The coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, with the emphasis on the fact that she was the first female Prime Minister of Britain, got me thinking a bit about democracy and equality.
We usually assume that these go hand in hand: that democracy inevitably brings with it greater respect for human rights, greater equality of opportunity, and so forth. But here’s an interesting fact. The British system began to be more democratic in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. The office of Prime Minister is usually thought to have come into existence in 1721, or 293 years ago.
The Prime Minister has been a woman for 11 of those 293 years. The Monarch, on the other hand, has been a woman for 124 of those 293 years.
The United States has existed for 237 years, and the Presidency of the United States has existed for 224 years. Although the United States was conceived from the beginning with a much clearer commitment to democracy and equality of opportunity, the United States has yet to elect a female chief executive.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Monarchy is more of an equal-opportunity job than the Prime Ministership or the US Presidency. It’s not.
The monarchy is in many ways an arbitrary institution. But that arbitrariness introduces a random element. Even in a very patriarchal society, if the rules of inheritance declare that the monarchy must pass to a woman then the monarchy does, indeed, pass to a woman.
Democracy seeks to give those who are governed more control over who will govern them. This is a very good thing (and, in my view, a significant improvement over monarchy). But note that democracy also means that the prejudices of those governing have much more power to determine who will govern.
A patriarchal society might accidentally find itself ruled by a Queen. But it would not accidentally elect a female President or Prime Minister.
I am not arguing that monarchy is preferable to democracy: it is not. But I hope that those of us who support democracy and believe in popular sovereignty will recognize that empowering the people empowers their vices as well as their virtues. Popular sovereignty is only as good as the people who hold it, and so a good democracy requires a virtuous citizenry.