Graphic by Miriam Rizvi
‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.’
This one sentence, uttered by a queen prior to her nation’s defeat of the Spanish armada, highlights vividly the struggles she faced as a woman in a man’s world. Upon her ascension to the throne, Elizabeth constantly had to prove that she was able to lead her country, with the above quotation exemplifying this. Elizabeth often constructed herself as a man, stating; I may look like a woman, but really, I am as staunch, hard and robust as any king before me, and that is truly what matters.
To genuinely understand Elizabeth’s predicament, the gender roles of the era must first be explored. Women’s roles in the Tudor period were strictly defined and often very restricted. Women were expected to be subservient to their close male relatives during their youth, and once married, to their husband. Women effectively had little independent agency and many of their crucial life decisions, such as who they would marry, were dictated to them by male relatives. A woman’s main value was often considered to be her capacity to have children and ensure (especially in wealthier families) the continuation of the family’s name and prestige by providing male heirs. This is seen vividly in the experience of Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn and her step-sister Mary I’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, who were relegated to the side by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, when they failed to provide male heirs. Elizabeth’s step-brother Edward VI’s mother, Jane Seymour, was mourned and remembered favourably by Henry, likely because she fulfilled her society’s expectation of a wife by providing her husband with a son.
Thus, Elizabeth contradicted two of the most pivotal gender roles of her era. Firstly, she never married. Historian Kate Williams writes that Elizabeth realised that if she married she’d have to share her power. If her husband had dominion over her, then he effectively had right over ‘her’ state, despite him maybe only having the title of consort. There was also the practical issue of choosing a husband. Would she marry a foreigner or an Englishman? The former would have diluted British independence and drawn Britain into the squabbles of continental politics, and the latter would have caused un-necessary factionalism within her court which could have caused the court to self-implode. So, Elizabeth styled herself the Virgin Queen, and began using this image to further bolster her reputation. She proclaimed she was married to England and its people. She wore white and black – colours which indicated her chastity and her purity which became a political tool to affirm that her decisions and actions were pure in both mind and body. Despite the success of this, Elizabeth undoubtedly sacrificed many things to ensure that she could maintain her position. She gave up the affection, companionship and intimacy that marriage can bring, all to ensure she could maintain her independent power.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “well behaved women seldom make history”, and this can be applied to the second gender norm Elizabeth contradicted. Women were expected to be submissive to men. Thus, a woman governing her country and dictating the rules for all contradicted the era’s gendered roles and illuminates the truth of Ulrich’s quote. Elizabeth was highly educated and multilingual; her education was on par with her male counterparts. However, many still doubted her capacity to lead her country. Many people believed that her Privy Council would lead the country as she fundamentally acted as a figurehead. There is no doubt, that the powerful men Elizabeth surrounded herself with would have tried to manipulate her. But, this happened to all monarchs, and any proposed law or official action needed Elizabeth’s signature which she would have to give willingly – hence, Elizabeth had the last say. Therefore, Elizabeth was in control of the men surrounding her. She dictated to them what to do, proving she was able to act in a non-passive manner and take control of the situation outside of a woman’s sphere of influence.
Elizabeth also had a very interesting and rather unique relationship with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Both these women were queens of their respectful countries. These Queens, despite being cousins and logical allies, became vicious enemies in a man’s world. Each woman became paranoid that the other posed a threat. Added to this, Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots belonged to opposing religious factions, with Elizabeth being Protestant and Mary Catholic. Eventually, Mary Queen of Scots was executed by Elizabeth, which is the tragedy of the dynamic between these two figures. It is possible to ponder the friendship these two women could have built; how they could have relied upon each other for advice and support. However, the environment they inhabited and their positions meant that they had no room for mercy or leeway regarding possible threats, and thus had to take actions they might not have otherwise taken.
Elizabeth’s life begs an interesting question: was she a feminist? I’d personally argue that no she was not; a sentiment which is also expressed by historian Kate Williams. Elizabeth never set out to be a champion for the equality of men and women. In addition, the concept of ‘feminism’ as we view it today was non-existent in Tudor Britain. Women may have felt trapped in their lives and restricted in their activities, but they were not provided with the opportunity to challenge this in the manner that women in later centuries would slowly be able to do. One of the historical inaccuracies presented in modern film and television adaptions of Elizabeth’s life (and other screen dramas from the period), is portraying these women as having feminist agendas and viewpoints; it just did not happen in reality – despite us hoping for it.
Despite, not being a feminist herself, Elizabeth can still be seen as role model for women. She was highly educated and stood her ground in a world dominated by men. She can and should serve as an inspiration to any young girl who wants to enter politics, STEM subjects and any other areas that are known for statistically having a smaller percentage of women participants. She proves that if one has the determination and drive to succeed at something, they can. Elizabeth shows that gender norms can be broken and broken successfully. Thus, if you’ve read this far wondering how the life of a 16th century queen is relevant to you, here is the main takeaway from this article: Elizabeth I proves that women can, and have, done anything men can – as cliché as that saying is. After all, there is a reason that the Elizabethan Era is also referred to as The Golden Age.