If Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the presidential election she will, in January 2017, be inaugurated as leader of the most powerful country — economically and militarily — that the world has ever known. She will acquire an impressive range of personal powers, including the authority to sign or veto legislation, appoint senior officials, pardon criminals, negotiate treaties, command the armed forces and, thanks to America's nuclear and drone capabilities, bring mass or highly targeted death to any corner of the earth. Her influence will undoubtedly be felt by millions of people living far beyond her own country. But will President Clinton be the most powerful woman ever to have lived?
There have been several strong contenders for the title of world's most powerful woman, but not as many as we might perhaps expect. Throughout history, men have played the dominant political role. Women have always been able to influence the deeds of men — their sons, husbands, brothers, and lovers — but the hidden power behind the throne is both difficult to prove and impossible to quantify. Many women have stepped forward to rule on behalf of infant sons and absent husbands, only to have their unofficial reigns "lost" within the official male reign. Some women, Mary the mother of Jesus being perhaps the most obvious example, have had immense cultural impact, but wielded little actual power during their lifetime.
The women discussed below were all able to act on their own authority. All exerted a powerful influence within their countries and outside them. Unlike an American president, none of these women was voted into office and none could easily be removed from power. All but one continued in her role until death.
Just over a century ago, Victoria was not only queen of the United Kingdom, she was also (among other titles) Empress of India. Her nine children made suitably regal marriages linking Victoria to the royal families of Europe, and her grandchildren continued this tradition. She is often cited as an example of a powerful woman. But, as a constitutional monarch, Victoria had little actual power. She was able to advise her government, but could not take further action. And, as she was a relatively private monarch, her ability to influence her subject was limited. She probably does not belong on this list, as her role was that of a national figurehead rather than a powerful woman.
Catherine the Great
The Empress Catherine — known today as Catherine the Great — ruled Russia from 1762-1796. Born the daughter of a minor Prussian prince, she married into the Russian royal family and came to power following the overthrow and subsequent assassination of her husband, Peter III. Under Catherine's rule, the borders of the Russian Empire were extended both to the south and the west, with an estimated 200,000 square miles of new territory, including Belarus, Lithuania, and the Crimea, being added. Back home, she continued the westernization started by her late husband's grandfather, Peter the Great. Her long reign came to be regarded as a golden age: a time when the arts and architecture flourished, and new cities were founded.
Maria Theresa of Austria
Maria Theresa of Austria became the last ruling Habsburg in 1740, following the death of her father Charles VI. The subsequent War of the Austrian Succession involved most of the powers of Europe. Maria Theresa emerged victorious to rule over much of central Europe, the Balkans, and Northern Italy. Unable, as a woman, to become Holy Roman Emperor she secured the title for her husband, Franz I. Having re-organized and modernized the ineffectual Austrian army she was prepared to fight to defend her lands; indeed she declared that if she had not been almost continually pregnant for 20 years (she bore 16 children, 13 of whom lived beyond infancy) she would have fought in battle herself. Amongst her many achievements, Maria Theresa introduced compulsory schooling for boys and girls, and developed an efficient administrative system that allowed the once ailing Habsburg Empire to flourish.
Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth inherited the thrones of England and Ireland in 1558, following the death of her half-sister, the staunchly Catholic Queen Mary. Elizabeth established and became Supreme Governor of the Protestant Church, which was to evolve onto the highly influential Church of England. As the "Virgin Queen," she became a cultural icon, celebrated in the art and writings that flourished during her reign. Her foreign policy was mainly defensive, although she was prepared to fight if necessary. Faced with rebellion from Catholic Ireland, she imposed a harsh retribution that left many of her subjects starving. Elizabeth was undoubtedly powerful within her own countries. Her influence outside this relatively limited sphere — especially in mainland Europe — was limited.
Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of China, ruled during the brief restored Zhou Dynasty (690-705). Wu was the beautiful and extremely well-educated daughter of chancellor Wu Shihuo. Her rise to power started when she was selected as a concubine by Emperor Taizong. Following Taizong's death she ruthlessly removed all rivals to become the empress consort of his successor, Gaozong. When her husband died, Wu, now dowager empress, remained the effective ruler of China during the reigns of two of her sons. Finally, in 690 CE she ordered her second son to abdicate, and took his place. She ruled as emperor in her own right until, during the last year of her life, she herself was forced to abdicate in favor of her third son.
Cleopatra VII inherited the throne of Egypt from her father, Ptolemy XII, in 51 BCE. Recovering from an inauspicious start, which saw Egypt poised on the brink of civil war, she was able to stabilize her country and form an alliance with Julius Caesar that ensured security for her people. Following Caesar's assassination, a new alliance with Mark Anthony eventually led to the restoration of the Ptolemaic Empire. Cleopatra now ruled a large part of the eastern Mediterranean world. Unfortunately, this proved to be a short-lived triumph. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony were defeated by the Roman Octavian (soon to become the Emperor Augustus) at the Battle of Actium, and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BCE.
Cleopatra was not Egypt's only reigning queen. Almost 1,500 years earlier, 18th Dynasty Egypt was ruled by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut technically ruled alongside her young co-regent, Tuthmosis III, but effectively she acted as sole ruler, and as such she became head of the army, the civil service, and the priesthood. Her purported ability to communicate with the gods allowed Hatshepsut to spread the good news that she was the daughter of the great god Amen of Thebes. As long-standing artistic tradition expected the king of Egypt to have the appearance of a fit young man, Hatshepsut's official art depicted her with a male body dressed in male clothes and accessories, including a false beard. However, her texts made it clear to all who could read that Egypt's pharaoh was a woman. Hatshepsut's reign was a peaceful one, characterized by monumental building and foreign trade.
Having considered the careers of these powerful women, we can see that each was able to influence events both within and outside her own community during her own lifetime. Some controlled vast territories; others had access to vast wealth. However, none of these women had access to the modern technologies which allow the image, thoughts and deeds of the President of the United States of America to be experienced quite literally worldwide. Nor did they have access to the weaponry and financial resources that the president can employ.
Were she to ascend to the presidency, would Mrs. Clinton become the most powerful woman ever? On this evidence, it seems very likely that she would.
Dr Joyce Tyldesley is an Egyptologist with a specialist interest in the women of the ancient world.