On October 20, 1740, Maria Theresa, daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, became the only female ruler of the Habspurg dominions. Among others, her territory included Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia. Because a woman couldn’t be elected Holy Roman Empress, she made her husband, Francis I, co-ruler of Austria and Bohemia in an attempt to give him the required credentials. This initially failed, but when the newly elected Emperor died Francis was elected in 1745, making Maria Theresa Empress consort.
Although her father, Charles VI, had spent most of his reign working to ensure Maria Theresa’s accession to the throne, Saxony, Prussia, Bavaria and France refused to recognize it upon his death. She fought many battles trying to retain her territories including the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War.
Maria Theresa said that she would have led her troops into battle herself, but she was prevented by sixteen births over a twenty year period. Two of her sons succeeded their father as Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II and Leopold II, but her most famous child is probably Marie Antoinette. After Francis died in 1765, she chose not to abdicate and remained co-ruler with Joseph until her death in 1780.
In addition to fighting wars, giving birth, and arranging marriages, Maria Theresa instigated significant reforms. Under her rule, a standing army was created paid for by new taxes which helped to improve the overall economy. Her personal physician, Gerard van Swieten, with her support founded the Vienna General Hospital and made improvements in the educational system. She decreed mandatory autopsies for deaths at the hospital and began smallpox inoculations in Austria with her own children. She outlawed witch burnings and torture (although they were later re-introduced), instituted reforms in the relationship between the Church and government, and required both boys and girls from six to twelve years old to attend school.
Find out what else happened on October 20 in Women’s History.