Ukraine war is not an example of “toxic masculinity”

History suggests that female rulers are far more likely to start wars than their male counterparts

Artillery Row

Boris Johnson has described Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “a perfect example of toxic masculinity”, arguing that “if Putin was a woman, which he obviously isn’t, if he were, I really don’t think he would have embarked on a crazy macho war of invasion and violence in the way that he has”. Boris is almost certainly wrong.

The women are more aggressive than the men.

As Rudyard Kipling once observed, the female of the species is more deadly than the male, and this observation applies to Mother Russia just as well as to mother grizzlies. Catherine the Great’s rule saw Russia expand by 200,000 square miles, gobbling up Belarus, Lithuania, Crimea, and much of modern Ukraine in the process — achieving precisely the goal Putin has set himself.

From Boudicca to Elizabeth I through to Margaret Thatcher, British history alone provides plenty of examples of women who were more than happy to resort to armed conflict. Even if we disqualify Elizabeth for her statement that she had “the heart and stomach of a king” — making it potentially problematic to simply assume her gender identity — that’s a reasonable slate of counterexamples. And hard evidence backs this suspicion up. Economists have already studied the question of whether male and female leaders differ in their propensity to go to war. They do. The women are more aggressive than the men.

A study looking at European countries between the 15th and 20th centuries found that countries ruled by queens were 27% more likely to find themselves embroiled in wars with other states. This was partly because countries ruled by unmarried queens found themselves attacked more often than kings, possibly because they were seen as softer targets. But another major contributor was the behaviour of married queens, who were more likely to wage wars of aggression than kings. 

This isn’t because women are more aggressive than men, or driven to war by their husbands, but because married queens tended to organise their countries differently. Following the roles assigned to the sexes, queens were more likely to put their spouses in a position to assist their rule than vice versa, increasing their effective capacity to act. Moreover, the same roles meant that while men who married queens could retain links with the military of their home country, women — who were expected not to take direct part in conflict — did not. This gave married queens a substantial advantage in building military alliances of the sort useful in taking an objectionable neighbour down a peg or two. 

Of course, modern day Russia differs substantially from Catherine the Great’s, and foreign affairs today run on rather different principles (Putin did not form his alliance with Lukashenko through tender matrimonial affection). Fortunately, we also have data on how female leaders behave today. 

Researchers found that greater female representation in legislative bodies decreased spending on defence and the likelihood of conflict. Greater female representation in the executive branch, however, saw more conflict behaviour and defence spending. Given that Putin presides as effective dictator for life in Russia, this suggests that if he were in fact female, his foreign policy would probably involve tanks flooding into Poland. Boris should remember Kipling’s words, and be grateful for small mercies.

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