Meghan Markle is a card-carrying feminist. But the same can’t quite be said of her great-great-great-great-grandmother-in-law, Queen Victoria, who was born 200 years ago today.
Unlike the Duchess of Sussex, Victoria clung to traditional gender roles. She ruled the United Kingdom for much of the 19th century, but insisted that she did so because it was her duty, not because she enjoyed the position or possessed the requisite skills. “We women are not made for governing,” she wrote.
Victoria blanched at the prospect of women becoming doctors. And she was equally horrified by the campaign for female suffrage. “The Queen,” she noted, “is most anxious to enlist some one who can speak & write etc. checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s rights,’ with all the attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex seems bent … God created man & woman different — & let each remain in their own position.”
We can only wonder what Victoria would have made of Meghan’s work to end “period poverty” and expand the global reach of feminism. Or of the fact that Meghan has expressed hope that newborn baby Archie — like his father, Prince Harry — will be fully engaged in this mission. As the duchess explained during her pregnancy, “It’s impossible for me to sit back and not do anything.”
If Victoria and Meghan seem a study in contrasts — one reviling feminism, the other embracing it, one desperate to put the brakes on change, the other a change agent — the distinctions are not necessarily so pat. In fact, Meghan might take pleasure in knowing that during the queen’s own lifetime, many feminists considered Victoria a role model, and used her status as monarch to push for their own rights.
How could this have been the case, given Victoria’s diatribes against “women’s rights”? What we must remember is that the queen’s comments were initially shared in private, not public. Most of her censorious remarks only became widely known after her death in 1901.
And so, British feminists featured Victoria in their 19th-century campaigning. This was especially true in the struggle to obtain the parliamentary vote, where the queen’s lofty status made her incredibly valuable. After all, it was a striking paradox that a woman was head of state — even if that role was increasingly ceremonial — given that her female subjects couldn't even elect a representative, let alone obtain a university education (until 1869) or keep their property once married (until 1870).
Feminist activists were quick to point this out, and frequently called out the discrepancy between the queen’s position and their own. As a group of working-class activists in London explained in 1839, since “it is a female that assumes to rule this nation,” then they too must demand “our rights as free women (or women determined to be free) to rule ourselves.” Little surprise that queenship featured in a landmark petition submitted to Parliament in favor of female representation, in 1866.
Americans proved equally enamored with this line of thinking. “If it is right for Victoria to sit on the throne of England,” declared the suffragist and dress reformer Amelia Jenks Bloomer during the 1850s, “it is right for any American Woman to occupy the Presidential Chair at Washington.”
Indeed, so irresistible was this logic that some feminists — on both sides of the Atlantic — expressed ambivalence about the democratization of their political systems. “Within its own prescribed limitations,” observed the veteran suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, monarchy had “repeatedly given in our own history, a chance to an able woman to prove that in statesmanship, courage, sense of responsibility and devotion to duty, she is capable of ruling in such a way as to strengthen her empire and throne by earning the devoted affection of all classes of her subjects.”
The sensationalist journalist and social reformer William Thomas Stead would echo these sentiments when he said, “It may, at least, be said for Monarchy as it has been said for the Stage — it has given woman an opportunity and a career, denied her elsewhere. No system of Government as yet devised by man, save Monarchy alone, could have secured for a woman such an innings as our Queen has had.”
On this, the 200th anniversary of Victoria’s birth, it's helpful to remember this forgotten feminist legacy. Not just because it gives Meghan Markle and her family a useful history to consider as they press forward on women’s issues. And not just because it puts a new spin on the retrograde gender politics often associated with Victoria’s reign.
But also because it reminds us that some Britons and Americans have long been skeptical about the degree to which democratic systems are capable of promoting women in leadership positions — and of how far we still need to go to prove those early skeptics wrong.