Queen Elizabeth II and the definition of a feminist

Simcha Pasko

Digital Journalist | @simchapasko

8 min read
A portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is seen next to flowers placed outside of Buckingham Palace in London, UK, on September 11, 2022.
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFPA portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is seen next to flowers placed outside of Buckingham Palace in London, UK, on September 11, 2022.

Can we consider Elizabeth II a feminist? It depends on who you ask

Olivia Colman, who portrayed Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix historical drama “The Crown,” said in 2019 that she considered the long-reigning monarch who died on September 8, "the ultimate feminist."

“She’s the breadwinner,” Colman told Radio Times magazine. “She’s the one on our coins and banknotes. Prince Philip has to walk behind her. She fixed cars in the Second World War. She’s no shrinking violet.”

Colman is not the only one who considers the Queen a "feminist icon," as Emma Barnett, host of the BBC's "Woman Hour," used those exact words in 2015 to describe Elizabeth II when she noted, “Her gender has always been irrelevant to her capacity to do her job.”

Even socialite Paris Hilton noted Queen Elizabeth II's historic reign, calling her “the original girl boss” in a tweet shortly after her death. 

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When Elizabeth II became Queen, it was 1952, a time regarded as a "bleak" period for feminism and women’s equality. It was only that same year that equal pay for female teachers was required by law in the United Kingdom, and it would take nearly 20 years for the Equal Pay Act to extend that rule to all professions. 

In the 1950s, female career choices were constricted by the opinion that a woman's place was in the home. But although she never publicly embraced the title of “feminist,” or any title deemed political, Queen Elizabeth II’s mere existence inspired many women during a time when very few were in leadership. 

Shortly after Elizabeth II took the throne, a young candidate attempting to break into politics wrote a column for the Sunday Graphic saying: “If as many earnestly pray, the accession of Elizabeth II can help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand.” 

“That there is a place for women at the top of the tree has been proved beyond question,” Margret Thatcher wrote. “Women can - and must - play a leading part in the creation of a glorious Elizabethan era.”

Thatcher would eventually become Britain's first female prime minister - and perhaps one of the most controversial political figures in the country’s history. (Ironically, she would develop a relationship with the Queen that was widely reported to be “frosty” and a relationship with feminism that many consider non-existent.) 

Dominique FAGET / AFP
Dominique FAGET / AFPBritain's Queen Elizabeth II poses at Buckingham Palace with Economic Summit leaders, including then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, September 6, 1984, London, UK.

While the Queen shied away from being a political figure, there were notable moments during her reign when it seemed she leaned into ideas that could be considered “feminist,” depending on who you ask.  

Many cite when Elizabeth II opened the 100th annual Women’s Institute meeting in 2015 by saying, "There has been significant economic and social change since 1915. Women have been granted the vote, British women have climbed Everest for the first time and the country has elected its first female prime minister."

"In the modern world,” she continued, in what many consider her strongest public statement on feminism, “the opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part in all areas of public life." 

Additionally, one would be remiss to forget when the Queen drove the then-Saudi Crown Prince around in her royal Range Rover when he visited, during a time when women were not allowed to drive in his country. According to Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince "implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead." 

It is likely that, until that moment, he was never driven by a woman. 

Adrian DENNIS / AFP
Adrian DENNIS / AFPBritain's Queen Elizabeth II sits in a car while awaiting an event to begin during the Royal Windsor Horse Show in Windsor, Berkshire, UK, on May 13, 2011.

Other tidbits include that Elizabeth II was the only female member of the Royal Family to have entered the armed forces. In addition, she paid for her wedding dress during her princess days with clothing rations. 

These facts have been used to prove that the late Queen was a symbol of feminism. That she was different from Queen Victoria, who shamed suffragettes and decried the idea of women in the government. 

Yet, Queen Elizabeth II’s feminist legacy is uncertain. 

Olivia Colman’s predecessor playing the Queen on “The Crown,” Claire Foy, was asked whether she thought the Queen was a feminist, with Foy responding, “I'm a bit reluctant to say that's what she is.”

“A feminist wouldn't say in marriage vows that she wanted to obey her husband, which is what Elizabeth stipulated. To me, that doesn't seem to be a massive feminist icon.”

Additionally, some might ask how a person born into royalty, who did not earn positions through her own merit, can be considered a bastion of feminism. Moreover, can a person representing vast inequality and privilege be a suitable champion for equal rights? 

Does the Queen’s silence - her unwillingness to express a political opinion - make her complacent? Culpable? This extends beyond feminism into other subjects that plague the royal family, including Queen’s participation within a colonial institution.

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In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II signed a new charter for the Commonwealth, which declared the beliefs and values of the 53 member states. The section on gender reads: “We recognize that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights.”

Many took this moment as a sign of the Queen’s supposed feminism and that she was taking a stand against gender inequality. 

But Buckingham Palace quickly released a statement: “The Queen, as in all matters, is apolitical but is signing the document in her capacity as head of the Commonwealth.”

Complacency is certainly not associated with feminism - quite the opposite. So can we call the Queen a feminist if she resisted being associated with the very idea of it? Or does her simply being an inspiration to young women transcend her actions - or lack thereof? 

These questions of “what makes a feminist” and “how can feminism be defined” have been debated for decades by feminists and non-feminists alike. 

And they will be asked, answered and discussed long after Queen Elizabeth II’s September 19 funeral. 

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