When the British queen took the throne, most women were expected to follow traditional roles in the home. In the spring of 1953, American women from all over the country went to Britain. Many people were going abroad for the first time.
The trip was to see Elizabeth II’s coronation, which took place in Westminster Abbey on a rainy day in June of that year. Peggy Webber, who came all the way from Iowa, and Geneva Valentine, who came from Washington, D.C., were two of the people who made the trip.
While doing research on the monarchy and gender, I learned about both of these women. For both of them, the coronation was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a part of a big event where a woman was at the center of the story.
On the other hand, especially among women, Elizabeth has been loved for more than 70 years. It may be less showy than the attention given to other women in the royal family, like Princess Diana or the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, who may be more beautiful. But it held up.
A poll taken in February 2022 found that more than 60% of American women liked Elizabeth, who died on Thursday at the age of 96. The survey found that out of all the living royals, she was the most liked. In general, women have a higher opinion of the royals than men do.
From the start of her reign, the queen quietly caught the attention of American women in her own way. As a historian of the British monarchy, I know that some of the interest came from Americans’ love for the royal family, which didn’t end with Elizabeth’s rule.
But Elizabeth also meant something else to a lot of American women. Elizabeth was taking the throne of a powerful country at a time when women were often expected to stick to traditional roles like housewives and homemakers. One psychologist told the Los Angeles Times in 1953 that for the first time, “women in America have found a hero who makes them feel better than men.”
Love that goes back a long way
In the same way that American women in the 20th century watched Elizabeth grow from a good daughter to a young bride and mother to a responsible ruler, people in the 19th century were interested in Queen Victoria’s coronation, marriage, and jubilee.
Even though the United States became independent in 1776 and went in a different direction, the British royal family has always had a strong pull on the American mind. In fact, that pull may be even stronger because politics doesn’t get in the way. It is not done with U.S. tax money, so Americans can enjoy the ceremony and romance without worrying about how much it costs and what it means to have a monarchy.
America’s love for the royals has something to do with men and women, too. When women went to London in 1953 or, if that wasn’t possible, turned on their brand-new TVs to watch the coronation coverage, they weren’t just interested in what the queen was wearing or how handsome Prince Philip looked.
They were also fascinated by the fact that there was so much fuss over a woman, especially a powerful one. At the time, Clare Boothe Luce, who was the U.S. ambassador to Italy, said that this was “a job made for a woman.” Luce used this argument to convince President Dwight Eisenhower to send journalist Fleur Cowles to the coronation as one of his official representatives.
In fact, Luce alluded to the fact that Elizabeth’s rule was deliciously chaotic. Many American women were told to go back home and be proud of how well their kitchens worked. At the same time, a 25-year-old princess was made head of state, and her every move was reported and talked about. This was strange, but it seemed to be a good sign for other people of her sex.
In 1953, John Kord Lagemann wrote in the Los Angeles Times about “America’s Queen-Crazy Women” and how people felt about this. Lagemann said that Elizabeth was a challenge to the patriarchy. Her marriage is a good example. He wrote that in this case, “the situation is turned around” and the woman “commands.”
Elizabeth didn’t have to act shy and helpless to “play by a man’s rules.” She could rather “be as bossy as she wants.” Lagemann’s observations give us some clues about why American women are so interested in Elizabeth. Even as the women’s liberation movement changed some conversations, the queen kept showing a different way to move forward. She showed that women could travel without their children, show that they understood policy, be the focus of a photo, take responsibility, and even age in public.
Elizabeth II will be missed by many people all over the world, including the daughters and granddaughters of those “Queen-Crazy” Americans who went to London in 1953 for her coronation but haven’t seen a female head of state in their own country yet.
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