In light of the news that Kamala Harris is Joe Biden’s VP choice, this week we are celebrating women! Which, let’s be honest, we do anyway. No, I am not having boy issues, why would you ask??
In the days of #MeToo it’s hard to imagine that a serious male presidential candidate wouldn’t add a female to his ticket, but honestly what is harder to imagine is that it’s the year 2020 and the “the leader of the free world” has never been a woman. And if last week’s controversial release of the song “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion is any indication, this country still isn’t ready. (Just a warning if you are planning on listening to it – it’s pretty shocking. But that’s the point. I could go on and on about the double standards in music, but those are thoughts for another day and another blog).
So what does all of this have to do with a blog about royalty? Despite America’s poor track record of female leadership, world history is no stranger to royal women taking the reins. Even in countries you might not expect. Here are some ladies who led with their intellect and their strength, with maybe a little help from their charm and good looks as well…
Shah Jahan Begum
I’m going to take a wild guess that you have never heard of the state of Bhopal, once located in what is now central India. From 1858 to 1947, India was run by the British and was broken up into states that were ruled independently (but still answered to Great Britain). One of these states was Bhopal, whose rulers were referred to as “Begum”. Shah Jahan was the Begum of Bhopal, first from 1844-1860 when she was a child and her mother ruled as regent in her place. In 1860, the British decided to give her mother total control and Shah Jahan did not take power back again until her mother’s death in 1868. And then she ruled for the next 30 years. The list of Shah Jahan’s accomplishments as the leader of Bhopal are numerous and impressive and run in direct contrast to what most of us think about when we imagine a Muslim woman. Shah Jahan advocated for women’s education and opened a school for girls, oversaw the construction of one of India’s largest mosques, was an author, improved the tax system, modernized the army, and the list goes on. It is no surprise that Shah Jahan was so confident in her role as a female leader – her mother had been notoriously progressive as well – trading the practice of female seclusion for activities like hunting. These were the OG feminists, in the most unlikely of places.
You know the name, but you probably don’t know the whole story. And frankly, I don’t even have the time in this short recap! This story has everything – incest (in case you haven’t gotten enough yet!), adultery, murder, and Romeo and Juliet-style suicide. Cleopatra was more than her (alleged) good looks – she played by her own rules in a time when women were barely a footnote in history. Born in 70/69 B.C, Cleopatra was technically a “co-regent” with her father, then brothers, then sons. But there is no argument that she was calling the shots over the 30 years that she ruled over Egypt, and that’s not just because she was willing to kill family members to consolidate power. Cleopatra was exceedingly intelligent, speaking at least 12 languages and studied math, philosophy and astronomy. According to Andrew Evans, “Egyptian sources later described her as a ruler ‘who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.’”
And scholars weren’t the only ones who enjoyed her company. Her intelligence and beauty made her irresistible to the most powerful men of the age. The fathers of Cleopatra’s children were Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (no, not my mom’s favorite Latin singer) and her alliances with them only added to Egypt’s prosperity during her rule. In 31 B.C. Egypt was under attack by Rome and Mark was the unfortunate recipient of a false rumor that Cleopatra had died. He took his own life before learning that she was in fact alive. Once Egypt fell, Cleopatra did actually end up taking her own life as well – legend has it that she did it via snake bite.
Isabella I of Castile
When Isabella I of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, their kingdoms came together to form Spain. Despite this unification, Castile and Aragon were still very much ruled as separate entities, which meant that Isabella was more than just one half of a royal couple. She had power and influence, which was made possible in part by her intelligence (she was fluent in Latin), military knowledge, and strong religious beliefs. Under her rule, Christopher Columbus was given funds by Isabella to help in his journey to the New World. Although she was excited about the opportunities the New World offered, it was one of the great distresses of her life how the Native Americans were treated. It was Isabella and her councilors who “were more ready to recognize the rights of the Indians than was Columbus” (Britannica) (also not hard to do when the other guy doesn’t believe in any rights at all…) Although it wasn’t all good – under Isabella and Ferdinand’s rule, Jews were kicked out of Spain as part of the Inquisition.
If this story sounds a bit familiar, then that means you have been following us for a while! Isabella was the mother of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first unfortunate wife who was cast aside in favor of Anne Boleyn. Like her mother, Catherine was intelligent and headstrong. And there is a reason England was afraid of the consequences of a divorce from Catherine. Her parents were both rulers in their own right, who had united their kingdoms into a powerful Catholic country. For Catherine, it was all about flaunting what her mama gave her.
We never stray too far from the Romanovs! This Romanov was the Empress of Russia from 1741-1762, and nabbed the throne after taking it from her cousin in a coup d’etat. Her cousin had threatened to send her to a convent, so who could blame her really. Elizabeth is not a Romanov that usually comes up in conversation, having to compete with the likes of Peter the Great (her father), Catherine the Great, and the ill-fated Alexandra and Nicholas. But like the other women of this blog, she was a champion of education and helped establish Russia’s first university. She also had a passion for architecture and commissioned the building of the Winter Palace, as well as more practical projects like improving roads. She may not have gone down in history as the world’s most prolific leader, but under her rule “Russia’s prestige as a major European power grew” (Britannica). She also attempted to abolish capital punishment and was successful for a decade, before she was overruled by politics. We stan a humanitarian!
Andrews, Evan. “10 Little-Known Facts About Cleopatra.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 12 Aug. 2015, http://www.history.com/news/10-little-known-facts-about-cleopatra.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elizabeth.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Jan. 2020, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-empress-of-Russia.
Highfield, J.R.L. “Isabella I.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 Apr. 2020, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Isabella-I-queen-of-Spain.
“Maharanis: Women of Royal India – Museum of Art & Photography – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/maharanis-women-of-royal-india-museum-of-art-photography/AQKCzXp1tn0mLA?hl=en.
Naik, Priya. “The Remarkable Begums Who Defied Patriarchal Norms to Rule Bhopal for More than a Century.” Scroll.in, Scroll.in, 21 May 2019, scroll.in/magazine/917529/the-remarkable-begums-who-defied-patriarchal-norms-to-rule-bhopal-for-more-than-a-century.
3 thoughts on “WAP: Women Are Paramount”