Lately everyone’s been talking about leaning in and banning bossy, but before Sheryl Sandberg, we had strong, bossy queens, empresses, and even a pope. Yes, a female pope. These inspiring women rulers used their brains and their beauty to rise to the top of a world ruled by men.
You’ll probably recognize some of these historical women in these biographies and historical fiction novels. I hope you’ll learn about the new to you awe-inspiring female rulers.
The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan is a novel about the life of Mehrunissa who becomes the famous empress of Mughal Empire, through her marriage to Emperor Jahangir. Though he has many wives, Jahangir dotes on Mehrunissa and she given more power than most empresses are given. The well-researched details will make you feel transported to 17th century India.
Immediately after you finish The Twentieth Wife, you’ll want to pick up its sequel, The Feast of Roses. While the first novel illustrates Mehrunissa’s rise to power, the sequel depicts the challenges she faced as a woman deemed with too much power. You won’t be surprised to see some of these opinions still exist today.
In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff digs deep into historical texts and puts together a fascinating biography of one of the most famous queens in history. We read and discussed this biography as a From Left to Write book club selection in September 2011.
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran is a fictionalized telling of this famous queen’s life as told by her younger sister. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as you try to keep track of the different schemes and plot twists in the ancient Egyptian court.
The Last Empress by Anchee Min is about Empress Orchid, mother of the only male heir Ch’ing Dynasty. She rises to power after the emperor’s death,when their son is only five years old. This novel recounts the tumultuous times during 19th century China as the Empress tries to hold on to her power.
The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak tells the story of this famous Russian empress through the eyes of her handmaid Barbara. The political intrigue will keep you turning the pages.
While the Vatican denies the existence of a female pope in 855 A.D. during the Dark Ages, there are hundreds of manuscript contains accounts of a female papacy. In the novel Pope Joan, Donna Woolfolk Cross imagines Joan’s rise in the Vatican and what motivated her to pretend to be a man. Whether Pope Joan really existed or not, this novel will make you believe how easily this could have.
Which of these women intrigues you or inspires you the most?