She was born into a profoundly dysfunctional family. Her father married six times—and essentially ordered hits on two of his wives, including her mother (whose major crime may have been giving birth to a daughter instead of a son). Jealous relatives plotted against her. As a teenager, she was locked up in a tower. If she were alive today, she could write a best-selling memoir about her abusive childhood and appear on "Oprah." Instead, Elizabeth I became one of the most powerful and respected leaders in history.
This year, as Americans contemplate making Sen. Hillary Clinton our first female president, it is instructive to look back at Elizabeth and other women who wielded power long before the age of speechwriters, personal stylists and YouTube campaigning. Cleopatra, for example, ruled ancient Egypt with fierce political savvy while giving birth to children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (twins in the latter case). If she worried about balancing work and family, she left no record of it. This was a woman who understood the importance of the grand gesture. Once, according to a history by Pliny the Elder, she bet Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces (a Roman coin) on dinner. In the midst of a pedestrian meal, she dropped a valuable pearl earring into a cup of vinegar, watched it dissolve and drank it.
In their pursuit of power, women have been as ruthless as any man. And they haven't had to apologize for it. In 18th-century Russia, Catherine the Great vastly extended the borders of the Russian Empire, became a generous patron of the arts and enjoyed many lovers (royalty does have its privileges)—although any story you may have heard about shenanigans with a horse is apocryphal. More recently, elected leaders like Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher proved that women can be just as tough as men, and often tougher. And just like a man, they can pay the ultimate price in their pursuit of power, as Gandhi did when she was assassinated in 1984 by Sikh separatists.
Even in this stellar company, Elizabeth I still stands alone. From her coronation in 1559 until her death nearly 45 years later, she guided England with great skill. The country was transformed from an economically troubled backwater beset by religious strife into one of the strongest nations on earth. Commerce flourished. Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake explored the New World. Shakespeare, Marlowe and Spenser produced their greatest work. England defeated the Spanish Armada in an epic battle.
In the 400 years since her death, Elizabeth's legend has been burnished by hundreds of plays, books and movies—most recently, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" with Cate Blanchett, which opens Friday. (Portraying Elizabeth is a good deal for an actress; the role earned Helen Mirren an Emmy and Judi Dench an Oscar.)
In many of these re-creations, Elizabeth is a remote, archaic figure—the unmarried Virgin Queen (exactly how virginal is a mystery). But she was actually a public-relations whiz. On the day of her coronation, she rode through London under a brocade canopy as crowds cheered. Then she immediately tackled her nation's toughest problem—religion—by reinstating the Protestant Church. She discouraged persecution of Roman Catholics, however, telling her counselors, "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls."
Over the years, Elizabeth downsized her Privy Council, her closest advisers, in order to run her government more efficiently. She also made it clear that while she listened to them, the final decision was always hers. She exercised power as firmly as any man, but used her femininity to reinforce her popularity. In her most celebrated speech, just before the defeat of the Armada, she addressed the matter directly. "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman," she said, "but I have the heart and stomach of a king." Her particular blend of strength and compassion would play just as well in 2008.