During the reigns of Maria Theresa and Joseph II of the Hapsburg Monarchy, gender differences and inequalities showed themselves to be a deciding factor in the enlightened reformation of the empire. Maria Theresa, because she was a woman, was denied the education and benefit of her father’s counsel, thus retarding her initial growth as a leader. Her son, and co-regent, Joseph II, was groomed for leadership from an early age. Unlike their contemporaries however, Maria Theresa and Joseph II enjoyed a warm and loving familial relationship. Maria Theresa saw herself as a mother, not only to Joseph and his many siblings, but to the empire and her subjects as well. This sense of parental responsibility perhaps most strongly marked the difference in leadership styles between herself and Joseph. The former showed the maternal restraint of a caring mother and the latter, the rebelliousness of the young man eager to be on his own.
Maria’s ascendance to the Habsburg throne was only out of necessity due to the lack of a viable male heir. Her father, Charles VI, made the assumption that, upon his death, the empire would be ruled by Maria’s husband. Therefore, he – as Maria Theresa herself states – “had never been inclined to instruct [her] as to the discharge of either foreign or domestic affairs” (78). Despite the facts that there were other female rulers in Europe, and that he himself had petitioned the other estates to accept a female successor, Charles believed that a woman was incapable of ruling. This error in foresight provided an early crisis in Maria’s reign. Seeing this perceived weakness and, perhaps knowing of her ignorance in statecraft, Frederick II launched an attack on her right as heir, with his Prussian army taking the wealthy Habsburg province of Silesia.
Maria had to learn as she went with, as Slaughter and Bokovoy put it, “on-the-job-training” (77). To her credit, she surrounded herself with shrewd advisors. Moreover, she sensed the shakiness of Austria’s relationship with the Hungarian nobility and sought early on to forge a relationship with them, thus strengthening her military force. The sting of the loss of Silesia led her to great reforms within the empire. According to Slaughter and Bokovoy, these included “reorganize[ing] the central administration, abolish[ment] of private armies, and improved administration of finances” (67).
The argument may be made that the reforms made by Maria Theresa would have come about regardless of whether or not she had been educated for the post, yet it is undoubtable that she would have been better equipped to deal with the early hostile advances of her neighbors. Stability within the realm would have enabled her to marshal the forces needed to fend off Frederick II.
By contrast, Maria Theresa’s son, Joseph II, was raised to be Emperor via an intense program of study. Slaughter and Bokovoy make note of the orphaning and/or parental abuse suffered by his contemporaries. Joseph II, however, “grew up in the warm embrace of both his parents and benefited from their careful and thoughtful management of his education and training” (68), a fact not lost on the young Joseph. Perhaps it was this fostered sense of love and security that helped influence the young man to push for more social reform. Certainly it lent itself in this manner as he came under the influence of the French philosophes, and even the reforms of his mothers.
This maternal/feminine influence continued to exert itself, albeit to the chagrin of the young coregent. According to our text, Joseph II sought nothing less than perfection by “strengthening the bureaucracy and weakening the privileges of the church and the landed nobility” (69). His attempts at homogenizing culture, class, and language throughout the empire were tempered by his mother’s hard-learned lessons in diplomacy.
Where Maria Theresa trod softly in matters of foreign policy, she wielded a firmer hand internally. Devout Catholics, both regents believed that the church wielded too much power. Maria Theresa issued a series of edicts which imposed taxes on Church-owned properties and prohibited the clergy from obtaining land. Additionally, under the recommendation of her advisor Prince Kaunitz, Maria expelled the Jesuits from the empire, as well as giving control over education to the state. Here, it seems to have been the male influence with Kaunitz and Joseph II endorsing of the philosphe positions on the state of the Church.
While it is noted that other monarchs such as Maria Theresa, Frederick the Great, and Catherine the Great, sought many of the reforms of Joseph II, his aspirations were much more fundamental. Maria Theresa did not hold with Protestantism or Jews, whom she considered to be “heretics” and an “embodiment of the antichrist” (70) respectively. The effect of gender influence upon the Monarchy was seen in 1780 when Maria Theresa died. Free from his mother’s hatred of other religious traditions, Joseph issued the Edict for Toleration, which allowed Lutherans and Jews nearly the same rights as Catholics. This edict had the effect of strengthening the empire by allowing these formerly persecuted groups to become educated and, therefore useful, to the empire.
Gender undoubtedly influenced the attitudes, interests and objectives of the Habsburg Monarchy, though its sway may have been much more subtle than one would expect. One child, scorned by her father is forced to become a more masculine leader. Another child, shaped by his mother’s love, displays the feminine trait of caring for his people.
Slaughter, Jane and Melissa K. Bokovoy. Sharing the Stage: Biography and Gender in Western Civilization. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003