Was the Queen the ultimate feminist?
She was one of the most powerful, respected and admired women in the world. But where the Queen stood on women’s rights and feminism was something royal experts could never agree on.
While younger members of the Royal Family have always been very open about their support for women – the Duke of Sussex even declared, "I’m a feminist" in a visit to a women’s organisation in 2019 – Her Majesty was more reticent about offering any thoughts on the subject.
Some critics argued that the fact the Queen hadn't spoken openly about women’s rights over the years was possible evidence she might not be a feminist. Yet there is no denying that the UK’s longest serving monarch was an inspirational figure when it came to what women could achieve.
In an interview in the Radio Times in 2019, Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman – who played the monarch in a series of The Crown – called the Queen ‘the ultimate feminist’.
"She’s the breadwinner," commented Colman at the time. "She’s the one on our coins and banknotes. Prince Philip has to walk behind her." She then continued to list other examples of why Her Majesty was no ‘shrinking violet’ when it comes to women’s rights.
But throughout her life, the Queen proved time and time again that she was no less qualified than any man. As an 18-year-old princess, she rolled up her sleeves and donned overalls to join the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, training as a mechanic and military truck driver. This had followed months of begging her father to let her ‘pitch in’ with the War effort.
In fact, the Queen remains the only female member of the Royal Family to have entered the Armed Forces and also served in World War II.
After her marriage to the late Prince Philip in 1947, when it was expected that women took their husband’s surname after marriage, Elizabeth retained her name. And throughout their 73-year marriage, Philip walked faithfully in her shadow, always her ‘strength and stay’ while she took the spotlight.
Some might argue that Philip was respecting the ‘crown’ as much as Elizabeth but royal expert Kelly Lynch said: "Both the Duke and Her Majesty have always been progressive in their views."
The Queen has long broken down gender stereotypes. In 1998, she surprised the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia when she jumped behind the wheel of one of her Land Rovers and took him for a drive. This might not seem particularly peculiar but at the time, women in Saudi Arabia were banned from driving.
Was the Queen making a point? We shall never know but Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia says the episode terrified the king and he asked his translator if she could "slow down and concentrate on the road ahead".
"Abdulla was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen," he wrote. "His nervousness only increased as the Queen, an Army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads."
Perhaps the most significant feminist change she presided over were the changes of royal rules of succession, whereby firstborn daughters would accede the throne, rather than give way to their younger brothers. There had been 11 previous attempts to change the law, but in 2011 Commonwealth leaders agreed to the changes at a summit.
Although the Queen did not directly mention the royal succession laws in her opening speech to the summit, she said women should have a greater role in society. "It encourages us to find ways to show girls and women to play their full part," she said. The BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell said this was a hint that the Queen herself backed the change.
The Queen was also a lifelong member of the Women’s Institute, lauding the achievements of fellow members in her annual speeches. In 2015, she opened the 100th annual meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, with an inspiring speech to more than 5000 WI members.
"In the modern world, 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," she said.
"In 2015 it continues to demonstrate that it can make a real difference to the lives of women of all ages and cultural backgrounds, in a spirit of friendship, cooperation and support."
Perhaps the last word should go to Emma Barnett, presenter of Woman’s Hour, who was in no doubt that Her Majesty had feminist credentials.
"By doing that job stoically and with the utmost dedication, she inadvertently has done a great deal normalise the idea of having a woman in charge," Barnett wrote in The Telegraph back in 2015 after Her Majesty become our longest-serving monarch.