Is this what a feminist looks like?

It’s been an odd couple of days since Queen Elizabeth II died, and one of the oddest things about it has been the appearance of a rash of statements, news articles and opinion pieces on the question of whether the Queen was a feminist.

This hare may have been unwittingly started by the actor Olivia Colman in a statement she made back in 2019 to publicize a new season of Netflix’s royal family drama The Crown, in which she was about to play the role of Elizabeth II. She called the Queen “the ultimate feminist”, adding that “she’s the breadwinner. She’s the one on our coins and banknotes. Prince Philip has to walk behind her. She fixed cars in the second world war”. 

I’m sure Colman didn’t anticipate that these remarks would become a talking point in the aftermath of the monarch’s death three years later. Nevertheless, that’s what happened. First the Washington Post ran with “Was Queen Elizabeth II a feminist?”, then suddenly the pieces were everywhere: The Independent, The Guardian, Metro, Woman’s Hour, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, the business publication Forbes (which brought a “lean in” vibe to the proceedings by suggesting that “the queen’s commitment and dedication to her own job paved the way for other women to dedicate themselves fully to their careers”). The majority of them took the view that the Queen had indeed been a feminist, though dissenting voices included the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams and Amanda Taub in the New York Times.

I also have a view on the question itself, as will become clear, but the question I found myself asking as I scrolled through all this commentary was about words: what do these people think the word “feminist” means? Actually, my brain formulated it rather more prescriptively: “does anyone know what feminism is anymore?” This spontaneous reaction was slightly embarrassing, because I am, among other things, the author of a short introduction to feminism which is quite insistent on not being too prescriptive about the meaning of the word. For as long as feminism has existed there have been different/competing definitions of it, and massive disagreements among those who claimed to represent it. As a political movement it has always and everywhere been decentralized, a loose and shifting coalition of autonomous groups which themselves varied wildly in their mode of organization; there’s no politburo-style committee with the power to decide on or enforce a party line for everyone who uses the label “feminist”. In my book I dealt with this by proposing a very minimal working definition of a feminist as someone who believes two things: (1) that women are oppressed as women, and (2) that this can and should be changed through political action. Everything else—how you analyse the nature and the root causes of women’s oppression, what kind of change you want to see, what kind of action you think will bring it about—is up for grabs.

In theory, then, I’ve got very little interest in attempts to police the way the f-word is used—and as a linguist I have a lot of interest in observing how it actually is used, and how that varies and changes over time, as it inevitably will. But the “was the Queen a feminist” debate did make me wonder if we’re in the process of evacuating the word of both its political meaning and its history. 

As the feminist theorist Sylvia Walby has observed, feminism is now understood by many people more as a kind of personal identity than as a political project: we ask “is so-and-so a feminist?” rather than “does so-and-so do feminism?” Since we’re currently in a phase when feminism is cool rather than despised (this goes in cycles), one result is that almost any woman who isn’t actively anti-feminist is fairly likely to identify herself as a feminist. For large numbers of women who don’t “do” feminism—or any other kind of politics—that’s just a shorthand way of indicating that they subscribe to what is now a conventional, mainstream view in most parts of the world: women should be equal and free to choose their path in life, whether it be full-time parenting or running for president. (This is the kind of feminism The Onion had in mind when it marked International Women’s Day with a piece headlined “Women now empowered by anything a woman does”.)  

Despite–or rather because of—her privileged position, the Queen was not, in the mainstream feminist sense, “empowered”: she spent her life in the proverbial gilded cage, with no freedom to choose her own path, or to express political views of any kind. Commentators wanting to claim her as a feminist were therefore obliged to look for evidence of her doing or saying things which might be read as signs that she was privately sympathetic to feminist ideas. In many cases what they came up with strained credulity. For instance, many pieces cited the fact that when she married she kept the name Windsor rather than taking her husband’s name, Mountbatten, prompting him to complain that he was the only man in the country who couldn’t give his name to his children. I doubt this had anything to do with feminism: it’s far more likely to have been motivated by dynastic considerations. It also overlooks the evidence that in private she did defer to her husband. After Philip died, we were endlessly told that although he walked behind her on ceremonial occasions, when it came to family matters, he was the “undisputed master”; in public she wore the crown but at home he wore the trousers.

Another striking thing about the commentary, which is also in line with the broadening and political bleaching of the f-word’s meaning in contemporary discourse, was its tendency to uncritically equate “being a feminist” with “being a woman who occupies a position of power”, or in this case perhaps I should say “being a female figurehead”, since as a modern constitutional monarch the Queen, though influential if she chose to use her influence, had no serious political power. Having your picture on stamps and banknotes doesn’t make you powerful, it makes you a symbol; nor is it very convincing to suggest that merely having a woman in that symbolic role somehow elevates the status of women in reality (see also fertility goddesses, Marianne, the Virgin Mary, etc.)

A lot of this power and leadership stuff felt weirdly anachronistic, talking about a woman who personified an ancient and highly traditional institution in the sort of language we might associate with profiles of Silicon Valley “girlbosses”. Writers kept referring to the Queen as a “role model” for women leaders, which was particularly jarring given that the role of a hereditary monarch is only open to a tiny, pre-determined set of people, who do not have to have any ambition to fill it, nor any particular aptitude for it.   

But perhaps this is a bit more complicated than I’m suggesting. From Amanda Taub’s thoughtful piece in the New York Times I learned that in 1952 an aspiring woman politician wrote an article for the Sunday Graphic which contained these words:

If as many earnestly pray, the accession of Elizabeth II can help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand.

Once again this glosses over the fact that hereditary monarchs do not “aspire to the highest places”, they are simply put in their predestined place when the time comes. But could it be true that a society which has accepted a queen as its figurehead (because with monarchy you get who you get) becomes more receptive to the idea of a woman leader who did have to aspire to power, and compete for it with men? This writer apparently hoped that was true, though she was not, in any other respect, a feminist. Her name, in case you haven’t already guessed, was Margaret Thatcher.

Amanda Taub also talked to a historian, Arianne Chernock, who had studied the phenomenon of the “queen crazy woman” in 1950s America. In 1953 a report on this phenomenon in the LA Times quoted a psychologist who explained that for some American women the Queen had become “a heroine who makes them feel superior to men”. Though my own feminist education has given me a strong tendency to suspect any pronouncement about women made by a psychologist in the 1950s of being sexist bullshit, I don’t find the idea that identification with a female figurehead might prompt women to imagine having power either implausible or uninteresting; all liberatory politics has to begin in the imagination.    

My own objection to the idea that the Queen was a feminist is not really about her personal views (of which we know almost nothing) or the way she conducted herself (as Amanda Taub notes, “she stuck quite rigidly to traditional gender roles in terms of her behavior, clothes and public presentation of herself as a wife and mother”). It’s more about the extraordinarily patriarchal nature—and I mean “patriarchal” in the strictest and most literal sense—of the institution she was born into and dutifully served throughout her life.  

Many commentators pointed out that she presided over the 2011 reform of the law of succession which dispensed with male primogeniture: in future Britain may have a Queen regnant who has younger brothers (though we already know it won’t happen before the death of George, son of William, son of Charles). But one thing nobody mentioned (so forgive me if I do) was that one of the primary responsibilities of any queen, regnant or consort, is to produce legitimate heirs. This is another aspect of the “gilded cage”: royal women may live in luxury, be deferred to and publicly venerated, but they are also regarded as breeding stock. Elizabeth I managed to choose to remain unmarried and childless, but it wasn’t easy for her to hold that line, and I can’t imagine a modern, figurehead-type queen being able to hold it. Feminists may not agree on much, but one thing they mostly have tended to believe is that compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and reproduction—along with the whole concept of “legitimacy”—are among the cornerstones of the patriarchal order. Royal women are living symbols of what that order means for women, and even though what they experience is the luxury version, I find it impossible not to see it, and their consent to it, as a sort of degradation. (I think some royal women, especially those who married into it, have also come to see it that way, and their response has been to look for an exit.)

When I say that the Queen was not a feminist, that’s not a criticism of her or the way she did the job: a royal woman born in 1926 was never very likely to be a feminist. Her views and her behaviour, like everyone else’s, were bound to reflect her social milieu and life-experience (which in some ways was unusually varied, but in others extraordinarily limited). In that respect I found some of the arguments against her being a feminist as off-point as the arguments in favour. For instance, some people maintained she wasn’t a feminist because she was an upper-class white lady who was comfortable with hierarchy and inequality and, at a minimum, unapologetic about British colonialism. Well, OK, she was all of that; but in that case Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (aka the suffragettes) wasn’t a feminist either. (In her youth Pankhurst was a radical, but she became an avid nationalist, an outspoken defender of the Empire and, eventually, a Tory—while at no point renouncing her commitment to women’s rights.) This is another case of projecting a contemporary, broadened definition of feminism (as a movement to end all forms of social injustice rather than specifically a movement to advance women’s rights) onto a figure from an earlier period of history.

I’m still committed to the view that feminism is a house of many mansions: there are and always have been competing/conflicting definitions, and that hasn’t stopped feminists from getting on with whatever they saw as their work. But I’m equally committed to the view that however variously we define its goals, principles or methods, feminism is a political project: simply existing as a famous or powerful woman does not, in and of itself, make someone a feminist. We should be able to admire the achievements of non-feminist women without needing to co-opt them into a movement they never wanted to join, and we should be able to criticize the ideas or actions of feminist women, past and present, without needing to deny that they were ever feminists.