As an actor, Meghan Markle comes from a long line of trailblazing women
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 While many might argue that the monarchy is an outdated institution, we cannot ignore the longoverdue sea change that the engagement of a prince to an American actor has wrought.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