But was she a feminist, in word or deed?
As the world reflects upon her legacy after the death of Britain’s longest-serving monarch, the question is a matter of debate. The queen wasn’t known for making bold declarations about the rights of women — and some Britons held that against her. But others argue that she was a feminist icon all the same.
Perhaps the closest the queen came to a public statement about women’s rights or gender equality was at a 2011 British Commonwealth summit in Australia, where the theme was “Women as Agents of Change.” The queen said: “It reminds us of the potential in our societies that is yet to be fully unlocked, and encourages us to find ways to allow girls and women to play their full part.”
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Although that may not sound particularly provocative, her words were taken as an endorsement of changes in royal succession laws that year that gave daughters of future monarchs equal right to the throne. Before then, women were clearly considered second-best royals: They could become monarchs, but only in cases like hers, if a male heir was unavailable.
The queen also periodically dispatched congratulatory comments about women breaking barriers in realms such as sports. Over the summer, when England’s women’s soccer team won the Euro championship — achieving what no male English team had done before — the queen praised the lionesses for having “set an example that will be an inspiration for girls and women today, and for future generations inspiration for girls and women.”
Yet Elizabeth held fast to the custom that the head of Britain’s constitutional monarchy should not wade into politically tinged subjects. And so, regardless of her personal beliefs, she would have considered an active role in the women’s liberation or women’s equality movements off-limits.
“When you talk about feminism, there’s an implication of campaigning which isn’t appropriate, especially for someone who is supposed to be politically neutral,” said Robert Lacey, a royal biographer.
She certainly never went as far as Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who in 2018 declared herself a “feminist” on the royal family website.
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Actor Olivia Colman, who portrayed the queen in the Netflix series “The Crown,” said she considered Elizabeth II “the ultimate feminist.”
“She’s the breadwinner,” Colman told Radio Times magazine in 2019. “She’s the one on our coins and bank notes. Prince Philip has to walk behind her. She fixed cars in the Second World War. She’s no shrinking violet.”
As a princess, Elizabeth joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and worked as a driver and a mechanic in World War II.
But Guardian columnist Zoe Williams was among those who objected to the “ultimate feminist” characterization. Being supported by British taxpayers is not breadwinning, she wrote. “Fixing cars in the second world war is neither feminist nor unfeminist,” she added, “it would have been feminist to continue to fix cars once the war had ended.”
Elizabeth became queen in 1952 — after a run of four male monarchs, and at a time when gender stereotypes portrayed women as homemakers, wearing aprons in the kitchen and dutifully waiting for the return of their working husbands.
At the age of 25, the queen was suddenly the head of state and a symbol of a woman holding status and influence. She was reading government papers, meeting with prime ministers, entertaining world leaders — almost all of them men.
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She was a working mother who left her kids at home for work. After her coronation, she embarked on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth, leaving young Charles and Anne at home.
“For me personally, the Queen has become a feminist icon, whether she wanted to or not, simply by never letting gender define her,” Emma Barnett, host of the BBC’s “Woman’s Hour,” wrote in the Telegraph in 2015. gender has always been irrelevant to her capacity to do her job,” wrote Barnett, and “by doing that job stoically and with the utmost dedication, she’s inadvertently done a great deal to normalize the idea of having a woman in charge.”
“She fits into this tradition of ruling queens who are very useful to feminism, more through their deeds than their words,” said Arianne Chernock, author of “The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women: Queen Victoria and the Women’s Movement.”
The women’s movement began to gain traction in the late 19th century, during the reign of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth II’s great-great grandmother. Victoria was opposed to women’s rights. “We women are not made for governing,” she once wrote in a letter to her uncle. She thought voting rights for women was a “mad, wicked folly.” But much of this was found out through private correspondence later. At the time, Victoria was a model to many leaders in the women’s movement in the 19th century, Chernock said.
During Elizabeth’s reign, among her many overseas trips, her 1979 tour of six nations in the Gulf States made headlines around the world. In a region where women’s participation in public life was far below men’s, here was a female monarch, shaking hands with rulers in the Gulf, as an equal.
David Owen, who was then the British foreign secretary, told The Washington Post in a recent interview that the Gulf trip was a great success and, referring to the elderly Saudi monarch King Khalid, he said, “The old king fell in love with her .”
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He recalled an incident when the Saudi king had joined the queen and Prince Philip on the royal yacht for a banquet. “I’ll never forget him driving away in his Rolls-Royce and the queen was up there on the bridge and he started waving and suddenly he puts a stick out the window and whirls it around, and you just knew, the trip had been a winner. It was everything I could have wanted in terms of foreign relations.”
He said of the queen, “She doesn’t make a great female emancipation speech, but it’s the way she conducts herself. You need for people who are prepared to actually go out and take the case and argue and write about it, and you also need people who will just do it by example — you need both.”
Rosie Campbell, director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, said the queen occupied the role with “incredible grace and dignity and can only have a positive impact on how we view women leaders.”
“We know that women role models matter,” she said. At the same time, she added, “it’s not a job that little girls can easily step into.”
Elizabeth did not become queen through merit, and the monarch’s role, on the public stage, is a relatively silent one. “She seems to me to understand her role,” Campbell said. “She makes the distinction between being elected and unelected, but it means that she doesn’t have a voice except on rare occasions.”
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Royal observers say that behind the scenes, the queen played a traditional role within her own family. “She was very keen early on to say, ‘Yes, I’m the queen. I’ll do the constitutional stuff. But Philip was the head of the family,’ ” said Robert Hardman, author of “Queen of Our Times.” He also questioned whether the queen would have viewed herself as a feminist. “There are feminist traits but I’m not sure she’d see it like that,” he said.
“She would probably be a feminist in the same sense as Margaret Thatcher was the feminist,” he said of Britain’s first female prime minister. “Feminists may not regard either [of them] as a feminist figures, but they’ve undoubtedly helped reshape the way that society views women and women were empowered by their leadership roles.”
Other commentators have wondered if a different royal might one day be dubbed the “ultimate feminist.” Feminist Julie Bindel suggested in the Daily Telegraph, “I don’t think it is too much to suggest that Camilla could one day be described as the most feminist Queen we’ll ever have.” Camilla, queen consort, has long worked with charities that campaign to end violence against women and is president of the Women of the World (WOW) festival.
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But there may have been occasions when the queen has tried, in her own queenly way, to score a point for feminism.
The queen reportedly terrified then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah during his 2003 state visit by zipping around in a royal Range Rover. Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, shared the anecdote in his memoir, saying that the queen had invited Abdullah for a tour of the grounds at Balmoral, her royal estate in Scotland. “To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off,” Cowper-Coles wrote in his book, “Ever the Diplomat.” “Women are not — yet — allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen.”
According to the diplomat, it wasn’t a particularly calming experience as the queen “accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time.”
Cowper-Coles wrote: “Through his interpreter, the Crown Prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said the women’s movement began to gain traction in the late 18th century. That happened in the late 19th century. The article has been corrected.