As Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest reigning monarch in British history, a review of her life begs the question, Is she the platonic ideal of a woman?
That may sound over the top, but looking at her life, one is left with the impression that she is a true renaissance woman. One moment she is (literally) holding court bedecked in jewels, capes, and scepters. The next she is strolling with world leaders in a glittering evening gown. The next she is reviewing papers of extreme importance in a smart-looking suit. The next she sits before a rapt audience that happens to be the parliament of a world superpower. The next she is in galoshes with her dogs. The next she is cradling her baby. The next she is strutting before a sea full of men in uniform standing at attention. The next she is running through the rain laughing in a trench coat.
Who is this woman?
To be fair, she did happen to have power and riches handed to her on a golden, jewel-encrusted platter. But it’s what she did with that inheritance at a young age and at a time when women in power were not the norm that is worth examining. She became queen at age 25. Whereas today, more than one in three Americans her age and similar numbers in the U.K. live at home, she was ruling a country. I suppose, technically, she was living at home, too. Her home just happened to be a castle where people like Winston Churchill would drop by.
In all seriousness, she was thrust unexpectedly into a position of tremendous responsibility at a time when women didn’t have access to mentors or Lean-In Circles to hone their leadership skills. She did get a first-rate education, but it was no doubt lacking in the how-to-handle-a-roomful-of-wily-war-hungry-men-who-don’t-exactly-like-being-ruled-by-a-woman department. She took power long before anything that resembles modern feminism emerged.
And yet she soared. She managed to be many things to many people. She was a wife and mother, and eventually a grandmother, always appearing at ease in that role. She earned the respect of world leaders, and maintained the dignity of the monarchy into the modern era. She has managed to be both feminine and firm in a job that, while cushy in many respects, is crushing in others. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and all that. (All the more heavy when Shakespeare is actually referencing your own family…)
So what’s her secret? How did she manage to be so amazing? Is it because she stepped into the sun before the Gloria Steinems of the world came on the scene and convinced women that an empowered woman looked and acted like a man? If Queen Elizabeth wrote a book on feminism and how to have it all, what would she say?
Probably nothing, because she’s been too busy actually doing feminist things for decades. Like the time Saudi King Abdullah was visiting Britain and she stunned him, and everyone, and got behind the wheel (women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia) and drove him. Or quietly shepherding through the change that will now allow firstborn females to ascend the throne. Or looking like an epic boss and rocking a ten foot green velvet cape in arguably the best royal portrait ever. All without tired speeches about gender equality or female victimization. Or, as Emma Barnett put it in the Telegraph:
“The Queen hasn’t exactly donned a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, nor has she stood in the way of progress. The Queen has become a feminist icon, whether she wanted to or not, simply by never letting her gender define her. Stoic, modest and capable are three words that spring to mind when I think of our Queen. . . . But by doing that job stoically and with the utmost dedication, she’s inadvertently done a great deal to normalise the idea of having a woman in charge—which after her reign won’t be the case for at least three generations of the Royal Family.”
Step aside, Anne Marie Slaughter. It is possible to have it all. That an 87 year-old grandma could turn into a feminist icon for my generation is something to behold. Queen Elizabeth’s own great-great grandma, Queen Victoria, once remarked that feminists, “Ought to get a good whipping.” In a sense, Queen Elizabeth II did just that, by being one without being one of them.
Ashley E. McGuire is the founding editor of altfem magazine and a staff writer forAcculturated.com.
This article originally appeared on Acculturated.com.
Photo credit: Photos for Class