Women from different times and backgrounds have fought for their rights and place in the world, and contributed an unprecedented amount of knowledge and talent, especially in the field of political history. They shaped the course of history by breaking the cultural and social barriers of their day and managed to rise to the top of political power. Beginning with Empress Theodora, an early feminist, to Olga of Kiev, a converted warrior; as well as King Tamar, a female Georgian monarch named “King of Kings; King Jadwiga, a young but mighty monarch; and Hurrem Sultan, who fought for her and her family, changing an entire mindset of the Ottoman Empire regarding women’s rights.
On their way to the top, these women were often criticized and even marginalized for their decisions and political or personal choices that would have been considered privileges granted to only men. Humankind has preserved the accounts of these magnificent women who shaped political history, albeit on the back pages of world history.
1. Empress Theodora (497-548): An Early Feminist in Byzantine Political History
Empress Theodora was the wife of Emperor Justinian I and his most trusted advisor due to her intellect and political savviness. She is recognized as the most influential woman in Byzantine political history. Empress Theodora utilized her position to advance religious and social policies according to her beliefs and interests, including increasing the rights of women.
Even though Theodora lived in an era of huge changes in the Byzantine Empire that is well documented, her history is largely overlooked. Her story is described in Procopius’s Secret History, which was written in 548. Procopius depicted Theodora as a kind of Mrs. Machiavelli. Niccolò Machiavelli was an Italian philosopher and statesman from 1469-1527 who advocated the use of all means to consolidate power. His political treatise, The Prince, describes the ways and means for seizing and maintaining power.
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Theodora was born in 497, in the family of a bear-keeper of Constantinople’s Hippodrome. Her father died at an early age, and the mother decided to dress her three little daughters up and train them in dancing and acting after having married another animal keeper. By age 15, Theodora became an actress, dancer, and comedian, professions largely associated with prostitution at that time.
Theodora left her profession at the age of 18 to marry Hecebolus, the ruler of what is now known as Libya. Soon after their breakup, she joined an ascetic community in the desert close to Alexandria and turned to Monophysitism, an early form of Christianity that was suppressed by the Roman government at that time. Roman Christianity depicted Christ as both of human and divine nature, while Monophysitism believed that divinity was the primary force of Christ.
Theodora met Justinian at the age of 21 when she returned to Constantinople and married him in 527. Eventually, she became an Empress after Justinian’s ascension to the throne in the same year. His affection and love towards Theodora were so strong that he had initiated changes in Roman law to raise Theodora’s status and allow her to marry.
As Empress, Theodora elaborated on the document On Pimps to discourage pimps from using prostitutes as a source of income. She established a residence with strict rules and a code of conduct to provide shelter for homeless women unable to marry or live peacefully. Theodora pushed for women’s rights to inheritance and marriage and created anti-rape legislation. Her policies exiled brothel owners from Constantinople and all of the empire’s major cities.
Theodora ruled with her husband peacefully until she died in 548. An actress, a prostitute, and a mistress managed to become an Empress of the civilized world and create a Golden Era of Byzantine with her husband. Feminist by nature and a deep believer in Christianity, Empress Theodora was canonized as a saint by the Christian Church.
2. Olga of Kiev (890-969): Converted Warrior
Olga of Kiev was born around 900 in the city of Pskov in what is today Russia. It is believed that Olga of Kiev was a descendant of the noble family of Izborsks, the first Vikings who settled in the kingdom and had Scandinavian origins. In 903, the leader of Kievan Rus, Prince Igor, married Olga when she was just 15. However, after the murder of the latter in 945, the reins of power were handed over to Olga due to the young age of the original heir to the throne, Svyatoslav.
Queen Olga of Kiev brutally took revenge on the Drevlians, the neighboring tribe who killed her husband: she burned their property, killed many, and captured thousands. The Drevlians, who had their own goals, frequently allied with the Kievan Rus in battles against the Byzantine Empire and paid tribute to Oleg, brother of Igor. However, they ceased paying after Oleg died in 945. Prince Igor traveled to Drevlians to negotiate or force them to pay tribute again. Instead, Drevlians brutally assaulted and killed him.
This revenge strengthened the centralized government and gave the queen the possibility to introduce a new structure to her territories that included gathering demographic data, dividing the land of Kiev, fixing the first borders of the Kingdom, and establishing the system of tribute gathering, which is sometimes considered to be the first legal tax system in Eastern Europe.
Olga’s conversion to Christianity is one of her most well-known accomplishments. She was one of the first to introduce this religion to the originally pagan Kievan Rus. After completing her vengeance against the Drevlians, Olga of Kiev began her journey to Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire.
In Constantinople, Olga was greatly influenced by Chrisianity and decided to be baptized. The Patriarch of Constantinople performed the holy sacrament, and her godfather was the emperor himself: Constantine VII. She was renamed Helen in honor of the Holy Queen of the Apostles and mother of Constantine the Great. The Byzantines declared Olga “equal to the Apostles” for her conversion. She became one of only five women to be honored with this status in the history of Christianity. Olga stayed in Constantinople and got thoroughly acquainted with Christianity. She wanted to strengthen Christianity in her territories but could not accomplish the goal. Her son, Svyatoslav, like other nobles, did not accept the new religion.
Eventually, Olga of Kiev died in 969. In 1547, the Russian Orthodox Church officially canonized her as Saint Olga of Kiev, the patron saint of widows and converts, cementing her place in political history.
3. King Tamar (1160-1213): King of Kings
From 1184 to 1213, King Tamar, also known as Tamar the Great, reigned the kingdom of Georgia, a country nestled between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. During her rule, the Georgian Golden Age reached its zenith. King Tamar was the first woman to serve as Georgia’s supreme leader.
King Tamar was the daughter of George III, a representative of the royal Bagration dynasty. When Tamar was 18 years old, King George began to include her in governance and appointed her as a co-ruler. This was done to end any turmoil after his death and establish Tamar’s rightful place as a ruler. However, in 1184, after the death of King George, the feudal aristocracy began to fight to restore previously lost political privileges. The nobles questioned Tamar’s legitimacy as the first female ruler. Young Tamar had no choice but to make important concessions by marrying against her will, which made the ill-disposed aristocracy at the center of power again.
In 1185, a group of influential feudal lords married King Tamar to the Rus Prince, Yuri, known in Georgian sources as “Giorgi Rus.” He was a challenging individual who was frequently charged with alcoholism and addiction. Tamar, who was becoming more and more assertive of her powers as a queen regnant, managed to persuade the noble council to approve her divorce. Giorgi Rus was sent off to Constantinople. King Tamar married a second time around 1189 (or 1187) to David Soslan, her trusted advisor and excellent military commander.
Nobles tried to change the administration system so that the legislative power would be removed from the king and transferred entirely to this new institution. The strategic thinking and diplomacy of King Tamar made the peaceful resolution of the issue possible. She sent two prominent women, Kravai Jackeli and Khuashak Tsokali, to negotiate, and the agreement was made based on mutual compromise. The new institution would not be established. Instead, King Tamar increased the rights of the Hall.
Once King Tamar consolidated her power, she resumed her predecessors’ expansionist foreign policy. The foundation of the Empire of Trebizond on the Black Sea coast in 1204 was one of King Tamar’s most notable achievements.
Tamar’s reign spread throughout the entire Caucasus, from the Greater Caucasus to Erzurum and from the Zygii to areas close to Ganja, Azerbaijan. She not only expanded the Georgian kingdom but also ushered in a golden era of Georgian culture. The locals started to identify more with the Byzantine West rather than the Islamic East.
Tamar was the first independent female ruler of Georgia. The use of the title King rather than the Queen highlighted this distinction. During Tamar’s reign, Georgia became the strongest kingdom in the Caucasus region. The development of a trade relationship with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab world supported the economic and cultural development of the people. At the same time, it gave the possibility to fund military campaigns. Tamar is recognized among Georgia’s “King of Kings,” “Master of the Lands,” “Father of Orphans,” and “Champion of the Messiah” for her achievements.
4. King Jadwiga (1374-1399): Young but Mighty Monarch
King Jadwiga, the patroness of United Europe, was the Polish monarch from 1383 to 1399, who was named Saint Jadwiga by the Roman Catholic Church. Jadwiga was only 11 years old when she became King of Poland. She was given the title of King rather than the Queen because, according to Polish law, the monarch must be a King to rule the country.
The King of Hungary and Poland, Louis the Great, and his wife, Elizabeth of Bosnia, did not have children for seventeen years. After 17 years, three girls were born – Catherina, Maria, and the youngest, Jadwiga. He decided to give the three daughters the same education he would have given to a prince. At the same time, the king fought for their political futures in the Kingdom. He conducted difficult negotiations with the Hungarians and Poles to obtain the possibility of passing his inheritance to a woman.
Jadwiga was not originally intended to inherit the Polish crown. Catherine was expected to one day rule the throne of Poland and Hungary, but she ended up dying before her father. Maria would eventually ascend to the throne of Poland and govern alongside her husband, Sigismund of Luxemburg. Jadwiga, however, gained the opportunity to rule Poland when the Hungarians elected Mary as their new monarch following King Louis’ death. King Jadwiga married Władysław II Jagiello of Lithuania in 1386, and they continued to jointly rule the country.
King Jadwiga went down in political history as a founder of churches and monasteries, a patroness of intellectuals, and a protector of the poor, the weak, and the abandoned. Jadwiga sponsored several educational institutions, most notably the restoration of the Academy at Kraków, which became the center of Polish culture. She was also deeply religious, dedicating much of her time and resources to humanitarian activities, supporting hospitals, encouraging the use of Polish in church services and hymns, and founding a school faculty of theology at the Kraków Academy.
She died due to complications following the birth of her daughter. Her advisor, Stanisław of Skarbimierz, delivered a wonderful speech at her funeral:
“Our cry rose to heaven so that the Lord God would preserve this adornment of the Polish Kingdom, this mainstay of the state order, this unique jewel, this solace for widows, this comfort for the destitute, this help for the oppressed, this respect for the dignitaries of the Church, this refuge for priests, this strengthening of peace, this testimony and protection of God’s law.”
The idea to canonize “the most Christian queen” (as said in a homily delivered at her funeral) didn’t emerge until the Polish Pope John Paul II’s reign. Long worshipped as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, she was not officially canonized until 1997.
5. Hurrem Sultan (1502-1558): A woman Who Shaped the Political History of the Ottoman Empire
Hurrem Sultan was a game-changer in gender politics who transformed the Ottoman government by demonstrating unprecedented authority for a woman of her era. Beginning with Hurrem Sultan’s political career, the Ottoman dynasty saw an increase in women’s rights and power as the way opened up for women to become Sultan’s concubine, wife, and Queen mother. This period until 1715 is also knowns as the “Sultanate of Women.”
Hurrem was born in 1502 in Ruthenia, the region known today as Ukraine. At the age of 13, she was captured by Tatar warriors and taken to Istanbul. She eventually ended up in the harem of the Sultan, where she studied sensual arts, Turkish, and Islamic beliefs. She quickly received a new name, Hurrem, which means “the laughing one,” in recognition of her happy and upbeat personality. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was quickly attracted to her beauty and nature. They shared a love for poetry and arts and formed a deep personal connection.
Soon after joining the harem, Hurrem advanced from being a prisoner to the Queen Mother in the Ottoman hierarchy in only a matter of years. She was made the first Haseki (favorite) in Ottoman history thanks to her marriage to Suleiman and the birth of five sons. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent changed harem tradition by marrying Hurrem and allowing her and their son to live in the capital rather than a province, as was common in Ottoman culture.
No other imperial woman had previously enjoyed the dominion that she did, thanks to her deep connection and friendship with Suleiman. She oversaw the palace while the Sultan was away on campaigns, kept him up to date on events in Istanbul, and sent letters to report on her discussions with different political leaders. She effectively carried the title “The Wife of the Sultan of the World” due to her influence in foreign diplomacy, dynastic politics, and her work as the Sultan’s intelligence officer.
Besides political aspirations, Hurrem Sultan supported cultural and charitable activities. She established public drinking and bathing facilities, soup kitchens, and hospitals and built mosques and hostels for pilgrims.
On April 18, 1558, Hurrem passed away from an unknown illness. She broke rules even after she passed away: Her tomb was placed next to the Suleymaniye mosque, which had just been completed, making her the first woman in Ottoman history to have been honored in that manner.