5 Myths About Women Leaders From History

Marie Antoinette, Portrait
Marie Antoinette, Portrait / Imagno/GettyImages

Larger-than-life figures tend to inspire legends that fit their reputation, and this is especially true of history’s most well-known women leaders. But many of these powerful women are known for events that never actually happened or quotes they never said. From innocent misunderstandings to misogynistic smear campaigns, here are five myths you may have heard about powerful women from history.

1. Cleopatra wasn’t ethnically Egyptian.

Cleopatra / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Cleopatra is thought of as the quintessential ancient Egyptian today, but she wouldn’t necessarily have been viewed that way 2000 years ago. Although she was Egyptian in the sense that she was born and raised there, she descended from the Greek general Ptolemy I Soter, whose family ruled Egypt after it was conquered by Alexander the Great. Some scholars say Cleopatra likely thought of herself as ethnically Macedonian Greek, though she did embrace Egyptian culture. She was the first queen in her family to learn the Egyptian language, and she identified herself with the Egyptian goddess Isis.

2. Catherine the Great wasn’t a nymphomaniac.

Catherine II as Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna', 1762.
Catherine II as Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna', 1762. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Catherine the Great wielded considerable power in the 18th century, and that was more than enough to threaten her male peers. This fueled a cycle of misogynistic rumors related to the Russian empress, the most persistent of which accused her of being a sexual deviant.

These rumors were bolstered by the fact that Catherine had multiple lovers during her life—most historians say 12 but some go up to 22 over the course of 44 years. This string of relationships earned her a reputation as a nymphomaniac, and it's a label that stuck with her for centuries. However, historians today often describe her as a serial monogamist: She would have a years-long relationship with one person; then, when that relationship ended, she’d quickly move on. (Catherine is even quoted as writing “The trouble is that my heart is loath to remain even one hour without love.”). These romances were hardly as salacious as the stories suggested—but they were far from the most outrageous rumors aimed at the empress.

According to one legend, Catherine had a secret room filled with obscene furniture decorated with genitalia (a reproduction of a table allegedly owned by Catherine went up for auction at Sotheby's in 2017, but the company stressed that there's no proof she actually had one like it). The most infamous story, however, claims the empress was crushed to death by a horse during an orgy of bestiality. Her real death was much more mundane; Catherine succumbed to a stroke on November 17, 1796.

3. Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.”

The Execution Of Marie Antoinette On October 16 1793 Late 18th Cent
The Execution Of Marie Antoinette On October 16, 1793 / Heritage Images/GettyImages

“Let them eat cake” is the most famous quote attributed to Marie Antoinette. Her alleged response to being told the peasants had no bread to eat helped reinforce her reputation as a callous, out-of-touch ruler leading up to the French Revolution. But according to modern scholars, the last queen of France never uttered this line.

Before Marie Antoinette's reign, a similar story was told about the Spanish princess and first wife of King Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse. In that telling, she told her people to eat la croûte de pâté, or "the crust of the pâté." The version of the story associated with Marie Antoinette apparently resonated enough with the culture to stick around for centuries, even though experts say the queen was more charitable and sensitive to her poor subjects than the story suggests. She was known to give money to help feed those in need, and she once wrote to her mother: “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”

4. Queen Victoria wasn’t a prude.

Queen Victoria of England - portrait of Her Majesty in 1887.
Queen Victoria of England in 1887. / Culture Club/GettyImages

The Victorians are remembered now as stuffy prudes, but Queen Victoria herself wasn’t as shy about sex as she’s often portrayed. The monarch had a tradition of exchanging sensual artworks with her husband Prince Albert and displaying them around their home. Gifts from the couples’ collection included paintings of semi-nude women (including this topless number) and a custom statue depicting Albert as a scantily-clad Greek warrior. Victoria said that the latter piece was “very beautiful,” but her husband eventually commissioned a new version with a longer tunic to cover up his legs.

Victoria was also no stranger when it came to writing about her sex life. In a journal entry describing her wedding night, she wrote: “I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening! MY DEAREST, DEAR Albert sat on a footstool by my side, and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before.”

5. Queen Liliʻuokalani didn’t write ‘Aloha ‘Oe’ about Hawaii being overthrown.

In addition to being the first and last queen of Hawaii, Liliʻuokalani was also a prolific songwriter. Her most famous composition, “Aloha ‘Oe” (or “Farewell to Thee”), became an anthem of Hawaiian resistance, but it didn’t originate that way. Queen Liliʻuokalani was inspired to write the tune after witnessing two lovers hug one another goodbye during a horseback ride in 1877 or 1878.

It was only after the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a group of white businessmen and sugar planters that the Hawaiian people reinterpreted the love song as a farewell ballad [PDF] from Hawaii’s queen to her kingdom. According to Hawaii Magazine, part of the confusion over the song's origin comes from the fact that Lili'uokalani revisited and transcribed the song while under house arrest following the overthrow years later.