Women's influence in leadership through history

9 minute read
Women's suffrage sign

Looking at this year’s events that we have all experienced, especially the current Covid-19 crisis, it is apparent from statistics that female political leaders were quick to move in introducing lockdown measures to protect the vulnerable, resulting in lower levels of infection and death than in male-led territories.

There are several further examples of women’s broad and admirable capabilities from a leadership standpoint, and we have indeed witnessed the success and popularity of female leaders for instance, in Germany, New Zealand, Finland and Sierra Leone, among others.

This recognition, however, has not always been the case; if we look at a wider historical angle, we find that women have been perceived through a lens of unequal and tough gender stereotypes that have left them far behind men in distinct elements of society, including positions of leadership. Although women have always made up roughly 50% of the Earth’s population, sadly, they only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history. This is even more evident for women of colour, whose achievements may have been, at best, overlooked by historians – and, at worst, completely disregarded by them.

Recent times

On the business stage, women now seem to occupy an ever-increasing percentage of C-level positions, including CEO – a topical example being the just-announced appointment of a woman to head Citibank, once a bastion of male dominance.

Since the 1970s, more and more women are aspiring to higher education and now outnumber their male counterparts in universities worldwide. According to recent data produced by the UK’s UCAS university admissions service, young women are 36% more likely to apply to university than their male peers, a record high number.

However, women are still underrepresented on the boards of listed companies, although some enlightened legislators have introduced changes to correct that.

But what do the lessons of history tell us about these more recent developments?


If we travel as far back in history as possible, we come across the earliest written work, The Iliad of Homer, written sometime between the 12th-8th century BC. In The Iliad, we know Helen of Troy, or perhaps more precisely Helen of Sparta, was the daughter of the former King of Sparta Tyndareus. 

Being a woman, Helen wasn’t able to inherit her father’s throne and rule Sparta, so she needed to marry a man her father would choose – Menelaus – to become the new King of Sparta. When Helen decided to leave her husband for a man she loved, Paris, we all know what happened: Troy, the city of her new husband Paris, was burnt into flames and all its citizens killed. Would it have evolved the same way if Menelaus had left Helen for another woman? The answer would almost surely be ‘no’.

When we look at the same part of the world during the 5th century BC, in Athens, Aspasia was a prostitute who met with some of the most prominent men in Athens, including Pericles, the general and leader of Athens who later became known as ‘the father of democracy’. Pericles, fell in love with Aspasia and allowed her to be part of the many discussions that were then taking place only among men. 

Aspasia’s brain and potential influence over Pericles in matters of administration were quite threatening to other Athenians, and she and Pericles were often the target of many rumours. Despite that, Pericles was a strong supporter of Aspasia and listened to her ideas of creating a city that spent its public money on arts, democracy and beautiful buildings rather than on wars. 

Having listened to Aspasia, Pericles built the most democratic state known until then, built the Acropolis of Athens and enabled the theatre to flourish. In other words, when a powerful man finally followed a woman’s advice, one of the most important forms of arts – the theatre – was developed, one of the most important elements of a society, democracy, was born and of course an architectural masterpiece, the Acropolis of Athens, was built.

The Byzantine era

Many centuries later, around 842AD, during the Byzantine Empire, the newly appointed emperor Theophilus was looking to find a wife to be. His mother gathered the most beautiful women of Constantinople in the palace and gave him a golden apple to give it to the one he would like best. Theophilus looked around and stopped before Kassia, whom he liked best of all and told her: ‘Women are the source of all evil’, referring to the biblical Eve. To which Kassia replied: 'And women are the source for all good things on earth', meaning Holy Mar, who, by giving birth to Jesus, gave humanity forgiveness, kindness, and love. Feeling that Kassia was too intelligent to be obedient, Theophilus instead gave the golden apple to the girl next to Kassia and later married her – penalising Kassia because of her intelligence.

On the contrary, a former Byzantine emperor, Justinian the Great, who was unusual for his time, fell in love with Theodora, a prostitute whom he used to visit in one of the city’s brothels. Similar to Aspasia, Theodora had the chance to meet many prominent men during their visits to the brothel and she learned a great deal from them. Justinian the Illyrian married Theodora against all odds and made her chief adviser and the one in charge of his imperial seal. 

During his leadership, the empire was dealing with some of its worst challenges, including violent riots that burnt half the city. Justinian was ready to flee the throne and allow the empire to be ruined, but Theodora kept control of the court and impressed everyone with her speech by saying that only those who die on the throne are leaders, not the ones who live in exile. 

She ordered the suppression of the riots and proved to be a worthy leader. Her success is known as the ‘Nika Riots’. Furthermore, she advised Justinian to make Constantinople the greatest city on Earth and make it a fairer place for everyone. She advised that new reforms be made in the governance of the empire, aqueducts and bridges were built widely, as well as 25 churches, one of those being the greatest temple ever built until then, Hagia Sophia. Theodora is known as ‘Theodora the Great’ and the Orthodox Church has made her a saint. 

By virtue of her strength of character and influence over him, Justinian became renowned for his achievements as a legislator and codifier of the law. He introduced radical changes in the governance of the Byzantine Empire and took measures to increase accountability and eliminate corruption, at the same time modifying Roman law.

Elizabethan era and the British Empire

Moving into Medieval times, we look at the British Empire which was the largest empire on Earth. ‘The Age of Discovery’ had already started in Europe and Henry the VII wanted a share of foreign lands that had already been discovered by the Spanish and Portuguese. At this point, however, Britain had not developed a colonial system, which did not evolve until the accession of Queen Elizabeth I.

Not only was she a capable leader, surpassing her ancestors who fought timelessly year after year, she also developed an enormous love for the arts, transforming the then traditional Tudor culture with a sense of fashion that has enhanced life throughout centuries up until modern times. During the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), theatres became stable, organised establishments under the influence of playwrights such as Shakespeare. Known to be a great leader, charismatic and very diplomatic, Elizabeth I made the extraordinary decision before passing away to leave the throne of England to the King of Scotland. Unlike her male ancestors who continually fought with Scotland, Elizabeth I united the two kingdoms with a vision of peace and prosperity that both countries still enjoy today.

The British Empire reached its peak of prosperity and prestige under another female monarch, Queen Victoria. Even though many more male monarchs ruled the empire between the Elizabethan Era and the Victorian Era. Queen Victoria was the personification and creator of the British Empire, embodying the values of the time and setting out a new role and purpose for the Monarchy.
During a reign of 63 years, exceeded only by that of Queen Elizabeth II, Victoria brought social and industrial change on a scale not seen before or since, at the same time developing and defending the Empire and taking steps towards the abolition of slavery. This was much to the discontent of male homologues who had enriched themselves by exploitation.

The 20th century

In the early 20th century (1902), the movement of the suffragettes, an organisation that protested for women’s right to vote, was established in the UK. For many years, their riots and protests caused a lot of violence against women from the authorities and, in 1913, a University of Oxford graduate, Emily Davison, walked in front of King George V’s horse while racing at the Derby and was killed in a display of protest to emphasise the need for a change in allowing women to vote. 

The right to vote for women in the UK was finally given in 1918, but only for those married and aged 30 and above. For those at a younger age, this right was finally granted in 1928. In the USA, women voted in 1920 but this right was only for white women. New Zealand was the first country to give the right to women to vote in 1893, while women in other parts of the world continued the fight for much longer. In Saudi Arabia for instance, this right was only granted to women in 2012.

If we look at other fields such as science or humanitarianism, fields in which men were long the only protagonists, we find women such as Marie Curie who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person in the world to win two – one in Physics and one in Chemistry. Marie Curie’s research led to the discovery of polonium and radium, and she embraced the development of X-rays.

We also come across Mother Teresa, a modest Albanian nun who surpassed all the previous achievements of male priests and dedicated her life to helping the poor and serving the Roman Catholic Church (a heavily male-dominated institution) in some of the world’s poorest places previously unknown to many. Mother Teresa was acclaimed worldwide for her sponsorship of peace. Her awards include the Pope John 23rd Peace Prize in 1971, the 1972 Nehru Prize for the promotion of peace and understanding and the 1979 International Nobel Peace Prize. During her time, Mother Teresa was the most famous person on Earth, even in places where people had no TV, printed media or schools.

Exploration of the generational barriers faced and sometimes overcome by women leaders in both ancient and more recent times, including inheritance rights, enfranchisement, access to education and funds, leads to the inevitable conclusion that societal gender division and leadership inequality still persist in most, if not all, parts of the world. Hence today’s strident and irrefutable call to demolish these prejudices once and for all and to allow women to realise their full potential alongside, rather than by the condescension of their male counterparts.

Main photo credit: Vickie Heydon-Matterface on Unsplash.