Meghan, Kate, and the Architecture of Misogyny

Policing correct female behavior keeps all women in their place.

A photo of Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships.
KGC-09 / STAR MAX / IPx 2019 via AP

Are you Team Kate or Team Meghan? If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to pick a side—and you don’t think there should be “sides” at all. Yet ever since Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, parts of the media have pitted the former actor against her sister-in-law.

Where Kate Middleton was once depicted as a dull social climber, she is now presented as the epitome of female virtue: a respectable, silent, discreet, and selfless mother. Meghan must therefore be her opposite—a political, manipulative, “woke” careerist.

Essentially, the two duchesses have been assigned to opposite sides of the culture war. All kinds of seemingly unrelated items have become symbols of one side or the other—quinoa, avocados, the English flag, attitudes toward the death penalty—and now Kate and Meghan have been conscripted too.

Kate is held up as an icon for traditionalists, metaphorically baking cookies (as Hillary Clinton once said stay-at-home mothers do), while Meghan has become the emblem of modern womanhood, outspoken and socially progressive. Never mind that they might just be following their own personalities and interests; they have become representatives of two distinct political positions. By carving up the messiness of female lives into a stark binary, the choices open to all women—not just Meghan and Kate—are limited.

Women’s lives provide a particularly vivid arena for the clash between traditionalism and modernity because we love to interpret women’s choices as commentary on other women’s choices. The Meghan-versus-Kate clash has echoes of the “Mommy Wars,” the feminist shorthand for how every decision made by a mother is interpreted as a rebuke to other mothers who choose differently—breast- versus bottle-feeding, C-section versus “natural birth,” stay-at-home mother versus “supermom.” (It is notable that Prince William and Prince Harry, despite their own different temperaments and approaches, are not being turned into cultural avatars in the same way.)

There is a long tradition of regulating female behavior by defining women in opposition to one another. It is a familiar pattern in the coverage of American first ladies too: Think Laura Bush versus Clinton or Melania Trump versus Michelle Obama. While researching my history of feminism, Difficult Women, I was struck by a pattern in which “good girls” are promised an escape from misogyny, as long as they are docile and conformist—a pattern that has race- and class-based overtones. When Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney staged the first suffragette protest, in Manchester in 1905, a newspaper article about the ensuing court case condemned their behavior—they shouted and spat at policemen—saying it resembled that of women “from the slums.” The report added: “It was regrettable that such a charge should be brought against persons who ought, at least, to be able to control themselves.” The aristocrat Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton, another suffragette, wrote in her memoir that upper-class women were inculcated with “a maiming subserviency … so conditional to their very existence that it becomes an aim in itself, an ideal.”

Kate has now been anointed as the standard-bearer of that ideal. Tabloid headlines about her have become noticeably kinder since Prince Harry’s relationship with Meghan was announced. She was once deemed vulgar and hopelessly bourgeois, a schemer who chose to study at the University of St Andrews in Scotland precisely to ensnare Prince William. She and her younger sibling Pippa were the “wisteria sisters”—“highly decorative, terribly fragrant and with a ferocious ability to climb.”

How times change. Kate is now the woman against whom Meghan is judged and found wanting. “Of all the pictures published in this tumultuous week for the Royal Family, one stood out for me,” the Daily Mail’s Amanda Platell wrote on January 10. “It was of a smiling mother-of-three in jeans and a jumper … No tears or tantrums here, just a woman happy with her lot and who understands how to behave as a royal.” (Platell, like many other columnists in British right-wing newspapers, is a recent convert to Katemania, having previously condemned her “wardrobe malfunctions,” long hair, approach to parenting, and flight-attendant mother.)

This new valorization of Kate is racially inflected, because Britain’s most durable template of respectable womanhood—the “English rose”—is much less accessible to anyone foreign or dark-skinned. The language used to indicate Meghan’s blackness has been noted by some writers, even as it fails to register with many white Britons: She is “exotic,” “urban,” “straight outta Compton.” The author Afua Hirsch told NPR that mixed-race people see in the coverage of Meghan “very colonial narratives about how we should be so grateful that we were allowed in.” But this “English rose” framing is not an unalloyed benefit for those anointed as the “right” kind of women, either. If minority and working-class women are attacked for being unruly and ungrateful—for not knowing their place—their wealthier white sisters are, in the feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon’s description, dismissed as “effete, pampered, privileged, protected, flighty, and self-indulgent.”

The pro-Meghan side has also embraced the culture war. She has been presented as a symbol of change—the first person of color in the royal family, an avowed feminist, a divorcée, and a woman with a successful career of her own. But as Nesrine Malik, the author of We Need New Stories, has argued, the radicalism of an actor marrying an aristocrat has often been overstated as a marker of progress. “When black and brown voices heralded the Meghan-Harry wedding as some sort of watershed moment on race it was, to use a problematic word, problematic,” she wrote. Inevitably, there are those who argue that any criticism of Meghan must be driven by racism. Although some of it undoubtedly is, Britain also has a long tradition of deeming royal women unsuitable— yet pointing this out is taken as denialism and white obliviousness.

As a result, much current commentary reads less like scrutiny of the specific situation at hand and more like artillery barrages in a proxy war. The real subject is anxiety over female emancipation and women’s roles in public life. In this framing, any praise for one duchess must be a negative commentary on the other. To be pro-Meghan is to be anti-Kate, and vice versa. Everyone is invited to pick a side, as if choosing a sports team. It is part of a broader trend where political discussions morph into something closer to battles between fandoms.

The trouble with a culture war—the reason there’s never a cease-fire—is that everyone gets what they want from it. One side prides itself on “defending traditional values,” speaking the plain truth about snowflake-Millennial duchesses and sticking up for the Queen (What did she do to deserve this?). The other sees itself as championing diversity and progressive values, standing up to racism and calling out the excesses of the media. Television and radio programs get inflammatory debates; participants burnish their in-group membership; big political arguments are thrashed out on-screen alongside pictures of attractive celebrities in lovely clothes.

But all women lose when women’s lives are boiled down to these simple binaries: selfless mother against ruthless careerist. Meghan is a mother too. Kate has political interests, such as mental health and early-childhood education. Both have nannies and live in homes worth millions. Not everything they do is “sending a signal” or “making a statement”; some of their personal choices are just that: personal choices. By focusing only on the differences between them, we lose sight of the institutions—the royal family and the architecture of misogyny—that constrain them both.