During the 7th and 8th centuries in Mesoamerica, there was an evident shift in the roles women played in ancient Maya society as compared with the previous two centuries. It was during this time that there was a great deal of political complexity seen both in Maya royal houses as well as in the Maya area. Warfare was a significant factor in political competition and marriage was one of the ways that alliances were made between the different polities. This was accompanied by a shift in women's roles from wife and mother to playing integral parts in courtly life, such as participating in rituals involving the supernatural world and at times ruling individual polities.
A handful of women are described and depicted on monuments taking on roles and titles that were usually reserved for men. High-ranking titles that both men and women could hold included Ajaw and Kaloomte'. The title of Ajaw was seen as "the most general title" that persons of nobility could have if they were born into the right social ranking; meanwhile, the title Kaloomte' has an unclear meaning but it is at the site of Tikal where the title is used as the highest rank.
Among the high-ranking women in ancient Maya society during the Classic Period were five who rose to the position of ruling queen. Some acceded to the throne in their own right due to the lack of a male heir. Others served as regent until their sons were old enough to rule. These women included Lady of Tikal, Lady Yohl Ik'nal and Muwaan Mat of Palenque, Lady Six Sky of Naranjo, and Lady Eveningstar of Yaxchilan.
"Lady of Tikal" assumed a leadership role at the age of six but did not rule on her own. She co-ruled with an individual named Kaloomte' Bahlam. The daughter of Chak Tok Ich'aak II, Lady of Tikal was depicted on Stela 23, which was broken and later re-erected incomplete. Her relationship to Bird Claw, who may have been her successor is unknown due to problems deciphering the text of Stela 8, but it is important to note that Bird Claw does not carry the Tikal emblem.
Monuments that refer to the Lady of Tikal are: Stelae 6, 12, and 23.
Lady Yohl Ik'nal took the throne at Palenque in 583 when Kan Bahlam I, the 7th ruler, died and left no heir. The relationship between her and the previous king remains undetermined, though she appears to have been either his daughter or sister. She ruled for more than 20 years. She also carried full royal titles, an uncommon occurrence for women. According to the sarcophagus of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, Yohl Ik'nal was the mother of Lady Sak K'uk', making Lady Yohl Ik'nal the grandmother of K'inich Janaab Pakal.
Lady Yohl Ik'nal appears on the side of the sarcophagus of K'inich Janaab Pakal.
Muwaan Mat (also known as Lady Sak K'uk' or "Lady Beastie") ruled for a short time after the death of Aj Ne' Yohl Mat before K'inich Janaab' Pakal took the throne.
It was probably Sak K'uk' and her consort K'an Mo' Hix who held most of the power during the childhood of K'inich Janaab' Pakal. There is an image of Lady Sak K'uk handing him what had been termed the "drum major" crown at his accession.
Of the three queens, Lady Six Sky's reign was the most impressive. She was the daughter of Bajlaj Chan K'awiil of Dos Pilas and arrived at Naranjo in the position of ruling queen and established a "new dynasty." Lady Six Sky commissioned monuments that note she performed important calendric rituals, some shortly after her arrival. Additionally, she is shown on monuments taking on the role of a warrior-king by standing over a trampled captive, an unusual representation for a woman. Naranjo Stela 24 is one such depiction. Scholars suspect that K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak, the king who succeeded her, was the son of Lady Six Sky. He was born five years after her arrival at Naranjo.
Monuments that refer to Lady Six Sky are: Stelae 3, 18, 24, 29, and 31. Died–February 10 or 11, 741
Lady Ik' Skull, also known as Lady Eveningstar, came to Yaxchilan from Calakmul. She was a secondary wife to Itzamnaaj Bahlam III (also referred to as Shield Jaguar II, Shield Jaguar the Great or Itzamnaaj B'alam II). Although a secondary wife, Lady Ik' Skull may have ruled for a short time in Yaxchilan's history until her son Bird Jaguar IV was old enough to take the throne. A review of the dynastic history of Yaxchilan during Itzamnaaj Bahlam III's reign indicates that he had three wives: Lady K'ab'al Xook (also written as Lady Xoc or Lady Xok), Lady Sak B'iyaan and Lady Ik' Skull of Calakmul, with Lady K'ab'al Xook as the primary wife. Upon the death of Itzamnaaj Bahlam, the right to the throne would traditionally go to his heir through the Lady K'ab'al Xook line; however, this is not what happens and nearly ten years after his death it is his son, Bird Jaguar IV, from Lady Ik’ Skull that takes the throne.
There is a great deal of speculation as to why the son of a secondary wife took the throne and did so after the king had been dead for ten years. Current thinking is that the rightful heir through Lady K'ab'al Xook's lineage may have been her son, or perhaps a nephew or brother, but that this individual was captured during a conflict with Dos Pilas in 745. Information regarding this "interregnum" period tends to be conflicting. In their second revised edition Martin and Grube note that at Piedras Negras there is mention of a new king at Yaxchilan, Yopaat Bahlam II, who may have ruled for part or all of this period. However, supporting evidence for this is unknown from Yaxchilan. On the other hand, Josserand notes that Lady Ik' Skull ruled as regent during this time and that it was not until her death that Bird Jaguar IV took the throne.
A monument which refers to Lady Ik' Skull is stela 35.