The past is sometimes less of a foreign country than you might imagine. On Friday morning, when my husband wondered aloud if we should get a new television “for the funeral” (ours is comically small), my mind turned not to the John Lewis website, but to the coronation, the generations connected, even now, by the allure of an outside broadcast.
In 1953, the question of how and where events at Westminster Abbey might be watched was, for most of the population, somewhat pressing. As the year began, fewer than two million people owned a television set.
In other ways, it’s unrecognisable, for all that my parents inhabited it. If every one of the more than 500,000 TV sets sold in the six months before the coronation told a story of aspiration, for many women this stretched far beyond the material. When she was crowned, they could not take out mortgages in their own name, nor could they be fitted with a diaphragm without producing a marriage certificate. No wonder, then, that so many were half in love with the new Queen. Her youth, her beauty, her glamour. What might these things mean? Was a different future about to become possible?
Her spell fell not only on women like Miss Prudence Moss, a Wirral teacher whose new Pye tabletop set cost her more than 10% of her salary, but even on those who might ordinarily have been more cynical (or less royalist). In her memoir The Centre of the Bed, Joan Bakewell, then a Cambridge undergraduate, recalls the dreamy effect its prospect had on her circle: “… a woman on the throne and one not much older than ourselves. There was a sense of lightheartedness about that: it felt, well, sort of contemporary, the turn of our generation.”
It would be preposterous to describe the Queen as feminist. If she ever uttered the word, it is not recorded; in The Uncommon Reader, the novella by Alan Bennett in which the Queen discovers the charms of a mobile library, he has her reading Anita Brookner and Thomas Hardy, but no Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer (a story has to be believable, after all). But this isn’t to say that her ascension to the throne wasn’t a significant marker on the road to second wave feminism.
It may be true that for many people, the 1960s began, as they did for Philip Larkin, in 1963, the year Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. It was, however, a decade earlier that things, in terms of equality, started to change dramatically, a shift facilitated by the important work they did in the war, just like the Queen (she had joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she trained as a mechanic).
In 1953, a girl had plenty more to think about than what kind of gown Norman Hartnell might be designing. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had been published in English for the first time and female teachers such as Miss Moss had been recommended for equal pay. When the press referred to the New Elizabethans, it didn’t only mean men such as Nye Bevan and Henry Moore. It was a generation that included Barbara Ward, the economist, Rose Heilbron, the QC, Alison Smithson, the architect, and Sheila van Damm, the rally car driver and theatre manager.
The first decade of the Queen’s reign was replete with firsts for women, though some choose not to remember this now. In 1955, Dame Evelyn Sharp was appointed the first female permanent secretary (at the Ministry of Housing) and Barbara Mandell became the first woman to read the news on ITN. Three years later, in 1958, Hilda Harding became Britain’s first female bank manager (at a branch of Barclays in Mayfair) and following the passing of the Life Peerages Act, three women took their seats in the House of Lords: Barbara Wootton, the criminologist, Stella Isaacs, the founder of the Women’s Voluntary Service, and Katharine Elliot, the Conservative politician.
Nor was the Queen the only monarch around. In 1960, Coronation Street began and with it the reign of Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner. People are always going on about how the Queen gave the Beatles their MBEs. But to me, there is even more joy to be found in the fact that she awarded Violet Carson, who played Sharples for 20 years, an OBE.
We all know what followed thereafter: progress, in short. And through it all, the Queen was there, looking on. If it is, as many believe, a blessing to have a head of state who does not express political opinions, then how much more propitious if that figurehead is also a woman. At first, this had to do with rarity value; at least there was always one female in the official photographs. But down the decades, her gender was, in my eyes, a valuable thing in itself.
The adroit way she wielded her influence, if not her power – dealing calmly and delicately with male egos, for instance – was a lesson some of us absorbed, almost from childhood, by some strange form of osmosis. Is it fanciful to suggest that, like most women, she learned to work around the obstacles thrown up by sexism? To do what she could rather than worry about what she couldn’t? Even if it is fanciful, the thought is encouraging. “Funny business, a woman’s career,” says Margo Channing, the character played by Bette Davis in All About Eve, that great film of 1950.
Projection, in any case, is half of the point of monarchy. As I wrote at the time of the platinum jubilee, in the absence of facts, we made the Queen what we wanted her to be; her personality was ours to create. And here, perhaps, she scored again by being a woman, in full possession of the subtle emollience and extreme capability and stoicism I associate with my grandmothers and many of my female friends and which feels so reassuringly steady.
A writer in one of our more republican-inclined journals suggests that the media, with its talk of broken hearts and bewildered crowds, has turned her death into a mere concatenation of our larger feelings, something to which he objects. But isn’t it supposed to be that? Wasn’t the Queen always a repository for our emotions? My own large feeling, in a week in which a female prime minister decided not to appoint a minister for women to her cabinet, is that we were lucky to have a Queen for so long; that even if (unlikely) he takes to reading Laura Bates or Caroline Criado Perez, a king won’t be half so important to women in a world in which things are still hard against us and likely to grow ever more so in the years to come.
• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist
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