The Radicalism of Queenship: Mary Wollstonecraft and Alternative Sources of the Rights of Women
It is well known that Mary Wollstonecraft had little patience for history, and especially for histories of exceptional or “worthy” women. “I have been led to imagine,” she wrote in her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “that the few extraordinary women who have rushed in eccentric directions out of the orbit prescribed to their sex, were male spirited, confined by mistake in a female frame” (68). Wollstonecraft seems to have held elite women in particular contempt, and condemned court culture for the “wretchedness” that “flow[s] from hereditary honours, riches, and monarchy” and the “dispensations of providence” (19). For Wollstonecraft, we have thus been led to believe, the key to women’s emancipation lay primarily in their claims to natural rights as human beings, that is, those inalienable rights that transcended culture, nation, and biology.
But a closer reading of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman—along with some of Wollstonecraft’s other seminal texts—suggests that history, and specifically the history of royal women, may not have been as anathema to Wollstonecraft as we might think. The very impetus for writing the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, after all, turned in part on a debate regarding the Salic Law, the law passed in fifteenth-century France barring women from the throne. Wollstonecraft was allegedly infuriated when her colleague Thomas Christie—a fellow radical and editor of the Analytical Review—defended the French National Assembly’s decision not to tamper with the Old Regime laws governing royal succession, on the grounds that the Salic Law reflected the “natural” sexual and social order (Bruder 109–10). As Christie explained in his Letters on the Revolution in France, and on the New Constitution, published in 1791, “The ancient Salic Law, which excludes females from succeeding to the throne, was considered by the Assembly as a fundamental and wise regulation of the monarchy, which merited to be solemnly renewed, and permanently established.” It was in preserving the Salic Law, he added, that the French had demonstrated most clearly “that they knew where to draw the line, and so to honour the sex as not to injure their real happiness, or endanger the welfare of society.” This was a far cry from the state of Britain, where women were allowed “to rule over men”—an “unnatural and shocking” development that marked the “reversal of the laws of Nature” (217–18). Such misogynistic claims, Helen Bruder notes, served as further grist for Wollstonecraft’s feminist mill, and helped motivate her to write the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published the following year (110).
What is more, the Vindication of the Rights of Woman itself, though clearly written in certain respects against the past, is peppered with references to “history.” And the “history” that Wollstonecraft invokes is often a productive one for women, with lessons both for the “fair sex” and for those men who write about women. Yes, the “history of woman” often amounts to little more than a depressing tale of women as either “slave” or “despot”—“situations [that] equally retard the progress of reason” (115). But the “history of all nations” also offers up instructive tales regarding women’s inability to be “confined to merely domestic pursuits” (402). It is perhaps for this reason that she recommends history as a component of girls’ educations. In particular, she urges girls to acquaint themselves with “heroic characters” from the past as a necessary corrective to romantic fiction (431).
In her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, published four years later in 1796, Wollstonecraft further explores these didactic dimensions of history, especially as they apply to the formation of women’s character. She dwells, for instance, on the example provided by the British-born Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark and Norway (1751–1775), consort of King Christian VII (and sister of King George III).
Though a flawed figure—she had an affair with Johann Friedrich Struensee, her Privy Counsellor—Caroline Matilda nevertheless gains Wollstonecraft’s respect for her public spiritedness and charity work, her sensible parenting practices, and even her impatience with custom. She wished, Wollstonecraft writes, “to do immediately what can only be done by time” (204). Thus while Wollstonecraft ultimately sees Caroline Matilda as a tragic character—she died very young, from scarlet fever, after enduring the dissolution of her marriage, the execution of her lover, and her exile to Germany—Wollstonecraft also finds in Caroline Matilda’s life an inspiring story of female fortitude and grit. Because of her birth and rank, Caroline Matilda had been able to live her life differently from the majority of women (even if in ways still highly constrained by her sex). Women such as Caroline Matilda therefore offered clues as to what might be possible for all women, if given greater latitude and access.
Why does Wollstonecraft’s engagement with figures like Queen Caroline Matilda matter? I take up these considerations because my own current research, published as The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women: Queen Victoria and the Women’s Movement, charts how women’s rights activists leveraged Queen Victoria—and the tradition of female rule in Britain more generally—to make arguments for female emancipation over the course of the nineteenth century. I am deeply interested in the ways in which Britain’s history of female royal leadership (and what paradoxically might be construed as the egalitarian dimensions of certain royal institutions and practices) impacted the development of feminist consciousness. Already in the late seventeenth century, John Locke was speculating in his First Treatise on Government on the uses of queens regnant in challenging the patriarchal vision contained in the Book of Genesis. “Will any one say,” Locke wondered, “that either of our queens, Mary or Elizabeth, had they married any of their subjects, had been by this text [i.e., Genesis] put into a political subjection to him? or that he should thereby have had monarchical rule over her? God, in this text, gives not, that I see, any authority to Adam over Eve, or to men over their wives, but only foretels [sic] what should be the woman’s lot . . . ” (32–33).
These themes would be further developed by the writers Sarah Egerton, Catherine Trotter, Mary, Lady Chudleigh, and Mary Astell during the reign of Queen Anne.
As Astell explained in the third edition of her Some Reflections Upon Marriage, published in 1706, Queen Anne’s rule forced a reappraisal of patriarchy: “If by the Natural Superiority of their Sex, they mean that every Man is by Nature superior to every Woman . . . it would be a Sin in any Woman to have Dominion over any Man, and the greatest Queen ought not to command but to obey her Footman, because no Municipal Laws can supersede or change the Law of Nature; so that if the Dominion of the Men be such, the Salique Law, as unjust as English Men have ever thought it, ought to take place over all the Earth, and the most glorious Reigns . . . were wicked Violations of the Law of Nature!” (3–4). Several others would adopt similar strategies in the decades that followed, including the jurist Henry Homes (Lord Kames), Bluestockings Hester Thrale Piozzi and Elizabeth Montagu, and the radical playwright Thomas Holcroft.
By the late eighteenth century, in fact, such strategies were commonplace in feminist circles. Even without a female sovereign currently on the throne, a number of British radicals culled the past, and especially the royal past, in order to stretch Enlightenment thinking on the function, value, and capabilities of women. As I discovered in writing my first book on Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism, late-Enlightenment “male feminists” frequently invoked the principle of royal succession, and women’s prominent positions within the court more generally, in fashioning arguments in favor of “women’s rights.” According to the Scottish Physician William Alexander, there was a grave injustice in the fact that women could rule, but were forbidden from performing any lesser civil or political functions. “In Britain,” he wrote in his History of Women (1779), “we allow a woman to sway our scepter, but by law and custom we debar her from every other government but that of her own family, as if there were not a public employment between that of superintending the kingdom, and the affairs of her own kitchen, which could be managed by the genius and capacity of woman” (2:439).
Other male reformers eager to inject a more egalitarian strain into British politics routinely underscored this same point. Richard Dinmore and Thomas Starling Norgate, both Norwich-based radical reformers well known for their feminist sympathies, stressed that “women’s rights” were firmly in keeping with Britain’s constitutional history, as reflected in the nation’s royal succession policies. As Dinmore explained in his Brief Account of the Moral and Political Acts of the Kings and Queens of England (1793), “The want of this right [women’s right to vote] is peculiarly absurd in this kingdom, where a woman may reign, though not vote for a member of Parliament” (178–79). To flesh out their arguments, Dinmore and Norgate drew attention to the fact that those queens who had actually served the nation had been largely capable, and in some cases even highly adept at carrying out their demanding functions. In this regard, Queen Elizabeth I especially became something of a lodestar. For Dinmore, Elizabeth “may fairly be considered the best monarch that ever sat on the English throne.” “Indeed,” Dinmore continues, “the character of this Queen convinces us of the injustice that has hitherto been done to the Rights of Women” (178). In Norgate’s similar assessment, relayed in his “Observations on the Reign and Character of Queen Elizabeth,” Elizabeth I was a “great and splendid” leader, who demonstrated by her very example that women should be accorded more power at all levels of society and government (142–43).
Nor was it just the men who took up such arguments. The writers Mary Robinson and Mary Hays, two of Wollstonecraft’s closest female interlocutors, also adopted comparable strategies. As the historian Mary Spongberg has suggested, the royal female life held immense value for Robinson and Hays, who drew “on the lives of royal women in distinctly feminist ways, critiquing the patriarchal strictures that shaped their lives and the absence of feminine influence in the recounting of history” (74).
We see such tendencies firmly on display in these women’s writing. Robinson—former mistress to the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV)—used Elizabeth I to measure the female sex’s inner if often thwarted potential. “Judge,” she commanded her readers in her Letter to the Women of England (1799), “whether England ever boasted a more wise or more fortunate sovereign: one, more revered in council; more obeyed in power; or more successful in enterprize. And yet Elizabeth was but a woman!” (29).
In her Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798), Hays also explored this theme: “Let it not be said that crowned heads are too much out of the common road, to be brought forward for examples; for as they are neither more nor less than men and women, they come quite within our sphere” (36). Given that queens were only women, Hays explained, it was well worth considering their achievements. They deserved a central place in any inquiry into, and argument in favor of women’s improved treatment. Over twenty years later, Hays would offer more sober reflections on this point in her Memoirs of Queens (1821)—especially in her striking meditation on Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV. On becoming King in 1820, George IV had tried to obtain a divorce from Caroline on the grounds of adultery, much to the chagrin of his angry subjects. Recounting the trial of Queen Caroline, and the public’s impassioned response, Hays suggested that the occasion had emboldened women to rise up in “common cause against the despotism and tyranny of man.” To “equity not gallantry,” she observed, “do [women] now prefer their claim” (127). According to Hays, then, Queen Caroline’s public humiliations had inspired women to speak up in defense of their own rights and prerogatives. In this way, even royal women’s misfortunes could be used to salutary effect.
Once Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, these kinds of arguments only accelerated. On the one hand, nineteenth-century activists were deeply interested in Victoria as a woman, and used her to demonstrate that the female sex had the capacity to reason, to grapple with politics, and even to balance their professional and familial obligations. Here, after all, was a woman who—by necessity—was pursuing joint commitments in the private and public sphere. As the leading suffragist campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett explained in her Life of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, published to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Victoria had proven definitively that women could combine work and family. “Politics and political responsibilities of the greatest kind have not unsexed her,” she observed in a chapter entitled “The Warp and Woof of Home and Politics” (225). By extension, activists were also quick to call attention to any unfair treatment that they perceived the Queen to be receiving, or to expose what they construed as sexism. A reporter for the London Daily News, for example, took to task those “political misogynists” who insisted that “all the credit usually given to female Sovereigns belongs to their male advisers, and that all the mischief done under the reigns of men may be attributed to the feminine influences which surrounded them” (Daily News 5).
On the other hand, though, Victorian women’s rights campaigners were interested in promoting the simple fact that their nation now had a female head of state. Victoria’s status alone gave them plenty of ammunition. As feminist advocates frequently noted, echoing their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, was it not extremely paradoxical that women were permitted to rule in Britain while their female subjects, up until the last quarter of the nineteenth century at least, were denied most of the rights and privileges accorded to men? “Every wife except a queen regnant,” Linda Colley reminds us, “was under the legal authority of her husband, and so was her movable property”—and this dispossession persisted until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1870 and 1882 (238). On the political front, the disjuncture was even more striking. Even at the close of Victoria’s rule, in 1901, British women still lacked the parliamentary franchise—a right that men had secured through the successive Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884, but that women would only be granted in 1918, with the passage of the Representation of the People Act (and even then, the law only applied to women over the age of 30).
Leading nineteenth-century women’s rights campaigners frequently seized on this paradox and tried to exploit it for various reasons: to demonstrate their loyalty to the Queen, to celebrate (and sometimes even inflate) Victoria’s political prerogatives, and to call attention to the national tradition of including women in the royal line of succession. All of these became prominent features of Victorian campaigning, especially in regard to the question of the female franchise. “But if those,” the leading feminist spokesperson Harriet Taylor wrote in the Westminster Review in 1851, “who assert that the ‘proper sphere’ for women is the domestic, mean by this that they have not shown themselves qualified for any other, the assertion evinces great ignorance of life and of history.” “Women,” she added, “have shown fitness for the highest social functions, exactly in proportion as they have been admitted to them. By a curious anomaly, though ineligible to even the lowest office of state, they are in some countries admitted to the highest of all, the regal . . . Concerning the fitness, then, of women for politics, there can be no question. . . .” (297).
As Wollstonecraft’s comments in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark suggest, she too was susceptible to this line of thinking, even if hers was a more muted strain than that of many of her peers. Her probing comments about Queen Caroline Matilda, her endorsements of “history” and “heroic characters,” and even her dismay at Thomas Christie’s comments in regards to the French Revolutionaries’ preservation of the Salic Law—all of these impulses suggest that Wollstonecraft too saw in the history of monarchy some of the raw material out of which to vindicate her sex. Inasmuch as Wollstonecraft has come to serve as a placeholder for or signifier of modern western feminist commitments, then, I see three key reasons why we should be more attuned to these aspects of her work, with significance both for our understanding of Wollstonecraft herself and for the broader feminist conversation in which she was, and indeed remains, a central participant.
First, being attentive to these dimensions of Wollstonecraft’s thinking alerts us to the range of traditions in which Wollstonecraft was working—and to the range of traditions which have informed western feminism more generally. To appreciate the historical bent of some of Wollstonecraft’s thinking is to recognize, as scholars have increasingly tried to stress, that Wollstonecraft, like so many of her peers and followers, was never operating exclusively within the framework of natural rights or what we might describe as Enlightenment liberalism. Rather, “modern” feminism emerged from eclectic origins, and developed by drawing on insights and inspirations from a range of sources. It was, and continues to be, animated by many different logics—sometimes even contradictory ones. Wollstonecraft drew on natural rights philosophy, yes. But she also drew on constitutional theory, English history, the “woman worthy” tradition, and the theology of Rational Dissent. The goal here, then, is not to downplay the significance of natural rights in the evolution of feminism, but rather to see it as one of many currents. Feminism is not, and never has been, a linear development.
This brings me to my second point. A greater attention to Wollstonecraft’s historical interests, especially in regard to the history of royal women, does more than simply illuminate the range of forces shaping early feminist conversations. When read alongside the treatises penned by her peers and successors, Wollstonecraft’s engagement with the past also suggests that history, and particularly royal history, seems to have exercised a strong pull in women’s rights deliberations—and in the broader construction of what Barbara Taylor has described as the “feminist imagination.” It is not, then, just that queens and princesses figured in early feminist conversations. Rather, it is that they figured prominently and persistently. These royal women, moreover, were typically culled from a specifically British past, though women from other cultures and traditions were also referenced on occasion (especially in those works situated at the nexus of feminist argument and female biography—consider, for example, Mary Hays’s Female Biography; or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries, published in 1803).
The national dimensions of this story are especially worthy of consideration. For the feminism that emerged in Britain, in fits and starts during the seventeenth century and then in a more fully fleshed-out form from the late eighteenth century, was built on very particular and often quite hopeful readings of the nation’s past. National traditions and customs, especially as pertaining to the tradition of female royal leadership, played a key role in the development of British feminism. We need to bear this national context in mind, as it reminds us that feminism cannot always be easily exported—grafted, as it were, onto other societies. Rather, we need to recognize the ways in which women’s rights conversations, even in their most nascent stages, were often informed by a keen sense of national pride, and even of patriotism. However instrumental or manufactured their gestures may have been, women’s rights advocates were eager to fashion a “useable history,” drawing on their nation’s past, in order to legitimate their egalitarian vision. In fact, feminism took root in Britain in part because it appealed to a shared cultural and political inheritance. In short, Queens Elizabeth I, Anne, and Victoria mattered—as Queen Elizabeth II does today. While this is not to suggest that feminisms cannot circulate and combine beyond national borders, it is to appreciate that such arguments often resonate best when they can appeal to the local and specific as well as to the universal and the general.
My third and final point relates to early feminists’ fascination with female sovereigns and other members of the royal family, and with what this fascination might tell us about the continuing—and often misunderstood—appeal of the monarchy. In this respect, this point has the most direct connection to our present moment. In contemporary feminist circles, I have found that royal watching is often dismissed as a mindless or trivial practice. And the study of elites, royals especially, continues to receive little attention from scholars of women and gender—especially from those studying the modern period (the period following the Glorious Revolution of 1688). “Studies of British womanhood,” observes Clarissa Campbell Orr in Queenship in Britain, “have, with valuable exceptions . . . tended to focus on women of middling or lower social rank; aside from the attention given to Caroline of Brunswick, feminist historians have yet to revisit the royal family and are only just starting on the aristocracy” (7).
This distancing and denigration extends to what we often describe as “girlie-girl culture,” with its emphasis on Disneyfied versions of princesses and queens. As the cultural critic Peggy Orenstein observes in her influential book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, marketers have found increasingly successful ways to ply their pink princess products to their youngest consumers. In the process, she argues, they communicate insidious messages about female dependence, desire, and beauty.
On this score, even the contemporary British royal family comes in for scrutiny. For the historian Charles Beem, Queen Elizabeth II offers little by way of feminist inspiration or example. “Elizabeth II,” he writes, “has never been inclined to erase the gendered distinctions between her male and female household officers. Like all her predecessors as female kings, Elizabeth II is an honorary male, with no apparent interest in furthering feminist goals of gender equality for her female subjects” (177–78). And the author Hilary Mantel provided a particularly scathing assessment of monarchy in the pages of the London Review of Books (2013), where she described the Duchess of Cambridge as “becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung,” a woman who allowed herself to be crafted into someone whose “only point and purpose” was “to give birth.”
To be sure, critics like Orenstein, Beem, and Mantel make some astute points. There is nothing inherently empowering about studying, citing, emulating, or being a queen or princess. In truth, the British royal family has often been used to promote conservative, even retrograde, gender roles and ideals. (A survey of antisuffragist posters and flyers from the Edwardian period, with their enthusiastic references to Queen Victoria and her belief in the “mad, wicked folly” of women’s rights, quickly confirms this.) And many of the biographies of royal women churned out each year often do more to reinforce than to undermine patriarchal values and assumptions. Female members of the royal family, too, have at times played a complicit role in this process—despite the egalitarian dimensions of their institution. By the same token, there is also a troubling fixation on particular moments in the female life cycle—especially marriage—in the gendered royal fantasies sold to young girls by companies such as Disney.
Yet, when placed within the much longer tradition of feminist activism, such practices take on more complex meanings. Though occupying positions that were indeed “beyond the reach of most women,” royal women performed and, I would argue, continue to perform, a vital function in the elaboration of British and western feminisms (Cowman 17). This is especially true of (though not limited to) queens regnant. As I have indicated here, queens regnant provided an early legal framework for demanding women’s right to vote, as well as their right to own property and to receive an education more on par with men’s. What is more, they offered examples of real women in the public sphere—women leading the state, engaging in the political process, heading the Church of England and the military, participating in charitable activities, and (in the case of Anne, Victoria, and Elizabeth II) balancing their weighty responsibilities with the needs of their husbands and children. This all while conducting their private lives in the public eye and confronting their own fair share of misogyny and mistreatment along the way. Little wonder that queens regnant, and royal women more generally, opened up a space for women to write their own histories. For as Gina Luria Walker, Mary Spongberg, Benjamin Dabby, and Karen O’Brien have suggested, royal women’s very visibility emboldened women to write their pasts as part of a national story—a story that was in part celebratory, and in part attuned to continuing imbalances and inequities.
These associations, I would argue, continued to exert a hold well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even as the monarchy itself has adopted a much more strictly ceremonial position. How else to explain the fact that Helena Normanton, the first practicing female barrister in Britain, devoted so much of her writing for popular periodicals during the 1920s and 30s to discussion of the history of queens and the liberating precedent established with Britain’s rejection of the Salic Law? Indeed, as Normanton insisted in the pages of Good Housekeeping, in reflecting on her own trail-blazing career, Queen Victoria had “helped women . . . by her own professional achievements as a ruler” (74).
And how else to explain the fact that some women expressed similar stirrings watching “Princess Elizabeth” grow up during the 1930s and 40s, relishing the prospect of Elizabeth one day assuming a role that would in some ways necessarily disrupt male-female relations? We see tantalizing evidence of this phenomenon borne out in women’s and girls’ euphoric responses to Elizabeth once she ascended the throne in 1952—a euphoria to which Mass Observation data collected at the time bears ample witness. For the young Margaret Thatcher, just recently married and keen to enter politics, the symbolism of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession was charged indeed. “Women can—and must—play a leading part in the creation of a glorious Elizabethan era,” Thatcher wrote in an article titled “Wake Up, Women,” which appeared in the Sunday Graphic shortly after Elizabeth’s succession.
A similar headiness was on display in 1950s America. One female analyst accounted for women’s interest in Elizabeth by noting that “Philip takes orders from Elizabeth . . . What wife doesn’t secretly wish she had the same authority?” As another American analyst put it, this was the first time “that the women of America have found a heroine who makes them feel superior to men” (qtd. in Prochaska 166). To be sure, these responses may have stemmed from some degree of (perhaps willful) misreading of Elizabeth II’s limited constitutional role in the modern British state. Nonetheless, they demonstrate the persistence of queenship as a radical construct.
The bond that Princess Diana formed with women during the 1980s and 90s—both in life and death—also points to the continuing subversive uses of the British monarchy. As with Queen Caroline’s subjects in the early nineteenth century, Diana’s followers also included those who saw in their Princess a means of airing larger grievances about women’s status, the sexual double standard, and the cruelties and disappointments of marriage. Diana herself did quite a bit to promote this image, especially in the last years of her life. What is more, she took great pains to debunk the princess fantasy and demonstrate that there is no such thing as “happily ever after.” The “after” might not even include marriage. As she explained during her tell-all 1995 television interview, “You know, people think that at the end of the day, a man is the only answer. Actually, a fulfilling job is better for me” (qtd. in Lyall). It may well be that some young girls today have this message in mind when they don their princess attire. To play the part of queen or princess might allow girls not just to daydream about love, beauty, and marriage, but also to imagine themselves in positions of authority—ruling, deciding, leading. Even Disney seems to have cottoned onto this possibility (or at least recognized that a focus on girls’ empowerment might also move products). Tellingly, the company recently launched a global “Dream Big, Princess” campaign. Its message: “For every girl who dreams big, there’s a Princess to show her it’s possible.”
In this context, it is not that surprising that the actress and women’s rights activist Emma Watson—a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador who helped to launch the HeForShe campaign in 2014—opted to play Belle in the recent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Such interpretations are only gaining greater prominence now that the outspoken feminist Meghan Markle has joined the royal family. Since becoming the Duchess of Sussex, Markle has been very public in her campaigning to end “period poverty” and expand the global reach of feminism. She has also made clear that her husband and son will be involved in this mission. As the duchess explained recently, “It’s impossible for me to sit back and not do anything.”
These are some initial thoughts on the subject. But they point to the ways in which our contemporary fascination with the monarchy—and especially with female royalty—might be filtered through a feminist lens. This lens only provides a sharper focus, moreover, when we take into consideration the broader sweep of women’s and gender history. For the monarchy has long informed feminist arguments and practices, and helped to nurture alternative, more egalitarian, and at times quite subversive understandings of women’s role in the nation. Indeed, as I have tried to show here, even Mary Wollstonecraft—that iconic though often misunderstood “mother of feminism”—found that queens could be quite helpful to think with. For all of her emphasis on women’s natural rights, Wollstonecraft recognized that culture, and specifically her own culture, also had its uses.