting revenge on her husband’s murderers, burying some alive, locking others in burning buildings and getting others drunk to put them to the sword by the thousands before finally conquering the vassal state.

However, later in life, on a trip to Constantinople, Olga became inspired by Christian teachings and converted to Christianity, giving up her bloody ways. She spent the rest of her life proselytising, funding welfare for the poor and building hospitals. Today, she is a saint in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Trung sisters: national heroines of Vietnam

A statue of Trung Sisters in Ho Chi Minh City.
A statue of Trung Sisters in Ho Chi Minh City. Image: Amore Mio via Wikimedia Commons

The Trung Sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, are national heroines in Vietnam for rebelling against domination by the Chinese empire. Born around 1 AD, the Trung sisters were raised at a time of relative freedom for women in Vietnam where they could serve as judges and soldiers, and had equal rights over property and inherited land. During a time when the Chinese exercised relatively loose, but tightening, control over Vietnam, Trung Trac’s husband was executed for disagreeing with the Chinese governor.

In the aftermath, the sisters raised an army of 80,000 people to eject imperial China. Commanding from elephant-back, their army, which included many women as well as their mother, drove the Chinese from northern Vietnam. The sisters ruled the country for three years until the Chinese invaded and retook Vietnam. Legend has it that rather than surrendering to the Chinese, the sisters committed suicide by jumping into a river.

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  1. Saying that Olga of Kyiv was Russian is false. She was the monarch of Kieran Rus with capital in Kyiv (Kiev) in modern Ukraine.
    The Kieran Rus spanned territories of modern day Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, but majority of its lands overlap with modern day Ukraine.
    Russian Tsardom wasn’t founded until 300 years after Olga’s death.
    Correct this shameful mistake immediately and stop rewriting history, whether intentionally or not.

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