Skip to main content

Queens on Attack

Would putting more women in power lead to less war? For queens at least, the answer is no.
(Photo: Carlo Fornitano/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Carlo Fornitano/Shutterstock)

The world would be a better place if women were in charge, many people say—or, at the very least, a place with fewer armed conflicts. Psychologist Steven Pinker said so, as did Francis Fukuyama in a 1998 article for Foreign Affairs. There's just one problem with those arguments: From the end of the 15th century to the start of the 20th, queens were more likely to start wars than their male counterparts.

"People have this preconceived idea that states that are led by women engage in less conflict," says Oeindrila Dube, an assistant professor of politics and economics at New York University. But historically, that's just not true. Not only did queens fight more wars than kings, they were also more likely to start them, Dube and NYU Ph.D. candidate S.P. Harish show in research presented Saturday at the American Political Science Association's 2015 annual meeting in San Francisco.

Not only did queens fight more wars than kings, they were also more likely to start them.

Overall, women are less violent than men—they commit fewer than 1/10th of the murders in the United States—and, when elected to office at the local level, enact different policies than their male counterparts. But on the global stage, perhaps women can be more aggressive—Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi certainly were. But were Thatcher and Gandhi just particularly aggressive women who fought their way to power and then on to war? Or would many other women in power do the same thing?

To wade through the questions, Dube and Harish focused on a group of women who landed in power not through hard work or even by choice, but rather by birth: queens. If queens were less likely than kings to get involved in war, the researchers posited, then maybe getting more women in leadership positions today would reduce global conflicts.

Dube and Harish spent two and a half years collecting data on kings, queens, and wars in Europe between 1480 and 1913, covering 184 monarchs—28 of them queens—in 17 different polities. Contrary to the popular view, queens were 27 percent more likely to get involved in wars. In fact, they were more likely than kings to either start wars or continue those of their predecessors, but no more likely to be involved in civil wars, suggesting that they weren't fighting to dispel external or internal perceptions of weakness.

So why did queens get involved in more military conflicts? Dube suggests that reigning queens may have had a special resource not as readily available to reigning kings: husbands, who often took on royal managerial duties in a way that a queen consort wouldn't. There are other possible explanations, however, and the research is still in the "working paper" phase, meaning that Dube and Harish haven't finalized their conclusions.

Whatever the reason, the main point remains clear: Just because women are less likely to throw a punch doesn't mean they're less likely to launch a war.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.