The Queen marks her 65th year on the throne this week with a celebration of her Sapphire Jubilee. Queen Elizabeth II is both the world’s oldest living monarch as well as the longest reigning British monarch. Additionally, the Queen carries the title of the longest reigning female head of state in world history.
Elizabeth’s rise to power was unexpected and not without its complexities. Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, was placed on the throne after its abdication by his older brother and King Edward VIII in 1936 (Edward left his position in order to pursue a marriage to an American woman named Wallace Simpson). This unexpected moment placed Elizabeth, then just ten years old, as the future Queen of England.
Although the Queen has always had a reserved demeanor, she was without a doubt a strong-willed, if not quiet, woman living in the mostly male dominated world of British politics. Before she came to power, Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service to help the British during World War II. Here she trained alongside other British women as a driver and a mechanic. Within five months, she was promoted to honorary junior commander.
Her father’s death after the war positioned her to take the throne at the age of twenty-six, where she was immediately faced with the task of learning how to be a queen, as well as asserting her authority against such legendary British figures such as Winston Churchill – most recently depicted in the Netfix drama, The Crown.
Establishing her rank -and the respect that came with it – was a task she even had to take to her own husband, Prince Phillip, whose last name she chose not to carry (instead taking on her own family’s name, Windsor). The decision for the Queen Elizabeth to keep her name and pass it onto her heirs broke with customary tradition for women at that time. Prince Phillip was quoted as saying, “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children. “
The Queen most often found herself in the juxtaposing position of maintaining the crown’s legacy with the enormous cultural movements that changed British and global lifestyles for good– particularly in relation to women and marriage. The Queen was less a ‘product of her time’ and more of an aware observer who understood the consequences of progress vs maintaining cultural order. One particular instance of this involved her younger sister, Princess Margret’s desire to marry a divorcee – the move which at the time (1950s) would have not simply been scandalous, but threatened another abdication scandal. Throughout her reign, the queen often came down on the more conservative side of these controversial debates –including her decision to not let Margret marry.
— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) February 6, 2017
Despite some of her more conservative decisions, the queen also broke cultural ground throughout her reign (though they were often limited to symbolic acts), such as talking her family into her marriage to Prince Phillip or being the first head of state to send an email in 1976.
Although for the modern feminist, these acts seem small, its important to remember that Queen Elizabeth was a product of her time then, and a woman charting legal red-tape now. Only in 2013 was a law passed that woman could become equal in British throne succession – a law the Queen heavily welcomed, stating that women should have a greater role in society: “It encourages us to find ways to show girls and women to play their full part.”
This week’s Sapphire Jubilee festivities include the release of a royal portrait of the Queen (originally taken in 2014 by David Bailey). There was also a 41-gun royal salute at Green Park in London and a 62-gun salute at the Tower of London and the release of a five pound stamp and a slew of jubilee coins. The Queen has chosen not to partake in public festivities, instead observing the event from her estate in Norfolk, Sandringham.