Behind every powerful man is a woman; and behind every great empire in history, a powerful woman commanded legions.
History has no shortage of kings, emperors, and generals lording over vast countries and leading large armies but the question remains: Are they really the ones pulling the strings?
Just studying the royal Egyptian bloodline, you would discover many of their great pharaohs were women. The Empresses of China also has impressive records of leadership. But as the saying goes, “History is written by the victors,” so most of these women are overshadowed by the accomplishments of their husbands, leaving their contributions and exceptional personalities almost forgotten.
That is why, for this list, we are counting down the 5 Most Powerful Women Who Secretly Ruled the World.
#5 — Toregene
There is no argument that one of the greatest empires in history, conquering a third of the world, belonged to the Mongols.
Intelligent, fierce, and extremely organized, the Mongol horde rode and invaded large parts of Asia and have stretched their domain to portions of Europe.
After Genghis Khan died, his power passed on to his third son, Ogedei. However, Ogedei had a little problem controlling his drinking and left much of his leadership to his wife, Toregene. As historical records would later show, Toregene was, in fact, responsible for many proclamations during her husband’s reign.
When Ogedei finally drank himself to the grave, Toregene became his immediate successor until a new Khan could be elected. With her cunning, she was able to delay the election for five years, and under her leadership, the Mongol empire flourished from the China to the far reaches of Russia. With a reputation for her leadership, prominent monarchs paid homage to her like the Seljuk Sultan and the Grand Prince Yaroslav – who, incidentally, died mysteriously after sharing a feast with her.
To secure power for her bloodline, Toregene campaigned for her son, Guyuk, to be elected the new Khan. Unfortunately for Guyuk, he was not completely trusted, and everyone hated him but Toregene, in another display of extraordinary political acumen, bribed many in the empire which was funded by a massive and aggressive form of tax on agriculture.
Even though she was relentless, she finally died in 1246, a year after successfully securing Guyuk’s place as the new Khan of the Mongol empire.
#4 — Kosem Sultan
One of the most powerful women of the 17th Century has a very interesting story. She was of Greek descent and came to Istanbul. She was sold into Sultan Ahmed I's harem and named Kosem after becoming his wife.
After Ahmed’s death, she made a move to secure her place in the Imperial court by positioning Mustafa, Ahmed’s mentally ill brother, as the new Sultan and she succeeded with little protest from the people around her.
However, due to his mental state, Mustafa’s nephew Osman easily took back the throne, forcing Kosem to leave Istanbul in hiding for fear of retribution from Osman. But in 1623, Kosem triumphantly returned to Istanbul after Osman's own Janissary soldiers murdered him and Kosem's 11-year old son, Murad IV, became sultan.
During the reign of Murad IV, Kosem became regent for much of his childhood, ruling the Ottoman Empire from behind the throne for well over a decade.
Murad died in 1640 and power passed on to his mentally-ill brother, Ibrahim. Unfortunately, Kosem found Ibrahim difficult to control and, in 1648, organized his murder.
Her young son, Mehmed IV, ascended the throne afterward and Kosem’s power as regent of the Ottoman Empire became firmly cemented.
#3 — Boudicca
She is one of Britain’s most iconic heroes and a Queen whose story has sadly been swept under the rug.
Boudicca is the Queen of the Iceni, a tribe in East England that existed during the first century AD.
Leading one of the greatest battles against the Roman Empire around 60 – 61 AD, Boudicca was victorious in uniting British tribes to defeat the Romans encroaching on British soil.
In more ways than one, she can be described as a warrior Queen and her rallying cry was recorded by the historian Tacitus:
“We British are used to women commanders in war; I am descended from mighty men! But I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters… That is what I, a woman, plan to do!”
With this battle cry, Boudicca’s victory was secured. However, this victory would not last long as they had hoped. The Romans began to rally their troops and crushed the revolt in one swift wave of attack. The Iceni were slain and executed to the point of extinction, and those that managed to survive were enslaved.
Even though Boudicca’s victory was short-lived, she is remembered through history as one of the most courageous warrior queens who fought for freedom from oppression, for herself and all the Celtic tribes of the British Isles.
#2 — Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
Woodrow Wilson led America’s entrance and victory in World War I, shaped the League of Nations, and – perhaps his most important contribution to history – granted women the right to vote.
However, despite his successes and hallmark contributions to the United States and the free world, he is only human. In 1919, President Wilson suffered a stroke that paralyzed the entire left side of his body, preventing him to “run at full capacity.”
It was due to this unfortunate incident that Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, first lady of the United States, was placed in a unique position of power even before women were allowed to vote. As the so-called Keeper of the Presidency, Edith kept her husband’s weakened condition from his staff for six weeks; an act that, presumably, involved mannequins dressed as the president with cleverly hidden recordings of President Wilson’s voice.
In her memoirs, Edith claims that she only decided on which matters to bring to the president and which ones could be decided on without him. Though she never had the authority to sign official documents on her husband’s behalf, the position of deciding on what the president should and should not see was still an utterly significant amount of power.
At one point, Edith fought against having the Vice President take her husband’s office. She was the first female president of the United States as many people would refer to her. Whether they were serious or not is a matter of conjecture.
Her role during her husband’s presidency is not as grandiose or as violent as the other women on this list, having the power to decide on behalf of the most powerful man in the free world deserves merit.
#1 — Olympias
Alexander the Great ruled an empire that stretched across Europe, into Asia, and North Africa. The “Great” appended to his name was well-earned through blood and sweat. A fierce general and a fearsome leader, Alexander ruled his empire atop a mighty throne; but while he enjoyed the comfort of his seat, the real strings were pulled from behind the throne.
Olympias, the mother of Alexander, was beautiful and powerful in the cult of the god Dionysus. Perhaps, she was history’s original femme fatale with her cunning and remarkable intelligence. She put to shame anyone who tried to pry power from the hands of her son.
In one story, when Alexander’s claim to power was threatened by revolt, coups, and discontented politicians, Olympias spread rumors that her son was born out of an affair she supposedly had with the god Zeus thus making Alexander a demi-god. Spreading like wildfire, the rumor turned to truth, and Olympias effectively secured an entire lifetime for Alexander to sit on his throne. As was custom and as Olympias’ power play worked out, Alexander cannot be denied his right to rule because of his status as a son of Zeus.
She is also one scornful lover. In another historical account, when her husband divorced her and married another woman, Olympias ordered her husband’s assassination; and in a move to maintain Alexander’s place in power, she also had her ex-husband’s children killed to stamp out any competing claim to the throne.
In Alexander’s absence, his regent Antipater was to rule in his stead. However, Olympias was able to subvert Antipater’s authority and quashed every ruling he would decree.
Even after Alexander’s death, Olympias continued to wage war and ordered Alexander’s armies to march into countries and regions that have not yet been invaded. Despite the presence of a reagent to conduct all affairs of state until a new leader is installed, Olympias continued to exhibit an extraordinary amount of power and ran an empire on a scale that is yet to be rivaled by anyone.
In his dying breath, Antipater’s dying words were a warning that women should never be allowed to lead: quite possibly referring to what a taste of power has done to Olympias.