As an ac­tor, Meghan Markle comes from a long line of trail­blaz­ing women

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Re­becca Rideal

Meghan Markle is to marry Prince Harry. While many might ar­gue that the monar­chy is an out­dated in­sti­tu­tion, we can­not ig­nore the lon­gover­due sea change that the en­gage­ment of a prince to an Amer­i­can ac­tor has wrought. Markle also, as the BBC puts it, “brings some­thing dif­fer­ent to the Bri­tish royal fam­ily. She is Amer­i­can, di­vorced, an ac­tress and mixed race.”

There is sig­nif­i­cance in ev­ery one of th­ese points. Yet, as a his­to­rian of Restora­tion Eng­land, I find the penul­ti­mate fact most fas­ci­nat­ing. As an ac­tor, Markle comes from a long line of trail­blaz­ing women, and in this post-We­in­stein cli­mate we should ac­knowl­edge the huge im­pact fe­male ac­tors have had in fur­ther­ing the cause of women and break­ing down so­ci­etal bar­ri­ers.

Un­til painfully re­cently, act­ing was one of the few av­enues open to women from “hum­ble” back­grounds in which they could chan­nel their creative tal­ent, trade in the drudgery of ev­ery­day life and es­cape into the glit­ter­ing world of the elite. Long be­fore the suf­fragettes, it was fe­male ac­tors who pushed the agenda of women to the fore­front of cul­tural con­ver­sa­tions. In Eng­land, al­most as soon as fe­male ac­tors were al­lowed to per­form on­stage, they pub­licly fought for creative free­dom. Whether that was women like Re­becca Mar­shall, who in 1667 called out a mem­ber of the aris­toc­racy for threat­en­ing and de­mean­ing her, or women per­form­ing the protofem­i­nist mono­logues of Aphra Behn, which stated: “I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero”.

Some early fe­male ac­tors used their new­found sta­tus to at­tract the at­ten­tions of the no­bil­ity, and even mon­archs: Nell Gwynn fa­mously be­came the mis­tress of Charles II, while Dorothea Jor­dan bore the fu­ture Wil­liam IV 10 il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren. Those who re­mained on stage honed their craft and cre­ated a valu­able space for women in the pub­lic arena. The­atres would be filled with peo­ple from across the so­cial spec­trum, and in the 18th cen­tury th­ese women be­came celebri­ties, cru­cial to the set­ting of fash­ions and trends. As the the­atre his­to­rian Felic­ity Nuss­baum has ar­gued, fe­male ac­tors “an­i­mated the stage with reg­u­lar re­minders of women’s right to claim a pub­lic pres­ence”. What’s more, act­ing rep­re­sented one of the few pro­fes­sions where women were val­ued as much as men. Nuss­baum has pointed to the use of con­tem­po­rary grad­ing scales that ranked fe­male ac­tors along­side male ones – in 1765 the high­est-rank­ing three were women. They pro­vided the masses with a vi­tal liv­ing, breath­ing, laugh­ing and cry­ing man­i­fes­ta­tion of a suc­cess­ful and so­cially mo­bile woman.

Over time, some fe­male per­form­ers branched out into busi­ness and ran their own the­atres. Drew Bar­ry­more’s English-born great-great­grand­mother, Louise Lane Drew, for ex­am­ple, trav­elled to Amer­ica in the 1830s to pur­sue her pro­fes­sion. She acted along­side John Wilkes Booth, be­fore be­com­ing a Philadel­phia the­atre man­ager. With the on­set of film and cin­ema, women such as Mae West re-imag­ined the pa­ram­e­ters of wom­an­hood. And as the 20th cen­tury pro­gressed, Katharine Hep­burn pop­u­larised the wear­ing of trousers, herald­ing a new phase in women’s quest for equal­ity. Many fe­male

ac­tors have used their po­si­tion as a spring­board into so­cial com­men­tary or political ac­tivism. Who can forget Halle Berry’s 2002 Os­cars speech?

Ob­vi­ously, act­ing does not come with­out its faults and there are plenty of ex­am­ples of iconic roles thrust­ing the quest for equal rights down a ret­ro­grade route. There are also plenty of ex­am­ples in the ar­chive of women be­ing taken ad­van­tage of – Dorothea Jor­dan ended her life in poverty af­ter be­ing ill-used by Wil­liam IV. All told, how­ever, fe­male ac­tors have per­haps done more than any other pro­fes­sion to keep a sus­tained fe­male nar­ra­tive in the pub­lic eye.

Of course, get­ting en­gaged is not the same as erad­i­cat­ing small­pox or split­ting the atom, and mi­nor roy­als have mar­ried ac­tors be­fore. But what Markle has done – through an ac­ci­dent of the heart – is re­de­fine what it means to be part of the Bri­tish royal fam­ily in the 21st cen­tury. Not only is she a wel­come breath of fresh air, but she is part of a rich his­tory of trail­blaz­ing per­form­ers. This year marks 350 years since Charles II be­gan his re­la­tion­ship with Nell Gwynn, and we have fi­nally reached a point where his de­scen­dant – an ex­traor­di­nar­ily pop­u­lar prince in close prox­im­ity to the Bri­tish crown – is to marry an ac­tor.

• Re­becca Rideal is a his­to­rian, and au­thor of 1666: Plague, War and Hell­fire

• This ar­ti­cle was cor­rected on Wednesday 29 Novem­ber 2017 to re­move an in­cor­rect ref­er­ence to Meghan Markle be­ing a Ro­man Catholic

Gemma Arter­ton as Nell Gwynn with David Sturza­ker as Charles ll in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo The­atre in Lon­don. Pho­to­graph: Tris­tram Ken­ton for the Guardian

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