Elizabeth I: Power and Singlehood in the Face of Patriarchy

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Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.

When Queen Elizabeth I was born, her father was disappointed. Henry VIII had been hoping for a son, especially since he had literally created a new Church of England (nowadays known as the Protestant Church) to marry Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. The irony here is that his daughter would go on to become one of the most successful monarchs in England’s history, but that possibility wouldn’t have crossed King Henry’s mind. Not only did he make her an illegitimate child after he decided to execute Anne Boleyn for treason and adultery (he would later reverse this decision and make her his heir by law after his son Edward and first daughter Mary), but Elizabeth was a woman. The odds facing a successful regime under a queen rather than a king seem, to me, like they were next to insurmountable. I say “next to” because, remarkably, Elizabeth did it. And because I wanted to know how she did it, I chose to read Alison Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I as the first of four biographies on significant women in history for Women’s History Month.

There are a million things I could focus on in this post, because, as it turns out, Elizabeth was absolutely fascinating. I decided that her decision to never marry despite the enormous pressure put on her and all other women in her day is very worthy of some attention. I believe the reason her legacy was able to shine through as it does is partly because she had no king to obscure it — not because she would have allowed her husband to have any real influence over her mind, but because that’s what history tends to do to women in positions of power.

According to Weir, Elizabeth first said she would never marry just after the execution of her father’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. There is certainly reason to believe that her father’s infamous tendency to get rid of wife after wife may have had something to do with Elizabeth’s aversion to the idea of marriage. However, as I read Weir’s book, she makes it clear that this was far from Elizabeth’s only consideration. If Elizabeth was anything, she was logical, and she knew the sacrifices that would come with marriage. She was firmly the master of her own mind, and in her time, to marry a man meant to be subservient. Even if her hypothetical husband accepted her ideas and wish to rule, she still had to face all of Parliament and her Secretary of State, William Cecil, who believed that a man should be in charge of matters of state. Remaining unmarried as queen guaranteed that she would be seen as the sole authority on England’s welfare, and that was exactly how she wanted it.

Most feminists – and when I say feminists, I refer to both women and men – will agree that Elizabeth I’s stalwart decision to remain single was badass in a way that’s difficult for us to comprehend, far removed as we are from sixteenth century England. Equally astounding is that the topic of marriage is still a sensitive one today. There are still many people who scratch their heads at unmarried women, assuming that all of us naturally want to find a husband or wife and that there must be something wrong with the ones who choose to stay single or cohabitate with their partners without tying the knot (and I won’t get into the double standard this represents). And on the opposite side of that argument, there are people who believe marriage is an archaic institution, and that women who credit marriage or family as some of the best decisions of their lives are threatening to take us back to London circa 1573 (see this recent reaction to Beyoncé stating that Blue Ivy is her greatest accomplishment and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about).

It’s certainly better to have two sides to this argument rather than one. But looking at Elizabeth’s example and at the times she almost decided to marry (though I think some of her prevarication was just her playing with the Commons the way a person teases a cat with a laser pointer), I can’t help but wonder if sometimes she was inclined towards marriage but knew it would have irreversible effects on her rule. I believe we need to work towards a world where women can choose to make the lives they want for themselves without worrying about whether or not people will condescend to them for their decisions. I realize that this is a broad statement, and I think there are problems with the SUPPORT ALL WOMEN NO MATTER WHAT mentality. But those problems are trumped by the need to create a culture in which women are not demonized for remaining unmarried and childless, but in which they can also marry and have children without others assuming they’ve given up their autonomy or are simply fulfilling expectations. In the meantime, let’s do as Elizabeth did and use the power we have to continue down the paths we choose, throwing out flirtatious smiles and trotting on toes as we go.

Buy Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.

Stay tuned next week for a post on Madam C.J. Walker.

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Four Weeks, Four Women

So it’s Women’s History Month.

On the one hand, I’m glad this month exists, because it means teachers will be doing special units on women’s contributions to society when they might otherwise just continue on with their usual history lessons, which almost definitely include fewer women. On the other hand, I wish these month-long activities and conversations didn’t have to happen at all. I wish we were past the need for them.

BUT! we’re getting there. So, instead of moping around, I decided to participate in Women’s History Month in my own way. Over the next four weeks, I’ll be reading a biography or autobiography a week: two on historical figures, two on modern women. This is a way to educate myself as I continue making my way through the world during an intense time, in which some of our rights are being threatened. But I’m also reading these books to give me perspective. Because I may have problems, but fifty or one hundred or five hundred years ago, my current problems would’ve been mere thoughts on the periphery of my life. I would’ve had much bigger climbs ahead, whether that was securing the right to my own property or simply getting someone to look me in the eyes while I spoke.

Of course, I’m a writer, so I’ll also look at the books I’m reading this month as research. The nice thing about writing YA fiction is that the current trend is to feature strong young women as protagonists. But lately, I’ve found myself getting bored. Katniss was great, but not every woman is going to be like Katniss in terms of her physical strength or her firm moral compass or her apathy towards her physical appearance. Give me girly characters! Give me characters who are leaders because they want to be, not just because they’re forced to be. Give me women who are soft-spoken but still manage to accomplish things and get what they want. Give me women who make a lot of mistakes, or who don’t have anyone on their side. In reading these four books, I’m looking for this kind of inspiration — I’ve tried to pick a variety of women who have lived very different lives and have different reputations. Because as we acknowledge that women can be strong and brave, we move closer to acknowledging that women can be an infinite number of other things, too.

Without further ado, here’s my reading list for March:

1) The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir
2) On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles
3) I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Saved the World by Malala Yousafzai
4) HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen

I’ll be back in a week from today with my post on Elizabeth I! Until next time…

(P.S. The image at the top is supposedly of the first women’s rights march in Seneca Falls, New York, though I can’t find a source that confirms this with certainty.)