Conventional wisdom suggests that when women attain high political office they are more likely to act as peacemakers than their male counterparts. In contrast, this article argues that women political leaders may be more likely to initiate conflict than their male colleagues. The theory draws on insights from feminist theory, particularly the notion that gender is performative, to argue that the effects of a leader’s gender on foreign policy decision making vary with social and institutional context. To gain and maintain status in elite policy in-groups, female leaders are incentivized to perform gender by signaling their toughness and competence through initiating conflict. Statistical tests and qualitative case studies of the tenures of Turkish prime minister Tansu Çiller and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet provide evidence that female heads of government in democracies are more likely to initiate conflict than their male counterparts and that this effect is conditioned both by domestic political constraints and overall levels of women’s political empowerment.
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