Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of seven collaborative reflections by students and faculty in the Honors College at Southern Oregon University (SOU) participating in the The Democracy Project (DP), a comprehensive international examination of democracy that includes its historical evolution, the role of minority groups, and concepts such as citizenship, cultural assimilation, equality, freedom, imperialism, nationalism, security and sovereignty. 

Traditionally, history books tell us stories of men like Napoleon and Alexander the Great, who shaped the modern world through conquests and treaties. Permeating our education of world history is one consistent theme — great leaders are men, not women. To the casual observer it might seem that only men have shaped history while women have been idle observers as the world changed around them. However, this is simply a failing on the part of an education system that has consistently ignored the achievements of female politicians and leaders.

As a participant in The Democracy Project, an initiative launched by professors in Southern Oregon University’s Honors College to study and compare democracy around the world, I decided to look into the impact women have had, and have today, in Europe. In September, as we traveled through Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic, I focused my attention on the historical and contemporary role of women in political decision-making processes.

Throughout history, a multitude of female leaders in Europe have been largely ignored by standard history textbooks. Americans are familiar with Queen Elizabeth I, but have seldom heard of Maria Theresa of Vienna, for example. During The Democracy Project’s trip to Europe, we had the opportunity to visit Schönbrunn Palace, where Maria Theresa ruled. From 1745 to 1765, she served as the first and only Holy Roman Empress, and Queen of the Hapsburg House. When her father and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, realized that she possessed an aptitude for politics, he issued the Pragmatic Sanction. This sanction stipulated that if there were no male Hapsburg heir, the throne would go to his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, instead of the closest living male relative.

This policy was very similar to the recent Perth Agreement and the effect it had on the throne of the United Kingdom. This agreement removed the practice of male heirs taking precedence over female heirs in the line of succession, and replaced it with a birth order succession, regardless of gender. Even though Maria Theresa had a younger brother, Leopold, she ascended the throne at the age of 28 following the death of her father in 1745. The people of the Holy Roman Empire took little issue with her leadership, but neighboring rulers took longer to respect her legitimacy.

During her 40-year reign, Maria Theresa limited the power of the nobility, provided education to serfs and other servants, and abolished the use of torture in the empire. Under her rule the Holy Roman Empire saw massive economic growth, great social improvement, and gained a stronger military force. Throughout her successful rule she also gave birth to 16 children, including Maria Antonia who is better known by her French name, Marie Antoinette. During her lifetime, Maria Theresa was one of the only women to hold a position of power, and was respected as a competent leader. Though she instituted reforms and is still one of the most beloved rulers in the history of Austria, she is virtually unknown outside of her homeland. American school children seldom, if ever, hear about her.

Our world is far from gender equality, especially in terms of political representation, although women work to actively shape the political landscape every day, locally as well as on a global stage. In the United States House of Representatives and Senate there are currently a total of 104 women from around the country, equating to roughly 19 percent of the total elected body. This is the largest number of women ever to be members of the United States Congress.

On the other hand, both the European Parliament and the European Commission sit comfortably with women making up more than 30 percent of their electorate. The European Parliament and Congress are the executive and legislative branch of the European Union respectively, meaning that they legislate and oversee the implementation of laws and policies in 28 countries across Europe, as well as implement economic policies in 31 countries. 508 million citizens populate these 31 countries, and while 30 percent is substantially lower than an accurate representation of the gender demographics in Europe, it is much closer than any percentage achieved in American politics.

Currently in Europe, 11 female presidents and eight female prime ministers occupy elected office. Among these women is German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who was elected in 2005. During her time in office, Merkel has restructured the German power supply, phasing out nuclear energy in favor of alternative renewable energy sources, primarily solar and wind. She has also abolished German conscription, a system that has been in place for over 50 years, and introduced a much more generous paid parental-leave program available to either parent, regardless of gender. Through a coalition with the Social Democratic Party, a nation-wide minimum wage of €8.50 an hour has been introduced to combat the increasing wage gap in Germany.

So what significance does the legacy of a relatively obscure female leader like Maria Theresa hold for us today? In a world that is politically dominated by men, women have been breaking new ground. Today’s European female leaders have role models in those women who have proceeded them. By focusing on the historical achievements of women, we can provide a model for aspiring women in politics today and in future. When we do acknowledge the plethora of contributions women have made to the political landscape we are sending a clear and positive message to the young women growing up today that they can be effective, impactful, and successful leaders. As Americans, let’s follow Europe’s example in this area — let’s acknowledge the political contributions of women from the past to inspire female leaders of tomorrow.

Dylann Lovero is a freshman International Studies major and Honors College scholar at Southern Oregon University.