A common view posits that states led by women will experience less conflict than states led by men, on the presumption that female leaders will be less inclined to wage war against other polities. Few foreign policy actions have greater consequences than a state’s aggression, or its decision to participate in war. Yet, despite its importance, little scholarly work has identified how female leadership affects these outcomes. To investigate this question, Oeindrila Dube and S.P. Harish examined how female leadership affected war among European states historically. Focusing on the 15th-20th centuries, and polities that had at least one female ruler during this period, they test whether states led by women experienced less interstate conflict and internal conflict than states led by men.
In this historical context, queens were more likely to come to power if the previous monarch lacked a male first-born child, or had a sister who could follow as successor. Dube and Harish exploit these two features of hereditary succession as exogenous determinants of queenly rule.
They also construct a new panel dataset that tracks both the genealogy of monarchs and conflict participation among European polities. For the latter, they relied on war participation data from Wright (1942). Importantly, this data source tracked when each participant entered and exited each war, which allowed them to measure war participation with relative precision.
Their primary sample covered 193 reigns in 18 polities, with queens ruling in 18 percent of these reigns.
The authors find that queenly reigns were 27 percent more likely to participate in interstate conflicts, and no more likely to experience internal conflicts, than polities under the reign of a king. In addition, most of this effect on war participation stemmed from queens participating in wars in which their polity was the aggressor. However, this tendency of queens to participate as conflict aggressors varied based on marital status. Among unmarried monarchs, queens were also more likely to be attacked than kings. Among married monarchs, queens were more likely to participate as attackers than kings, and, more likely to fight alongside allies. These results are consistent with an account in which marriages strengthened queenly reigns because married queens were more likely to secure alliances and enlist their spouses to help them rule. Married kings, in contrast, were less inclined to utilize a similar division of labor. These asymmetries, which reflected prevailing gender norms, ultimately enabled queens to pursue more aggressive war policies.
This paper fits into the broader literature of how female political leadership affects public policies, including education, corruption, and economic development. Dube and Harish build on this past literature by providing evidence that a leader’s gender also affects the state’s tendency to experience conflict, a critical foreign policy outcome.
Translated into today’s world, the findings suggest that female heads of state may enact war policies based on how they choose to organize their administrations and the capacity they garner within their administrations based on these organizational choices.
This research suggests that traditional stereotypes around female leadership and conflict may be largely unfounded, and that the role of women leaders in war is far more nuanced than this traditional gender coding has assumed.