Queen Elizabeth II was the ultimate symbol of female power. The head of state of 15 countries, the majority of us grew up knowing nothing other than a female ruler. It was her face on bank notes and coins. It was to the queen we paid tribute in the national anthem. It was her presence that required global male leaders to bow down. She completely normalised the idea of a woman in charge without ever openly making a point about it.
We talk a lot at the moment about representation and why we need it. The Queen represented female strength and power as soon as her reign began when she was just 25. Back in 1952, there were very few, if any, women in power. She was faced with two disadvantages – her gender and her age, both of which prevented her from being taken seriously. And yet, the queen proved herself a steadfast and unshakable head of state early on. Winston Churchill, who initially thought her to be too inexperienced (read: young) for the role, swiftly became one of her biggest fans. She knew what many modern figureheads still struggle with – that strong leadership requires earning and retaining the trust of your people, an ethos that she stood by until she died. She understood that loyalty and respect had to be earned, and that meant being a constant, dependable force. It meant ruling with humility. Throughout her tenure, her presence at the UK’s helm raised the question: how can you deny a woman’s right or ability to do any job when the most powerful position in the country is occupied by a woman?
Around the world, when people talked about the queen, they talked of our queen – that was how high status she was. It was the way in which she built and executed that power and influence that made her so remarkable. She did so quietly and without complaint, and understood that the job required her to be non-partisan. She never overstepped the bounds of her job. Her constitutional powers were tolerated in this country because she never abused them. As the years rolled on, she proved that – contrary to society’s stereotypes – older women were still important with much to contribute. If anything, the Queen’s stock continued to rise, along with her experience and wisdom. Hers was a dignified, understated form of rule that proved how influential women in power could be. It changed the way women in charge were perceived.
I’m not going to pretend that I think the queen was a feminist, or the “original girl boss” as Paris Hilton tweeted yesterday. I’m unsure she’d have ever described herself in those terms (certainly not the latter), and she certainly never made statements that openly advanced women in society. Yes, she was the first woman in the royal family to join the armed forces during World War II against her father’s wishes, where she learnt to fix cars and drive trucks. She refused to give up her surname, keeping Windsor. She made more money than her husband.
All of this is great, but it doesn’t mean she was a feminist. It’s not inconceivable that she saw feminism as a political issue, and therefore not something she could wade in on. Her silence on the matter did make any subtle shows of female solidarity the more powerful. In 1998, she sped King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia around Balmoral in her Land Rover at a time when Saudi women weren’t allowed to drive. In 2013, she gave royal assent to the Succession To The Crown Act, meaning both sons and daughters of any future UK monarch would have an equal right to the throne.