Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with their children Princess Anne, Prince Charles (right) and Prince Andrew on his first holiday to Balmoral. 8th September 1960. (Photo by NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

The monarch and the matriarchy

A vision of womanhood

Artillery Row

As Charles III spoke of “[My] darling Mama” it brought to my mind the gorgeous film Phantom Thread which I had only very recently re-watched. The film is set in a fictional 1950s fashion house Woodcock — so-called after the surname of sibling duo Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). They run the operation, having been taught their craft in childhood by their late mama. Reynolds habitually ghosts women he has charmed into the fashion house until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), who learns that the way to his heart is to embrace the role of mother. The film is a wonderful tribute to a subtle yet powerful matriarchal authority. 

Our departed Queen Elizabeth II was viewed across the Commonwealth as something like a mother, grandmother or as former Australian PM Kevin Rudd charmingly put it, “our Nana”. She had fostered a sense of familial closeness to many, regardless of whether we had seen or met her. In his speech to Parliament, Labour leader Keir Starmer referred to us as children of the Elizabethan age, saying she will live on through us all, having educated her Commonwealth in the “craft” of public service and duty. A reminder for us to keep mother close, then. 

Admiration for the Queen, from many women, is one of recognition

Matriarchal authority carries with it a distinct nature which is hard to articulate in a contemporary worldview dominated by liberalism and the market economy. Speaking on the BBC on the morning after Her Majesty’s death was Sir Anthony Seldon. There was a brief discussion of moving from female monarch to a male monarch, particularly the implication for those women who are unlikely to ever see a Queen as their head of state again. He remarked that it was significant that our two longest reigning monarchs have both been women. Why does this feel momentous? Indeed, why does a monarch who is only there through circumstances at birth feel so important to many women? 

Perhaps one dimension might be Harriet Harman’s reflection on a young Queen visiting a Parliament full of men and refusing to be intimidated by them. This is certainly a worthy and inspiring point. We now have our third female PM and many more women MPs than in 1952. However, we are still talking about small numbers of women in this respect, and importantly, motherhood is still a significant barrier. Where are the part-time working mums in parliament?

Immense socio-economic changes occurred during Elizabeth II’s reign, particularly the entry of women into the workplace which is often remarked in positive terms. But in what sense? Whilst we see some women at the top of businesses living their best Yas Kween lives, many women (often due to childrearing) are more likely than men to be working in poverty, so a notion of matriarchal authority in terms of the market economy is less than convincing. The significance of these socio-economic changes in relation to the Queen is that her matriarchal authority exists outside of the market.

The heart of matriarchal authority after all is primarily centred around motherhood. Before she became Queen she was of course a mother, with Charles III born in 1948 and Princess Anne in 1950. Motherhood is very much the definition of practical wisdom. I know as I am one — and nothing can parallel how physically and mentally draining it is. For the majority of women, it will be the most significant change in their lives. I suspect the admiration for the Queen, from many women, is one of recognition: a deep appreciation of the sacrifice of personal ambition, perseverance and hard work, often done unspoken and unthanked, but without which we would be bereft.

Matriarchal wisdom and authority is conferred through this duty and experience of managing a household and child-rearing. The Queen represented this through her personal meetings with victims of the most shocking events (her meeting the children in Manchester following the arena bombing is the one which sits most prominently in my mind) as well as bestowing wisdom to us all from a distance (her message during COVID-19 pandemic). It is a combination of both the emotional and the practical. As her grandson Prince Harry remembers her, she was someone to hold his children and give him “sound advice”.

In contemporary feminism, both liberal and radical strands tend to disregard matriarchal authority, either through upholding negative freedom and the rejection of responsibility or, in the latter case, by framing gendered life as a form of oppression or “shadow work”. This is a real oversight, however. The social critic Ivan Illich was right to think that gendered sociality can (or used to) give women an authoritative status, something now lost to the market economy. 

Postliberal feminism can offer true meaning and authority through duty

Matriarchal authority has a distinct social element to it and exists today in the world of the internet, with groups of women exchanging information on forums like Mumsnet. That we can view a non-familial woman as a “mother”, regardless of whether she is a literal mother, clearly indicates a primordial authority in women. It is not an accident that women are so closely associated with teaching. Take the example of St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby. Bede never recorded whether she was a literal mother, but as she was renowned for her wisdom, she was known as “mother” and received visitors seeking her advice and teaching. 

This matriarchal authority is to be contrasted with patriarchal authority symbolised by the lonely Shepherd. As Foucault argued, this icon of patriarchal “pastoral power” in Christian culture became embodied in the parish Priest. My instinct is that Charles III will be a good King, but I don’t think his reign will share the familial tone of his mother’s. Indeed, one of the Queen’s lasting feminist acts, in addition to her championing the Succession of the Crown Act (2013), was ensuring Camilla would be Queen Consort to fulfil the matriarchal gap. 

The postliberal feminist vision can offer true meaning and authority through duty, obligation and service, things eschewed by many of the contemporary online feminists busy printing “fight the patriarchy” t-shirts and totes. One wonders if the pre-occupation of feminists with the metaphysical force of patriarchy is due to the loss of meaningful life and work outside the confines of the market. I return to Vicky Krieps’s defence of Phantom Thread as a feminist film: “Alma is not being a feminist by banging the drum. [ … She is] a real feminist, because she’s not doing it for the approval”. 

Can this not also be applied to the Queen? She has never chased the approval of others. Embodying the stuffy institution of monarchy and being a devout, practising Christian are hardly fashionable — but she was deeply sincere. This can also be said for many of our mothers and grandmothers who ran the household. They had an understated but significant authority, not born of empty sloganeering. Hardly a wonder why it feels like to many like they’ve lost mother again. 

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