They scored historic victories in their respective countries and left lasting legacies.
More than 70 nations worldwide have seen a woman lead their governments in the modern era. Some have been elected, some appointed; some served for relatively brief terms, while others have left an enduring legacy behind them.
These seven women are among the most formidable of history’s elected female leaders, in terms of both their time in office and the impact they had on their nations, as well as the world at large.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike – Sri Lanka
Elected prime minister of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, in 1960, Bandaranaike was the first woman to be elected head of a government in the modern world. She had entered politics the previous year, after her husband was assassinated by a Buddhist monk while serving as prime minister. In the wake of his death, Bandaranaike took over leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party; she served as head of state from 1960-65 and again from 1970-77. Known for nationalizing many businesses and establishing a state-run economic system, she also launched a political dynasty: Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, would serve as Sri Lanka’s prime minister, and from 1994-2005, its first woman president.
Indira Gandhi – India
As the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru (who became India’s first prime minister), Indira Gandhi joined the movement for independence from Britain at an early age, and rose to become a key figure in the dominant Congress Party. In 1966, she was appointed party leader, and thus prime minister; she was elected to the post the following year, then twice re-elected. Gandhi strongly supported East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in its successful war for independence, which made India the dominant power in South Asia. Defeated in 1977 amid popular opposition, she regained power in 1980, but was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984 in retaliation for ordering the army to attack Sikh separatists at their holy temple.
Golda Meir – Israel
By the time Meir became Israel’s fourth prime minister in 1969, she had spent 40 years serving her nation. Born in Ukraine, she immigrated to the United States as a child, and was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After moving to what was then British Palestine to help establish the state of Israel, she became a leading spokesperson for the Zionist cause during World War II, and was one of only two women to sign Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. As prime minister, her efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and neighboring Arab states were halted by the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Meir resigned in 1974 and died four years later of lymphoma, with which she had first been diagnosed in 1965.
Margaret Thatcher – United Kingdom
Raised in an apartment above her family’s grocery store, Margaret Thatcher attended Oxford and worked as an industrial chemist before launching her career in politics. She rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party, becoming its leader in 1975 and, four years later, the nation’s first female prime minister and the first woman to lead a major Western country. She took a hard line against communism—the Soviet press dubbed her the “Iron Lady” after one speech—and set Britain on a rightward path economically, promoting free-market policies and weakening labor unions. Thatcher’s tenure of 11 years in office made her the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, and one of the most impactful.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir – Iceland
In 1980, as a divorced, single mother, won election as Iceland’s—and Europe’s—first female leader, becoming the first woman in the world to be democratically elected president. (Argentina’s Isabel Perón, the first woman to hold the title of president, had been sworn in only after her husband died in office; she was his vice president.) Known for championing Iceland’s cultural heritage at home and abroad, Finnbogadóttir was overwhelmingly popular: She was reelected three times, running unopposed in two elections and winning more than 96 percent of the vote in the other. At 16 years, Finnbogadóttir’s tenure was the longest of any elected female head of state in history, and her success jump-started her nation’s impressive record of gender equality.
Angela Merkel – Germany
Raised in the former East Germany, Angela Merkel earned a doctorate in chemistry and worked as a research scientist before entering politics soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. When she served in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet, he would sometimes condescendingly refer to her as “mein Mädchen” (my girl). In 2000, Merkel rose to lead the Christian Democratic Union party; five years later, she became the country’s first female chancellor, its first East German chancellor, and (at 51) its youngest. Her tenure in office—she won a fourth term in 2017 and announced it would be her last—spanned the Euro-zone debt crisis, the refugee crisis and resulting surge in support for the far-right movement and Britain’s planned exit from the European Union, which left Merkel as leader of Europe’s most populous and powerful country, and the fourth largest economy in the world.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Liberia
After earning degrees from U.S. universities—including a master’s in public administration from Harvard—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf launched a career in public service in her native Liberia, the African nation founded by freed U.S. slaves in the 19th century. She lived in exile in Kenya and the United States during Liberia’s long civil war, working in the banking industry and at the United Nations. In 2005, Sirleaf beat out a slate of male candidates in Liberia’s first presidential election since the war’s end, winning support from nearly 80 percent of women voters to become Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state. Over 12 years in power, Sirleaf helped preserve peace, erase the national debt and build up Liberia’s economy; she earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work on behalf of women’s rights, though she also drew criticism for nepotism (she appointed three of her sons to top government posts) and ongoing government corruption.