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A Medieval Perspective on the Public Acceptance of Women as Leaders

Jeanne de Penthièvre, Duchess of Brittany (1319-1384). Image Arras Bilbiothèque Municipale. CC by NC 3.0

It has recently been announced that America’s next vice president will be a first: Kamala Harris, a Black woman, has been elected to the second most powerful office in the United States. Her achievement seems fitting given the increasing prominence of women on the political stage in recent years, from Hillary Clinton’s winning the popular vote for President of the United States in 2016, to Jacinda Ardern’s recent landslide reelection in New Zealand, to the progressive leadership of the Squad (all four of whom have just won another term in the US House of Representatives).

The historical significance of these victories, however, lie not only in the power that these women exercise, but in how they got to their positions. In practice, women across the globe have held positions of political power for all of human history (a handful of their stories have been creatively illustrated and retold by Jason Porath over at Rejected Princesses!). But in the twenty-first century, women of all kinds still have major inroads to make into the tradition of ‘pale, male, and stale’ leadership that has dominated Western democracies (meanwhile, the only countries to have broken over 50% female in their legislatures are Rwanda, Cuba, and Bolivia). Democratic political systems, in fact, raise a more complicated question than whether women can exercise power: why should we choose women to be in charge?

Inheritance vs. Appointment


This is a question which people have struggled with for a very long time, as a case of disputed succession from fourteenth-century France shows. In 1341, the duke of Brittany died without any children to inherit the duchy. In the years leading up to his death, the general assumption had been that his niece, Jeanne de Penthièvre, would succeed him to the ducal title. But at the same time, people had worried that the duke’s younger half-brother, Jean de Montfort, would challenge his niece’s claim and try to seize Brittany for himself—which, when the time came, is precisely what happened.

It was far from the first time that an unscrupulous uncle had snatched power from the hands of a younger female relative in line to inherit. Just a few decades earlier, for example, Philippe Capet had taken the crown of France in 1316 by denying the inheritance of his late brother’s daughter Jeanne. Ironically, six years later, his own daughters were similarly disinherited in turn by their uncle, Philippe’s younger brother Charles.

This double disinheritance helped establish the principle that the kingdom of France could not be inherited by a woman (or even, it was soon determined, by a woman’s male descendants). But the French throne was somewhat unusual in this: most of its neighbors, as well as all the duchies, counties, and other lordships that made up the kingdom itself, had no such restrictions. As a result, Jean de Montfort’s attempt to take Brittany from Jeanne de Penthièvre didn’t turn out quite the same way.

To arbitrate the dispute, both sides presented the legal arguments in support for their claim to the king’s court in Paris. These cases raised a number of different issues, but a central pillar of Jean de Montfort’s argument rested on the issue of Jeanne’s gender. A woman could not inherit such an important and powerful polity as the duchy of Brittany, it claimed, because being a duke meant exercising military and judicial powers essential to the wellbeing of the kingdom as a whole. Women were, however, too weak to bear arms, and too capricious to exercise judgment, nor were they supposed to wield authority over men. By this reasoning, Jeanne was intrinsically disqualified from the succession.

Jean’s lawyers had not invented any of these ideas, which had established currency in medieval society, and they’re not particularly interesting in themselves. The problem was that they didn’t match up with reality, and medieval people knew this too. Women could, and indeed had, been duchesses of Brittany in their own right, as Jeanne de Penthièvre’s own legal team was quick to point out.

More importantly, there were equally convincing reasons why this was perfectly acceptable. If a duchess was called on to do something of which she, as a woman, was not considered capable—such as performing military service—then she could send her husband or another substitute in her place. This was standard practice, not only for women but also for priests, the elderly, and anyone else whose condition did not allow them to fight. While the lawyers therefore did not challenge the misogynistic premise of the original argument, their solution recognized that the problem of military service was not, fundamentally, an issue of gender.

But it’s in their discussion of justice and authority that Jeanne’s lawyers made a particularly telling distinction. They conceded (again) that one would not deliberately choose a woman to be a judge, but stated uncompromisingly that when women inherit, they could exercise justice. It was only natural that officers appointed for public administration be men, for a good ruler would necessarily select the ‘fittest’ candidate. But when it came to noble patrimonies, in which power was passed by blood rather than by appointment, women’s rights to public power were as valid as men’s.

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the king of France sided with Jeanne and granted her the duchy of Brittany (albeit primarily for political, rather than legal, reasons). And, to conclude this story, she retained it for more than twenty years until its conquest by the son of Jean de Montfort—also called Jean—in 1364. But the issues debated in court in 1341 show that from one point of view, it was less what a woman could do with power that mattered, than how she got it in the first place. Or, to put it another way, they moved the problem away from women leaders themselves, to the idea of choosing women leaders.

Women and Power by the Numbers


This distinction had implications reaching far beyond the courtroom. While the administrations of medieval rulers, from the royal council down to their regional representatives, were composed entirely of men, the social landscape of lordship was more varied.

It can be hard to estimate broad social trends in the Middle Ages, but some sources allow us to get pretty good samples of what was happening on the ground. One such opportunity comes from 1389, when King Charles VI made a grand tour of his domains in the south of France. During this trip, more than four hundred members of the local aristocracy came to perform homage to him—it was a legal requirement for them to retain their lands, but also a rare opportunity to meet (and be seen with) the king in person. The king’s accountants kept careful track of who showed up and the lands they held from the king, giving us an unusually detailed snapshot of the local elite.

These records highlight a number of ways women could come to exercise lordly power. Some did so as guardians of underaged children, usually their sons and/or daughters. Others might have held lands as widows: women were usually left a ‘dower’ property to serve as a sort of retirement pension, over which they were effective lord until their death. But the most common means of becoming a lord, just as it was for their male counterparts, was through direct inheritance. And, all told, women made up between a quarter and one-fifth of these lords (22%).

Similar calculations have been made for other regions of France. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, about 20% of the fiefholders of the county of Champagne were women. Likewise, English lordships were inherited by women about 20% of the time. These figures may seem surprisingly high, because we’re used to picturing medieval lordship as an exclusively masculine world. But they’re less surprising when put in the context of what inheritance meant. While daughters were rarely on an equal legal footing with sons in the competition for their parents’ wealth, social and biological factors meant that for 20% of families, there weren’t any sons to worry about—a pattern which holds true for modern societies with similar patterns of marriage and inheritance.

What is more telling, however, is how this surprisingly steady ratio compares to current-day patterns of women in elected positions. Globally, the UN reports that ‘[o]nly 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of February 2019, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995’. While in Western Europe this average is somewhat higher at 33.4%, the US House of Representatives is still at 23.2% and the Senate at 26%. And these rates have been climbing. Around when I, a Millennial, was born, women made up a mere 5% of the US Congress—a proportion that compares quite unfavorably with the number of women who did homage to the king of France 600 years before.

While the role of a modern legislator cannot be simply analogized to that of a medieval lord, the comparison demonstrates yet another side of why the democratization of politics has not been a straightforward improvement for women. And the problem is exacerbated the higher the office in question. For instance, only 6.6% of elected heads of state were women in 2019, and this number had in fact decreased from two years prior. Likewise, the proportion of women appointed to cabinet positions lags slightly behind their representation in the legislature, at 20.7%, particularly when considering the more prestigious posts.

This is not a new problem, and again, the patterns visible in historical practices of inheritance can shed light on the sticking points of our elected offices. The women (and men) who did homage to King Charles in 1389 were generally relatively minor landholders, and the low stakes made it relatively uncomplicated for women to inherit. But as we saw earlier, the Breton succession dispute expressed anxieties about what would happen if a woman inherited an entire principality. And, around the same time, female heirs were barred the throne of France itself (though queens consort and queens regent could and did continue to exercise considerable, publicly recognized authority). The exclusion of women from positions of highest authority reinforces the ideal of leadership itself as male rather than female, which only makes choosing women leaders harder in turn. It’s a cycle we have not yet managed to break.

The more things change?


Without denying the progress that has undoubtedly been made and is being made in women’s political participation through formal office, the loose parallels of the Middle Ages help add new understandings of the still disproportionately low representation of women in government. Women could, historically, ‘default’ to positions of power through the flukes of inheritance even if social convention would not have selected them for the position. But the opening of elected positions to women has not produced such a substantial rebalancing of the political landscape as we might have expected.

We must, therefore, consider not only the availability of paths to power for female leaders, but shift the social perception of female candidates as lesser alternatives to their male counterparts. Our unwillingness to see women as a good choice for leadership remains a real problem in how we, as a society, continue to allocate power—indeed, a problem that becomes even more salient in (ostensibly) democratic societies. While we are all taught the story of the long fight for women’s suffrage and their right to choose leaders, the ongoing fight for women to be chosen as leaders themselves is not so well-defined a story. And just as non-elective processes meant that some lordly power was filtered to medieval women, measures such as EU quotas for women in politics are merely a minimum step in counteracting our ongoing reluctance to see female politicians as viable candidates on their own.

Obviously, the election of women is not an end in and of itself, just as the presence of female lords did not make medieval society more fair. For one thing, consideration only of gender (in a binary view at that) leaves aside other biases (especially race and, more specifically, misogynoir) that impact who we choose to govern. And one need only to look to recent events to see why the appointment of the wrong woman can be disastrous for women’s rights—though even in less extreme cases, some women have always been systematically privileged at others’ expense. The goal, therefore, must not be to reinforce our present oligarchies through women’s participation in them, replicating the social solidarity that bound medieval noblewomen more closely to their male peers than to their female social inferiors. Nevertheless, the act of choosing female leaders helps reshape the long-entrenched narrative that women should only follow, and in so doing demands that we recognize that they have always been capable of leading.