Some represented monumental firsts and some lost their lives for it, but all of these "Iron Ladies" showed that women can indeed run a country, even decades at a time.
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Queen Elizabeth II
Queen of the British Commonwealth for 56 years and counting, no female head of state even comes close to Elizabeth's record for longevity or clout. Elizabeth II is more than just a figurehead, she is a veritable global institution – just recently slowing her grueling schedule of world travel at the age of 82.
Photo Credit: NASA
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President Nixon once called her an "old witch," but Indira Gandhi still managed to triple his five years in office, serving as India's prime minister from 1966-'77 and again from 1980-'84. Gandhi served during tumultuous times for the country, ultimately losing her life to a bullet fired by her own bodyguards. Continuing on the family tradition, Indira's son succeeded her but was also assassinated.
Photo Credit: Nation Archives
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After she became Britain's first Prime Minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher figured she may as well stick around for a bit and get things done too, serving three terms in office until 1990. The original "Iron Lady" had a hand in the fall of Communism, pushed her Conservative policies unabashedly and even survived an IRA bomb attack, raising two kids all the while.
Photo Credit: The White House
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It took just 20 years for the new state of Israel to elect its first female prime minister, Golda Meir, who grew up in Milwaukee but settled in Palestine to fight for Israeli statehood. As one of the founding "fathers" of the nation – her predecessor once called her "the only man in the cabinet" – she was brought out of retirement at age 70 to become its leader in 1969, leading Israel through the massacre at the Munich Olympics and the Yom Kippur War.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
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Forbes' current most powerful woman in the world is Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel. A potent symbol of the nation's modern economy, Merkel made history in 2007 when Germany simultaneously took its turn presiding over the Group of Eight and the European Union – putting the chemistry genius, essentially, at the helm of the continent.
Photo Credit: NASA
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The "Iron Lady" of Liberia became Africa's first elected female head of state in 2005 after leading the campaign to remove controversial President Charles Taylor from office. Johnson-Sirleaf earned her Thatcheresque nickname by surviving several years in prison and exile for criticizing the government. Liberia needed an educated, motherly figure like Sirleaf to set their fractious country back on the right path, pundits have said.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State
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This widow and self-proclaimed housewife took control as President of the Philippines in 1986 as part of the "People Power" revolt that ousted Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-loving wife, Imelda. With no prior political experience and five children on her hands, Aquino still managed to implement a number of popular reforms and is remembered as a unifying force.
Photo Credit: Embassy of the United States in Manilla
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Having already served two terms as PM, five years in jail for corruption and, finally, a stint in exile, the young and glamorous Benazir Bhutto was enjoying her triumphant return to Pakistan when killed in an apparent assassination attempt in December of 2007. Pundits think she may have regained power in the 2008 elections, continuing on a long Bhutto legacy in Pakistan.
Photo Credit: The Office of Congressman Gary Ackerman
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The world's first female prime minister continued in her husband's stead after he was assassinated in 1959 – earning the nickname "the weeping widow" for her frequent tearful outbursts on the campaign trail. Among other accomplishments, Bandranaike changed her country's name to Sri Lanka from Ceylon, a leftover of British rule. Her daughter also became president.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
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With her model's good looks and the brains of a business tycoon, Yulia Tymoshenko was the perfect poster-child for Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004. When it was done, she was prime minister and one of the most powerful women in the world. Despite some political ups and downs since, Tymoshenko is again PM and is a possible candidate for the Presidency in 2010.
Photo Credit: U.S. Dept. of Commerce
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.