Who was the most powerful woman in history? Was it the only female emperor of China? A female Egyptian Pharaoh who built great temples? Or the Iron Lady who’s economic policies are still influential today? Let’s discuss this on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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  • Diffuse (adj) – spread out and not directed in one place.
    • The company has become large and diffuse.
  • To relegate (v) – to put someone or something into a lower or less important rank or position.
    • She resigned when she was relegated to a desk job.
  • Trappings (n) – all the things that are part of or typical of a particular job, situation, or event.
    • He enjoyed the trappings of power, such as a chauffeur-driven car and bodyguards.
  • To seize (v) – to take using sudden force.
    • Political instability helped the army to seize power.
  • To solidify (v) – to become or make something become certain.
    • He solidified his commitment to the treaty, giving a forceful speech in favour of it.
  • Feeble (adj) – weak and without energy, strength, or power.
    • He was a feeble, helpless old man.
  • Manoeuvring (n) – the action of cleverly planning something to get an advantage.
    • The directors managed to secure a good deal for the company with a bit of subtle manoeuvring.
  • Sweeping (adj) – affecting many things or people; large.
    • We need to make sweeping cuts to our budget.

Women and Power

What is Power?

Power is a complex concept that can take various forms depending on the context and the resources available. The different forms of power include political power, economic power, social power, military power, technological power, knowledge power, and physical power.

These forms of power are not mutually exclusive, and different forms of power can overlap and reinforce each other. For example, a wealthy individual may have economic power, but they may also use their social and political influence to maintain and expand their economic power.

Understanding the different forms of power and how they interact can provide valuable insight into the dynamics of power and influence in different contexts. It is essential to recognize that different forms of power can be used by different individuals or groups, and the balance of power can shift over time, depending on various factors such as social, economic, and political changes.


Powerful Women

Throughout history, power structures have differed significantly. In ancient times, power was often concentrated in the hands of rulers and elites, who exercised their authority through force, religion, or tradition. In feudal societies, power was distributed among a hierarchy of nobles, with the king or queen at the top. In modern democracies, power is more diffuse, with elected officials, interest groups, and civil society organizations vying for influence and control.

However, regardless of the historical context, women have faced significant challenges in attaining power. Women have often been excluded from positions of authority and leadership, and their contributions to society have been undervalued or ignored. Women’s lack of access to education, property rights, and legal protections has also hindered their ability to attain power and influence.

In many societies, women were relegated to roles as wives, mothers, and caregivers, with limited opportunities for public participation or political representation. Even in societies where women had greater access to education and economic opportunities, they often faced gendered stereotypes and discrimination that limited their ability to rise to positions of power.

Despite these challenges, women throughout history have sought to wield power and influence in various ways. Some have done so through behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, using their influence through personal connections or informal networks. Others have challenged gender norms and conventions, pushing for greater gender equality and advocating for women’s rights.

Who Were the Most Powerful Women in History?

Now, I want to introduce you to a few of the most powerful women in history. These women led empires, waged wars, and held massive political and financial power. While this list isn’t definitive or extensive, it includes 5 of the most powerful women in history from different regions and at different time periods.


I think a great place to start is with Queens and Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. The Egyptian empire was powerful, influential, and long-lasting. I’m sure you have all heard of Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt who was known for her intelligence and role in improving Egypt’s economy.

And you may have also heard of Nefertiti, an Egyptian queen who ruled alongside her husband. While the exact extent of her power is often debated, Nefertiti is one of the most iconic female leader in ancient history who reshaped Egypt’s religious practices and was depicted as riding chariots and slaughtering prisoners in carvings.

However, I think there is another candidate for the most powerful female leader from Ancient Egypt: Hatshepsut.  

Hatshepsut was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who ruled from 1478 to 1458 BCE. She is widely considered one of the most powerful women in history due to her successful reign and significant accomplishments. Born to the pharaoh Thutmose I and his queen, Hatshepsut was the only surviving child of the royal couple.

By This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57859093
By This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Hatshepsut is known for her ambitious building projects, including the construction of many temples and monuments throughout Egypt. One of her most famous projects was the construction of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, which still stands today and is considered one of the most impressive structures of the ancient world.

Another famous story about Hatshepsut involves her rise to power. When her husband and half-brother, Thutmose II, died, her stepson, Thutmose III, was too young to rule. In a bold move, Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh and took on all the traditional trappings of the position, including dressing like a man and wearing a false beard.

Hatshepsut’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity, and she is credited with expanding trade and improving the economy. She also implemented many successful building projects and commissioned the famous expedition to Punt, which brought back exotic goods from modern-day Somalia.

Despite her many accomplishments, Hatshepsut’s legacy was largely erased after her death. Her stepson, Thutmose III, who had become an adult and taken the throne, erased her name from many monuments and attempted to remove her from history altogether.

Despite this, Hatshepsut’s achievements and legacy have endured. She is remembered as a powerful and capable leader who defied gender norms and achieved great success during her reign.

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Empress Wu Zetian

While men have largely dominated the powerful roles in Chinese history, there are a few famous instances of influential women taking positions of authority. One example is the Empress Dowager Cixi who dominated China’s Qing dynasty in the late 1800s. She ruled in place of her young son and nephew, ruthlessly killing or “dispatching” any threats to her power.

But today I want to focus on a woman who actually became emperor of China – the Empress Wu Zetian.

By Unknown author - Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2527964
By Unknown author – Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231),

Empress Wu Zetian, also known as Wu Zhao, was the only female emperor in the history of China. She ruled from 690 to 705 AD during the Tang Dynasty and is often considered one of the most powerful and controversial figures in Chinese history.

Born into a wealthy family, Wu entered the imperial court at a young age as a concubine of Emperor Taizong. She rose quickly through the ranks and became a trusted advisor to the emperor’s son, Gaozong, after Taizong’s death. When Gaozong ascended the throne, Wu became his empress, but her ambitions did not stop there. After Gaozong became ill, Wu began to seize more and more power, eventually taking the throne for herself and becoming China’s first and only female emperor.

One of the most famous stories about Wu involves her alleged murder of her own infant daughter. According to legend, Wu was determined to gain the favour of Emperor Taizong and sacrificed her own child in order to demonstrate her loyalty. While the truth of this story is unclear, it speaks to the ruthless reputation that Wu developed during her reign.

Another famous anecdote involves Wu’s decision to replace the traditional Chinese bureaucracy with a system of merit-based exams. This move helped to streamline government administration and reduce corruption, but it also solidified Wu’s own power by allowing her to select officials who were loyal to her.

Wu’s power and influence extended far beyond her own country. During her reign, China became a major military and economic power, with Wu’s policies helping to stabilize the country after years of unrest. Wu was also a patron of the arts, supporting many famous poets and writers of the time.

Empress Wu Zetian is considered one of the most powerful women in history due to her exceptional leadership skills, political savvy, and ability to maintain control over her own destiny. Despite facing numerous challenges and controversies, she was able to guide China to a period of stability and prosperity, and her legacy continues to be felt to this day.

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Elizabeth I

When talking about powerful women, I think we have to include a British monarch (and not just because I’m British). While the UK has had many powerful female leaders, including the warrior queen Boudica who led an uprising against the Romans, the long reigning Queen Victoria who presided over the largest empire in history, and the recently deceased Elizabeth II, today I’m going to focus on Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen, was the Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and was born on September 7, 1533. Elizabeth was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty and is often considered one of the greatest monarchs in English history.

Despite the challenges she faced during her reign, Elizabeth was known for her strong leadership and intelligence. She was a skilled politician and was able to navigate the complicated political landscape of her time with relative ease. One of her most famous anecdotes is the speech she gave at Tilbury in 1588, where she addressed her troops as they prepared for the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth famously declared, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”

Throughout her reign, Elizabeth was courted by many suitors, both from England and abroad. However, she never married, citing her devotion to her country as her reason for remaining single. Her refusal to marry was a bold move in a time when a woman’s worth was often measured by her marital status, but it allowed Elizabeth to remain in complete control of her own destiny.

Elizabeth’s power and influence extended far beyond her own country. During her reign, England became a major naval power and began to establish itself as a world leader in trade and commerce. Elizabeth was also a patron of the arts, supporting many famous writers and playwrights of the time, including William Shakespeare.

Overall, Elizabeth I is considered one of the most powerful women in history due to her exceptional leadership skills, political savvy, and ability to maintain control over her own destiny. Despite facing numerous challenges, she was able to guide England to a period of stability and prosperity, and her legacy continues to be felt to this day.


Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great was the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796 and is widely considered one of the most powerful and successful female rulers in history. Born as Sophia Augusta Frederica in Prussia, she later converted to Orthodox Christianity and took the name Catherine upon her marriage to the future Tsar Peter III.

By Unknown author - http://www.emii.ru/kollekcii/russkoe-iskusstvo-xviii--nachala-xx-veka/portret-imperatricy-ekateriny-ii-exhibit-20.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53597136

Catherine is famous for her strong leadership and many reforms that modernized Russia. She promoted education, art, and culture, and implemented new laws that improved the lives of her subjects. She also expanded the territory of the Russian Empire, adding Crimea and much of what is now Ukraine to its borders. She waged wars and engaged in political manoeuvring in order to gain control over those territories, which were previously under the control of the Ottoman Empire or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

One of the most famous anecdotes about Catherine involves her adventurous spirit. She was known for her love of travel and exploration, and went on many long and arduous journeys throughout her reign. One of her most memorable trips was a tour of the southern Ukraine, during which she personally led an expedition to explore the newly conquered region.

Another famous story about Catherine involves her love of art and culture. She was a patron of many famous artists and writers of her time, including Voltaire, Diderot, and Mozart. Catherine was also an avid collector of art and supported the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which is now one of the largest and most important art museums in the world.

Catherine’s power and influence extended far beyond Russia. She played a significant role in European diplomacy and was known for her intelligence and political acumen. She also worked to improve the lives of her subjects, implementing new laws that protected the rights of women and peasants.

Overall, Catherine the Great is considered one of the most powerful women in history due to her exceptional leadership skills, political savvy, and enduring legacy. Her reforms and achievements helped to modernize Russia and establish it as a major player on the world stage. Her legacy continues to be felt to this day, both in Russia and around the world.


Margaret Thatcher

So far, the women I’ve mentioned in this episode have been powerful due to their roles as queens, empresses, and monarchs. I’d like to end the episode by talking about a politician – a woman who achieved great power not through birth or marriage but by being elected as leader.

There are a few possible candidates. Indira Gandhi served 4 terms as Prime Minister of India. She was controversial and powerful, winning a war against Pakistan that led to the foundation of Bangladesh. Angela Merkel was the Chancellor of Germany for 16 years, helping to shape the EU and becoming one of the most influential European leaders of the 21st century.

By derivative work by Begoon - This file was derived from: Margaret Thatcher stock portrait.tif, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84448824
By derivative work by Begoon – This file was derived from: Margaret Thatcher stock portrait

There is also Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher was a British politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. She was the first woman to hold this position and is widely considered one of the most powerful women in history.

Born in 1925 in Grantham, England, Thatcher grew up in a conservative family and attended Oxford University where she studied chemistry. After a brief stint as a research chemist, she decided to pursue a career in politics and was first elected to Parliament in 1959.

Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister was marked by sweeping reforms and a strong stance on foreign policy. She was known for her conservative economic policies and her close relationship with US President Ronald Reagan. One famous anecdote involves Thatcher’s nickname, the “Iron Lady,” which was given to her by the Soviet press in response to her tough stance against communism.

Another famous story involves Thatcher’s role in the Falklands War. In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory in the South Atlantic. Thatcher responded by sending a task force to retake the islands, which were eventually returned to British control. Thatcher’s decisive leadership during the conflict earned her widespread praise and cemented her reputation as a strong and capable leader.

Thatcher’s legacy is still felt today, both in the UK and around the world. Her economic policies, known as Thatcherism, continue to influence conservative politicians, and her leadership during the Falklands War is still celebrated in Britain. She was a trailblazer for women in politics and her impact on the world stage cannot be overstated. Margaret Thatcher is truly one of the most powerful women in history.


Final Thought

Power is a complicated thing. It can come in many forms and changes in characteristics throughout history. Who was the most powerful woman in history? I don’t think that can be accurately answered. But definitely the women I mentioned today would be considered among the most powerful in history.

Can you think of any other powerful women from history? Who is the most powerful woman alive today?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

2 thoughts on “219. Who Was the Most Powerful Woman in History? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. I can talk about Hürrem sultan(Roxelana) . She was one of the most influential women in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century. She was the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and had a significant impact on the political and social affairs of the empire.Hürrem Sultan was known for her intelligence and political savvy, and she used her position as a wife of the sultan to influence her husband’s decisions(behind-the-scenes manoeuvring). She played a key role in the appointment of important government officials . She was a patron of the arts and supported the development of Ottoman literature and music. She was also instrumental in bringing European art and culture to the Ottoman Empire, and encouraged the building of palaces and gardens in the European style . She was also involved diplomatic some affairs. Hürrem Sultan’s influence on the Ottoman Empire was significant, and she is remembered as one of the most influential and powerful women in Turkish history.
    I’m not a history fan so I don’t know much about history but I want to add something from Turkey. Maybe I can talk about Meral akşener who is a leader of a policital party but I think she hasn’t much power

  2. There are some powerful women in italian history.
    The first whose I can talk was Livia Drusilla Claudia (58 bc – 29 Ad), also simply known as Livia, the emperor Ottaviano Augusto’s wife, who lived at the early roman empire age. Both Ottaviano and Livia were already married, thus they had to divorce by the formers spouses the same day when they got married. At that time Livia had already a son, Tiberio (the Augusto’s successor), and (the wedding day with Augusto) she was nine months pregnant of another son, Druso, even him by the former husband.
    The marriage between Ottaviano and Livia went on beyond fifty years, till the Ottaviano’s death.
    Many scholars agree that Livia was the real emperor, both during the August’s reign and her son Tiberio’s reign. In fact she belonged to the most noble roman family, the Claudia gens, she was educated as a male by his father (Marco Livio Druso Claudiano), it means which she studied at hight levels e could also fight.
    She was very bossy. Ottaviano could’t take any decision without consulting her. All the Ottaviano’s blood descendants died in strange circumstances and some ancient scholar tought that Livia could had had some responsibilities.
    Her son Tiberio, who hated her because she had obliged him to broke his happy marriage with Agrippina to getting married with Giulia (the daughter who Ottaviano had had by the former wife), once became emperor was fed up with her, thus left Rome moving to Capri leaving the power, practically, in his mother’s hand.
    I have given the name Livia to my first daughter because she is the first istance of powerful woman in our history and because the marriage between Ottaviano and Livia posed end to the roman civil war and started a fifty years period of peace.
    Maybe is this the reason my daughter is such bossy?

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