The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (September 10th 2022)
I really liked being an Elizabethan.
I can’t possibly write this without referencing the death of the Queen – after all this newsletter is almost eponymous, we do have her name in our title!
It was a weird moment hearing she had actually died. As a journalist, I’d done years of preparing special supplements ‘just in case’ for that ‘London Bridge is Down’ moment… which was the code for the monarch’s death. And then when it happened for real I wasn’t even in a newsroom; I was in the middle of giving a talk about Queenagers to an amazing group called the Power Women Network at Bain and Company.
We had a minute’s silence. Everyone looked shell-shocked.
I didn’t exactly feel the kind of sadness you do when a loved one dies – but I did feel that massive sense of marking a moment in history.
I am 51 and my entire life the Queen has been there in her brightly-coloured outfits – wow she rocked a strong colour – looking perky and responsible, smiling, waving, speaking only occasionally, but in her very BEING signifying that a woman can be in charge; that a woman can be at the very top of our society. It is only now she is not there that I feel that lack.
As a primary school child, I was interviewed by the Observer and asked about the Queen. They printed my reply: “The Queen wears corduroy trousers, never jeans!” Hmmm.
So what did she mean, our Queen? Continuity for sure. She was just there. A bit like Buckingham Palace or cloudy grey skies. She was dependable. (A bit cold over all that Diana stuff and probably more loving to her dogs and horses than to people, like many women of her class and background). But by all accounts, she had a great sense of humour, a penchant for the ridiculous and a knack for putting people at their ease. I loved her skit with Daniel Craig at the Olympics where she was game enough to pretend to jump out of a helicopter and engage with 007. And I also loved her taking her marmalade sandwich out of her handbag during her tea with Paddington. I think in her very old age she allowed the rest of us to see her more silly side.
I’ve been in the same room as her several times, and I was struck by how small she was (proper celebrities are always smaller than you imagine). Unfortunately, I always seemed to be on the side of the party which got the Duke of Edinburgh rather than her Majesty. I’ve chatted to him at some length; I once sat next to him at a Chartered Management Institute dinner at the Banqueting Hall. He was very twinkly, with piercing blue eyes and definitely flirty; I asked if he’d seen The Crown (it was the era when he was being played by the uber-dishy Matt Smith). He winked at me and said: “If I had, I couldn’t possibly say so!” He also said that he “didn’t have a favourite anything – because that is all I would ever get given to eat” and then added swiftly: “Except a favourite woman, of course!”
As a woman who has always been the main breadwinner myself, I was fascinated by the Queen’s marriage. The Duke of Edinburgh was pretty damn alpha – he’d captained boats (in another life he’d probably have ended up running the Navy) and was fiercely intelligent. It must have been tough for him to always walk two steps behind her, to always have to defer, to be endlessly the consort, not the main attraction. In his steadfast loyalty and devotion he was the epitome of a supportive husband to a powerful woman; the kind of man I call a Centurion. (The kind of chap all Queenagers need.)
He was in his own way a bit of a feminist icon, a lesson in how to do it for other partners of high-profile women. We don’t give Centurions like Philip enough credit, or praise.
I couldn’t possibly do what I do without the enormous support of my own Centurion. I know many other men who fill those roles. They purr along in the background committing many quiet acts of domestic heroism. That phrase is my dad’s; he was a Centurion, who spent much of his marriage to my late stepmother who was a powerful politician rustling up delicious suppers for her cronies. He was always rueful, but dignified, when guests swapped the placements around to talk to her not him. It went with the territory (although he was always the most fun person at the table).
But if we want women to move into more positions of power, to take up the Queen’s baton and run the world, we are also going to have to lionise the partners who support them. I was chatting to another amazing Queenager, Baroness Helena Morrissey the other day, (she is on our Noon Advisory Board and founded the 30 Per Cent Club to boost diverse representation on boards globally). She is a CEO, a mother of nine (yup, I know) and she told me how one of her sons had said he “wants to stay at home and look after everyone, like his dad”.
I loved that. We can’t have the end of patriarchy and different kinds of roles for women unless men shift too. And that won’t happen unless we tell stories about it and model it for the next generation. So many women I meet with successful jobs have supportive partners, Centurions playing these roles – yet it is still very hard for these trailblazing men.
I was chatting to another one the other day who had raised his kids while his wife worked and he talked about how hostile many of the mothers at the school gate were to him. How lonely he’d felt, how excluded by them and how judged by other men.
If the world is going to change we women have to change too. Women have to cede some of this domestic territory. We don’t give over easy. I give you the example of another (female) friend who was in Hong Kong trying to micro-manage how her husband was manning the home front. “Did they have the salmon for supper? Have you got the ballet shoes? Has she done her homework?” I told her to knock it off. There’s nothing worse than being hectored by someone on the other side of the world. If you aren’t there, you have to let your partner get on with it IN THEIR OWN WAY. Maybe you would do it differently. Tough. Their time, their rules. Dad Rules as my husband used to say.
So our Queen in her marriage was a bit of an unlikely beacon for how we might do things differently. Quietly. Stoically. Her reign was revolutionary. I’ll miss that. I’ll also miss being an Elizabethan. I loved that link to the first Elizabeth with her fiery red hair; our amazing virgin queen who saw off assassins, detractors and numerous foreign princes who fancied her throne and who also ruled for a remarkably long time. She was also much loved.
So here’s to all the Queens and Queenagers everywhere.
P.S. I’d love to know what you all think. Were you moved by the Queen’s death? Do you agree that she represented a very special kind of female power? Maybe you are a Republican. That is fine too. You can respect the Queen’s personal service and duty without necessarily being in favour of the whole institution.
By Eleanor Mills