For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth was a female presence in places of power. She was the head of state greeted deferentially by world leaders; 15 British prime ministers came to her office, not the other way around. If you went in her car, she got dibs on driving, and not even a Saudi Arabian prince could say otherwise. Her portrait hung in courthouses and parliaments across the Commonwealth. “Her Majesty” issued our passports and assented to our legislation. James Bond was in Her service.
Now those photographs are coming down. Her face will disappear from money, and the royal language of governing and justice will become male. With her death last Thursday, it happened in an instant: Queen became King. A Canadian citizenship ceremony had to pause in progress to edit the oath of allegiance, accordingly.
Scholars will debate Queen Elizabeth’s contribution to feminism – being very, very rich and born into your mostly symbolic job is an obviously limited archetype. But her record-setting reign meant that for as long as most of us can remember, the business of building and running a nation had a woman at the head.
“That symbolic presence reminds us that, yes, woman are here too,” said Erin Tolley, a Carleton University political scientist, and Canada Research Chair in Gender, Race, and Inclusive Politics. “And because there are so few women in positions of power, the loss of even one reduces our visibility.”
“Presence matters,” said Rose de Geus, a lecturer at the University of Reading in England, and a co-editor, along with Dr. Tolley, of the recent book Women, Power and Political Representation: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives. Even though Queen Elizabeth’s power was limited and her role inherited, she was visible on the world stage. Her portrait might have been the only female face of authority in places of power.
“We often say, ‘You have to see to be it,’” Dr. Tolley said. “When young girls see women in position of political power, it can help them envision a public role for themselves.”
Becoming Queen might not be attainable, but leading like one could be. Arianne Chernock, an American history professor at Boston University who studies the monarchy and gender, suggests that Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was a significant moment for many women – especially since, after the war, they were being told to stay home and be dutiful wives. Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, was expected to travel, to be informed about world issues, to be commanding. At 25, she was the world’s most famous working mother.
“Here was a woman who took up space, and who others deferred to, including her own husband,” Dr. Chernock said. “This was deliciously disruptive at the time.
She was also the rare woman who grew old while holding public power. The Queen, after all, could not be fired for having children or going grey. Instead, in official portraits her countenance was updated to mark her advancing years and accruing experience. She aged into her leadership example of being unflappable and resolute, formally appointing her last Prime Minister two days before she died, at 96.
But if the Queen’s presence in institutions of power – either in person or spirit – was a “small corrective,” Dr. Tolley argues, she was also an unsatisfactory one. A symbolic presence isn’t true representation. A fancy job you get by being born into the right family isn’t equality. The Queen was hardly a royal rebel: Stability and constancy are the trademarks of her reign.
Ultimately, Dr. Chernock points out, the characteristics of an ideal monarch – dutiful, reliable, apolitical – skew stereotypically feminine. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that of the past 200 years in Britain, two queens have run the royal show for 134 of them. In fact, she suggests, it may be King Charles, and his son and grandson set to follow, who blaze a trail, serving as men in a role held so long, and so impressively, by women.
The Queen’s face may slowly fade from some public places, but her name will remain on schools, parks and hospitals. The money that bears her face will still be legal tender. The Court of Queen’s Bench is now the King’s but, of course, it never belonged to the Crown in the first place. On the ground in Canada, at least, a more diverse viceregal representation will continue: The Governor-General and the majority of the lieutenant-governors – the country’s royal stand-ins – are women.
In a recent spoken essay for the BBC, Mary Beard, a pre-eminent classics scholar at the University of Cambridge, recalled an image from her school days of a younger Queen Elizabeth, dressed in her coronation regalia. “I still have it in my mind’s eye,” she said. “Those were women’s hands,” holding the symbols of power. “And for all that we wish the new King well, that is another reason why I miss her.”
The Globe and Mail, September 14, 2022