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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

A List of Female Dictators

By: inoljt,

One of the phenomenons of the twentieth century has been the rise  of the dictator. Dictators rule countries undemocratically and usually  until death, crushing the opposition. Unlike the kings or emperors of  old, these men generally don’t have any family linkage with previous  rulers.

Notice the gender-specific word ”men.” All dictators have been male,  without exception. A woman has never ordered the army to crush nascent  protests against her authoritarianism. Nor has a woman ever led a coup  to overthrow a democratically elected government, replacing its rule by  her own.

More below.

As the above examples indicate, dictators are generally strongly  linked with the army. They generally rise through the army and enjoy its  support. There is no institution more heavily dominated by males in  society than the army; indeed, until recently the very concept of a  female soldier was unthinkable (and still is in many countries). Thus  the lack of female dictators.

There are, however, a number of women who have come pretty close to being dictators. Here’s a list, and it’s quite interesting:

Indira Gandhi


Indira Gandhi (no relation to the most famous Gandhi) ruled as Prime  Minister of India during prolonged periods from the 1960s to the 1980s.  She came to power as the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru, an  independence hero, governed India as the head of the Indian National  Congress during his lifetime. Congress was and still is the dominant  political party in India. It had and still has a nasty habit of  nepotism. Since Indira was the daughter of Nehru, leadership of the  party fell to her.

As leader of India, Indira Gandhi did many good things and many bad  things. Economically speaking, she seemed to be more in the business of  giving poor people fish than teaching them how to fish.

But Indira Gandhi is most famous for her State of Emergency. In 1975  Indira declared a state of emergency, giving her dictatorial powers.  Civil liberties and democracy was suspended during The Emergency.  Opposition leaders were arrested. A controversial family planning  program was put in place, which led to many Indians being unwillingly  sterilized.

In this sense Indira Gandhi, although elected democratically, was dictator of India for two years.

Fortunately for India, Indira Gandhi ended The Emergency in 1977. She  proceeded to hold elections, lost them, and to her credit stepped down.  Indira Gandhi would later return to office. She was assassinated by  Sikh bodyguards after taking controversial military action against Sikh  militants.

Jiang Qing


Jiang Qing was a dominant figure in Chinese politics during the  Cultural Revolution and immediately after Mao Zedong’s death. She was  the fourth wife of Mao Zedong, and the only one who played a political  role.

At first Mao promised that Jiang Qing wouldn’t be involved in  politics, and for a while he kept that promise. During the Cultural  Revolution, however, Qing rose to power. She generally took a hard-line  stance on policy, opposing for instance economic reforms and  determinedly prosecuting her political opponents. She was widely  disliked.

Shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, Qing lost power. In 1981 she was  prosecuted as part of the “Gang of Four,” scapegoats for the excesses of  the Cultural Revolution, and spent most of the rest of her life in  prison.

Elena Ceaușescu


Elena Ceaușescu was the wife of Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae  Ceaușescu, who ruled Romania during the latter period of the Cold War.  Like Jiang Qing, Elena Ceaușescu gained political power and political  positions during this period. However, she had far less influence;  unlike Qing, Elena Ceaușescu never directed attacks against political  opponents.

The Romanian population widely hated her. In the 1989 revolution,  Elena Ceaușescu attempted to flee the country with her husband. She was  caught, subject to a show trial, and shot.

Imelda Marcos


Like the two individuals above, Imelda Marcos gained her power  through being the wife of a military dictator. Imelda Marcos was the  wife of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled over the Philippines from the 1960s  to the 1980s. Like Elena Ceaușescu, Imelda Marcos used her position to  gain power and political positions. She was quite infamous for her  collection of shoes and for the fortune she gained during the  dictatorship.

However, Imelda Marcos wasn’t as disliked by Filipinos as the two  previous individuals listed. After the fall of the dictatorship in 1986,  Imelda Marcos went into exile. She returned in 1991 and started a  political career. Today Imelda Marcos is a congresswoman in the  Philippines House of Representatives, where she last won 80% of the  vote. It’s doubtful that Jiang Qing or Elena Ceaușescu could have won an  election anywhere in their respective countries.


There’s a pretty obvious pattern here: all the female “dictators”  listed above gained power through family connections. This is a common  pattern; throughout history, many of the powerful female political  leaders have gained power as wives, daughters, and sisters of male  political leaders.

Interestingly, this list is dominated by the Asian continent. One  would expect more African and South American countries to be  represented. This might be a pattern, or it might just be chance.

Of all these people, Indira Gandhi comes closest to being a dictator.  Unlike the others, Indira Gandhi was legitimately the most powerful  person in the country. She was the one in control of the army, and she  could and did use it to commit multiple human rights violations.

One wonders who will be the next Indira Gandhi.