(Zé Otavio for The Washington Post)
What made her extraordinary was not who she was, but what she gave
September 8, 2022 at 6:45 p.m. EDT
She became the queen before many of us were born, before many of our mothers were born, before many of our grandmothers were born, a fixed point on a spinning axis. Whether you loved her or not she was always there. Death and taxes and Queen Elizabeth II were the only certainties of life for 70 years, until she died on Thursday at the age of 96.
Chances were that what you loved or hated wasn’t the woman herself but the institution she embodied, a sprawling $28 billion firm of inherited titles and property. The woman herself? She was a cipher by design. Her position prevented her from vocalizing opinions on politics, elections, social movements and individual people — anything of consequence, really, because modern monarchs don’t run the government even while they appear on its money.
You knew she was outdoorsy: corgis, horses, hunting expeditions. You might have read somewhere that as a teenager she served as a mechanic in World War II. She saved her wartime rations to pay for her wedding dress and thereby won the love of a nation that, in those dark days, needed a fairy tale but a practical one.
You knew, vaguely, that the job was never supposed to be hers. She came to the throne by way of an abdicating uncle, a dead-too-soon father, a lack of a male heir. In 1952 the country’s legacy suddenly rested on the sensible shoulders of a 25-year-old mother of two.
Was it a fairy tale? Was it feminism? The highest-ranking woman in the world, and her power came not via her hard work or via a wedding ring on her finger but via a chaotic ladder of genealogy reaching through centuries: beheadings and infertility, abdications and overthrowings, all leading up to this singular woman holding the throne longer than anyone had before, or likely ever will again.
Little girls aren’t taught to play-act at being queen. They play-act at being princesses, which is a much gauzier, more romantic kind of role. (If you don’t believe me, check the costume aisle at Halloween or the product lines of the Disney corporation).
Being a queen is a grown woman’s job, and not for the faint of heart. There’s a certain amount of keeping everyone in line, of grinning and bearing it, whatever “it” is at the moment. In Elizabeth’s case it was a parade of prime ministers, a series of national tragedies, a daughter-in-law named Diana whose untimely death caused the sort of frenzied grief that is bestowed upon beautiful 36-year-old princesses and not reserved, 96-year-old queens.
The role of queen is not about finding oneself — the arc of princesses, both real and fictitious — but rather about sublimating oneself: in the duty of family, in the duty of work and in the duty of country.
She was forever tied to Britain’s past and forever responsible for the monarchy’s future. A king must rule; a queen must rule and also lend her body to the act of motherhood, which Elizabeth did four times. For her first birth, her husband Philip was off reportedly playing squash. By her fourth, she reportedly asked him to be in the room.
Was this a political decision in the name of gender equality, or did she just want the support of her husband while doctors rummaged around her cervix? We’ll never know, and the point of Elizabeth is that we never needed to. Her existence as monarch was already so revolutionary that her acts did not have to be.
And then those children grew up, and their hair grew gray while Elizabeth’s grew white, and it started to seem as if she could live forever or die at any moment.
In the past few years, especially, her mortality became more obvious. She got covid. She reduced her public engagements. In June 2021, her husband of 73 years died, and in a photograph that circulated widely from the funeral, Elizabeth sat socially distanced and alone in St. George’s Chapel, wearing double masks, watching the casket carrying Prince Philip make its way down the aisle with nobody in arm’s reach to comfort her. At this point she already looked unsteady on her feet, and very, very small.
By the time Buckingham Palace announced Thursday morning that the Queen’s health was poor, it was evident that we were talking about hours of time rather than weeks, as her family hastened to her bedside.
You know what got to me, in a way I didn’t expect? When I realized that through the course of my whole lifetime, the words to the de facto English anthem have been “God save the Queen,” but now and for the rest of my life, and maybe for the rest of my daughter’s — through the reigns of Charles, then William, then George, as a series of powerful men replace this powerful woman — they’ll be “God save the King.”
Look, I’m an American, and as such I am liberated from any legitimate impact of the monarchy. I do not have to concern myself with the tax burden, the iffy bloodlines, the intermarriage, the outer-marriage, the jewels, the jubilees, the two-dozen official residences, the Crown’s pomp and the Queen’s circumstances. As an American I don’t have to deal with all that.
But as an American I can also remark, with both wonder and dispassion, on what made the Queen so meaningful: She always seemed like a remarkably average woman.
She was not imbued with any preternatural wit, or presence, or beauty, or grace. Her appearance was wholesome rather than striking. She was not sexy or sparkling. She did not appear to have a way with words. Her quotes and public addresses were not particularly deep. She did not give introspective interviews about being a working mother “having it all.” She was not on book tours or launching podcasts or chatting with Diane Sawyer. She did not build her brand in the ways we now expect famous, powerful women to do; instead she sought to preserve an antique brand — for better or worse, but not for herself.
This, to me, is the legacy. This is the remarkable thing. That for 70 years the most important figure in Britain was a woman who did not do many of the things or embody many of the characteristics that society often demands women do and be. For 70 years the Commonwealth’s most important resident was an extremely average woman who was made sublime only because the people allowed her to be.
She did her work. She did her work stoically, stoutly, relentlessly, uncomplaining, for 25,000 days while her contemporaries retired or died, and her children divorced or became caught up in Jeffrey Epstein scandals, and one of her grandsons resigned and moved into Tyler Perry’s house in California and the other grandson stayed put and sired his own heirs who may one day carry on the work that his grandmother had been doing since before the invention of birth control or Barbie.
She did her work. Whatever any of us think of the monarchy, we can think something of showing up to do the work. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” she once told her future subjects in a radio address broadcast on her 21st birthday. “And the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
She insisted she was merely a humble public servant. And the most extraordinary thing is that maybe that’s what she was all along.