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Meghan Markle and How the British Monarchy Became a Matriarchy

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The Duchess of Cambridge has helped to steady the ship: she’s as photogenic as her mother-in-law was, but appears genuinely content in both her marriage and her public role. And Ms. Markle — also strikingly beautiful and who, as a divorced, biracial woman with a successful career as an actor, would have been a controversial choice of bride for a British prince until shamefully recently — promises to bring a breath of 21st-century air into the deeply conservative royal establishment. By comparison, the men of the family — even the approachable Harry and William — can seem a little dull; they are consorts to the main attraction, rather than standing center stage themselves.

What are we to make of this shift in the prominence of royal women when the fundamentals of their roles — to be decorative, nurturing and virtuous — have remained consistent? In Western culture, female forms have always embodied abstract ideals, from Liberty to Justice to Victory — not, as the cultural historian Marina Warner points out, because women have been free, or sat as judges, or won battles, but precisely because they haven’t. We therefore instinctively understand female figureheads — whether mounted on ships or as the embodiment of the ship of state — as static and symbolic, rather than active and individual.

Modern monarchs reign, rather than rule. They are required to be, not to do; to represent values, not instigate policy. This is the context in which a reigning queen, and the royal women around her, now find a natural place in our consciousness. Famously, Elizabeth II’s political opinions are completely unknown to her subjects. She, and her granddaughters-in-law the Duchess of Cambridge and, soon, Ms. Markle, are understood to represent the nation by doing and saying nothing other than embodying conventionally “feminine” virtues: family, beauty, charity, duty. The political restrictions we have imposed on the functions of monarchy now exactly match the cultural restrictions so long placed on women.

For royal men, on the other hand, a life defined by wearing nice suits, attending charitable events and being a husband and father is a much less comfortable proposition. Traditionally “masculine” virtues require action; with the shift of power into democratic institutions, royal men appear thwarted and reduced by the limitations on what they can do. The heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has notoriously struggled against the constitutional constraints on his ability to influence public policy:


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