Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
With the upcoming marriage of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, a feminist is set to become a member of the British royal family.
In many ways, Markle’s upcoming entry into the UK’s Monarchy is radical: She’s a biracial American self-described feminist who has advocated for women and people of color on and off screen. She has a thriving career.
She’s older than the prince she’s set to marry. She’s divorced. She’s the great-great-great granddaughter of an emancipated slave. “I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches – I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works,” Markle wrote on her now-defunct blog.
Which is why it’s so disappointing to see that she will be giving up her acting career after she weds.
Obviously, Markle should do whatever she pleases to make herself happy. Maybe she would have quit her job anyway; maybe she’s burned out or bored, or just wants to take a few years to live in a palace and travel the world (who could blame her?)
And she isn’t quitting acting to host tea parties – she wants to dedicate more of her time to the causes she cares about.
But the reality of the royal family is that controversy is kept at bay. Certainly, she can visit orphanages and talk about the rights of girls, but can she advocate for policies that would make the lives of those girls better, or even speak her mind freely? Probably not, given that members of the royal family are expected not to publicly express their political opinions or give a hint as to how they might vote.
It is impossible to be an effective advocate for equality and against oppression if you cannot name and critique the institutions, politics and policies that foster inequality and subjugation. So while it’s admirable that Markle wants to dedicate her time to her causes, the royal family’s requirement that such efforts be depoliticized means that advocacy can’t be particularly effective.
In dozens of write-ups about the Markle-Windsor engagement, she’s described as “fiercely independent.” By marrying and giving up her hard-earned career, she is going to be quite literally entirely dependent on her husband and his family.
The royal family is one of the most patriarchal institutions on the planet. It was only a few years ago, with the impending birth of William and Kate’s first child, that succession laws were changed to allow girls equal access to the throne, like their brothers, changing the monarchy from a very literal patriarchy into a more modern arrangement.
But still, female royals are expected to smile for the cameras, dress beautifully but modestly, and bear children. How often do you even hear the Duchess of Cambridge speak?
Markle is just one woman pursuing what she believes is the best path for her life. She’s in love. She’s going to marry an actual prince – a fantasy mainstay of girls across America.
But Markle is also the girl who wrote letters to Hillary Clinton and Gloria Allred objecting to a dish soap ad that implied only women did the dishes. She’s the woman who wrote a searing essay about growing up biracial in America.
She may well be acquiescing to the rules of a very public, very patriarchal institution because the other choice would be to lose her love (and there are a lot of benefits to being a royal, too).
It’s a shame. Not that Markle is making this calculation for her own life, but that the royal family still requires women who marry into it make these sacrifices, silencing their strong voices and depriving the world of their effervescence, their talents, and their gifts.