With all the bad news in world this week, there was one major event that made almost everyone happy—the royal wedding in England. Prince Harry married Megan Markle, an American actress. Even though Harry is 6th in line for the throne and very unlikely ever to become king, the wedding was treated as a major milestone in British history. The fact that Ms. Markle is a divorced biracial woman and an American makes her different from most people who have married royals, but the habit of marrying foreigners has a long history.
European royals have married across borders for centuries. Cultures have mingled, religions have been changed to suit the new country, and new customs spread across the continent. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, is even credited with introducing the Christmas tree to England–an important innovation if there ever was one–although some historians dispute his role in that.
The Georgian kings, who reigned during the 18th century, all married German princesses and brought many European ideas and customs to England. They also seem to have brought a lot of good sense too. Queen Caroline of Ansbach has been called the most intelligent consort in British history and was known in her own time as a strong political force. In fact a ballad written at the time warns her husband, George II, that she outshone him.
You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain,
We all know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign –
You govern no more than Don Philip of Spain.
Then if you would have us fall down and adore you,
Lock up your fat spouse, as your dad did before you.
Despite this kind of satire, Caroline was a good influence on the king and on the country. When she died, she was widely mourned by citizens who admired her strength and intelligence. At a time when monarchs had far more political influence than they do now, she was able to help shape modern England.
The importance of the royal family has dwindled since the days of the Georges, of course. The brides of all members of the royal family now seem to function mostly as fashion plates and supporters of good causes. But they still have an important role in bringing some new ideas and backgrounds to the royal household.
Megan Markle’s mixed heritage echoes much of what is going on in Britain today. The recent scandal over people from the Caribbean who were invited to move to Britain after World War II to relieve the labor shortage shows that race is still an issue. Ms. Markle’s heritage and the attention that was paid during the wedding ceremony to the African culture that is a part of the United Kingdom may help to move the country toward a greater acceptance of its broadly based cultural heritage.
Moving the country into a greater acceptance of its diversity may be the most important result of this highly-publicized wedding. That would demonstrate that even after all these years the monarchy can still be an important uniting force for the British people. It would be nice, of course, if the wedding also leads to a long and happy marriage for Harry and his bride.
A few days ago one of my nieces told me that she was going to spend Mother’s Day with her adult son. They would celebrate by having lunch and going for a run together. I smiled thinking how impossible it would have seemed, when I was growing up, to have considered a mother as someone who would go out for a run on Mother’s Day.
Mothers back then had white hair, sat in rocking chairs, or perhaps in the passenger seat of cars, and were taken on decorous trips for any celebration. Even their clothes were expected to be subdued. I can remember my puzzlement as a small child when I heard my grandmother mutter “mutton dressed as lamb” about some actress who was considered to dress in inappropriately youthful style.
Ideas about what is appropriate for women, and especially mature women, have certainly changed. One of the icons of our times is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Supreme Court Justice who popularized the idea of fitness for all ages. It has been a long, slow journey to the acceptance of the idea that women should keep themselves strong and able to meet the challenges of their lives. And many of the ideas that brought this change were introduced by those rigid Victorians, both men and women, who had seen the indignities of living with corsets, tight shoes, and bodies smothered by long, heavy skirts. But it was not an easy fight.
Perhaps we should make a national hero of Amelia Bloomer, the 19th century feminist who tried valiantly to make clothes serve women instead of making women slaves to clothes. Although clothing reform was not her major interest—she also campaigned for women’s right to vote and to petition the government, as well as for temperance—she recognized that the heavy, uncomfortable dresses women wore restricted their activities and the work they could do. When she saw a costume made up of loose trousers covered be a knee-length skirt, she adopted the idea and advocated it in her newspaper The Lily. It soon became known as the Bloomer costume. Women discovered that it freed them from the necessity of restricting their activities. With their new freedom they could walk along the filthy streets of big cities or the mud and dust of country roads without carrying along bugs and trash clinging to their skirts. They could even ride the new-fangled bicycles and move faster and more easily than they ever had before.
It took more than a century to banish the long skirts and restricting underwear that had hampered women for centuries, but at last it has happened. The freedom to wear practical clothes started with young women who rode bicycles and went to work and eventually were allowed to participate in public life. Young mothers joined their husbands and children in active life and as they grew older, they continued to be active.
This year let’s honor all the women who keep up with their children and grandchildren as they celebrate an active life.