Review: 'Women Who Ruled- History's 50 Most Remarkable Women' By Claudia Gold

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Being the Head-Honcho Has Never Been Easy, and Make That Doubly So If You Were A Woman In the Past.

Often branded as 'whores', 'poisoners', 'witches' and worse, many societies in the past had a visceral distaste of women in power, and many of the same issues still face women in power today. 

A politically manoeuvring woman is so often called a 'bitch', an opinionated headstrong woman is so often a 'shrew', or 'nag'. In moments of arguments they are often infantalised - told to "calm down dear" (David Cameron to Angela Eagle), called a 'girl' (Silvio Belusconi) or a 'brave little woman' (Austin Mitchell on Margaret Thatcher). If they are dressed plainly they are painted as emasculating, ugly, dowdy and homely as if they have nothing else to contribute ("What does she want, this housewife? My balls on a tray" - Jacques Chirac on Thatcher). If they present as too conventionally 'pretty' they are not taken seriously and dubbed 'beauty queens' (Kumara Welgama to Rosy Senanayake) or criticised (as in the case of the ANC  playing fashion police in criticising South African leader Lindewe Mazibuko's outfit).They may even be subject to wolf-whistles rather than being listened to (as Cecile Deflout, the French housing minister).

Given that women in power still face these challenges today in our relatively liberal western-centric society, in the past their successes were nothing short of remarkable. In 'Women Who Ruled- History's 50 Most Remarkable Women' Claudia Gold's impressive research brings 50 of these such women into the limelight they deserve.

Claudia Gold's book is very easy to read for anyone interested in women's history without any polemics, perfect for dipping in and out of. The 50 women listed are organised chronologically.This becomes especially important when we reach the 16thc and the age of European Queens, when often the political fate of one woman's family influences the rise of another. The book is also commendable in offering a wide variety of female leaders, from the near-mythological figures of Jazebel and the Queen of Sheba, through to Eastern leaders such as Wu Hou and Roxelana, as well as the western favourites of 'Bloody' Mary and Elizabeth 1st and finally into the modern day politicians of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher. You get a real impression that the book aims not to view history through a western lens, but to celebrate and commiserate the lives and careers of as many interesting ladies as possible.

Roxelana, The Ukranian slave who became
Sultana of the Ottoman Empire
The brilliant thing about Women Who Ruled is that Gold gives us a full picture of the women in power across the many countries of the world without romanticising them.
These women did not have to be saints in order to be respected: just as we have Machiavellian kings we have viscous queens. Just as we have weak-willed and exploited kings we also have foolish and naive queens. Just as we have opportunistic lords we have conniving ladies. For some the bonds of family united them together in mutual honour and bravery, and for others the bonds of family were simply threads in a web to be manipulated and cut off at will. The characters in this work are all multi-faceted and, in the brief few pages that are granted to each, you get a real impression of the often dangerous political landscapes that they resided in, and how fickle fate could be to even the most intelligent political wrangler. Across each story, though, we see how each woman (or her family and 'allies') had to rely on their quick wits to carve out a place for themselves in societies that so often mistrusted them.

Whatever your stance on feminism as a whole, this is a very engaging and interesting book for anyone who is a fan of history. I very much recommend it.


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