I've found that speaking of the first woman ruler in history, most common materials (like Wikipedia or Britannica) point at the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, living in the 16th century BCE. As a source at Wiki there's provided an American archaeologist James Henry Breasted, who established the study of Egyptology in the United States.

But he died around 80 years ago. So is that still accurate to our knowledge of ancient history? Who was the first woman ruler in history, according to current scientific researches?

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    I don't think it can be answered since matriarchial societies are as old as human race. And we can say these women were rulers of their tribe. – CsBalazsHungary Apr 8 '13 at 9:39
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    @CsBalazsHungary If we approach this as a written history question, it can be (and has been) answered (although better answers might still appear). And frankly, we should be approaching all our questions as written history ones, if a question is about prehistoric times, that should be clear in the question's text. – yannis Apr 10 '13 at 13:47

The first (known) female Pharaoh is Sobekneferu (or Neferusobek) that ruled Egypt three centuries before Hatshepsut, from 1806 to 1802 BC. Sobekneferu is probably the earlier female ruler (in general, not only Egypt's) whose name we know and for whose reign we can be reasonably certain.

James Henry Breasted regarded Hatshepsut as "the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.", and I think you read that with emphasis on "first" when you should have read it with emphasis on "great" and "informed". Hatshepsut had a very long and (mostly) peacefull reign, and is commonly quoted as one of the most succesfull Pharaohs.

Another candidate for the earlier female ruler is Nitocris, a female Pharaoh mentioned by Herodotus:

[Hdt. 2.100.1] After him came three hundred and thirty kings, whose names the priests recited from a papyrus roll. In all these many generations there were eighteen Ethiopian kings, and one queen, native to the country; the rest were all Egyptian men.
[Hdt. 2.100.2] The name of the queen was the same as that of the Babylonian princess, Nitocris. She, to avenge her brother (he was king of Egypt and was slain by his subjects, who then gave Nitocris the sovereignty) put many of the Egyptians to death by treachery.
[Hdt. 2.100.3] She built a spacious underground chamber; then, with the pretence of inaugurating it, but with quite another intent in her mind, she gave a great feast, inviting to it those Egyptians whom she knew to have had the most complicity in her brother's murder; and while they feasted, she let the river in upon them by a vast secret channel
[Hdt. 2.100.4] This was all that the priests told of her, except that when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, to escape vengeance.

Nitocris is traditionally placed at the end of the Sixth Dynasty, with her rule being from 2184 – 2181 BC, however her historicity is strongly disputed as she isn't mentioned anywhere else.

Lastly, a much earlier candidate is Merneith (Meritnit, Meryet-Nit or Meryt-Neith), a 30th century BC (possible) ruler of Egypt, for who very little is known.

  • Thanks a lot! +1 and possible accept. It turns out I should remember Nitocris, as she's mentioned in one of two most famous Polish novels about ancient times (Pharaoh by Bolesław Prus, the second one being the Nobel winner Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz). – Darek Wędrychowski Apr 7 '13 at 19:29
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    @DarekWędrychowski You're welcome. And while I appreciate that you consider accepting my answer, there's no rush. On my own questions I typically wait at least two weeks (and sometimes more) before accepting an answer (assuming of course a satisfying answer exists). I've found that the green checkmark severely limits the visibility of the question, and that's not something we really want, at least not until we are reasonably certain that a better answer won't appear. – yannis Apr 7 '13 at 19:36

Kubaba or Kug-bau is said to have been a Sumerian ruler circa 2500 BCE and possibly the oldest rags-to-riches story that we know of: she was an alewife/tavern-keeper before she became queen.

Kubaba (in the Weidner or Esagila Chronicle; Sumerian: Kug-Bau) is the only queen on the Sumerian King List, which states she reigned for 100 years – roughly in the Early Dynastic III period (ca. 2500-2330 BC) of Sumerian history. She is one of very few women to have ever ruled in their own right in Iraqi history. Most versions of the king list place her alone in her own dynasty, the 3rd Dynasty of Kish, following the defeat of Sharrumiter of Mari, but other versions combine her with the 4th dynasty, that followed the primacy of the king of Akshak. Before becoming monarch, the king list says she was a tavern-keeper.

(I ran across her in one of the stories in the anthology, After Hours: Tales from Ur-Bar.)

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    Thanks. :) I'm still suspicious to any source claiming that someone ruled for 100 years. but the story sounds very interesting and it's quite understandable that we lack fully descriptive sources from such ancient times as 2500 BC. – Darek Wędrychowski Apr 10 '13 at 16:07
  • Sumerian King List - +1. – user2590 Aug 25 '13 at 4:26
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    Like all king-lists they tend to become more legends than history further back in time. But it seems unlikely that they would stick a queen in there if there hadn't actually been a queen ruling at some point. – Lennart Regebro Aug 25 '13 at 11:15
  • let us continue this discussion in chat – Lennart Regebro Aug 26 '13 at 10:10

Kubaba is a queen (the only one) mentioned in the Sumerian King list as ruler of Kish. According to Wikipedia that puts her at roughly 2500-2330 BC. I doubt there are any earlier female Sumerian rulers, and Sumer is to a first approximation the oldest historical civilisation (in the sense that historical records of it are earlier than those of anywhere else).

  • She might have been a tavern keeper. Kubaba was deified by multiple people. She became the patron deity of Carcimesh, then spread throughout Anatolia as Kybele or Kubeliya. It was not widely received in Greece, but later became the Roman cult of Cybele or Attis. – John Dee Feb 11 '18 at 2:47

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