Don’t Stereotype Women Leaders

By Anne Michaud

Women love to say that if we ran the world, there would be less war.

Poland’s new Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, 57, hinted at this belief during one of her first public appearances.

When reporters asked how she would view arming Ukrainian nationalists against Russian aggressors, Kopacz replied, “Poland should act like a reasonable Polish woman.”

She explained that meant putting the safety of home and children first. “You know, I’m a woman,” she said. “I can imagine what I would do if I saw a person waving a sharp tool or holding a gun. My first thought would be: Right behind me, there is my house and my children. So I’d rush back to protect my children.”

A man would fight, she said, even if his chance of winning were lousy. That has something to do with raging testosterone, right?

Kopacz’s statements underscore an unfortunate stereotype about women leaders, but it’s a belief that history happens to contradict.

When it comes to female chief executives of nations, the iron ladies take no backseat to the hearth-tenders.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rescued her weak domestic standing by dispatching nuclear submarines to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentines.

Indira Gandhi started a war with Pakistan. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was fiercely aggressive in her defense of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

Closer to home, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice pushed for military action in Libya.

During her book tour last month, Clinton said President Barack Obama’s “failure” to back the rebels in Syria led to the rise of Islamic State militants.

So why do many of us still persist in generally viewing women as pacifists? Perhaps it’s because women voters consistently poll higher than men in opposition to war, from Vietnam to the Gulf War to Iraq.

Women also have spoken out as anti-war activists. In 1941, Rep. Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican and the first woman elected to Congress, cast the only vote against declaring war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In 2005, activist Cindy Sheehan camped outside of President George W. Bush’s home in Crawford, Texas, demanding he explain the “noble” reason for the Iraq War that had killed her soldier son.

Another basis of women’s dovish image is feminist theory. Sara Ruddick, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the New School for Social Research, penned “Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace” in 1989, which argued that by virtue of raising children, women cannot countenance violence.

Her work inspired many acolytes who point to women’s leadership in animal rights, protecting the environment, better care for the elderly and more.

But while many women may be opposed in principle to violence, once in the decision seat, women are slightly more likely than men to issue a call to arms.

A Texas A&M University study of 22 democratic countries from 1970 to 2000 found that female chief executives presided over 3 percent higher defense spending, and female defense ministers were more likely to send their troops into battle.

It may be that a woman who rises to the top in politics, still rare, is an extraordinarily aggressive individual. Or perhaps a woman in charge feels pressure to prove she’s just as tough as a man.

The crucible of power, responsibility and existential threat has steeled many a magnolia. I’m betting that Poland’s Kopacz, too, will discover her inner Thatcher.

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