In the 1170s, for example, Petronilla of Grandmesnil and her husband together led their troops in rebellion against King Henry II of England, wreaking destruction through the countryside. According to one chronicler, Henry’s men finally captured Petronilla as she was fleeing a battlefield, wearing a hauberk and carrying a spear. The king ultimately freed her—only to imprison her again 10 years later to forestall a repeat rebellion. Clearly, Petronilla had mastered an aggressive military policy.
But she wasn’t only warlike. Petronilla later initiated a legal suit to repossess English lands that had once belonged to her family, for she was not so pugnacious that she refused more peaceable means out of hand. This was particularly notable at a time when military land-grabs were all the rage; no one would have batted an eye if she had attempted to simply take these lands by force. Petronilla (and she was not unique) shows that medieval women rulers were quite capable of employing multiple leadership styles—rather than bowing to the hawkish or dovish urges supposedly imposed on them by their biological sex.
What’s more (and modern political analysts, take note), medieval commentators did not try to predict a particular countess’s actions based on her sex; instead, they implicitly recognized that an individual woman ruler could choose either aggressive or conciliatory actions as the situation required. For example, the 14th-century chronicler Jean Froissart famously portrayed Queen Philippa of Hainault in 1347 as begging her husband, King Edward III of England, to pardon some city burghers he had just condemned to death for resisting his siege of their city. On bended knee and pregnant belly positioned to remind the king of mercy and life, Philippa tore at her hair and shed tears in an effort to stop the bloodshed. The year prior, this perfect peace-weaver also led a royal army to counter a Scottish invasion of England. At the Battle of Neville’s Cross, her troops captured King David of Scotland, and Philippa shored up the defenses between the two realms. To be sure, Froissart, like all medieval chroniclers, employed gendered language to describe Philippa’s actions: She acted manfully when leading the army and fulfilled her womanly duties of bearing children when begging for mercy. Yet, Froissart expressed no discomfort or surprise in describing a queen as both aggressive and peacemaking—a lesson many still need to learn today.
Media coverage of the 2016 presidential election has broken from the playbook on how to cover women candidates, devoting considerably less space to such pressing matters as Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits for one thing. But the idea that femininity necessarily equals conciliation (at best) and passivity (at worst) still directs the conversation. Best-selling author and psychologist Steven Pinker even wrote a whole book about it—The Better Angels of Our Nature—declaring, “Over the long sweep of history, women have been and will be a pacifying force.” (Similarly, notions about male aggression also endure: Ted Cruz, for example, challenged Donald Trump to debate him “mano-a-mano,” implying that real men face each other head-to-head.)