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Monarchy or Democracy: Which Yields More Women's Leadership?


By Anna Richie

This past Saturday was Women’s Equality Day, which marked the anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. In the United States, women make up just 25% of state legislators, and even less at the federal level. And of course, we have never elected a woman as President.

After 97 years of women’s suffrage, we should do better. But how?

We looked to the rest of the world, and we found a solution: monarchy.

You may be thinking of monarchy as an old-fashioned, outdated institution, and in many ways it is. But there is one way in which it strides ahead of democracy, and that is the number of women who have, as queens and empresses, led their countries. In these monarchies, throughout history and all over the world, there are countless examples of women’s political capabilities.

Think of the United Kingdom, whose royal family is probably best known in this country. Its queens are among the most long-lived and most memorable of its monarchs. There was Elizabeth I, who inherited a poor, divided country, and over a 45-year reign steered it to prosperity and a cultural golden age. It is thanks to her patronage that we have Shakespeare. Later came Queen Victoria, who, on account of her long reign and strong personality, lent her name to an era. And Elizabeth II, now the UK’s longest-reigning monarch, has been a stable presence guiding her country through a tumultuous 20th century and into the 21st.

But the UK is hardly alone. In Europe, the first queen in her own right was Urraca, Queen of León, Castile, and Galicia, who ruled from 1109 to 1126. Since then, women have sat on Europe’s thrones for a combined 769 years, in Spain, the UK, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Austria, and the Netherlands. They have been responsible for all manner of political, economic, and social advancements.

Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1796) established Russia’s first school for girls, and later Russia’s first system of public schools. Maria Theresa of Austria (ruled 1740-1780) ruled over an empire comprising of most of central Europe, while also raising ten children. Jeanne III of Navarre (ruled 1555-1572) defended the rights of Protestants during the French Wars of Religion. Queen Margaret I (ruled 1387-1412) unified Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under her rule, which would last over a century after her, to protect Scandinavia from German expansionism.

We can look back even to ancient times for powerful women. Hatshepsut (ruled 1478-1458 BCE) was one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs, presiding over a time of peace and stability. There were ten other female pharaohs in Egypt’s history, including the famous Cleopatra. Zenobia of Palmyra (ruled 260-274) invaded the Roman Empire and won territories extending from present-day Syria to Egypt, which she governed with tolerance of all the diverse groups who lived in those territories. Empress Suiko of Japan (ruled 593-628), the first of Japan’s eight empresses, is remembered for introducing Buddhism to her country. Empress Wu Zetian of China (ruled 690-705) instituted reforms to stamp out corruption in her government.

Tamar the Great (ruled 1184-1213), Georgia’s first queen, built an empire in the region which lasted into the reign of her daughter Rusudan (ruled 1223-1245). Shajar al-Durr, sultana of Egypt (ruled 1250), took over her late husband’s government and orchestrated the ignominious defeat of the French army in the Seventh Crusade. Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba (ruled 1624-1669, in what is now Angola) negotiated to secure her kingdom’s independence from Portuguese colonizers, and created an alliance with the Dutch to maintain that independence. Ranavalona I of Madagascar (ruled 1828-1861) enacted isolationist policies to protect her country against French and British colonizers.

And these are just a few of history’s female leaders. Look them up, when you have time-- you will find there is no end to what women can do.

That is not to say these women were perfect, or that they never did anything wrong. They were certainly not perfect, but then neither were the kings and emperors. For these royal women, it did not matter if they were personally likable. They could be, but in other cases they could be as tyrannical as their male counterparts. What mattered was their ability to govern. And we must give American women that same chance.

I am not suggesting that the U.S. become a monarchy. But clearly, it is time for some kind of radical shift in governance. For this, we can look to the 100 nations which rank above us in terms of gender parity, and the systems changes they have instituted to make sure that women can run, win, serve, and lead.

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