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The Middle Ages Demonstrate Why Women Leaders Make Peace — and War

Medieval rulers employed multiple styles of leadership—defying the simple binaries of contemporary stereotypes.

Hillary Clinton’s victory in Iowa marks the first time a woman has won the presidential caucuses there. Enter the latest round of gender-based speculationsabout female candidates’ inherent pacifism versus their over-compensating hawkishness. With Clinton in the presidential race for the long haul, now is definitely—finally—a good time to throw out the binary competition between passivity and warmongering that always seems to be ascribed to female leaders. There’s no need to cram women—including Clinton—into one-dimensional categories: History demonstrates that women employ multiple and complicated approaches to leadership.

Politically active women thrived in the Middle Ages—as queens, duchesses, countesses, and so on—because the medieval period seated political power within noble families, and women were members of those families. Medieval history may not be the obvious source for an examination of active women rulers—after all, books on the Middle Ages often center on the infighting between kings and their knights, while increasingly misogynistic monks produced diatribes against the wiles of women. Nevertheless, noble wives in the Middle Ages were regarded as co-rulers of territory, alongside their husbands, and were expected to participate in both political and military affairs even when their husbands were present and available. This expectation meant that medieval noblewomen had the opportunity to develop a personal ruling style.

In the 1170s, for example, Petronilla of Grandmesnil and her husband together led their troops in rebellion against King Henry II of England, wreaking destruction through the countryside. According to one chronicler, Henry’s men finally captured Petronilla as she was fleeing a battlefield, wearing a hauberk and carrying a spear. The king ultimately freed her—only to imprison her again 10 years later to forestall a repeat rebellion. Clearly, Petronilla had mastered an aggressive military policy.

But she wasn’t only warlike. Petronilla later initiated a legal suit to repossess English lands that had once belonged to her family, for she was not so pugnacious that she refused more peaceable means out of hand. This was particularly notable at a time when military land-grabs were all the rage; no one would have batted an eye if she had attempted to simply take these lands by force. Petronilla (and she was not unique) shows that medieval women rulers were quite capable of employing multiple leadership styles—rather than bowing to the hawkish or dovish urges supposedly imposed on them by their biological sex.

What’s more (and modern political analysts, take note), medieval commentators did not try to predict a particular countess’s actions based on her sex; instead, they implicitly recognized that an individual woman ruler could choose either aggressive or conciliatory actions as the situation required. For example, the 14th-century chronicler Jean Froissart famously portrayed Queen Philippa of Hainault in 1347 as begging her husband, King Edward III of England, to pardon some city burghers he had just condemned to death for resisting his siege of their city. On bended knee and pregnant belly positioned to remind the king of mercy and life, Philippa tore at her hair and shed tears in an effort to stop the bloodshed. The year prior, this perfect peace-weaver also led a royal army to counter a Scottish invasion of England. At the Battle of Neville’s Cross, her troops captured King David of Scotland, and Philippa shored up the defenses between the two realms. To be sure, Froissart, like all medieval chroniclers, employed gendered language to describe Philippa’s actions: She acted manfully when leading the army and fulfilled her womanly duties of bearing children when begging for mercy. Yet, Froissart expressed no discomfort or surprise in describing a queen as both aggressive and peacemaking—a lesson many still need to learn today.

Media coverage of the 2016 presidential election has broken from the playbook on how to cover women candidates, devoting considerably less space to such pressing matters as Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits for one thing. But the idea that femininity necessarily equals conciliation (at best) and passivity (at worst) still directs the conversation. Best-selling author and psychologist Steven Pinker even wrote a whole book about it—The Better Angels of Our Naturedeclaring, “Over the long sweep of history, women have been and will be a pacifying force.” (Similarly, notions about male aggression also endure: Ted Cruz, for example, challenged Donald Trump to debate him “mano-a-mano,” implying that real men face each other head-to-head.)

That’s why an October 2015 working paper released by Oeindrila Dube and S.P. Harish is so interesting to so many—it turns the traditional gender coding on its head. Looking for historical trends in women’s leadership, the authors gathered data on reigning queens and kings in Europe between 1480 and 1913. That data shows that queens were 27 percent more likely than contemporary kings to wage war. Further, these were foreign wars, in which the queens went on the offensive. Popular media has picked up on these findings, contrasting this evidence of female belligerence to popular ideas about women’s “natural” pacifism.

The problem is that all of this creates an unnecessary focus on women’s regimes as either/or propositions. Women are either weak doves or hard-hitting hawks. Yet, as anybody who has ever interacted with women knows: Not all women act the same, and no one, male or female, is that simplistic.

Will a woman in the White House mean the United States will lose its edge, become appeasing and weak abroad, and abandon its position as leader of the free world? Or, as Dube and Harish’s working paper suggests, would a woman president promote even more aggressive policies than her male counterparts, leading the United States into additional foreign wars? Contra stereotypes and new research, history shows that women rulers were complex. They still are.

Women can be bellicose, assertive, conciliatory, and so on. They are also not a homogenous group. There is nothing essential about being a woman—or a man—that determines how an individual will behave when faced with the threat of war.

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)