Five Women You Never Realized Ruled the World

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam Posted by Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Five Women You Never Realized Ruled the World

The Influence Effect is a powerful book about how women can forge their own path to power while also helping others. Women in power remain a rarity in the modern world but even rarer still is how several highly influential women from antiquity are barely remembered despite their tremendous power and influence.

Here are just five women forgotten by most who at one time or another controlled entire populations:

1. Kosem Sultan: The most powerful woman of the 17th century came to Istanbul as a slave around 1600. She was Greek originally. But she took the name Kosem when she was sold to the imperial harem, where she soon became the favorite wife of Sultan Ahmed I. She then maneuvered his mentally ill brother, Mustafa, onto the throne. Mustafa was quickly deposed by his nephew Osman, and Kosem retreated into the background for a few years. She returned in 1623 when her young son Murad IV became sultan. (Osman had been murdered by his Janissary slave-soldiers in the interim.) Kosem became regent during her son’s childhood, ruling the empire for over a decade. Kosem again took power in 1640 when Murad died and was replaced with his mentally ill brother Ibrahim. (Mentally ill brothers were something of a tradition among the Ottomans.) She quickly found Ibrahim too erratic to control and organized his murder in 1648. After that, she continued to rule as regent for his young son Mehmed IV.

2. Sorghaghatani Kepi: Although almost forgotten today, Sorghaghtani was one of the most famous women of the 13th century. The Persian chronicler Rashid al-Din wrote that the “great emirs and troops” of the Mongols “never swerved a hair’s breadth from her command.” Sorghaghtani was the wife of Tolui, the youngest son of Genghis Khan. When Tolui died, Sorghaghtani was appointed regent of his estates, even though her oldest son was already 23. She quickly established herself as a power player in Mongol politics and helped to place Guyuk Khan on the throne. When Guyuk died in 1248, Sorghaghtani saw her chance. She formed an alliance with the powerful Batu, khan of the Golden Horde, and began a massive campaign of bribery to have her son Mongke elected Great Khan. In this she was opposed by Guyuk’s family, but Sorghaghtani was relentless and even personally oversaw the torture and execution of Guyuk’s wife, Oghul Qaimish.

3. Ahhotep: Ahhotep I lived in interesting times. In the 1500s BC, ancient Egypt seemed to be crumbling under internal pressures and a fearsome group of invaders known as the Hyksos. Ahhotep was the sister-wife of Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao, who was executed by the Hyksos in the 1560s. Analysis of his mummy reveals that his death involved two axe blows to the head and a dagger to the neck. After her husband’s death, Ahhotep became regent for her young son Ahmose I. As well as ruling Egypt, she seems to have personally rallied her husband’s forces to fight off the Hyksos and Egyptian rebels. After this feat, she began wearing the “Golden Flies of Valor,” a decoration given to distinguished Egyptian generals. Ahhotep lived to a ripe old age (perhaps around 90) and was buried with great honor.

4. Arsinoe IV: Arsinoe was the daughter of Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general who had seized Egypt when Alexander the Great died. Arsinoe was married to Lysimachus, another general who had taken control of Thrace and soon became a key player in the wars between Alexander’s successors. Among other things, Arsinoe poisoned Lysimachus’s son by his first marriage and then had her own children murdered by her second husband. Around 279 BC, Arsinoe fled back to Egypt, where her brother Ptolemy II had inherited the throne. She quickly proved the most formidable politician in the kingdom, having her brother’s wife exiled on false charges and then marrying him herself. As queen, Arsinoe soon sidelined her brother and established herself as the effective ruler of Egypt. She was referred to as a pharaoh in official documents and issued coins in her name, depicting her in full pharaonic regalia. She and her brother were often depicted as Isis and Osiris in art, invoking ancient Egyptian traditions to justify their marriage. Arsinoe died around 268, leaving behind a powerful cult centered around her worship. Her brother never remarried, although he ruled for another 20 years.

5. Nur Jahan: In the 1620s, the mighty Mughal Empire stretched across the Indian subcontinent. Officially, it was ruled by the emperor Jahangir. In reality, Jahangir was a weak, alcoholic, opium addict and true power rested with his wife, Nur Jahan. This was no great secret: Nur Jahan issued proclamations in her own name and had coins minted bearing her image. She even held the royal seal, which was used to stamp all official orders. Her archrival was the general and minister Mahabat Khan. When Nur Jahan had his son-in-law arrested, Mahabat responded by seizing Jahangir in a coup. Nur Jahan personally led her troops in an attempt to seize him back and then organized a cunning escape plan. Mahabat’s gamble had failed, and Nur Jahan’s power was left unchecked.