Queen's birthday: 5 of the monarch's best feminist moments

The Independent looks back at some of her most empowering moments

Olivia Petter
Saturday 13 June 2020 12:00

Queen Elizabeth II might be the most powerful person in Britain, but she is also one of the most inspiring women in the world.

The 94-year-old, is the UK’s longest-serving monarch and despite hardly ever discussing women’s rights, she has had a watershed impact on empowering women everywhere throughout her reign.

The Queen has been described by many as a feminist icon, including Olivia Colman, who plays the monarch in the latest season of The Crown.

In November, the Oscar winner told Radio Times: “[The Queen is] the ultimate feminist. She’s the breadwinner. She’s the one on our coins and banknotes.”

In celebration of the Queen’s “official” birthday on Saturday 13 June, we’ve rounded up some of her best feminist moments.

1. When she took Saudi King Abdullah for a spin in her Land Rover

Queen Elizabeth II pictured driving her Range Rover to attend the annual Royal Windsor Horse Show in May 2019.

Queen Elizabeth II pictured driving her Range Rover to attend the annual Royal Windsor Horse Show in May 2019. (Getty Images)

In 2003, the Queen famously took Abdullah, who died in 2015, for a drive in her Land Rover when he came to visit her in Balmoral, Scotland.

The story was told in a memoir by British diplomat Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles, who was Ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.

“After lunch, the Queen had asked her royal guest whether he would like a tour of the estate,” wrote Cowper-Coles.

“Prompted by his foreign minister the urbane Prince Saud, an initially hesitant Abdullah had agreed. The royal Land Rovers were drawn up in front of the castle. As instructed, the Crown Prince climbed into the front seat of the front Land Rover, his interpreter in the seat behind.

“To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off.”

The move was particularly significant considering women were not yet allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and, as Cowper-Coles writes, “Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen”.

2. When she quietly oversaw the change in royal rules of succession to allow the eldest woman to accede to the throne

Queen Elizabeth II pictured with Prince Philip, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

In 2011, the Queen oversaw a major change to succession laws as agreed by the leaders of the 16 Commonwealth countries that meant sons and daughters of any future British monarch would have equal rights to the throne.

Up until that point, the laws of succession dictated that the heir to the throne is always the first-born son of the monarch.

But according to the new rules, had the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had a daughter first, she would have taken precedence to the throne over her younger brothers. As it so happens, the couple had a boy first, Prince George.

3. When she became the first female member of the Royal Family to join the Armed Services full-time

The Queen pictured driving to a polo match in Windsor in 1958.

One of the reasons why the Queen is such a keen driver (she is regularly photographed behind the wheel) is because in 1945 during World War II, she drove trucks and learnt how to repair cars in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service.

She’s the only living head of state to have served in the Second World War.

4. When she gave a brilliant speech at the centenary celebrations of the Women’s Institute in 2015

The Queen delivered a speech at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 June 2015 to mark 100 years of the Women’s Institute

In June 2015, the Queen opened the 100th annual meeting of the Women’s Institute (WI) at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The monarch, who became a member of Sandringham WI in 1943, delivered an inspiring speech to more than 5,000 WI members to mark the occasion. In the speech, she highlighted some of the greatest achievements for women in the last 100 years.

“There has been significant economic and social change since 1915,” she said. “Women have been granted the vote, British women have climbed Everest for the first time and the country has elected its first female prime minister.”

She added: “In the modern world, the opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part in all areas of public life.

“In 2015 it continues to demonstrate that it can make a real difference to the lives of women of all ages and cultural backgrounds, in a spirit of friendship, cooperation and support.”

5. Every time she steps out with Prince Philip and he has to walk behind her

Prince Philip must always walk behind the Queen.

You might have noticed that the Duke of Edinburgh almost always walks behind the Queen.

This is no coincidence. According to tradition, when the royal family is part of a procession, they enter and are seated in the order of precedence, which is the same as the line of succession to the throne.

This means that the Queen always walks in front, followed by Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and then the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and so forth.

It might be out of obligation rather than choice, but it’s hard not to feel empowered every time we see the Queen leading the royal family, both symbolically and literally.

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