Heavy is the woman’s head that wears the crown
Today we bid farewell to our Queen, who made an unforgettable mark, as our new Prime Minister begins to make her own
Two weeks ago, a blog on female leadership was a mere nugget of an idea in my mind. When Liz Truss was appointed the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister on September 6th, it became a possibility. Then, with the sad passing of our beloved Queen two days later, all of a sudden it was a royal certainty.
Certainty, though, is a word rarely associated with female leadership, so I’d like to recognise two extraordinary women who managed to secure the UK’s top jobs regardless — one who just departed this world after making an unforgettable mark, the other simply beginning to make hers.
Of the 56 UK prime ministers since 1721, only three have been women. Before Liz Truss, there was Theresa May between 2016 and 2019, and previously we had Margaret “The Iron Lady” Thatcher from 1979 to 1990.
And of the 61 monarchs of England and Britain since 827, only eight have been women. Before Elizabeth II, who reigned between 1952 and 2022, there was: Victoria, 1837–1901; Anne, 1702–1714; Mary II, who shared sovereignty with her husband between 1689 and 1694; Elizabeth I, 1558–1603; Mary I (Bloody Mary), 1553–1558; Lady Jane Grey, for nine days in 1553; and Empress Matilda, for seven weeks in 1141.
Many, if not all, of these women faced fierce opposition from men who wrongly believed they were unfit for leadership — and who often hungered after it themselves. In some cases, this sexist scepticism made the position difficult to land in the first place. In others, the challenge was keeping the role once obtained, a challenge that sometimes led to defeat.
Take our earliest female monarch, Empress Matilda, for example. Henry I compelled the baronage to accept his daughter as hereditary heir after the death of both his sons in a shipwreck in 1120. However, the barons disliked the idea of a female ruler, which was unprecedented at the time, and when the King died in 1135, they broke their oath and helped his nephew Stephen of Blois take the throne. Matilda fought hard for her claim, which plunged the country into civil war, and although she came close to success in 1141, it was short-lived (the aforementioned seven weeks) and she was never crowned.
Centuries later and luckily, Elizabeth II, the UK’s longest-serving monarch and the longest-reigning woman in history, didn’t seem to face a similar struggle for her position. Still, the Queen reportedly faced scrutiny from courtiers, especially in her inexperienced early years, when a number of her and her husband’s progressive ideas were allegedly questioned by convention and precedent.
However, the Queen became one of the greatest female role models of all time, juggling motherhood — albeit with a little help — and a gruelling schedule of duties. She showed what women could achieve when given the opportunity. In a 2011 speech about women as agents of change, Her Majesty spoke of “the potential in our societies that is yet to be fully unlocked, [which] encourages us to find ways to allow girls and women to play their full part”. And in 2013, she gave royal assent to a change in succession rules that ended male primogeniture, the system under which a younger son can displace an elder daughter in the line of succession. And all of this was achieved while under a requirement to remain apolitical.
Liz Truss, of course, does not have to keep political neutrality, and I hope she’ll use this freedom to pick up where the Queen left off in lifting women. She herself is no stranger to battling male colleagues in the pursuit of power, surpassing many of them on her rapid rise through the Conservative Party ranks over the last decade or so. Truss ended up facing many of them during this summer’s bitter leadership race until she beat the last of her opponents (Rishi Sunak) and secured the keys to Downing Street.
Truss’ new cabinet is also the most diverse ever, with none of the great offices of state held by a white man. It’s a shame we didn’t get to witness what our new prime minister and said cabinet could have achieved for gender equality alongside the Queen’s own efforts. I know The Crown is hardly historically accurate, but there’s a scene early in the first episode of Season 4 that suggests our late monarch might just have liked that.
The Queen (Olivia Colman) and Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) are in their private chambers in Buckingham Palace discussing Margaret Thatcher’s appointment as PM. “That’s the last thing this country needs…two women running the shop”, he argues. “Perhaps that’s precisely what this country needs”, she responds. Her Majesty then goes on to explain that Mrs Thatcher, a shopkeeper’s daughter, worked hard and gained a scholarship to Oxford to study chemistry, before changing direction and training as a barrister, all while raising two children. “You try doing that”, she tells her husband.
This exchange probably never happened, but I like to think it was representative of the Queen’s outlook. She clearly respected women like the Iron Lady who succeed through hard work rather than privilege, and despite her own position coming about as a result of privilege, in that position she worked tirelessly. This was her burden, one that gave her a heavier head than all others. But now it’s time to pass that burden along and, hopefully, to find some peace. Mirroring the beautiful words of Shakespeare quoted by King Charles III in his first speech as monarch, on the day of Elizabeth II’s funeral, I say, “May a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest”.