At the time, she was younger than I am now but seemed old. And old-fashioned: the stern iron curls, sensible pumps, air hostess hats. Glimpsed in my mum’s Women’s Weekly magazines, Princess Margaret’s royal life – kaftans, cigarette holders, nightclubs – seemed the one to have.
Then I grew up, found a career, had children, and ran a household. It was a steep learning curve. I looked for inspiration from other women about how to not just do the whole work-life thing but treasure it. And slowly, the Queen became an unlikely, enduring inspiration.
Now I agree with Olivia Colman, who played the monarch in Netflix’s The Crown: she was “the ultimate feminist”. A World War II mechanic turned post-war working wife, the professional and personal matriarch was still – can you imagine? – working full-time in her mid-90s.
I remember a friend, commenting on her marriage to a successful businessman, telling me: “These hands will never work again.” The Queen never took that refuge in her wealth. She refused to take a holiday abroad, let alone retire.
It doesn’t matter if her motivation was to stay the course because she said she would, or because she loved having a career and feared losing that connection to the outside world. She simply never clocked off.
Yes, it’s a paradox to call someone a feminist role model when she inherited her title in a system awash with patriarchy. She never had a job interview, fought for pay or flexible working conditions or advocated for equal rights.
But the Queen upturned gender stereotypes and became a social pioneer by sticking to her lifelong maxim: never complain, never explain.
After her coronation, she kept her own surname. By having Prince Philip walk behind her in public the message was that if a prince could follow his wife, why should women take second place in their own relationships?
In 1958, she ended the “coming out” debutantes’ presentation that acted as an upper-class marriage market and got stuck in as a working mum whose work-from-home situation blurred lines from the get-go.
Of course, she had staff aplenty and was by all accounts a hands-off mother – perhaps because her focus was on her wider family. While most parents are shattered at end of the day, the Queen was having to sail off to state dinners.
Privilege and jewels wouldn’t have stopped her feeling that bone-deep exhaustion of motherhood, yet she always had to be “on”. No shrinking into a corner and having someone else lead the conversation.
As a CEO, the Queen was decisive and ruthless. She did what she was paid to do: put the firm first. If that meant axing Princess Diana and Fergie from royal circles, stripping Prince Andrew of titles and disabusing the Sussexes of the notion they could be half-in, half-out royals, so be it.
Addressing the centenary of the Women’s Institute in 2015, she gave a rare insight into her take on the “modern” world: “The opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever because through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part.”
Hardly burn-your-bra stuff, but what she was saying was, hooray for sisters doing it for themselves.
And QEII led the way. Her confidence, dignity and consistency in showing up as a woman of power laid a template for us all to hold close, especially given that for at least the next three generations, Windsor monarchs will be men.
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