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“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.” Elizabeth I of England made a fascinating real-life subject for the impressive 1998 film ELIZABETH, starring Cate Blanchett. I had taped the film from broadcast just in case I needed a stimulating distraction, and, when I finally clicked PLAY during one stultifying winter evening, the award-winning movie didn’t disappoint me. Elizabeth, the daughter of the infamous Henry VIII and the unfortunate Anne Boleyn, very nearly didn’t survive the brutal politics and religious persecution that preceded her ascension to the throne. Even as she began her reign, she had to learn by trial and error that her gender would be used by those around her to underestimate and undermine her leadership.
But Elizabeth wasn’t about to let the scheming men of court manipulate her. She was fond of reminding her detractors that her father had been formidable and so would she be. “I have the heart of a man, not a woman, and I am not afraid of anything.” Many contrived to achieve their own agendas by marrying her off to one of Europe’s royal houses. To prove herself capable of sidestepping their machinations to rule her empire through peace and war, she abandoned her lover, cut off her hair, and declared herself a virgin married to the country, not to any man. Like modern women who sport “pussy hats” to remind their detractors that women deserve respect as equal human beings and not merely as a collection of grab-able anatomical parts, Elizabeth wore heavy make-up to emphasize her self-redesign as a female king. She was demonstrating that she could rise above the sex and motherhood roles men intended to use to belittle her. Apparently, her drastic action worked, because she reigned for over 40 years during which England became a major political power.
Queens who ruled England after her, such as Victoria or the present Elizabeth II, didn’t feel compelled to follow her lead as a virgin. In fact, Victoria and her ill-fated husband Prince Albert populated the European royal houses with their nine children. Late in her life, Victoria gave herself the additional title of Empress of India to reflect her enormous kingdom. She was second only to present-day Elizabeth II in the length of her reign (63 years). Although the role of the monarchy has changed drastically since Elizabeth I, perhaps happily, so has the world. These women are creditable models of how capable a female leader can be. It is not gender that rules well or poorly. It is intelligence and character.