Daniela Elser: Meghan Markle’s biggest mistake comes into focus

With a public holiday to mark the Queen’s death on Monday, how do businesses feel and how are Kiwis planning to spend it. Video / NZ Herald

OPINION:

There is a three-book series, with attached compendium, to be written about the royal family’s biggest mistakes. There was Edward VIII buggering off to marry Wallis Simpson, a woman who seemed to live off of whiskey and resentment; there was Princess Margaret being forced to give up Group Captain Peter Townsend and never quite finding real happiness again despite looking in a whiskey bottle every day; and there was Lord Mountbatten and Prince Philip pressuring a decidedly unconvinced Prince Charles to pop the question to Lady Diana Spencer, at which point, I’m guessing, he reached for the hard stuff too.

But in the last two weeks, since the death of the Queen, another royal mistake has come into sharp relief.

This might sound a tad crazy, but stick with me here. It has become clear since Her Majesty’s passing that the British monarchy, an institution founded entirely on white male privilege, is on the cusp of becoming a feminist powerhouse. And for Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex upping sticks and leaving might just have been a huge miscalculation, leaving her out in the cold as Team Windsor takes the lead on gender equality.

Are you choking on your tea? I’ll wait.

Meghan Markle's biggest mistake has come into focus. Photo / AP
Meghan Markle’s biggest mistake has come into focus. Photo / AP

Consider what we have just seen play out in London.

When the Queen’s children mounted a vigil surrounding her coffin, in Edinburgh and then in London, it was the first time in history female heirs had not been barred from taking part, slotting the redoubtable Princess Anne into the history books. Again. (In 2002, for the Queen Mother’s funeral, only her grandsons mounted vigil and in 1935, it was only George V’s sons who were involved.)

Likewise, the fact that Anne chose to wear her military uniform both for her grandmother’s farewell (making her the first royal woman to do so since Elizabeth I in 1588) but her mother’s as well, and with trousers rather than a skirt to boot. (The Queen always wore skirts when she donned her military uniform.)

More history got made when Zara Tindall, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie and Lady Louise Windsor became the first granddaughters of the sovereign to ever mount a vigil too.

More significantly, the UK and the Commonwealth now has a Queen Consort whose key focus since marrying the then-Prince of Wales in 2005 has been tackling domestic violence and rape. Not only has Camilla tirelessly drawn attention to the issues but has done things like have her small staff help make up hundreds of wash bags for sexual assault victims to help them feel “more human” (as she has put it) after having to undergo forensic examinations.

Last year, she became the patron of Nigeria’s first sexual assault crisis centre. (The Queen Consort has said that she got started after meeting a domestic violence survivor, telling Vogue earlier this year: “I’d just like to do anything to help”.)

Queen Elizabeth II's grandchildren mount a family vigil over her coffin lying in state in Westminster Hall. Photo / AP
Queen Elizabeth II’s grandchildren mount a family vigil over her coffin lying in state in Westminster Hall. Photo / AP

After it was announced in February this year that she would become Queen Consort ultimately, Camilla said during a BBC interview that the elevated title would “help” with her causes and that she had no intention of giving it up, saying: “I hope I should be doing it for a lifetime.”

Sophie, Countess of Wessex, now focuses her work on sexual violence in war zones, having travelled to Kosovo, Sierra Leone and South Sudan to meet with and support victims. “If I can prod the consciences of those who may be able to do more to try and prevent it, and can help get justice for survivors, I will do everything I can,” the countess told the Times’ legendary war journalist Christina Lamb in 2020.

Last but not least, Kate, Princess of Wales might register lower on the Germaine Greer scale but she has become a true force in her own right and is the first female HRH to set up her own solo foundation, with a focus on reducing addiction and homelessness for future generations, along with her ongoing work on maternal mental health.

Which is to say, we’re a hell of a long way away from when Queen Elizabeth reportedly urged Diana, Princess of Wales to focus on “nice” charities.

Moreover, in the coming months and years, there is every chance we are going to see Camilla, Kate and Sophie becoming louder and more forceful voices on these issues as the focus shifts to the new generation.

So what of Meghan, on the other side Atlantic, who has been a sensationally and impressively outspoken advocate for gender equality, who used her first major outing in 2018 as a future royal to declare “Women don’t need to find their voice, they have a voice. They need to be encouraged to use it”? The same woman, that is, who gave a now-famous speech at a UN women’s conference years before her marriage and who in 2020 appeared in a video with Gloria Steinem to discuss how women should be “linked not ranked”?

Well… umm… you see…

Very sadly, her work on this front is not exactly going gangbusters.

Queen Consort Camilla said during a BBC interview that the elevated title would "help" with her causes and that she had no intention of giving it up. Photo / AP
Queen Consort Camilla said during a BBC interview that the elevated title would “help” with her causes and that she had no intention of giving it up. Photo / AP

Now let me make something very clear here: The Duchess of Sussex deserves huge and ongoing praise for her unwavering commitment to fighting for gender equality. We might have had #MeToo and #TimesUp and all those pink pussy hats of 2017 but there are sexier and cooler causes out there for a wannabe political force on the make. Her steadfastness and dedication is truly inspiring.

But where things hit a serious speed bump is when it comes to the discrepancy between her headline-grabbing rhetoric and her actions.

Meghan’s podcast series Archetypes, currently on hold after the Queen’s death, seems much more of a PR exercise than a meaty contribution to the conversation. (None of the three episodes released so far are currently sitting in the top 100 episodes in the US, according to the Spotify charts.)

After the horrifying overturning of abortion protections when the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs Wade in June, the 41-year-old took part in a conversation with Gloria Steinem for Vogue. It was impassioned, eloquent and urgent stuff.

In the three months since then, she has yet to speak out further or follow this up with any real action. (Husband Prince Harry did address the issue during his far-from-well attended UN speech in July.)

During the same conversation, when the topic of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment came up, Meghan said “this is a moment that I am absolutely going to show up for” and “Well, Gloria, maybe it seems as though you and I will be taking a trip to DC together soon.” She has yet to comment or engage on this issue again or to set foot in Washington.

Beyond that, her push for paid parental leave has seen her cold-call nonplussed conservative Senators, talk about the issue at New York Times’ DealBook Summit and donate a US$25 ($43.50) Starbucks gift card to the employees of PL+US, a non-profit working on the cause. (No, there are not one or two zeros missing from that amount.)

Prince Harry delivers the keynote address during the 2020 UN Nelson Mandela Prize award ceremony at the United Nations in New York.  Photo / AP
Prince Harry delivers the keynote address during the 2020 UN Nelson Mandela Prize award ceremony at the United Nations in New York. Photo / AP

Where Meghan the Feminist falls down is not her intentions (which are excellent) but what comes next. Speaking up is great but where is the follow through? What has she actually done?

Meghan should be, right now, the most energising, thrilling leader to appear on the feminism front lines since Germaine decided to find out how flammable her bra was. She has the passion, brains, connections and the media nous to really do the sort of work that can move the dial.

So, why haven’t we seen her on the front steps of the Supreme Court, loudhailer in hand, rallying women to fight against the Roe decision? Why haven’t we seen her put her cheque book where her mouth is?

Therein lies quite the irony because right as Meghan’s feminism-lite (diet feminism?) is being found oh-so-wanting, the women of the royal family have been quietly staging something of a feminist takeover.

While it might be two blokes – King Charles and Prince William – on whose shoulders the future of the Crown technically rests, in reality, what will determine the monarchy’s survival is the work done by three commoner women who chose to join the Windsors’ gilded ranks. It is the work of Camilla, Sophie and Kate that will play an outsized role in transforming the image of Buckingham Palace into a much more dynamic, relevant force in British society.

Meghan's podcast series Archetypes, currently on hold after the Queen's death. Photo / AP
Meghan’s podcast series Archetypes, currently on hold after the Queen’s death. Photo / AP

Here’s where I think Meghan made such a whopping whoopsie: She left the royal family right as this shift was taking place and right now, instead of joining her stepmother-in-law, sister-in-law and aunt-in-law in remaking the royal family’s pale, male and stale image, she is off in Hollywood recording a cringe-worthy podcast and buying cheap Starbucks gift cards.

There is also the fact that the royal family gave Meghan a platform and opened doors that she can never, no matter how hard she works, try and match now.

That was something that Diana understood keenly, according to her biographer Tina Brown, who said during an interview with The Daily Beast last month: “She kept Kensington Palace as her base. Unlike Harry and Meghan she understood having the power base of monarchy was enormously important.”

I know that Meghan has, of course, spoken about the horrifying toll royal life took on her mental health; if only someone inside the Palace had listened and helped her; if only staying ‘in’ did not require her suffering. If only…

In the wake of the Queen’s funeral and seeing Anne in her smart military trousers, head bowed, inside Westminster Hall and Her Majesty’s granddaughters following suit, what is clear is that this is not their grandmother’s Palace. This is a Palace that can – and is – evolving and Harry and Meghan could and should be playing a starring role in this.

– Daniela Elser is a writer and a royal expert with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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