You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been.
It’s a common cliché, but it can be true – especially when we talk about women and leadership.
When we think about historic women leaders, names that frequently come to mind are Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I. We don’t often hear about women leaders in our history classes in school – we are taught that men have traditionally led countries, armies, and philosophies.
This means that men have more leadership role models in history and women typically don’t. And this leads us to quickly realize that trailblazing is hard! We believe that we are doing something new that women haven’t really done before.
What if that perception wasn’t quite right? What if women have been leading – not as often as men – and we just weren’t told much about it?
That changes things – especially what it means for women to lead today.
If we believe that women leading is a new idea, then each time a woman encounters struggles or faces opposition, we accept that it’s just women forging new territory. But if we believe that women have led before then leadership transitions from being something men have traditionally done to something that people – men and women – do.
I recently did some quick research about women leaders before 1700 AD and there are a number that we don’t often hear about in history class.
One favorite is Hildegard of Bingen. She was a nun who lived around 1100 AD. We tend to think that women religious leaders didn’t have a lot of power, but this isn’t true. She is considered to be the “greatest woman of her time,” and was a type of “Dear Abby.” She was elected to lead her monastery by her sisters and maintained her position until her death. She wrote over 300 letters, a musical play, 72 songs (still played today), 70 poems and 9 books. She also had visions.
…Pope Eugenius III sent a commission to inquire into her work. The commission found her teaching orthodox and her insights authentic, and reported so to the Pope, who sent her a letter of approval…She wrote back urging the Pope to work harder for reform of the Church.
She definitely didn’t hold back her opinions.
Another favorite is Hrotsvitha (b 935 AD). She is considered to be the first woman playwright, and much of her work was set aside and not performed for at least 500 years. Hrotsvitha was strongly aware that her gender made her less likely to be taken seriously as a writer. She used a number of strategies to counter this, including arguing that her talent is divinely inspired, leveraging the etymology of her given name to to back this up (it technically meant “strong honor;” she interpreted it as “a clarion voice”).
In China there was Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 AD). It is said that she achieved power through ruthless and unconscionable means, including killing her own children. However, some of those stories have been doubted by historians because at that time in Confucian beliefs severely limited women’s roles in Chinese society. Women just did not lead.
Despite that, her achievements included:
- A peaceful and prosperous reign
- Introduction of meritocracy for bureaucrats
- Being open minded to act on advice from her ministers
- Agricultural growth
- Reduced taxes
To help shift the perception of women in society, she:
- Required children to mourn both parents, rather than only their father
- Replaced Confucianism with Buddhism
- Published a book Biographies of Famous Women to raise awareness of women’s achievements
There were a number of Ethiopian Empresses who challenged – and won – military conflicts against Western empires. There is much confusion in these stories, however, because the word for empress was Candace, and historians have a tendency to flip-flop the name Candace between being a name and title. There are many writings about Candace of Ethiopia, from legends where her army defeated Alexander the Great to leading the Kushites against the Romans and winning.
My other favorite women in history are Roman women. They weren’t allowed to be rulers, but they held a lot of influence over the men in charge. In one instance, Hortensia, an orator, gave a speech before the second Triumverate against them taxing 1500 women:
Not having any say in politics themselves, the women were furious at being taxed for a war they had nothing to do with. The women arrived at the forum with Hortensia as a representative to make a speech to the triumvirs.
The outcome: only 400 women were taxed and the government went to find other men to pay.
There are many more women who had a profound impact on history (see links below). And note that this covers on 3 continents – I didn’t even get a chance to to explore women leaders in the Americas before 1500.
If we took some time to research women leaders of the ancient world, we would find a number of role models. We need to stop thinking that women leading is something new and that we are the only ones breaking through the “glass ceiling.” And imagine if these are the women that we do know about, who may have been written out of history?
We need to keep women’s history alive so we remember what’s possible for women. We can only do this by talking about their achievements, including men in the conversation, so collectively we can have a different understanding of what it means to lead.
For additional reading:
- 12 Notable women of Medieval Europe
- Women Philosophers of Ancient Times
- 15 Important Muslim Women
- Powerful Women Warriors
- Powerful Women Rulers Everyone Should Know About
- Bad Girls of the Ancient World
- 10 Noble and Notorious Women of Ancient Greece
- More Women Rulers
- 7 African Female Icons that Shaped History