Meghan Markle: A Feminist In The British Royal Family

by Katrina Majkut


There has never been an English royal wedding that hasn’t caught the public’s attention. From King Henry VIII’s six wives to the ill-fated marriage of Prince Charles and Diana, the marital escapades of the English monarchy have captivated people around the world throughout history. In recent years, each royal wedding has become a war between traditional pomp and circumstance and the creeping influence of the outside world. Prince Harry’s marriage to American actress Meghan Markle embodies just that—especially because Markle is a self-identified feminist.

Will Meghan Markle’s feminism change the royal family? First, it’s important to not confuse Markle’s feminism with the gradual (and overdue) modernization of the royal family. Once upon a time, the monarchy forbade divorce, which accounted for much royal drama. King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry twice-divorced American socialite (and fellow Nazi sympathizer) Wallis Simpson. In 1955, the Queen refused to give permission for her sister Princess Margaret to marry Group Capt. Peter Townsend, who was divorced. When Princess Margaret turned 25, she no longer needed the Queen’s approval to marry, but the divorced Prime Minister said that for the marriage to happen, she would have to give up her children’s succession rights. Instead, Princess Margaret ended the relationship. Due to the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, the Queen’s approval is needed for only the first six people in the line for the throne to marry. Luckily, the Queen approved of Prince Harry’s marriage to the previously married Markle, indicating a new acceptance of divorce—or at least an unwillingness to deny two people’s happiness. But it’s important to note that Prince Harry still had to receive the Queen’s permission before marrying Meghan Markle, rather than the couple being free to make the decision on their own.

Markle is also being celebrated for her biracial identity—her father is white and her mother is black, descended from slaves in Georgia. Markle is now a member of a royal family that historically colonized, exploited and profited off the labors and lives of black slaves. Her presence is certainly a change in the British aristocracy’s racial homogeneity. However, being included in an exclusively white group doesn’t necessarily mean that Markle will be treated as an equal, especially as Britain grapples with its recent rise in xenophobia and racism. Remember that Princess Michael of Kent wore a brooch featuring a racist caricature to the Queen’s 2017 Christmas luncheon, the first time Markle attended the event—and that when Prince Harry announced his relationship with Markle, he did so in response to what he described as “racial undertones” in press coverage of her, such as a Daily Mail headline calling her “(almost) straight outta Compton.” When it comes to Markle’s ability to influence the royal family, her presence is a step in the right direction, but is not enough to correct a thousand years and more of exploitation and exclusion.

Many are finding hope in Markle’s intersectional feminism. The royal wedding ceremony celebrated black culture by featuring Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir performing Ben E. King’s song “Stand By Me”; cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason; Bishop Michael Curry, who referenced Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery in his sermon; and Reverend Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who led the prayers. The ceremony showed how beautiful and inclusive the predominantly white Church of England could be. But will this inclusion continue when Markle is not in the room?

There seems to be disproportionate pressure on Markle, alone, to make change. UN Women, where Markle worked in 2014 as an Advocate for Political Participation and Leadership, released a statement saying that it “trusts and hopes that in her new and important public role she will continue to use her visibility and voice to support the advancement of gender equality.” I hope so too, but the portrayal of Markle as if she alone can change the inherent bias in the monarchy because she is a woman of color and a feminist is a lot of pressure.

There’s hope that Markle will not be addressing race and gender issues by herself. When a local expressed her appreciation that a feminist was finally behind the walls of Windsor Palace, Markle replied that Prince Harry considered himself a feminist, too. For his part, Prince Harry hasn’t publicly embraced the label of “feminist,” but has spoken out in support of gender equality, saying earlier this year, “As males, we have to do our part or it’s not going to work.” The royal family has even seemingly embraced Markle’s feminism by featuring this quote on their official website: “I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.”

But if the royal family has truly become progressive, when it comes to the charitable causes the family takes on (of which are many), they should be more than willing to address black people’s disenfranchisement, how the English monarchy has benefited from it, and make reparations. The burden of creating racial and gender equality does not rest of Markle’s shoulders alone.

And while Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s decision to include elements of black culture in wedding should be praised, the wedding ceremony was still very much overpowered by Prince Harry’s white British culture and family. It’s this dominance that raises more red flags. Markle is being praised for publically calling out a dish liquid’s sexist commercial when she was eleven and her work on gender equality as an adult, including her work with UN Women, her essay on menstruation stigma, and for calling Donald Trump “misogynistic.” As a member of the royal family, she may not be permitted to share her politics as publically (especially when it comes to individual politicians like Trump)—a major obstacle in how she might use her feminism to create positive social change.

While this concern may be premature, it’s not unfounded: Vox writer Tara Isabella Burton examined how Kate Middleton had to adjust her public persona to fit “a vision of ideal womanhood” after getting engaged to Prince William—including losing weight, changing her hair, and ending her career. It’s possible that Meghan Markle will not share this fate. She might very well champion social change, but the moment she became engaged, she already receded from public sharing of her personal life—she quit social media and her career, closed her blog, left the Catholic Church and joined Prince Harry’s religion, and will seek to become a British citizen. If you had a friend who similarly abandoned her former life in the name of love and a man, wouldn’t you be concerned about the one-sidedness of the relationship?

Perhaps this is why the media is exaggerating Markle’s walk down the aisle “alone” and selling it as a feminist act. They are desperately grabbing for any indication that in 2018, women aren’t still sacrificing their identities in the name of love and marriage. As someone who wrote the book on sexism in wedding culture and feminist solutions to it, I can say that weddings and marriages ostensibly remain extremely patriarchal (which is one reason why I wrote the book). This fact alone highlights that even if Markle chose to “walk alone,” her choice was made within patriarchal constraints and not within a healthy, equitable system. I’m all for small moments of feminism that create cracks in biased systems, but Meghan did not walk alone. First, she was escorted by the clergy and flower girls and pageboys, and then by her future father in-law, who walked her to her husband-in-waiting. If that walk counts as a grand feminist gesture, then the patriarchal situation in the English weddings and the royal court is dire, and the need for more women’s autonomy even more crucial. If I’m wrong and it was walk was seeped in gender equality, why wasn’t Prince Harry walking down the aisle like Markle?

Markle has found her prince and become the Duchess of Sussex. She brings a rich and unique history to the British aristocracy, but marriage has been proven to be one of those life events where even the most feminist people can fall into traditional gender roles. The Duchess of Sussex will have to work twice as hard to maintain and support her individuality. This is not a critique of her feminism, but an examination of how hard it is to create real, lasting change. As a feminist bride myself, despite good intentions, I often tried and failed to act on my feminism when planning my wedding—but nevertheless, I persisted on making good until I did. I wish Markle resilience, faith, and hope as she begins her life as the Duchess of Sussex. The fact that Markle has acted as a feminist activist in the past gives me hope that she will find the strength, knowledge, and tools to continue to do so as part of the royal family—that is the power and potential of an American feminist in King Arthur’s court.

top photo: Instagram/Kensington Palace

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