Powerful Women In History Who've Been Called "Nasty" — Or Suffered Worse Insult

It's the nasty moment that just keeps on giving. In the wake of the third and final election debate, in which Donald Trump so memorably described Hillary Clinton as a "nasty woman," the furore hasn't abated. Clinton, who appeared completely unfazed by the entire episode, can take comfort in the fact that, as a powerful woman looking to occupy one of the most influential spots in world politics, she's not the first powerful woman in history to be insulted by a male political opponent — nor, regrettably, will she be the last.

It's been a theme in recent history: the now-ex Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, produced an astonishingly memorable rail against the sexism of her opponent, Tony Abbott, who had stood next to signs calling her a "bitch" and has said that women are less suited to hold power because of "physiology or temperament". "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man," she noted. More recently, now-Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May was referred to, privately, by an MP as "a bloody difficult woman." As a "nasty woman," Clinton's joined a club that goes back, not just months, but thousands of years.

Unfortunately, finding women in power who've been insulted is one of the easiest tasks to ask a historian; it's more a question of narrowing the parameters. Female pharaohs, queens, and empresses have been denigrated, accused of ridiculous crimes, had their names forcibly erased from history, and insulted to their faces throughout the entirety of human history. The seven women who follow were, in every case, the most powerful people of their time, female or not; and that very position earned them accusations of "nastiness" in basically every form, from the relatively benign (vain, ugly or ridiculous) to the astonishing (murderous, bloodthirsty, and liable to have sex with farm animals).

While the word "nasty" itself doesn't feature particularly often, the sentiment is clear. Clinton, congratulations; you're up there with Wu Zeitan and Queen Victoria as the nasty club of powerful ladies.

Hatshepsut, Egyptian Pharaoh, 1508 BC–1458 BC

Hatshepsut was one of the most powerful women in the entirety of ancient history, and all the more exceptional because she was one of the only women who ruled ancient Egypt in her own right under the name "pharaoh." The dominant mode of power was so masculine in the period of her rule that she was pictured in carvings and images with a fake beard. (If you think Clinton has it tough with pantsuits, at least nobody's trying to make her glue a goatee to her face to assert her authority.)

But Hatshepsut's rule is also characterized by one of the strangest incidents of sexism in history: many of the monuments discussing her rule were defaced after her death, likely at the instigation of her stepson Thutmosis III. It looks like he genuinely tried to erase her from history. It was one of the first anti-propaganda campaigns known to history, and we're not entirely sure why he did it: to assert his own authority, claim her considerable achievements for his own, or just wipe away the "tainted" memory of a woman's leadership?

Boudicca, Queen Of The Celts, ?-60BC

The Celtic warrior Boudicca, who led her people, the Iceni, in a revolt against Roman rule (which, according to one historian, was a rebellion instigated after Roman soldiers raped her), had a reputation for bloodthirstiness; but we're not entirely sure how much of that is actual fact. It seems that Roman records of the time were likely to talk about her as the ultimate in "nasty": a woman so far from the traditional empathetic virtues of womanhood that she was inclined to disgusting violence. It's likely that Boudicca's armies did indeed massacre inhabitants of Roman towns, but one Roman historian noted that her armies "hung up the enemy women, cutting off their breasts and sewing them into the women's mouths" to make it look as if they were being eaten. We have no proof of this, and the historian Mary Beard thinks it's a spectacular piece of misogynist fantasy.

Theodora, Empress Of The Byzantines, 497AD - 548AD

Has anybody had a more bizarrely maligned reputation in history than Empress Theodora? The woman who largely co-ruled the immense Byzantine Empire with her husband, Justinian I, has been depicted for centuries by historians as a former prostitute who rose to the throne through erotic wiles. The problem with this is that the "source" of Theodora's past comes from one text: Procopius, who was secretary to Justinian's general, and wrote "The Secret History" shortly after their deaths. And Procopius's account isn't exactly trustworthy.

Alongside other things, he said her stage act included dancing naked, quoted her as wishing that she had more than three "orifices for pleasure," accused her of infanticide, and declared that her husband was a "bloodthirsty demon." It seems that Theodora may indeed have been an actress before she became Justinian's wife, but the idea that she was anything more licentious is the work of historians who've taken the most salacious, "nastiest" view and worked with that.

Wu Zetian, Empress Of China, 624AD - 705AD

The actual temperament of Wu Zetian, who ruled China during the Tang Dynasty after rising from a concubine in the Emperor's palace, has been a matter for considerable historical debate. The problem? We're not entirely sure what historical records are truth, and what's actually misogynistic falsification (sensing a theme yet?). What Smithsonian Magazine calls the "demonization" of Wu Zetian has been happening for over a thousand years, with allegations from contemporaries that she had "a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf," and did everything from murdering her own family (quite likely, and common among royals in China at that time) to infanticide and having orgies as an elderly empress (impossible to prove).

The reality of Wu Zetian's rule is difficult to ascertain, but historians point out something important: later Chinese thinkers reflecting on Wu Zetian's reign were usually influenced by Confucian ideals, which were extremely opposed to the idea of a female leader. (Wu Zetian was also a usurper, a fact that historians weren't inclined to look kindly on; her counterpart in Japanese history, Empress Shotoku, was allegedly driven by lust because she had an abnormally large vagina. No, really.)

Queen Elizabeth I Of England, 1533-1603

Want to be queen? You've got to be ready for everybody to call you disgusting names, it seems. Queen Elizabeth I reigned over some of the most peaceful days of Britain, but her choice to maintain her status as a virgin and remain unmarried for political purposes didn't exactly go over well in other countries, many of whom hoped she'd marry and make an alliance.

The response was, of course, slut-shaming. People across Europe, particularly in Catholic countries, referred to her as "the whore of Europe," including Henry of Anjou; they often alleged that she actually had a rapacious sexual appetite and was bearing illegitimate children left and right. (This wasn't exactly new, even in her own lifetime: Mary Queen of Scots had been called a "Roman Catholic whore" by male observers too, and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother, was called a "whore and a harlot" by Rauf Wendon.)

Catherine The Great, Empress Of Russia, 1729-1796

If the one thing you know about Catherine the Great, indubitably one of the women who changed the course of world history through political nous and power, is that she allegedly had sex with horses, you've partially got male political enemies to thank. The idea that she died either on the toilet or in equine congress originated with her (male) enemies in court; and while not the direct source of the myth, Frederick the Great of Prussia, who utterly disapproved of Catherine in general, avoided discouraging or contradicting any scurrilous nonsense about his rival. We shouldn't actually be all that surprised about that, since Frederick wrote on Catherine's accession that "a woman is always a woman and, in feminine government, the c*nt has more influence than a firm policy guided by straight reason."

He didn't spare his misogynistic notes on other women, either: when Maria Theresa of Austria appeared upset at the partition of Poland, he noted "she weeps, she weeps, but she takes her share."

Queen Victoria, Head Of The British Empire, 1809-1901

The fact that Queen Victoria, who took the throne at an extremely young age, wasn't particularly politically wise when she first entered public life is a pretty open secret. She got into scrapes a lot, and over the course of her life was hissed at in public, insulted at Royal Ascot, and faced eight assassination attempts. A lot of this was the standard reaction of a public to somebody doing a thing they disapproved of; but some of the criticism was very sexist indeed. Benjamin Disraeli commented that, when visiting her, you had to "lay [flattery] on with a thick trowel". The perception of Victoria as an utter dunce persisted; George Bernard Shaw commented decades later that "Nowadays a parlor maid as ignorant as Queen Victoria was when she came to the throne would be classed as mentally defective." It was also rumored that she was so offended by a comment on the thickness of her ankles when she visited Bath as a child that she never visited again.

It's worth noting that Victoria herself was hardly a paragon of women's rights. She wrote in 1870, "I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of 'Women's Rights', with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feelings and propriety. Feminists ought to get a good whipping. Were woman to ‘unsex’ themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.” But that doesn't mean that anybody should have to deal with being called a mentally defective thick-ankled flattery-hound.

Images: British Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Hume, The Yorck Project, National Portrait Gallery, Fyodor Rokotov, Henry Pierce Bone/Wikimedia Commons