E. William Monter


On his book The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1800

Cover Interview of January 19, 2012

The wide angle

I have tried to make this investigation extremely wide. The rarity of documented female rulers in large, well-organized states makes it necessary to find them wherever one can, and as far back as reliable evidence permits.  Consequently, I have had to extend my usual area of professional competence—sixteenth- and seventeenth-century western Europe—both backwards into antiquity and forwards as far as Europe’s first democratically-elected head of government in 1979.  I have also learned to deploy two auxiliary disciplines, both completely new to me.  The first is numismatics.  The other is film studies—cinema provides our most vivid images of these dead white women.

A comprehensive approach enables us not only to compare the position of female rulers in old Europe with that elsewhere in the world, but also to see that women vanished from positions of political leadership throughout Western civilization during most of the last two centuries.  In the first instance, after 1300 (although not until then), women had an easier time ruling major states in Europe than they did anywhere else in the world.  In the second instance, women have had a much harder time acquiring political leadership in modern states than they did in “antiquated” kingdoms.  A Frenchman already noticed this in 1801, and recent studies suggest that women still do better politically in monarchies than in republics.

A long and winding professional path led me to this book, which is quite unlike any of my previous nine.  Soon after introducing a survey course in women’s history in 1972, I spotted the paradox of occasional supreme female authority amidst otherwise unrelieved subordination.  But I saw no way to understand it.  Only many years after ceasing to teach women’s history did I find an opportunity to investigate this problem afresh, using the hypothesis that rule by autonomous women gradually became better accepted over time, until modern secular liberal democracy dominated Western politics.