Poise and Dignity: Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Should we mourn someone who was the head of a very hegemonic, unjust institution that controlled so much of the developing world, and that holds a disproportionate amount of wealth today? A monarchy that is so linked to colonialism, slavery, and inequality? Someone who is still a polarizing figure not only in the Commonwealth and developing countries, but in her own country (there are many republicans, a word which means something entirely different in the UK.)

And yet, something must be said, because her passing cannot go without comment. In a world where oversharing is the norm, social media takes precedence over all forms of communication, and individualism is a driving force in how people live their lives, there was one woman who quietly went about her business without complaint and with an even temperament because she knew it was her duty: Queen Elizabeth II. What can be said about this great lady that hasn’t been said already? What can we learn from a woman who was nearly 100 years old and of a very different generation, who admittedly struggled to deal with emotional situations, especially related to family? And who was the elite of the elite, wealthy beyond belief, and royal?

-Change with the times. This might sound ironic, because in many ways, the queen was resistant to change and valued tradition over trends. However, she chose subtle ways to adapt within the framework of the institution and her culture. She had to become a media presence. She dismantled her empire. Her children adopted lifestyles and mores that were radically different from her own conservative Christian ones influenced by the Church of England. Her grandsons married true commoners who came from ordinary working families, with ancestry that included lower income people. And yet she was still the Queen, upholding the traditions of centuries, even a millennium.

-Embrace different people. It is well known that the queen cared deeply about the Commonwealth, a group of nations that were former colonies, the majority of which were not white. Nelson Mandela even had a special nickname for her, and the two were on a first name basis. She even broke protocol to reciprocate when Michelle Obama placed her hand on her back, as she was very fond of the groundbreaking First Lady. There is no question that much of the world is still recovering from centuries of British colonialism (the Partition was one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, in my opinion), and that many despise the British Monarchy. And she was not fond of Diana’s heart-on-her-sleeve approach to connecting with everyone, did not have the Princess of Wales’s connection with all the marginalized groups in society (who loved Diana dearly). But we cannot overlook the individual and how she had a personal rapport with many that her class (including her own mother) deemed unsuitable. She came from a society that was extremely racist, whose roots were connected to colonialism and slavery, and the current royals must move forward with making reparations.

-Do your work. Elizabeth’s steady, dutiful personality never wavered. It was extremely rare, almost unheard of, for the queen to miss her engagement. She never appeared fatigued, she treated everyone kindly, maintained a sense of cheer, and traveled extensively in the UK and around the world. She worked into her 90s–a rare feat for anyone, given that most people retire in their mid-60s, and do not survive to their 100thdecade. We have no idea what health problems she suffered throughout her lifetime, or her personal struggles. All we know is that she took her job seriously, through ups and downs, even when it was not a job she should have had. She was very fair to her staff, remembering their names and details about them. It is of note that she would have had a tremendous knowledge of- and insight into 20th and 21st century British history and politics, given her weekly audiences with prime ministers. She put duty and the institution above her personal life and expected others to do so.

-Maintain a sense of humor. By all accounts from people who met her, the queen was incredibly funny. She never took herself seriously, though she took her job seriously. When someone in a shop once commented that she resembled the Queen, she commented, “I find that rather assuring.” Recent years saw her willing to entertain the crowds by appearing with James Bond in her entrance to attending the London Olympics, and the recent, brilliantly funny video of her having tea with Paddington Bear before the Jubilee.

-Love animals and nature. Those who knew her well have said that were she not queen, she would simply have been a country lady, living at her manor, tending to her horses and dogs and plants. Her infamous corgis surrounded her throughout her life, and she had a deep interest in the plants and flowers and trees at her residences. Though her lifestyle was undoubtedly beyond extravagant, her own pleasures were fairly simple. 

-Maintain a sense of composure and mystery. Even when an intruder snuck into her bedroom, the Queen had enough sangfroid not to panic. She never gave interviews, save once, and she rarely revealed things about herself in public. These are characteristics that were typical of her class, and hence why she clashed with Diana, to whom she was sometimes unsympathetic. She kept herself on an even keel, much like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a figurehead, not a best friend. Even her dress sense, which was sometimes dowdy and outdated for modern times, featured simple cuts and bright colors so she could be seen. Perhaps it is this very British upper-class sense of “good breeding” that many Americans find so appealing (hence the popularity TV shows and movies about the English aristocracy.)

There are many things to criticize about the Queen, no question. She was not the warmest of mothers and could not understand emotional needs in her sons and daughters in law, or in her family. Sometimes she was out of touch with the zeitgeist of a decade. But even the staunchest Republicans and anti-monarchists cannot fail to respect the late Queen Elizabeth II on a personal level, for there were very few people like her in the recent decades or century. As an individual, a working professional, she was remarkable.

First Lady, Second Priority: The Dumbing-Down of the President’s Wives

My college reunion books are peppered with comments by admirable women who left their careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers who say their children are more satisfying than their job ever could be. These are women who were at the top of their game with their careers, highly educated women who are as intelligent as any man and still bring life into this world. A magnificent combination!

However, what I cannot understand is this: the forced exile from the workplace of our First Ladies. In the recent administrations, the First Ladies have been highly intelligent, educated, well-read, sophisticated, and professional career women who often took a backseat to help further the political aspirations of their husbands. Some of these women could have been presidents themselves. True, the presidential families may have wished for one parent to be more present and at home for the children while the other parent is away traveling the country or the globe, attending summits and talks or attempting to rectify communities after natural disasters.

But we are not talking about normal families here; we are talking about families that have access to literally the best resources in the world, who have ability to pull strings to have any lifestyle adaptations they wish, and whose family dynamics will naturally be different than ours. These families could have a mother who works a professional job part-time, or from home, or who is very vocal about political interests of her own. This does not have to be a conflict of interest. Instead, these women are stifled for whatever reasons. The bottom line is that John Q. Public and the American establishment still cannot accept a First Lady who pulls her own weight equal to her husband’s. The First Lady cannot be involved in politics like her husband.

Naturally, Eleanor Roosevelt must spring to mind when anyone thinks of a dynamic, active First Lady. Her role seemed almost a counterpart to FDR’s, and perhaps she really ran things behind the scenes when her husband’s health did not enable him to do so. Mrs. Roosevelt’s career even continued after her husband’s death, and she was an equally acclaimed woman in her own right. Perhaps it was the only benefit of the war, in that women at that time had a certain degree of public presence and worked when the men were fighting overseas.

Jacqueline Kennedy — though Sphinx-like, feminine, graceful, and in a sadly traditional marriage that tolerated rampant cheating–was extraordinary in her championing of the arts. In her quiet way, she developed a culture and served as the impetus for other institutions that brought high culture to America, as well as boosted American’s profile overseas. Well read, multilingual, and intelligent, it wasn’t till later in life that she got the chance to use her knowledge when she worked as a book editor in New York.

Betty Ford was also an arts lover. A bohemian former dancer and divorcée, she supported equal rights for women, various “liberal” social causes that are considered normal today, and made alcoholism and its treatment a visible issue through her own struggles before founding the Betty Ford Clinic. But certainly, she came under criticism for discussing taboo issues in public. It was possibly one of the first times that a First Lady showed the cracks in the façade, showed that she was human and not simply an elegant figurehead to host state dinners.

But then jump ahead a couple of decades to the fiercely intelligent and accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton. There had been no one quite like her before coming to the White House, as she arguably could have shared the job of president with her husband. Mrs. Clinton tried to embark on major health care reform and tried to get seriously involved with policy matters. Unfortunately, she was bullied, criticized, and harassed for trying to hold equal role of her own in the White House. The White House experienced a setback with Mrs. Laura Bush. She returned to a more traditional role, championing reading and literacy, which were more “safe” causes. This is not in any way to criticize Mrs. Bush’s intelligence, for if you have heard her speak, it comes across very strongly and she is well read. Some might even say that she is more intelligent than her husband!

With Michelle Obama, we have again revisited a situation not unlike that of Mrs. Clinton. She is a brilliant woman who made her way from Southside Chicago to Princeton to Harvard Law School, then to a law firm and then the University of Chicago. Granted, she has two small children and she is clearly a very devoted mother who has her kids as a priority. But why is this brilliant woman not encouraged to use her legal knowledge to do more for society and hold a strong position of her own? She has certainly done great work with military families as well as tackling childhood obesity and healthy eating, which is extremely crucial at this time. But the point is–

These highly educated– women who should not be criticized if they choose to spend more time with their children or if they want to ease off on the stress of having a career–should also have the option to pursue a dynamic career while in the White House that utilizes their previous training. Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, is a wonderful example, as she has a doctorate and teaches full time at a community college while still being involved in helping military families as her “cause.” First Ladies should not be expected to only take on “neutral” causes that are “safe.” They should be allowed to help make policy, serve in the cabinet, etc., because after all, they did support their husband in his campaign to become president, are obviously in the same political party, and are often extremely knowledgeable themselves about politics. And often overseas, presidential/prime ministerial spouses hold their own independent careers such as Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel’s husband, who is a chemistry professor.

We need to rethink the role of the presidential spouse, especially because there is a possibility in 2017 we will have a First Man!   William Jefferson Clinton has already served in the highest position in the country, so will he have to relinquish everything, including the Clinton Global Initiative, by his own independent work? He knows more about the White House and presidency than anybody, so why not put it to use?

Naturally, there are going to be lots of questions as to what are the ethical boundaries of this role and where is there a conflict of interest? These are things that will have to be worked out, and that will be a large cause for debate. However, this is a necessary step in empowering that rarest gem of a woman, the First Lady.