It was predictable that as the horrific events in Ukraine unfold, femsplainers in the media would be claiming that wars would not happen if the world was run by women. Putin’s actions were even attributed to toxic masculinity by a few commentators.
This comes hot on the heels of the now thoroughly debunked claims that female leaders were systematically better than male leaders during the pandemic, see post of August 2020 COVID19 and Female Supremacists. Now that better data is available, such claims have entirely unraveled.
So are female leaders less likely to engage in warfare? The data suggests not. It remains men who are most likely to be killed, that is indisputable, but female leaders have shown themselves to be able and adept military leaders. In the modern era, you only have to think of Margaret Thatcher (UK), Golda Meir (Israel), Indira Ghandi (India) and Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan).
Women leaders have also been just as culpable of aiding and abetting wars. Angela Merkel may have facilitated the rise of Vladimir Putin by making Germany dependent on Russian gas. Similarly, Jacinda Adhern has been criticised for refusing to join ranks with her allies in condemning China and distancing herself from the Five Eyes alliance despite Uighur genocide that was in progress (see here).
Women’s role in war is not confined to leadership, they have also been enthusiastic promoters of men’s engagement in warfare and have been the most effective recruiting sergeants. During World War One, suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst quite properly argued for votes for women. However, she opposed votes for working-class men while, at the same time, arguing that it was the patriotic duty of those men to go and fight for their country.
Author John Cowper Powys, in his autobiography, gives us a glimpse into the prevailing culture around WW1 when he writes of the recruitment drives -‘women and girls did, as a rule, in those days exercise a definite warlike influence over their devotees and this they did without having to carry actual white feathers for distribution.’ The role of women in war, even when they are not leaders, is complex and nuanced. They are not all pacifists.
If you look further back in history there is evidence that female monarchs are just as likely as their male counterparts to engage in warfare. A study published Oendrila Dube and S.P. Harish in 2019, systematically reviewed European Rulers between 1480 and 1913. They found that states do not experience more peace at times of female leadership (see Queens published by SSRN). Indeed, states ruled by queens were 27% more likely to wage war than those ruled by kings. Some caution is required in interpreting this statistic because male leaders of neighboring states may view a country with a female monarch as weak and are more likely to attempt an invasion. Those that did were usually in for a rude awakening.
However, there are numerous examples of female leaders who have instigated state violence and enlarged their kingdoms. Vladimir Putin took inspiration from Catherine the Great who was the first Russian leader to annex the Crimea. The study by Dube and Harish found that queens were more likely than kings to gain new territory during course of their reign so it seem unlikely that they were waging wars purely in self defence.
Another augment that is put forward is that female leaders were merely doing what it takes to survive in a man’s world. Again, there is evidence to the contrary. For example, Queen Ranavalona ruled over Madagascar from 1828 to 1861. Her predecessor King Andrianampoinimerina was a liberal reforming ruler who honoured his people with a piece of land to carry on with their livelihood. Queen Ravanolona reversed this with a reign of terror that resulted in a reduction in the population of Madagascar from 5 to 2.5 million. Her opponents would be dumped slowly in boiling watering oil, or tied down with ropes and burned alive others would be buried alive in coffins. Numerous subjects were sold into slavery to boost the nation’s coffers. This occurred after slavery had been abolished in the UK.
There are plenty of other examples to choose from. Boudica was Queen of the British Icini tribe and led an uprising against the Romans in AD60. An estimated 70-80,000 Romans and Britons were killed by Boudica’s army, often by means of torture. Tacitus tells us that her army had no interest in taking or selling prisoners only slaughter by gibbet, fire or cross. The noblest women were impaled on stakes their breasts cut off and stuffed in their mouths. This was not even normal for those times. The Romans didn’t wantonly slaughter their opponents. Admittedly, this was because they were valuable and could be sold into slavery. No surprise then, that the suffragettes should see Boudica as the perfect symbol in their campaign for women’s suffrage.
Female leaders do not appear to be systematically better or worse than male leaders. Like men, women are complex and flawed. The case for equality in leadership is based on enlarging the pool of talent from which we can choose.