What the most powerful women of the past can teach us

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She was born into a profoundly dysfunctional family. Her father married six times—and essentially ordered hits on two of his wives, including her mother (whose major crime may have been giving birth to a daughter instead of a son). Jealous relatives plotted against her. As a teenager, she was locked up in a tower. If she were alive today, she could write a best-selling memoir about her abusive childhood and appear on "Oprah." Instead, Elizabeth I became one of the most powerful and respected leaders in history.

This year, as Americans contemplate making Sen. Hillary Clinton our first female president, it is instructive to look back at Elizabeth and other women who wielded power long before the age of speechwriters, personal stylists and YouTube campaigning. Cleopatra, for example, ruled ancient Egypt with fierce political savvy while giving birth to children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (twins in the latter case). If she worried about balancing work and family, she left no record of it. This was a woman who understood the importance of the grand gesture. Once, according to a history by Pliny the Elder, she bet Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces (a Roman coin) on dinner. In the midst of a pedestrian meal, she dropped a valuable pearl earring into a cup of vinegar, watched it dissolve and drank it.

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