The Feminism Of Elizabeth And Victoria
Philip Ellison 03 February, 2017 at 02:02
What can modern women learn from two of British history’s most influential monarchs?
It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that we are fascinated with women in positions of power — perhaps because, even in 2017, there are so few of them. And when it comes to women who live in the public eye, there is an insidious tendency to compare and contrast, to imagine rivalries and to create rankings, whether they are pop stars or political leaders. Successful women exist in such limited numbers that we cannot help but keep some sort of mental tally of how they stack up.
The latest Intelligence Squared debate was guilty of exactly this, pitting two of history’s greatest queens against each other; Elizabeth I vs. Victoria. Historical novelist Philippa Gregory made a case for Elizabeth, and in Victoria’s corner was writer and television producer Daisy Goodwin. Their arguments were punctuated by readings from the respective queens’ diaries and letters, performed by renowned actresses Fiona Shaw and Greta Scacchi.
So, what exactly did it take to get ahead in the notoriously patriarchal courts of the 16th and 19th Centuries? Do the reigns of Elizabeth and Victoria hold any lessons for modern women? And is it really possible to “have it all?”
On the importance of personal brand:
Elizabeth’s notoriety today is unequalled by any other ruler from her era (except perhaps her father, Henry VIII) and this was no accident. Infamously vain and flirtatious, outward appearance was everything to Elizabeth, and elaborate gifts and compliments became the most powerful currency of the court. She was “a conscious and powerful creator of the royal image,” taking the “Elizabeth brand” (as Gregory puts it) on tour.
Virginity was a key part of this brand; Elizabeth knew that under the law, a woman became subservient to her husband, and she would be unable to marry if she wished to rule. So she incorporated a denouncement of marriage into the narrative of her divine anointment, transforming a personal choice into a sacrifice for her people.
Victoria, too, had a strong sense of her own brand from a young age, refusing to speak German and rejecting traditional royal names, instead styling herself as Victoria (the feminisation of her mother’s maiden name). This previously non-existent moniker, which denoted triumph but was as alien to the ears of her subjects as “Beyoncé” would have been, came to define an era. And while not as vain as Elizabeth, Victoria did cultivate her own aesthetic later in life, eschewing a crown in favour of a simple widow’s cap following the death of Prince Albert, so as to appear closer to the people.
On acting like a man:
While coquettish when it suited her, as a ruler Elizabeth was constantly masculinising her persona and distancing herself from her sex, most famously in the line; “I know I have the body of but a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
This sentiment is echoed in modern times by “cool girls” who present themselves as one of the boys in order to gain acceptance from their male peers or co-workers. It was even present in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, where it can be argued she performed a diluted form of masculinity that would engage, but not threaten, male voters.
“Women rarely ‘act like women’ to achieve power and influence in politics,” writes political scientist Jennifer Jones, who cites Margaret Thatcher as a classic example. “Though the times may be changing, the powerful voice in politics still speaks with a masculine style.”
“Princes cannot like their own children, those that succeed unto them,” wrote Elizabeth, presenting herself as more man than woman and therefore not the broody type. For Gregory, this is nothing short of revolutionary; she believes that Elizabeth called out “the powerful fiction of maternal love” and asserted that it is neither the duty nor destiny of every woman to be a mother.
“If womanly tenderness doesn’t apply to Elizabeth, it doesn’t need to apply to any of us,” she says. “Not every woman loves children; this is a liberating vision. It is possible. Elizabeth tells us so.” Such an idea might not seem so radical in 2017, but reproductive rights are still politicised in the US and young women face mounting societal pressure to start a family in addition to working. This is partly because childlessness continues to carry a stigma, and women who have not had children are painted as either barren or selfish, as was the case with UK Prime Minister Theresa May last year.
Even the prolifically fertile Victoria, a mother nine times over, saw having children as the “shadow side” of marriage and the consequence of “fun in bed,” says Goodwin. Her squeamishness around pregnancy and childbirth is well documented, and she wrote rhapsodically about chloroform after the Archbishop of Canterbury exempted her from Eve’s curse and permitted the use of anaesthetic in labour.
Interestingly, the idea of a mother on the throne struck a chord with the British people, perhaps because it followed years of kingly scandal and corruption, and it helped to stabilise Victoria’s reign while other monarchies were toppling left and right. She also originated the idea of a royal family as we know it today, and created a sort of proto-EU, Goodwin suggests, by marrying each of her children into various courts across Europe.
On being an ally:
A terrible rival and demanding employer, Elizabeth did show love and loyalty to the women in her inner circle, and she was a supporter of female artists in the Renaissance — but that favour did not extend to her entire gender. “Elizabeth wasn’t a supporter of women’s rights,” says Gregory, “she wasn’t a supporter of anyone’s rights but her own.”
Having grown up seeing her own mother executed and a series of stepmothers abused by her father, “it’s not too Freudian to suggest she associated men with power, and women with dangerous vulnerability.” Not much of one for sending the elevator back down, either, Elizabeth persecuted her heirs because she knew how treacherous they could be — she had, after all, been one herself.
Victoria, on the other hand, was more “woke.” While we might look back on her era as one of social repression, the queen herself was unlimited by race or stereotype when it came to the people she trusted, and she attacked others for their snobbery and prejudice.
“Both queens were great monarchs,” concludes Goodwin, “and needless to say, more interesting than their male equivalents!”
Image credit: Tim Bowditch / Intelligence Squared.