10 female heads of state and how they changed the world

The history of women being elected to offices of supreme power is short. Here are 10 women who have made the most of that time.

The modern history of women in government is surprisingly short. While women have held hereditary power in monarchies since ancient times, the list of elected or appointed heads of state goes back a mere 80 years.

While some female rulers before then may have been said to be elected, such as Mary II of England after the Glorious Revolution, such events are comparative flukes. In this list, we focus only on women who were elected or appointed as the head of state or government. Queens and Governors-General are therefore excluded.

Khertek Anchimaa

(Khertek Anchimaa. Photo: courtesy of Tuvan Republic)

Khertek Anchimaa was the first woman to be elected as head of state of any country in the history of the world. She was the Chairwoman of the Tuvan People’s Republic from 1940 to 1944, when her country was annexed by the Soviet Union.

She rose to power using her education; she was one of the first people to learn the Tuvan alphabet when it was created and was given the task of teaching it to young members of the communist party. She was later sent to Moscow to further her education and returned to increased political opportunity as a result.

She was appointed Chairwoman just before the German invasion of the USSR. During the war, she oversaw the management of a wartime economy and the mobilization of an expeditionary force. She also worked behind the scenes to assure the Soviet annexation of Tuva. In 1944 this was achieved, and she continued to play a leading role in what were then local affairs

Sükhbaataryn Yanjmaa

Yanjmaa and her husband, early 1920s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another central Asian communist, Yanjmaa was a Mongolian woman who joined the party in honor of her late husband in 1923. She studied at the same university as Khertek Anchimaa at about the same time. She held many positions in communist Mongolia, including a seat on the politburo, the policymaking committee of the communist party.

After the death of the Chairman of The People's Great Khural in 1953, she was appointed Acting Chairwoman for a transitory period lasting nearly a year. Regrettably, not much happened during her administration.

Sirima Bandaranaike

Sirima during her final term in 1998. She also had the dubious honor of being the oldest prime minister in the world. (Getty Images)

Sirima Bandaranaike was the first woman to be head of government in the modern age and was thrice the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

After the assassination of her husband in 1959 she was elected the leader of the political party she encouraged him to create and was elected to the Senate and then the Premiership shortly after. During her three terms, she defeated a coup attempt, nationalized large portions of the economy, renamed the country (it was Ceylon before 1972), and chaired the Non-Aligned Movement. Her daughter has served as Prime Minister and President of Sri Lanka as well.

She died in 2000 while returning home from voting.

Indira Gandhi

(Getty Images)

The third Prime Minister of India and the daughter of the first, Indira Gandhi was a mighty, if controversial, head of state. During her administration India defeated Pakistan decisively in Bangladesh’s war for independence, leading to Indian hegemony over South Asia. She oversaw the Green Revolution in Indian farming, allowing India to feed itself. She also finished her father’s plan to build an Indian atomic bomb.

In response to calls for revolution, she declared a state of emergency during which she ruled by decree and stifled civil liberties. This sparked a great deal of outrage, both domestic and international, and she was voted out of office as a result. She was reelected a few years later to her final term.

She was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984 in response to operation Blue Star, the storming of a Sikh temple and destruction of a great deal of holy property.

Soong Ching-ling 

Madame Yat-sen and her husband, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. (Getty Images)

Perhaps the most curious rise to power on our list, Soong Ching-ling, also known by the name Madame Sun Yat-sen was the second wife of the Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-sen and sister-in-law to KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek. During the Chinese civil war, she publicly broke with her family and declared herself for the communists.

In 1959 she was elected co-vice president of the People’s Republic of China. After the president was purged during the Cultural Revolution, she was the de-facto co-head of state until her fellow vice president was officially promoted four years later. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, she was placed on a list of people to be specifically protected against the red guards as she was considered both vital and a likely target.

From 1976-1978 she was the Chairwoman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, making her the official head of state. Shortly before her death in 1981 she was made the “Honorary President of the People’s Republic” making her technically in charge again.

Golda Meir

Meir gives a press conference during the Yom Kippur War. There were initial fears that a loss would lead to the destruction of Israel. (Getty Images)

The fourth Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir was born in Ukraine and grew up in Milwaukee. She lived on a kibbutz for some time in the 1920s and was active in Israeli politics from the start. She was one of two women to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Her premiership occurred after her retirement from politics as she had been diagnosed with cancer. Security issues dominated her five years in office. She was in office during the Munich Massacre and launched Operation Wrath of God in retaliation. She was taken by surprise during the Yom Kippur War and resigned shortly after the war ended. She died four years later from lymphoma.

Isabel Martínez de Perón

Peron speaks with her ministers close at hand. (Getty Images)

The first female to hold the title of president of any country in the world, Isabel Peron came to power after the death of her husband Juan Peron in 1974.

The third wife of the former Argentine president, she was elected to the vice presidency in a landslide victory that carried her husband to his third term. Due to his ill health, she was often acting president during his final months. She was sworn in as president before his death from a heart attack.

Her administration started out with high hopes, no doubt aided by memories of Evita and sympathy for a grieving widow. However, the perilous political and economic situation that had brought her husband to power proved too much for the democratic government and she was ousted in a coup after two years in office. This was after brutal attempts to stay in power were attempted, including a slew of killings that would set off the Dirty War.

She continues to live in exile in Spain, where she keeps a low profile.

Margaret Thatcher

A young Thatcher speaks. (Getty Images)

The first female prime minister of a country that had always done well with a woman in charge. Thatcher remains one of the more controversial prime ministers in British history, though one cannot doubt that she was influential.

After taking the position of leader of the Conservative party, she was elected prime minister in 1981. Her policies, known retrospectively as Thatcherism, undid the socialist policies of her predecessors. Vast swaths of the British economy were privatized and deregulated. Social welfare policies were greatly reduced.

Her three terms in office also saw the defeat of Argentina in the Falklands War, the establishment of the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Council, and the agreement to return Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China.

Her politics remain controversial. The week after her death the song “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz was the number two song on the British Charts. You can also watch her recite Monty Python lines here

Jacinda Ardern

(Getty Images)

The current Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern is the youngest female head of state in the world, having come to power at the age of 37. She has not been in power long, less than a year at the time of writing, but she has already made a great many headlines.

She became the first prime minister to march in a gay pride parade and has helped to repair relations with Australia. She is also expecting her first child, the cause of a great bit of celebration. The 'first man' of New Zealand, Ardern's husband Clarke Gayford, will be the baby's primary caregiver. Ardern completes a spectacular lineup of women in power, as the Queen, Governor General, Prime Minister, and Chief Justice of New Zealand are all women.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel in 2018. (Getty Images)

The current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has been in power for 13 years now. Raised in East Germany, she is the first former East German to hold the post. 

Educated as a scientist, she holds a doctorate in physics. She took up politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall and has been in some kind of office ever since. Her time in office has been increasingly tumultuous, and she has steered Germany and Europe at large through the Eurozone crisis and the influx of Syrian refugees. 

She is considered by many to be the “Leader of the free world” given the current political climate. This is in addition to being considered the head of the European Union and the most powerful woman in the world. 

  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are a set of 17 directives to be completed by a 2030 deadline, with the aim of significantly improving quality of life for all people on Earth.
  • Pfizer's commitment to the UN's SDG #3, Good Health and Well-being, is exemplified by its mission to improve global health through a combination of local and global programs catalyzed by innovative health leaders.
  • In 1998, Pfizer embarked on a 22-year mission to eradicate trachoma by 2020.Trachoma is an infectious eye disease that can cause irreversible blindness or vision impairment. So far, it has been eradicated in six countries.
  • Pfizer is a committed partner in improving global health, helping to provide a number of critical cancer medications to six African countries where an estimated 44 percent of all cancer cases in sub-Saharan Africa occur each year

Being busy all the time is a habit you made. You can unmake it.

There will never be enough time. Here's how to use it more wisely.

  • One-third of us are suffering from chronic stress in the workplace. Other studies suggest that half of us bring our work stress home, creating stress in our personal lives.
  • Being busy has become a cultural obsession. But it's not the golden badge of honor we think it is. Dan Pontefract points out that there's a big difference between being busy and being productive.
  • The best productivity hack? Schedule a break. That means eating lunch away from your desk. Saying hello to people around you. Keep a graph in your mind that has 'action' on the x-axis and 'reflection' on the y-axis. Where do you sit on that graph?

7 brilliant Japanese words we need in English

Ever wanted to describe precisely how crummy you feel after a bad haircut?

Culture & Religion
  • English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us.
  • Often, other languages have already found a solution to expressing the complicated ideas that can't be succinctly conveyed in English.
  • If you've ever wanted to describe the anguish of a bad haircut, the pleasure of walking in the woods, or the satisfaction of finding your life's purpose, read on.

Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 87% of their time indoors, which is clearly too much. Meanwhile, being in nature is associated with a slew of benefits, like improving memory, reducing stress and anxiety, and even lowering inflammation. Scotland has the right idea—doctors in Shetland can now prescribe nature to their patients.

4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku


While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.

Earth used to be purple, new NASA study shows

NASA research finds a new direction in searching for signs of life in the Universe.

Surprising Science
  • NASA-funded research says retinal, not chlorophyll, gave the early Earth its color
  • The two pigments co-evolved but retinal came first
  • We should be looking for retinal-based life throughout the Universe
Keep reading Show less

Inside Pfizer's Global Effort to Support UN SDG #3

Achieving good health and well-being around the world is critical to the company's mission

Photo: Pfizer
  • SDG 3 drives Pfizer's business and societal mission.
  • Creative partnerships support progress toward health and well-being targets.
  • Quality healthcare access is essential to a more just, equitable world.
Keep reading Show less

Carl Sagan on why he liked smoking marijuana

Carl Sagan liked to smoke weed. His essay on why is facsinating.

Photo: Photo by Robert Nelson on Unsplash / Big Think
Mind & Brain
  • Carl Sagan was a life long marijuana user and closeted advocate of legalization.
  • He once wrote an anonymous essay on the effects it had on his life and why he felt it should be legalized.
  • His insights will be vital as many societies begin to legalize marijuana.
Keep reading Show less

The original 'Big Bird' puppeteer is leaving Sesame Street

He was recruited by Jim Henson himself in 1969.

(Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO)
Culture & Religion
  • His last performance will be this coming Thursday, Oct. 19
  • A feature movie about him was made in 2014
  • Other actors will take over. Well, at least, they'll try ...
Keep reading Show less
Movie still from American Psycho starring Christian Bale
Sex & Relationships
  • Between 18 and 25 percent of Tinder users is in a committed relationship while on Tinder.
  • Non-single Tinder users are more likely to report casual sexual behavior.
  • Personality distinctions were found between non-single users and other groups.

Swiping left or right has now been engrained into the cultural vernacular. Across the world with approximately 50 million people swiping on the daily, Tinder has become one of the most popular dating platforms online.

However, it's most certainly not everlasting love everyone is after. Recent surveys suggest that anywhere between 18 and 25 percent of users are in what's considered an "exclusive" relationship. In the United States that percentage nearly doubles to a close 42 percent.

In a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior researchers found that non-single Tinder users were quite different from their single user counterparts. The paper, aptly titled Why are you cheating on Tinder? Exploring users' motives and (dark) personality trait, found that people who cheat on Tinder use dating apps for different reasons than users who are single. They are also more likely to have psychopathic personality traits compared to people in exclusive relationships who aren't on Tinder.

Researchers surveyed students and non-students with questionnaires about their relationship status, Tinder usage, and whether or not they used the app for sexual encounters.

When a round of follow-up questions were asked about their offline behavior between other Tinder connections (or hookups) the researchers found that cheaters were more likely to have reported they engaged in more casual sexual relationships than other single users.

One of the authors of the study stated:

Some people in relationships might want to satisfy their curiosity about the current dating market by downloading Tinder. But we interpret this finding to mean that some people are also looking for a lot more when they download the app.

What some of these people in exclusive relationships are looking for in their side-quest for some digital infidelity might be led on because of some psychopathic tendencies.

​A look into the research of potential tinder psychopaths

The researchers presented an exploratory study with an intent to figure out why people in relationships would use Tinder and looked to see if they'd score higher on a number of dark personality traits compared to single users and non-users in exclusive relationships.

Their results found that non-single Tinder users reported a higher number of romantic relations that included these criteria: "French kisses, one night stands, and casual sexual relationships with other Tinder user…" When it came to dark personality traits, non-single Tinder users scored lower in categories of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, while scoring higher on Neuroticism and Psychopathy compared to non-users in exclusive or committed relationships.

There is still a number of follow-up studies to understand the full implications of this data. For example, researcher Elisabeth Timmermans wanted to be cautious around the fact that partnered Tinder users may cheat more than those in exclusive relationships not on the app. She goes on to sat that:

We also looked into whether partnered Tinder users differ on their Tinder outcomes compared to single Tinder users. Our findings show that partnered Tinder users report significantly more one night stands, casual sexual relationships, and committed relationships with other users compared to single Tinder users.

However, one major limitation here is that we did not specifically ask these users whether they reported on these outcomes while in a committed relationship. It thus might be possible that they are also reporting on these behaviors while being single. As we did not measure this and did not have information on relationship length either, we are a bit cautious about claiming that partnered Tinder users are more likely to cheat on their partner.

Main takeaways and future research

Researchers of the study are working on continuing with follow-up research the complex effect on relationships dating apps are having. "Our findings leave me wondering whether dating apps might be a threat to romantic relationships," said Timmermans. "Of course our findings are too preliminary to make such conclusions, but they already suggest that some people (i.e., with certain personality traits) might be more susceptible to using dating apps for infidelity purposes than others."

The next questions that need to be asked is how to determine if these types of people would have cheated anyways regardless of the platform — although the app makes it easier to do so. The nature and problems of social media still baffles many sociologists and when you add into the mix an intricate human activity like courtship, you'll find we're entering into dangerous territory.

Hopefully future research will help us navigate these choppy dating waters.