Just days after the royal wedding, Meghan Markle’s official bio appeared on the Royal Family’s website and it included a word I didn’t expect to see: feminist. In addition to calling out her “lifelong commitment to causes such as social justice and women’s empowerment,” it quotes her 2015 UN speech, where she famously said she was, “proud to be a woman and a feminist.” Now, I’m sure (or at least, I hope) other royals see themselves as feminists, too. But Markle is the first to claim that title publicly. In fact, it’s obviously such an essential part of her identity that she included it in her royal biography, which isn’t like your Instagram bio—it’s a part of history. So, meet the Duchess of Sussex: Feminist, activist, actor, royal.
But I have to admit, happy as I was to see her claim the label of feminist, and excited as I was to see what Meg would do in her new role, I was also worried. I questioned if royal life would be enough for her. In a 2016 essay for Elle UK, Markle wrote, “I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches. I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works.” You can do a lot of amazing things as a royal, but you also go to a lot of lunches, shake a lot of hands, cut a lot of ribbons and smile… a lot. She’s a strong woman who at eleven was fighting to have sexist dishwashing commercials changed. Could she be happy in this restrictive life? I had my doubts.
But then I thought back to her May 19 wedding, when Markle walked down the aisle by herself. Now, this may not seem like a massively empowering moment. Marriage is a patriarchal institution—plus, she’s certainly not the first women to jaunt down the aisle unattended. But she’s a Black, divorced, American woman marrying into what is easily the most white, traditional, some might say antiquated family in the world, and walking herself down the almost-700 year old aisle made a bold statement. Okay yes, Prince Charles met her halfway, but she entered St. George’s Chapel solo.
— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) May 19, 2018
It was a major feminist moment that set the tone for the rest of the wedding—royal brides have strong ideas about what they want for their wedding day, but they’re usually still traditionally British. Markle, on the other hand, made sure her world was represented, from the African-American reverend who quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the gospel choir that sang “Stand By Me.” And while the royals sat in the pews smirking during Reverend Michael Curry’s sermon, Markle was enraptured, proving she didn’t just invite him there for appearances.
But this is not exactly surprising. Back in February, at the first Royal Foundation Forum, she spoke out in support of #MeToo and Time’s Up. That would have been a big deal no matter what, but it was especially pointed because a few weeks earlier, Kate Middleton didn’t wear black to the BAFTAs in support of the movement. (I love you Kate, but even if this was by decree of the palace and not by choice, it was seriously disappointing.) At the forum that day, Markle said, “Women don’t need to find their voice, they need to be empowered to use it and people need to be urged to listen.”
And she definitely used her voice during her first royal tour, a two-week journey through Australia, Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand. Markle wasn’t content to just smile, cradle her baby bump and let her husband talk. Instead, she had things to say. While in Fiji, the Duchess of Sussex spoke at the University of the South Pacific about her own university experience and how pivotal it was for her. In an unusual moment of vulnerability for royalty, she revealed that, like so many other students, she faced a challenge in being able to afford higher education. She relied on financial aid, scholarships and work-study programs to help her pay for her tuition.
“Providing (girls) with access to education is the key to economic and social development. Because when girls are given the right tools to succeed, they can create incredible futures, not only for themselves but also for those around them,” she said.
Yes, Meghan, yes!
Even more remarkable is the fact that the duchess wrote this speech herself. Royal reporter Omid Scobie noticed handwritten scribbles on Markle’s papers. When he asked a palace aide whether she had a speechwriter, he was told, “This was all her, she’s been up for days working on this speech.” Not to compare, but most other royals have aides write their speeches. I was thrilled to learn that she went her own way on this one.
You see, my greatest fear for Markle is that she would be become another cookie-cutter royal. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Kate, Princess Eugenie and the rest of the crew, and I think they all do amazing work for the royal family. But they are all of the same cloth. They went to prep school, had gap years, wear their hair in perfect blowouts and have plummy accents. I want Markle to break the mould—but not constantly be seen as breaking the rules, or worse, not understanding them. Have you read all the headlines about how she broke protocol by wearing dark nail polish? I want her differences to be celebrated instead of making her an “other.”
As Markle said at a Create & Cultivate conference in 2016, feminists come in many forms: “You can be a woman who wants to look good and still stand up for the equality of women.” And I think the same applies to royals—this world doesn’t have to be so constricted. They can write their own speeches, rock pantsuits, have messy buns and yes, wear nail polish in a colour other than Essie’s “Ballet Slippers.”
I frequently think about what Markle said in a speech in New Zealand, to mark the 125th anniversary of women being able to vote in the country: “Women’s suffrage is about feminism, but feminism is about fairness. In the words of your suffragette Kate Sheppard, ‘All that separates, whether race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.’”
Yes, Markle lives in a palace, but she experiences the inhumanity of the world every damn day—racist trolls and mainstream pubs have implied, or straight-up said, that she’s not good enough for the royal family since she and Harry went public, and they continue to do so. (Honestly don’t read the comments section of any Markle-related article if you want to retain your faith in humanity.)
But she pays the haters no attention. Instead, she steps out to help communities like the Hubb Community Kitchen, where a group of women meet to cook together after the Grenfell Tower fire in London last June. Unfortunately, the women could only cook there twice a week because there wasn’t enough funding. The Duchess had been making secret visits to the kitchen and came up with the brilliant idea to make a cookbook to raise more money—Together: Our Community Cookbook was the result, and thanks to some princess power it quickly became a bestseller.
What I love about Markle’s first solo initiative as a royal is she’s taken something typically considered regressive—women being in the kitchen—and shown how powerful it can be. As she says in the cookbook’s forward, “These recipes aren’t simply meals; they are stories of family, love, of survival and of connection.” It’s the coming together of women from many different backgrounds to make a community better.
If this is what Markle was able to accomplish in her first year as a duchess, I can’t wait to see what comes in the many years ahead. Long live the feminist royal.