by Uma Ramesh
Hours after Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, the monarchy’s official website was updated to include her biography. Displayed in large text was a quote from Markle’s 2015 speech at a U.N. Women event: “I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.” With just a few words, the Duchess of Sussex signaled that women’s empowerment would be a key focus of her royal life. Protocol prevents Markle from making political statements in public, requiring her to divorce politics from a movement that claims “the personal is political.” I’m not surprised, in this context, that Markle’s feminist statements have been careful and restrained. I didn’t expect that her actions would feel more powerful for being so quiet.
In September, Markle unveiled her first solo project as the Duchess of Sussex: a cookbook called Together, whose proceeds support the Hubb Community Kitchen. Housed in a West London mosque,the kitchen is run by women who came together after the Grenfell Tower fire to cook for their displaced neighbors. Watching Markle promote this project, I was struck by her quiet, purposeful embrace of intersectional feminism. According to the Royal Foundation website, Markle was inspired to see how the Hubb Community Kitchen empowers women at a grassroots level. However, her speech at the cookbook’s launch party placed more emphasis on multiculturalism; Markle remarked that it was “outstanding” to see “12 countries represented in this one group of women.” By drawing race into a feminist initiative, Markle affirmed a foundational aspect of intersectionality:feminism should address women’s intersecting identities, rather than focusing solely on gender.
Markle’s role likely prevents her from explicitly arguing that everyone should embrace intersectionality, an idea that remains hotly-debated. Instead, she did something equally, if not more, remarkable. By separating intersectional feminism from overtly political language, Markle made a controversial idea accessible for people who don’t engage with hot-button issues.
She made a similar move during a visit to New Zealand this past October, where she gave a speech honoring the nation’s 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Markle argued: “. . . women’s suffrage is not simply about the right to vote for women but also about what that represents.The basic and fundamental human right of all people – including members of society who have been marginalized – whether for reasons of race, gender,ethnicity, or orientation – to be able to participate in the choices for their future and their community.” Once again, Markle affirmed a key aspect of intersectional feminism: it’s impossible to champion women’s rights without opposing all forms of oppression. However, her speech – lacking in overtly political language – remained accessible for diverse audiences. Quiet statements like these, made by a figure as visible as Markle, add up to a meaningful effort to shift our cultural understanding of women’s empowerment.
Meghan Markle delivers a speech honoring NewZealand’s 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage at a receptionhosted by the Governor General (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Getty Images).
PrinceHarry and Meghan Markle visit Pillars, a New Zealand charity, with Prime MinisterJacinda Ardern (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Getty Images).
British girl band Little Mix recently released a new album, LM5, and one of my favorite tracks is their feminist anthem“Woman’s World.” The chorus goes: “If you’ve never shouted to be heard/You ain’t lived in a woman’s world.” I learned years ago that I need to strongly and repeatedly assert myself to ensure my voice is heard. Almost unconsciously, I’ve come to associate being quiet with being meek. I’m grateful for Meghan Markle’s feminist activism, because she has helped me understand the world in more nuanced terms. Her work makes clear that it’s possible to be impactful and to be yourself, even in the face of rigid social norms. Being quiet doesn’t have to stop you from being revolutionary. I don’t believe I’ll be facing the constraints that she does anytime soon, and I still fervently believe in the value of shouting. Instead, what’s shifted for me is this: I know that, although my circumstances may change, my agency will always remain at least partially in my hands.