This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
What a fortnight it has been. Full of emotion and love for one very special lady as she passed together with anticipation at our new female Prime Minister. The jury is out on the last one. However, the Queen got the nearly unanimous vote of the world as someone so unique that it is unlikely we will ever see her kind again. There were a few antis, but there always are. She was from a brave and stoic generation.
I don’t know how you all found the Queen’s death, but I, for one, found it very unsettling and moving. I loved the way we all came together to celebrate her life and mourn her passing. However, it also gave me an opportunity to rejoice in all that our late Queen did for modern women. I want to look at how she established clear boundaries between the demands of her job and her family. She had to juggle them all, as so many of us women have to.
What did it mean to have a woman placed above the heads of men as the Queen was in 1952?
Post-war, the world was coming to terms with all that women could offer in the workplace. However, this was a young woman, aged 25 years, married with two small children, taking on the most prominent job in the land. She also promised to continue to serve our nation until her last breath. She did that in her usual inimitable style, saying goodbye to Boris Johnson and welcoming Liz Truss to be her 15th Prime Minister before passing away 48 hours later. She did it with a smile on her face, looking beautiful and masking the pain she must have been in.
This final act does seem to represent everything about her approach to her job and why her loss is hitting many of us so hard. Out of all the people who hold authority in this country, she feels like one of the very last who truly believed in the ideas of duty and of being a public servant. Those musty, old-fashioned words now seem to have left us appear so much more valuable than we realised.
But what did the Queen achieve that benefited women of the future?
Even before she became Queen when she married Prince Philip. Though the command for brides to obey their husbands had not been part of the Book of Common Prayer since 1928, Elizabeth included it in her wedding vows. She wanted to be a traditional wife.
The Queen went on to show that as a wife, she could assume a man’s role while retaining her femininity. However, she also revealed that her gender was irrelevant to her capacity to do her job.
Queen Elizabeth continued with her daily red boxes throughout her last two pregnancies with Andrew and Edward. I am sure Prince Philip was much more than just the world’s most famous royal consort and offered her the support and advice that she needed.
It is generally expected that wives will drop everything for the family, no matter how consuming their careers, so that husbands can go to work. Not once did we hear that the Queen would not make her weekly audience with the Prime Minister. Nor did she cancel the ribbon-cutting of a hospital because of some domestic concern. She just got on with her job, and maybe Prince Philip had more of a hands-on approach to the family.
We also judge working mothers much more harshly than working fathers, giving the latter a free pass if their job is important enough but condemning the former as a terrible person if her children don’t turn out to be flawless and successful. The Queen’s fitness as sovereign has never been tied to her fitness as a mother. Although she always made her family a part of her life, Elizabeth did not allow it to define her as Queen Victoria did. She accepted the failure of her eldest three children’s marriages. She showed that it had affected her by touching on these matters in a speech during the famous year she called her ‘annus horribilis’.
Maybe this was another reason we loved her, as her position did not protect her from everyday family issues. More recently, she has had to deal with the fallout from Prince Harry and Meghan’s resignation from working royal life; the allegations against Prince Andrew, all when she was aged 90 years plus. She may have been our monarch with all the trappings and luxuries that this position entails but she was not protected from these life issues that we all have to deal with.
She has never been pushy or showy. You never felt that she was putting herself first or allowing her feelings or emotions to interfere with what she saw as her duty to the country, to the extent that we have no idea what her feelings, emotions, or wishes were. Never complain, never explain, personified. That is extraordinary when you compare her to everyone else in supposed public service.
And for women over 50
By refusing to countenance abdication, she showed what a working woman looks like past menopause. Rather than shrinking, she revved up a gear and demonstrated a woman’s age has no bearing on her agency and authority.
In an age when a woman’s sexiness is her currency and empowerment is judged by how much of her body she exposes, she refused to make any concessions to fashion. Instead, she wore a cacophony of colour and brightened our day whenever we saw her. Her fabulous colour sense and ability to match dresses to the mood were sublime.
Ultimately she tore up the rule book on gender roles and proved that a woman can be a success juggling all of these roles, mother, wife, monarch, working woman and friend.
And so, the sadness we feel isn’t necessarily for her, but it is also for her. In retrospect, it feels like the Queen has been occupying the space of a kind of national grandmother, a very distant one that we never consciously acknowledged, but who it turns out had been providing us with a stabilising backdrop we never realised mattered to us until the stabilisers came off.
As for Liz Truss, well, that is for another post! Worryingly the death of the Queen has meant that Liz Truss cannot be guided by one of the most politically knowledgeable leaders. We have all lost the wisdom of one incredible woman.