Her father was Emperor Tenji, who was succeeded by his half-brother Emperor Tenmu. Jitō was married to Tenmu (her uncle) and succeeded him on the throne in 687 at the age of forty two. This was to ensure that their son, Kusakabe-shinnō, could eventually ascend to emperor himself.
Prince Kusabake did indeed follow his mother, but died while still young, leaving his son Karu-no-o who was too young to rule. This meant that Jitō stepped in once more, this time to preserve the throne for her grandson.
Jitō’s total rule was eleven years, in 697 she abdicated in favour of Karu-no-o, who became Emperor Monmu. Jitō retired to a monastery but retained much of her political power and continued to excervcise it behind the scenes as a cloistered ruler.
There are two poems attributed to Empress Jitō, the first of which is:
After the death of the Emperor Temmu
Oh, the autumn foliage
Of the hill of Kamioka!
My good Lord and Sovereign
Would see it in the evening
And ask of it in the morning.
On that very hill from afar
I gaze, wondering
If he sees it to-day,
Or asks of it to-morrow.
Sadness I feel at eve,
And heart-rending grief at morn –
The sleeves of my coarse-cloth robe
Are never for a moment dry.
Composed when the Empress climbed the Thunder Hill
Lo, our great Sovereign, a goddess,
Tarries on the Thunder
In the clouds of heaven!