Can Meghan real ly be a feminist princess?
She’s vowed to use her platform to empower women but, Hannah Betts asks, can the new duchess’s feminism flourish in The Firm?
OH, THE HEADY days of May’s royal wedding: a coruscating couple, brilliant blue skies, plus a Great British fashion parade. Best of all, we had Ms Markle herself, our own firebrand princess, whose official biography declares that she is ‘proud to be…a feminist’. All hail the Duchess of Sussex, champion of women’s rights.
But then came last week’s news that any daughters born to Meghan will not inherit a title. Should we really be surprised? Is it possible to be a feminist princess, princessdom coming with the trappings not only of rock, frock and glass slipper, but the constitution, meddling courtiers, and hundreds of years of deadening protocol? Can one marry into one of the world’s most patriarchal institutions and expect to remain independent of its baggage?
Already, perhaps, there have been signs of compromise. Previously, the actor refused to attend an event at the Beverly Hills Hotel because it’s owned by the Sultan of Brunei, whose laws persecute gay men and women. Fast-forward to her wedding eve, when her groom stayed at Coworth Park, also a Sultan of Brunei property, the man himself being old mates with Harry.
Meghan was immediately assigned one of the Queen’s most trusted members of staff – Samantha Cohen – as an advisor, whose role is to subject her to six months’ ‘listening’ and ‘humility’, according to The Times. Meanwhile, before any of this, there was tights-gate. The formerly bare-legged duchess’s decision to sport flesh-coloured tights at her first official outing shocked many. How stalwartly will Meghan be able to uphold her feminist credentials if her very hosiery is being dictated? I ask Dickie Arbiter, former Buckingham House spokesman and author of On Duty With The Queen: ‘Is the Queen a feminist?’ ‘Of course she is. Look at Princess Anne, she’s a feminist by mere dint of the work she does, as was Diana. If you’re asking whether Meghan will be going about wearing a placard saying: “I’m a feminist”, then no. But that’s not going to stop her pursuing her goals.’
However much girl power the Queen embodies, though, a female-led institution is not the same as a feminist one. Moreover, Meghan herself is several ranks down the pecking order. What causes is she likely to be allowed? According to Katie Nicholl, author of Harry: Life, Loss, And Love: ‘Meghan will want to focus on women’s empowerment. One of the charities that benefitted from the wedding was the Myna Mahila foundation to help young women in Mumbai’s slums. I can see her promoting projects to help vulnerable women in the Commonwealth and UK. Camilla is very involved with helping victims of domestic abuse, and last year hosted a reception for International Women’s Day, so there is precedent. I can see Meghan finding a great ally in her.’
Even so, the neutrality demanded by her position looks set to cause problems. Dickie, who tweets as @Royaldickie, says: ‘Meghan won’t be able to be as vocal, given the constitutional constraints that mean royals aren’t allowed to get involved in campaigns of a political nature. As with Diana and her work with AIDS and landmines, it becomes a case of actions rather than words.’
For a campaigner who once said ‘women don’t need to find a voice: they have a voice’, being confined to the language of gesture could be a challenge. Meghan shut down her website, The Tig, a few months before her engagement, her social media accounts shortly after it. It seems winning her prince means she must lose her voice.
So can modernity really sit with anachronism, feminism with the feudal? Dickie believes so: ‘Meghan will develop her own way. And she’ll do it well because she’s a pretty savvy woman, a grown-up who’s made her way in the world.’ It’s certainly true that those of us too old to believe in fairy tales – and yet who long to see what a royal feminist could look like – will be issuing a hearty ‘Best of Brit’.