On the 15th of September 2011, Denmark’s general elections were held. The incumbent Venstre party lost to a center-left coalition led by the Social Democrats party, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt became the Scandinavian nation’s first female Prime Minister.
Her arrival in such a prominent position of power was a monumental occasion for Denmark, with Thorning-Schmidt following in the footsteps of many other women all around the world who rose through the political ranks of their respective countries to become the official head of state.
With social progress and feminist movements becoming an increasingly important part of modern life, more and more female leaders will undoubtedly be elected in the years to come, but for now, let’s take a look back at some of the most important female heads of state of the last century.
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt
Born in Copenhagen, Helle Thorning-Schmidt graduated from the city’s university with a degree in political science. She served as a Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004 and was elected to the Danish Parliament in 2005. She quickly became Leader of the Social Democrats and led the party through the 2007 and 2011 elections, winning the latter.
Prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark attends the inauguration of the house of foreign industry on June 10, 2013, in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Torsten Laursen/Getty Images)
Thorning-Schmidt steered the country through a time of financial crisis, as well as easing immigration laws and introducing sensible tax reform. She retired from politics and has since become the CEO of Save the Children, providing health care, education, and other vital services to millions of underprivileged children all around the world.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Sirimavo Bandaranaike wasn’t just the first female Prime Minister in Sri Lanka; she was the first woman to hold such a position anywhere in the world and was also the mother of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who would later become the first female President of Sri Lanka. Born in 1916, Sirimavo spent her early years in social work, meeting and marrying S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1940.
(Original Caption) 7/21/60-Colombo, Ceylon: Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike (above in recent photo), who led her neutral-leftist Sri Lanka (freedom) Party to an overwhelming parliamentary victory, became Ceylon’s seventh prime minister July 21st, the first woman believed to head of government in modern history.
When Mr. Bandaranaike, who was prime minister at the time, was assassinated, his widow was elected as his successor. Bandaranaike, who served for three terms, introduced significant socialist changes to the country and helped Sri Lanka become a republic, while also forging strong, peaceful relationships with other nations.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi was the first female Prime Minister of India. The daughter of India’s first ever Prime Minister, Indira was known as a reliable and ruthless leader, launching a war with Pakistan which led to the creation of the nation of Bangladesh.
(Original Caption) Mrs. Gandhi Campaigns. New Delhi, India: Mrs. Indira Gandhi, premier of India, with her face surrounded by floral garlands, addresses a public meeting gathered at the Red Fort at the eve of the elections. Some 275 million people started to cast their votes March 1st and the results are expected to be announced after 10 days. Mrs. Gandhi hopes to retain her post of prime minister.
She also helped to boost India’s power and influence in Asia, serving four terms in total from the 60s through to the 80s, and being regarded as a dynamic, controversial leader who fought bravely for women’s rights. Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards in 1984 and has been honored in various ways since her death. The world’s most prominent university is named after her, and the most northern and southern points are also named in her honor.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir
Born Golda Mabovich in 1898, Golda Meir grew up to become a key figure in Israeli politics, first serving as Minister of Labour before becoming the first female Prime Minister of Israel in 1969. Known for her strong will and composed demeanor, Meir is well remembered for pushing for peace around the Middle East.
(Original Caption) Prime Minister Golda Meir shown during an interview marking Israel’s 25th anniversary, says the country’s greatest achievement has been its mere survival.
She met with many world leaders, including Richard Nixon and Pope Paul VI, while pursuing peace and safety for her people. She resigned in 1974 and died a few years later of cancer. Meir’s life has been immortalized in films and theater productions, while various schools and areas have been named after her, including Golda Meir Square in New York City.
UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Nicknamed the ‘Iron Lady,’ Margaret Thatcher was known for her strong leadership qualities and bold decision-making. Her reign was controversial but memorable as she implemented her political style that came to be known as Thatcherism. Originally a research chemist at Oxford University, Thatcher later pursued politics and became Prime Minister in 1979.
October 1985: British prime minister Margaret Thatcher looking pensive at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Immensely popular in her early years, Thatcher worked to reduce unemployment as well as securing victory in the Falklands War. She was re-elected for two more terms and was one of the first global leaders to push for new policies to combat climate change. She received many honors and awards, as well as famously being portrayed by Meryl Streep in 2011’s The Iron Lady.
Icelandic President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir
Born in 1930, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir spent her early years working as a French teacher before starting to get involved in Icelandic feminist movements in 1975. In 1980, she was chosen as the sole female candidate for the nation’s presidency and was narrowly elected, winning against three male competitors. She later became immensely popular and was reelected three more times.
THE ICELANDIC HEAD OF STATE, VIGDIS FINNBOGADOTTIR (Photo by Bernard Annebicque/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
She was the first democratically elected female president in the world. She fought for environmental rights as well as pushing for better women’s rights and education for young girls. After retiring from politics, she became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO and is also a member of the Club of Madrid, a non-profit that promotes democracy around the world.
Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland
Born in 1939, Gro Harlem Brundtland studied medicine and worked as a doctor before heading into politics, becoming Minister for Environmental Affairs in 1974. In 1981, she was elected as Norway’s first female Prime Minister. She was re-elected for two more terms and worked hard to achieve gender equality among her government, with nearly half of her ministers being women.
(Photo by Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
She also became a real leader in fields of green energy and public health, before going on to become the Director-General of the World Health Organization, where she pushed for the abolition of smoking. She has received various honors over the years, and her husband has documented her achievements in two best-selling books.
Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto became the first ever woman to head a Muslim majority nation when she became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1990. Bhutto’s father was the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party and later became Prime Minister, so she was exposed to politics from a very early age. After her father was executed, Harvard and Oxford-educated Bhutto took over the PPP and pushed for democracy in Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, listens to remarks by President Clinton during her state visit. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Taking influence from Margaret Thatcher, she won the 1988 election and was highly regarded, especially by Westerners, as a true icon for women’s rights and democracy. She was assassinated in 2007, but her legacy lives on, and her memory has been physically honored in various universities and public buildings around Pakistan.
Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel
Often regarded as the most powerful woman on the planet, Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005 as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union. Born in 1954, Merkel obtained a doctorate in quantum chemistry and worked as a research scientist before politics. She served in various ministerial roles before being elected as Chancellor in 2005. Merkel is the longest-serving head of government in the world and one of the longest-serving female leaders in history.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens to debates after she addressed the Bundestag with a government declaration on the recent Brexit vote on June 28, 2016, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
She has played a vital role in international relations, economic matters, ecological issues, immigration, and the European Union. She is regarded as the de facto leader of the EU and has received awards from multiple countries as well as several honorary degrees.
President of South Korea Park Geun-Hye
Park Geun-Hye was the first female President of South Korea and the first woman to hold such a position in all of East Asia. Her father, Park Chung-Hye, was also a South Korean president and was assassinated in 1979. She became President in 2013, vowing to bring hope and happiness to the nation, and was classed as one of the most influential women in the world in the years that followed.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Office on January 12, 2015, in Seoul, South Korea. Park outlined her policy plans for the new year. (Photo by Kim Min-Hee-Pool/Getty Images)
She pushed for strong relations with the US and the possibility of Korean reunification. In 2016, however, Park was impeached due to allegations regarding illegal activities of her top aide. She was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2018.