Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, “It is a melancholy truth; yet such is the blessed effect of civilization! the most respectable women are the most oppressed”. As the head of both the State and Church of England it is hard to think of any woman who better fits these criteria. And yet, who would call Queen Elizabeth II oppressed?
Many would even go so far as to call Elizabeth II a feminist icon. But what, in Her Majesty’s 90 years on planet earth, specifically mark her out as a symbol, moreover, what beyond her longevity and gender can be thought of as being good for women’s equality?
The oft repeated assertions of Elizabeth’s feminist credentials are her record breaking 64 year reign, the Royal Assent she has given to over 3,500 Acts of Parliament, and the council she has given to over twelve British Prime Ministers.
In real terms as a woman, Elizabeth II is a mother of four children, eight grandchildren, and four great grandchildren, including the new Princess Charlotte. In her 64 year reign, the Queen has travelled to 116 different countries as part of over 260 official overseas visits. Although, for a seasoned traveller she has so far never acquired a driving license.
In which, if any, of these actions has the Queen effectively delivered a more equal Britain for women?
Of the twelve Prime ministers who have served under her, only one was a woman; Margaret Thatcher, and we have all heard the rumours about how fraught their relationship was. Considering that the Queen has shaken hands with Robert Mugabe, Martin McGuinness, and Ceausescu, the only other person who we are aware that Elizabeth had a problem with personally was Princess Diana.
Worse yet, even in spite of the Queen’s questionable personal contributions to feminism, the history of British and English Queens casts a deeper and darker shadow.
While Queen Elizabeth II may have surpassed her great, great grandmother’s 63 year reign and became Britain’s longest serving monarch, in many significant ways, Queen Victoria has become not only the prima facie exemplar of colonialism, but also anti-feminism.
Victoria’s opinion that she felt anxiety about the premise of “everyone who can speak or write” joining what she called the “mad, wicked folly of ‘Women’s Rights’, with all its attendant horrors,” makes it difficult to marry up the feminist desire to promote females in positions of power.
“Were women to ‘unsex’ themselves by claiming equality with men,” she continued, “they would become the most hateful, heathen, and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.”
Our current Queen’s ancestor and namesake, Elizabeth I, on the face of things rather bucks this trend. And yet, the Virgin Queen’s speech to the troops at Tilbury at the victory over the Spanish Armada does not exactly ring true to the modern feminist ideals, as she is recorded to have said: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”
And still, despite the steeped tradition of near-misogyny in the monarchy, things may be looking up.
In 2013, the Succession to the Crown Act formally amended the provisions of the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement in the United Kingdom, effectively ending the system of male primogeniture.
As of March, 2015, a younger son can no longer displace an elder daughter in the line of succession. The changes came into force in all sixteen Realms in March 2015. It is worth considering whether this one small act of the secular state, prompted mainly by a media and populist campaign, rather than by Royal legislative means, will be the single most important change to the monarchy since Magna Carta.