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Queen Elizabeth II understood the gendering of nationhood — and how to harness it

We think of nationhood as motherhood. That’s why the queen’s death feels so profound to so many.

Since her death, people have litigated Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy at length, a conversation brought into sharp relief Monday as she is laid to rest. While the contours and impact of her tenure are hotly debated, one thing is certain: The queen understood the gendering of national identity and how to harness it.

For centuries, those who’ve pursued or defended the idea of nationhood have done so in gendered terms.

For centuries, those who’ve pursued or defended the idea of nationhood have done so in gendered terms: Think of phrases such as “the motherland,” “mother tongue” or “the birth of a nation.” There is some irony in how uniting this political framework is deployed across the ideological spectrum by stakeholders with disparate interests, from nationalists to activists to freedom fighters to monarchists.

The queen deftly used the gendered conception of nationhood throughout her reign both to define her legacy and to help shape a nation, positioning herself as a collective maternal figure: steady, stern, reassuring, reliable, loyal. This, I would argue, is what makes her loss feel so acute across the United Kingdom: It has lost a mother.

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The idea of national motherhood is crucial to many modern nations, just as it was crucial to the queen. Political theorist Michael Walzer asserted that “the state is invisible; it must be personified before it can be seen, symbolized before it can be loved, imagined before it can be conceived.” This was a notion that went in tandem with Benedict Anderson’s famed thesis a few decades later that nations are “imagined communities.” And these political initiatives are fundamentally gendered.

Mourning the Queen

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For feminists, such as myself, I would argue that the reinforcement of such roles ultimately does a disservice to us all.

Nations are “imagined families,” which we understand to be run by men but symbolized as women, Elleke Boehmer, a professor of world literature in English at the University of Oxford, explains. Feminists have problematized our renderings of nationhood, whereby the nation is seen as a woman and, by definition, sexualized (or desexualized). Nation-states are either the mother — political projects conceived, birthed and nurtured — or imagined identities, disguised as female, which must be pursued, waiting to be fulfilled and, in some cases, in need of protection by intruders, framed as masculine threats.

Gendering a nation helps make concrete the idea of "social phenomena as biologically determined,” explains a paper in the journal of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism. In positioning herself as a mother, the queen helped entrench the idea that the existing social and political framework, including her place in it, are part of the natural order.

In positioning herself as a mother, the queen helped entrench the idea that the existing social and political framework, including her place in it, are part of the natural order.

She positioned herself as the nation’s mother in her actions, quietly disapproving of and rejecting Prince Harry for his perceived lack of loyalty to the family, both imagined and literal. She achieved this in the way she spoke to the country, too. This was best exemplified in her last annual Christmas address in 2021. “Although it’s a time of great happiness and cheer for many, Christmas can be hard for those who have lost loved ones — this year, especially, I understand why,” she began, referring to the death of her husband, Prince Philip. “But for me, in the months since the death of my beloved Philip, I have drawn great comfort from the warmth and affection of the many tributes to his life and work.” The queen drew on her characteristic balance of controlled vulnerability and optimism, helping a nation make sense of something as universal and all-encompassing as grief.

She fulfilled this role to great effect, and it could not be more apparent in how she is being memorialized. “The Queen was a mother to our nation,” read the headline Wednesday of an op-ed written by Rachael Maskell, a Labour (Co-op) member of Parliament. (For reference: Labour Party members tend to be much less supportive of the monarchy than the ruling Conservative Party.) “It is right that we all pause and reflect on the qualities of our late Queen who has steered our nation through the seasons of life and anchored us to become who we are today,” Maskell wrote in a tribute that reads as though it could be written to her own mother.

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The Very Rev. Jonathan Greener, a senior clergyman who holds the title of Dean of Exeter, echoed this sentiment. The queen “has been the mother of the nation our whole life long,” he said, according to the BBC. “So, as well as wanting to express condolences to the Royal Family, for many this loss feels personal."

Local politicians, such as Liberal Democratic Councillor Steve Beasant, the mayor of North East Lincolnshire, a rural part of the country, said the loss felt personal: “I'm feeling it like when my father went in many respects because she is a mother to us, she is a mother to the nation.”

Irrespective of one’s views of the monarchy and of the queen personally, there was an undeniable adeptness in her ability to understand the gendering of a nation and her role within that apparatus.

As problematic as this gendered view of nationhood may be, there is also a masterliness to how she used the framework to shape her legacy, and there is a reason it is so powerful. As the tributes suggest, it offered a rare and singular comfort to many across the nation, which now mourns a mother.