When American actress Meghan Markle married Britain’s Prince Harry last May, she caused quite a stir. Yes, there was the fact that she’s American, and the fact that she’s biracial, and the fact that she’d been married before — a circumstance which had caused another British royal to have to abdicate the throne eighty years before — but all of that was eclipsed by something seen as even more startling: Meghan Markle is a feminist. Is it possible, the world seemed to wonder in unison, for a princess to be a feminist?
At first, there was hope that she could. Upon becoming Duchess of Sussex, her official website declared that Meghan was “proud to be a woman and a feminist.” Karla Adam, of The Washington Post, exclaimed, “this is the first time a senior royal has loudly declared herself a feminist on the monarchy’s official Web page.” Marissa G. Muller of W Magazine declared that Meghan had “already started work on her royal legacy” by “bringing more awareness to gender inequality” and referencing “the #MeToo and Time's Up movements.” Glamour Magazine said Meghan “isn't afraid to speak out on the things that really matter.”
For Meghan to maintain her feminist credibility, the media seemed to be saying she’d need to continue to “speak out” about things like “gender inequality,” support the #MeToo movement, and repeatedly “loudly declare” that she was still a feminist. The implication being, of course, that if she didn’t do those things, her membership in Club Feminist would quickly be revoked. Only time would tell if Meghan’s new princess-hood would cancel out her “feminism.”
The first chink in Meghan’s feminist credibility came when news broke that Meghan would need to attend six months of “duchess lessons.” Never mind that Kate Middleton — Prince William’s much more traditional wife — had had to do exactly the same thing. And never mind that a person who wasn’t even British, let alone royalty, would probably welcome a little tutoring on royal etiquette and protocol. Duchess lessons sounded distinctly un-feminist. Would “feminist” Meghan have to learn to sit “like a lady,” execute the perfect curtsey, and run all her fashion choices by a palace approved stylist?
The actual curriculum was never released, but the damage was done. Surely Meghan should have refused, being the good “feminist” that she claimed to be! But she didn’t refuse. Can a feminist be demure, ladylike, and follow royal protocol? The answer, it seemed, was no.
“When an ambitious young woman gives up her thriving, hard-won career in order to be a charity wife for one of history’s most screwed up family firms, it’s a bit rich to throw a parade in the name of feminism and human rights,” writes Leah McLaren in Canada’s Chatelaine Magazine. “I find it incredible,” writes Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, “that the Duchess should be expected graciously to abandon her past for the warm embrace of British royalty.” Laura Kennedy of The Irish Times writes, “The choice to sacrifice a career in favor of marriage and motherhood is not considered acceptable in modern feminism.”
The choice to sacrifice a career in favor of marriage and motherhood is not considered acceptable in modern feminism.
Can’t a Stay-at-Home Mom Be a Feminist Too?
But surely there’s been some mistake. Surely feminism is an umbrella large enough to encompass whatever sort of wife Meghan Markle chooses to be. Surely Meghan — a woman who declares herself a “proud” woman and feminist — went into her marriage to Prince Harry with eyes wide open. Surely she made a choice about whom to marry and how. (This isn’t the sixteenth century, this wasn’t an arranged marriage!) And never once did Meghan say that, in marrying Harry, she intended to turn the monarchy on its head. Is a demure, ladylike, gracious woman who chooses to marry the love of her life, not a feminist?
If Meghan Markle is not a feminist — if she constitutes a disgrace to the name of womanhood — simply for choosing, of her own free will, to give up her career so that she could be a wife and mother, then I’m not a feminist either. Are we all — all of us housewives and stay-at-home mothers, working hard at an occupation we’ve deemed more important than the careers we’ve left — bad women? Do the choices we’ve made, and the lives we’ve built not measure up?
Or perhaps we — and Meghan Markle too — are choosing a life we love. A life we have made with the men we love. A life of value and worth. Isn’t that what feminism is meant to be about: valuing the life and choices of women equally to men’s? Can Meghan Markle be a princess and a feminist? Of course, she can! It’s her choice.