1. Angela Merkel
The world’s No. 1 Most Powerful Woman for the second year in a row, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the “Iron Lady” of Europe and the lead player in the eurozone economic drama that continues to threaten global markets. As Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal have teetered on the brink of an economic collapse, she has vowed to do everything in her power to preserve the 17-country EU. Merkel also called on international leaders to renew the Kyoto agreement, a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases that she helped ratify as Germany’s environmental minister in the 1990s. She has been chancellor since 2005, and her recent public approval ratings soared to near 70%–a good sign leading into the general election in the fall of 2013. Merkel is embracing the Internet, and last fall launched a YouTube channel, Die Bundesregierung, where she directly answers citizens’ questions.
2. Hillary Clinton
In keeping with her reputation as a no-nonsense diplomat, Hillary Clinton is spending her final months as Secretary of State far from the campaign trail. Much of that time has been on the go: this year alone she’s traveled to 42 countries. The former Presidential candidate has faced a formidable past 12 months: She’s navigated treacherous territory when WikiLeaks released sensitive diplomatic cables in November, urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to hand over his power and leave his country and recently warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to chart a different course than his militant father. And she went viral: the tumblr blog “Texts From Hillary” became a popular meme in April. Clinton has steadfastly said that she plans to move out of public life at the end of the year, but supporters are breathless over the possibility of a 2016 Presidential bid.
3. Dilma Rousseff
The president of one of the world’s largest economies is ambitious at the mid-point of her first term, launching two aggressive programs meant to reverse the still-strong but shrinking national GDP. Brasil Sem Miséria (Brazil Without Misery) is a Great Society-style program aimed at eradicating dire poverty and increasing access to education, medical care and sanitation services to those in need by 2014. A second initiative focuses on business growth and innovation, including protectionist tariffs on imports, subsidies for exports and incentivizing micro and small businesses. She tells FORBES, “What I want my legacy to be is this country to be increasing middle class, to be highly competitive and highly educated.” A June poll put Rousseff’s approval rating at 77%, and she is predicted to win a second four-year term in 2014.
4. Melinda Gates
When you have your name on the top of the world’s wealthiest and most generous private foundation, challenging the Vatican to reverse its position against birth control makes news. This summer Melinda Gates, a practicing Catholic, vowed to dedicate her life– and an additional personal $560 million–to improving access to contraception to women in some of the world’s poorest countries. That brings the foundation’s contributions to the cause up to $140 million each year for the next eight years. Last year the charity gave away $2.6 billion and to date has made more than $25 billion in grant commitments in poverty eradication, public health and education. This year, the foundation took heat when a $500,000 grant was made for the research and testing of “attention”-tracking wrist-bands for school children.
5. Jill Abramson
In year one as the first woman at the top of the New York Times masthead, Jill Abramson has shuffled senior editorial staff and captained the 161-year-old publication through an ongoing digital transformation. Now behind a paywall, NYTimes.com has recruited more than half a million paid subscribers and attracts over 40 million unique visitors worldwide each month. The native New Yorker and Harvard grad attended SXSW Interactive for the first time this year, discussing her vision of the future of the Times, her pride in being the first female executive editor of the paper and the rise of individual journalistic brands on the site. In October 2011 she released her third book, The Puppy Diaries, about raising her golden retriever, Scout. Her previous two books investigated U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the career paths of the women in the 1974 class of Harvard Law.
6. Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi, the longest serving chief in the Indian National Congress Party history, has had to defend herself and the party after a spate of key assembly elections this year, blaming the drubbing on weak candidates and state party organizations. Last year the 65-year old widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the one-time heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, successfully underwent cancer surgery. She was back in fighting spirit last month when she publicly reprimanded a fellow parliamentarian during session who had criticized her party’s handling of this summer’s rioting in Assam. Lauded for overseeing heavy economic growth, she is also criticized for tolerating political corruption and failing to forge connections with India’s fastest-growing demographic–younger voters. Gandhi is an avid scholar of the arts, and holds a degree in oil painting conservation.
7. Michelle Obama
More popular than her husband in this important election year, Michelle Obama‘s positive approval ratings register at 66% while POTUS’s term average has hovered just below 50%. The First Lady keeps a high profile with her mission to end childhood obesity, her commitment to military families and her stylish fashion picks. This year the Harvard Law School grad led the U.S. Olympic delegation in July’s opening ceremony in London, penned a coffee table book, “American Grown,” about growing veggies and tomatoes on the South Lawn of the White House and waged a war on sugary fruit juices as a part of her Let’s Move! initiative. She’s made more public appearances this year than usual–not surprisingly the campaign is using the Mrs. as a tool to widen the gender gap over Romney–appearing as a judge on an episode of Bravo’s Top Chef, chatting with the ladies of The View and joking with funny guys Jimmy Fallon and Jon Stewart.
8. Christine Lagarde
The first woman to run the IMF has spent much of her first year on the job battling the debt crisis in Europe. She’s been pushing for debt-sharing and an increase in rescue funds from the European Union but has faced resistance from fellow power woman Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. While the two are considered friends and this year exchanged holiday gifts, they’re at odds on how to avoid future emergencies like Greece experienced during the downturn. French-born Lagarde began her career at Chicago law firm Baker & McKenzie, where she specialized in labor and antitrust law. She returned to France in 2005, and was appointed finance minister in 2007.
9. Janet Napolitano
The first female head of the Department of Homeland Security, a position she took after serving as the governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009, Janet Napolitano is at the helm of the third largest department in U.S. politics. The past 12 months have put Homeland Security in the spotlight, particularly in the glare of June’s SCOTUS decisions on Arizona immigration policy and Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Fast and Furious” hot potato. Voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school in 1975, Napolitano has a history in local and state-level politics and law enforcement, but says moving to the national stage was a natural progression. “You’ve got to widen your scope and shift priorities,” she says, “to keep the nation’s borders secure.”
10. Sheryl Sandberg
After four years as Facebook’s COO–and shepherding the company through its much anticipated and critiqued $100 billion IPO in May–Sandberg was named to the social network’s board of directors in June. She is Facebook’s first female board member and owns nearly $1 billion of unvested stock in the company. The Harvard MBA served as chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton, and managed Google’s online global sales and operations as a vice president. One of few prominent women in tech, Sandberg has become the torch-bearer for a generation of women hoping to balance high-profile jobs with motherhood, an increasingly fraught issue in 2012. “I don’t believe in ‘having it all,'” she says. “But I do believe in women and men having both a successful career and family. The more women we get into positions of power, the more likely we’ll get that.” – Forbes