Meghan Markle cannot be a princess and a feminist

Laura Kennedy: Prince Harry’s new wife has sacrificed her freedom and her career

Britain's Prince Harry has married American actress Meghan Markle in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle. Video: Reuters

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At a time when so much of the way we interpret reality is funnelled through gender and race, Meghan Markle’s inclusion in the British royal family is bound to draw comment. That she is an American, a divorcee and a biracial person born into an ordinary family (whatever that means) would seem to disqualify her, at least historically, from marrying a British prince. Markle seems very likable – she certainly looks and behaves like a princess – and the bond between her and her new husband appears genuine and tender. In a world often characterised by hardship and unkindness, the wedding was a lovely story. In feminist terms, however, it is more complicated. So when I put down my slice of Victoria sponge I noticed some inconsistencies in people’s reactions.

Little is less progressive than marrying into aristocracy and living a cave existence that suffragettes died to pull women out of

Feminists approach women’s choices from different perspectives. According to one of them, there are feminist choices – those that empower – and nonfeminist choices – those that disempower, based on complicity in what the patriarchy dictates women should do, such as stepping away from a career in favour of staying at home and focusing on motherhood. But every form of feminism considers the world primarily in terms of power structures, and the goal is always to subvert the patriarchy as the movement interprets it.

Most friends I spoke with were intrigued by the royal wedding, and described it as progressive, which surprised me. They described Markle, as she describes herself, as a feminist, and considered the marriage a progressive triumph.

Surely, if you believe in the concept of nonfeminist choices, this marriage would be a problem. Little is less progressive than marrying into aristocracy and living a cave existence that suffragettes died to pull women out of: a life of domestication where you are not free to express your opinion, must change your appearance as “modesty” dictates, and have at least your public persona defined almost entirely by your relationship with your husband and in-laws.

Right royal knees-up: Prince Charles, his wife, Camilla, and their new daughter-in-law, who has married into one of the most conservative, classist and wealthy families on the planet. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty
Right royal knees-up: Prince Charles, his wife, Camilla, and their new daughter-in-law, who has married into one of the most conservative, classist and wealthy families on the planet. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty

Sure, Markle will do philanthropic work stemming from her marriage to a prince. She will do so, she says, in the mantle of feminism and equality. The irony of this, coming from a woman who has sacrificed her freedom and her career for marriage, and chosen to marry into one of the most conservative, classist and wealthy families on the planet, seems lost on both feminists and the media. The choice to sacrifice career in favour of marriage and motherhood is not considered acceptable in modern feminism. Markle’s choice to marry is, with luck, a source of great personal joy. But it is not progressive.

Their completely uncritical fascination with the royal wedding suggests that many women, despite their beliefs about gender and class equality, still want to be princesses. The notion of being saved from harsh reality by an exorbitantly wealthy man, and sheltered in a private estate or castle, while being admired for very traditional characteristics such as beauty, grace and elegance is clearly still intoxicating to many. These women dream of marriage as a ticket out of the ordinary lives they have worked to build for themselves.

This seems incompatible with any respectable form of feminism. Yes, the wedding was lovely, but it was not a triumph for equality. To marry into an ivory tower yet claim to represent equality is madness. To make such a marriage is to condone inequality in the most public and fundamental sense.

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