Her Majesty the Queen was Proudly Feminine, but Not a Modern Feminist
In the outpouring of grief since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, mourning Britons have named her a champion of women and a symbol of female power. She has been praised as ‘the ultimate feminist’ by actress Olivia Coleman, and a ‘feminist icon’ by Women’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett. With the liberal feminist movement making alarming progress towards the erasure of femininity altogether, such terminology threatens to obfuscate the meaning and source of the Queen’s real strength.
The liberal feminist dogma was most recently exemplified in the choice to portray the canonized Joan of Arc as a gender-neutral character in a new play at the Globe Theatre in London. In an essay in defense of this choice, Dr Kit Heyam -- a trans awareness trainer, heritage practitioner, writer, and academic -- maintained that Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned for 45 years and never married, was also possibly non-binary. Theatre will always seek to push the boundaries of interpretation to revitalize old stories, but if we allow history to be rewritten this way -- denying the femininity of all female icons -- we diminish something of their achievements. After all, it was their powerful expression of femininity in a patriarchal world that made their leadership so impressive.
While these interpretations appear progressive, they actually adhere to a gender conservatism in which men must do a defined set of manly things and women do only womanly things. Those who stray from those constructs -- such as a strong Tudor Queen who addressed her troops on the way to battle, or an ideologically driven peasant girl who led an army -- have deviated from the narrowly defined behaviors expected of their sex, and so could not possibly be a female.
Women are entitled to reject stereotypes without losing their sex. And HM The Queen rejected them all the time.
For seventy years our Head of State has been Queen Elizabeth II: First a fresh-faced beauty, then a young mother of four, then a grandmother to the nation – but always solidly and unapologetically a woman.
In spite of her traditional upbringing, The Queen was not averse to change. She quietly modernized the family of which she was the head, reconciling the traditions that upheld the monarchy’s heritage with her determination to keep pace with an ever-changing world. In July 2013, in anticipation of the next heir, the late Queen Elizabeth II updated royal laws through the Succession of the Crown Act to ensure that the child of Prince William’s child would have equal right to the throne regardless of their sex. The century old tradition of male-preference primogeniture was ended, and on the birth of HRH Prince Louis, his older sister, HRH Princess Charlotte, was not bumped further down the line of succession.
HM The Queen believed in equality between the sexes, even inverting the norms where duty dictated. In public her husband, HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, walked two paces behind, and he once famously called himself ‘nothing but a bloody amoeba’ after the Queen insisted that their children would adopt her surname rather than his.
Throughout her reign -- and enduring a long line of male Prime Ministers and Heads of State -- the Queen was unapologetically herself, a woman in a sea of men. She even used her femininity as a diplomatic tool, controversially dancing with President Kwame Nkrumah as part of the charm offensive to keep Ghana in the Commonwealth.
The Queen’s life is testament to the power of women in society who refuse to compromise their femininity to garner public respect. Her example is truly progressive, while the modern feminist movement is at risk of lurching back to the rigid gender constraints they vow to oppose.
Our late Queen showed us the compatibility of femininity and leadership. A head of State in a male-dominated world can be every bit as influential and imposing, and retain her inherent femininity. A child of her time, HM The Queen was rarely seen in trousers. But this would not hold her back from deer stalking or trekking in the mud around her beloved Balmoral. She was equally -- if not more -- comfortable in military uniform on horseback than adorned in fur, feathers, and the imperial crown.
The indomitable Princess Royal follows in her footsteps. The only female to march behind the Queen’s coffin at the funeral, Princess Anne fearlessly told her would-be kidnapper that he was a ‘silly man’ and to ‘just go away’. Their Royal Highnesses were robust, brave, military women, who saw no contradiction between these attributes and their sex.
In their unimaginative attempts to remember women’s achievements, liberal feminists have forgotten what it means to actually be a woman. In attempting to be progressive they actually revert to a traditional interpretation of gender, in which strong leaders must be either non-binary or male -- anything but female.
The late Queen -- like Joan of Arc, or her namesake Elizabeth I -- led as a woman and commanded respect as a woman, not despite it. Liberal feminists need to stop erasing femininity from history and accept that strong leaders can be impressive, decisive, and female.
Sophia Worringer is Head of Research -- State of the Nation for a leading UK think-tank. She previously worked as a Senior Parliamentary Assistant for the Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP and on family policy for a Member of the House of Lords.