No, your mother-in-law is not on the list. When it comes to dictators throughout history, we usually think of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or maybe Mao Zedong, which is understandable. They’ve done atrocious things that took the lives of some 200 million people along with untold damage and suffering. On the other hand, there were also some female dictators less known in history that were equally brutal in their own ways.

Ranavalona I

Born Rabodoandrianampoinimerina(This name crashed our Spell Check software for an hour), Princess Ramavo was born in 1778 in Ambatomanoina in Madagascar. Her rise to power began when she was still a young girl. Her father, Prince Andriantsalamanjaka, alerted the then-King  Andrianampoinimerina about an assassination planned against the king by his own uncle. As a form of gratitude for saving his life, he betrothed his son and heir, Prince Radama, to Princess Ramavo. He also declared that the child they would have would be first in the line of succession after the prince.

When Radama died, his sister’s eldest son was supposed to be the rightful heir, an intelligent and amiable young man named Rakotobe. However, Ramavo and her cronies decided to keep her husband’s death a secret and instead claimed the throne by saying Radama himself decreed it. She followed the royal custom and ordered the capture and killing of her political rivals, Rakotobe included. She was then officially crowned on June 12, 1829, which was the beginning of doom for the Kingdom of Madagascar. In her 33 years of reign, she focused on strengthening the domestic authority of the Kingdom of Imerina and preserving Madagascar’s political and cultural sovereignty, which was not a bad thing until she decided to ban all Christian practice in 1835 completely. Just within a year, there were almost no foreigners in her country. She was also an avid fan of a traditional practice called fanompoana, tax payment in the form of forced labor. The regular war, diseases, the burden of forced labor, and the trials by ordeal using a poisonous nut from the Tangena shrub caused a very high mortality rate throughout her time as a ruler that Madagascar’s population was almost halved from 5 million to 2.5 million.

Jiang Qing

Jiang Qing (Unknown authorCC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons)

Known as Madame Mao, Jiang was an actress before she became a major political figure during the Cultural Revolution when she became the fourth wife and “First Lady” of Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party and Paramount leader of China. She first worked as a Director of Film in the Central Propaganda Department, writing pamphlets against the “feudal and bourgeois” traditional opera. So she basically purged the Chinese media and literature and left nothing but political propaganda through their prescribed “revolutionary” material. She also established a close political relationship and became the leader of Gang of Four— a Maoist political faction of four Communist Party of China officials that would later be charged with treasonous crimes.

Perhaps one of the most atrocious things that Jiang had done was to take advantage of the Cultural Revolution by taking revenge on her personal enemies, even those during her acting career. One of her rivals was First Premier Zhou Enlai, whom she hurt by having his adopted son murdered in the basement of Renmin University while his adopted daughter was kept and tortured in a secret prison, and then cremating her body before disposing of it so that she could not be autopsied nor her family has her ashes. When Zhou Enlai died in 1976, she started a campaign called “Five Nos” to prohibit public mourning for Zhou. When her husband died, Jiang and the other members of Gang of Four were sent to Qincheng Prison and were detained for five years. While there, she was beaten, starved, and tortured while China celebrated the fall of her gang.

Elena Ceaușescu

Elena Ceausescu
Elena Ceausescu portrait

Elena Ceaușescu was the wife of the Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu who also gained her power during the latter period of the Cold War. She was not active in politics in the beginning until she accompanied her husband during a state visit to China. There, she saw how Jiang Qing maintained a position of power and thought she wanted the same. Once they got back home, she began to plan her political rise. In July 1971, she was elected a member of the Central Commission on Socio-Economic Forecasting after her husband launched a mini-cultural revolution. From there, she began to have a high political profile of her own, next to her husband. She became a member of the highest party body, the Permanent Bureau of the Political Executive Committee, in January 1977. In March 1980, she rose to be a First Deputy Prime Minister. During her time, she gained a following that was almost a cult that they called her the “Mother of the Nation.” Romanian televisions had to follow a strict order of making sure she portrayed a certain image on the screen. For instance, she should not be shown in profile because she had a large nose. She and her husband tried to escape during the Romanian Revolution, but they were caught and executed on the afternoon of December 25, 1989, through a firing squad.