Some people think that if women ruled, there would be less war. This probably isn’t true. But there are some great examples of female rulers in history who came to power by being female judges instead of female military leaders like Queen Isabella I of Castile and Queen Artemisia I of Caria.
Modern rhetoric points out that governments rule via the consent of the governed, but most governments in history base their power in military might. “Consent” is defined by whether or not the populace is willing to die en masse to fight against a particularly corrupt ruler. Feudalism is the most obvious example of this — peasants pay taxes to support knights in exchange for defense against raids and were often slaughtered when they rebelled — but even trade centers like Timbuktu gained their economic power through protection of trade. “Tolls for patrols” is a time-honored path to power for a city-state.
In his fabulous series The Traitor Son Cycle, set in an alternate fantasy Europe, Miles Cameron differentiates between countries that follow the Rule of Law and the Rule of War. The Rule of War is an explicitly might makes right system, where trial by combat determines guilt or innocence. The Norse hólmganga was a formalized system of trial by combat, for example. The Rule of Law, by contrast, limits the power of the nobility to run roughshod over anyone they think is weaker. Alba is still ruled by a monarch, though, whose fundamental contribution to society is military might.
Modern governments do many things. Welfare programs see to the feeding of the poor. State-sponsored schools offer educations. But historically speaking, these tasks more often than not fell to ancient priests.
A major non-military contribution of feudal rulers to their communities was in settling disputes. There were honestly many cases of female judges in Medieval Europe, since ladies had to act in their husbands’ stead, but that wasn’t the source of their authority. Even when Queen Elizabeth I rendered judgments — like consigning her cousin and fellow Queen to death — it wasn’t in her capacity as a female judge, but rather because she had the might to carry out the sentencing.
And sometimes, rulers came to power through the pursuit of justice more so than the pursuit of safety from raids. “Judge as ruler” is one of the coolest, most underappreciated forms of government I’ve ever come across. We don’t talk about female judges much in schools for a variety of reasons. It’s a relatively uncommon system of government, we’re culturally leery of discussing the Bible (or racism) and it’s not a precursor to our current form of government the way Athenian democracy was. For worldbuilding purposes, though, non-standard systems of government are worth exploring.
Interestingly, the two examples I’m most familiar with are female, supported but not supplanted by male warriors.
Deborah, Judge (& Prophet) of the Israelites
Prophets and judges — wise people, in essence — were powerful leaders during an entire era of Israel’s history. Justice is incredibly important to Israel’s history. Solomon is most famous for rendering judgment in a legal dispute between two women over a child. Moses’ ability to lead his people from Egypt originated in a reputation born from his position as a judge. It is Deborah’s story that I know best.
Rather than being a warrior who was also tasked with settling disputes, as with Feudal European powers, Deborah was a judge who got involved with the military only when it became necessary. During her lifetime, the Israelites were hard-pressed by the Canaanites. Incidentally, the Canaanites were also known as the Phoenicians, precursors of Carthage and one of the great maritime empires. Anyway, Deborah summoned the warlord / military leader (tomayto, tomahto) Barak to her and berated him for failing to do his duty.
A Ruler in her Own Right
Deborah was married, and did not take power by dint of her husband. I also find it hilarious how many biblical scholars have tried to twist the very straightforward epithet "wife of Lapidoth" (no different to my mind than “Sturluson” might be used 13th century Iceland) to simply be an idiom meaning “fiery spirit” rather than admit that a married woman might outshine her husband, or that her husband might not have been important.
Nobody goes through this much effort to explain how “Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite” really wasn’t married and actually Heber means enclave, so Jael was just a woman who lived in an enclave. Evidently, it is difficult for many Biblical scholars to believe that a powerful woman might be married to someone irrelevant to politics. According to Jewish scholars, Lapidoth…
at the advice of his wife he furnished large wicks and oil for the lights of the sanctuary of Shiloh, which burned like torches. Thus, our Sages say, was the effect of this holy woman on everyone around her: spreading the light of Torah.
Some people seem to think that Lapidoth was a pseudonym for the warrior Barak, but honestly, it strikes me as unlikely. Deborah spends most of her “screen time” yelling at him. Occam’s Razor applies here, and I think that if she had married Barak after summoning him and berating him into supporting her, it would have been mentioned. Frankly, the efforts to combine all three figures into one man seem tortured to me.
Anyway, Deborah — not her husband — demanded that Barak raise an army of ten thousand troops from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and gather them at the foot of mount Tabor (which was doubtless the inspiration for Sietch Tabr in Dune), in the Plains of Esdrealon. He was supposed to use this army to attack the Canaanites, but Barak needed Deborah to help inspire people. Evidently, the odds of defeating the heavy iron chariots and cavalry of the Canaanites were pretty bad and only Deborah, as a well-known leader in her capacity as a Judge, had the moral authority to convince the Israelites that their attack was supported by the divine.
Andamana, Queen of the Canary Islands
The Canary Islands are notable for a number of reasons. They’re one of the most popular tourist destinations for European vacationers. It is in some significant ways responsible for the introduction of sugar (and the accompanying slave trade necessary for widespread, plantation-style cultivation) to the Americas.
Their history is as fascinating as their modern-day beaches are beautiful. The islands were intermittently occupied during the Classical era. The Phoenicians — aka the biblical Canaanites — visited to trade, as did the Greeks. The indigenous people owe their genetic heritage, and probably their militaristic culture, to the North African Berbers.
Unfortunately, pre-colonial interactions involving Canary Islanders are largely a mystery.
Like the Berbers, the native Canary Islanders (known as Guanches) practice matrilineal descent and owe much of their establishment mythos to a woman. This is remarkably common in North Africa, actually. Carthage was founded by a strong female leader — Dido, aka Elissa of Phoenicia — and the Tuareg were established when Tin Hinan led her followers into the Sahara. The main difference in the Canary Islands is that Andamana didn’t lead her people into exile — she united them.
She probably also defended them against European colonization.
A Warrior Against Corruption
Before she became one of history’s most impressive (and largely unknown) female judges, she was just a girl in a village on an island rife with political unrest. Before Andamana, power rested in the hands of various local rulers advised by a council of elders. As she grew up, she started giving people advice, and since it was good advice, people started spreading the word about her good sense. People would come to her and ask advice, and she would give it, and her reputation spread further.
Eventually, this pissed off the magistrates — the men who were supposed to be the decision-makers. Not so incidentally, the magistrates were generally corrupt and reliant on bribes, so the fact that Andamana didn’t charge a fee to render a judgment in a legal matter made her extra unpopular with the government officials. Local leadership wasn’t thrilled with people thinking “better good female judges than terrible strongmen.” So when they had a big council that was intended to censure her, she confronted them, challenged them to name a single time one of her decisions had been wrong, basically said “hah that’s what I thought” when none of them had a response, and went about doing as she had been.
Except, you know, more. She wrote a legal code and started disseminating it not only to her own people, but to neighboring communities. When those communities treated her emissaries badly, she hooked up with a local warlord. He agreed to support her conquest of the island in exchange for her hand in marriage. Together, they imposed a uniform legal code and by all accounts ruled peacefully and well. It’s a shame that the French killed their son.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Heroine of Feminist America
To try to put this into perspective, try to imagine a world in which one of our modern female judges, like Jasmine Twitty or Notorious RBG decided that the US was getting too corrupt, and went to Jim Mattis (or someone younger but still popular, like Maximilian Uriarte of Terminal Lance) and berated him until he recruited an army to help her stage a coup and re-write the Constitution.
I’d read that Alternate History novel for sure.
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).
Check out one of these related posts
Explore elephant, narwhal, hippo, walrus ivory's captivating history & uses in jewelry, tools, games, & trade.
Agrarian societies experience famine for a variety of reasons, including poor governance, war, and weather.
On the origins of agriculture, money, & currency