"In Meghan Markle, will Britain get a sleeping beauty or our first woke princess?" ran one headline in the Guardian newspaper.
LONDON — Before she retired as an actress and shut down her social media accounts, before she got engaged to Prince Harry and committed to the Firm, as young British royals call their institution, Meghan Markle had opinions and spoke her mind.
She blasted presidential candidate Donald Trump as “misogynistic.” She posted a photo of Londoners protesting Britain’s exit from the European Union. At age 11, she successfully petitioned Procter & Gamble to change its Ivory dish soap commercial from “women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans” to “people all over America.” She has written forthrightly about being a “strong, confident mixed-race woman.”
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But what will her activism look like after she marries Harry on Saturday?
The royal family has survived the modern age by remaining zealously apolitical. They are relentlessly on-message about having no political message.
Royals cut ribbons. Royals do the hand-wave. They support charities. They burnish the family brand, worth $88 billion, according to Forbes.
With their corgis and stag hunts, tax havens and tweed, one might fairly suspect they’re all Tories to the bone. The trick is, we don’t know.
So here comes Meghan Markle — and some people are wondering aloud: What if she goes for it?
“In Meghan Markle, will Britain get a sleeping beauty or our first woke princess?” ran one headline in the Guardian newspaper.
“This will be the first time, really, we will have an outspoken advocate for women’s rights at a senior level in the royal family,” said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights organization.
Paul Reid, director of the Black Cultural Archives in south London’s Brixton neighborhood, is watching to see if she speaks out on issues of race. “We’re still trying to work out who she is,” Reid said. “How does she use her influence, what does she align herself to, what she’s going to do? I’d like to know.”
And yet, this is a constitutional monarchy.
“She will have to dial it back, completely,” said Dickie Arbiter, the queen’s former press secretary. He said senior royals must take care not get too far out in front of the queen, who has a constitutional obligation to remain above the political fray.
In Britain, the queen reigns but does not rule.
Royals other than the queen “can, in theory, say what they want,” said Vernon Bogdanor, a historian and constitutional expert at King’s College London. “But they shouldn’t do anything that would embarrass the queen.”
“If Meghan Markle says, ‘I hate the Labour Party, I hate the Conservative Party,’ that would be very out of order,” said Bogdanor. He said that on some issues it can be “a difficult matter of judgment – obviously, she will have to be careful.”
So far, Markle seems to be working hard to fit in. The 36-year-old, who portrayed can-do paralegal Rachel Zane on the USA Network series “Suits,” has given up her acting career and her lifestyle blog. She was baptized and confirmed into the Church of England. She has been spotted doing the “duchess slant,” sitting with knees and ankles together, lower legs on a diagonal.
But there are hints that she may push the boundaries. Speaking on a panel in February, with Prince Harry to one side of her and Prince William and Catherine on the other, she referenced the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up campaign. “Women don’t need to find a voice. They have a voice,” she said. “They need to feel empowered to use it, and people need to be encouraged to listen.” She may buck orthodoxy and deliver her own speech at her wedding reception.
“She is now going into this uncharted and very interesting territory,” said Catherine Mayer, a royal biographer and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party. “I think she could be genuinely important, because it’s such a big platform, such a global platform, she has resources and she has reach that very few other people do.”
Mayer said there is nothing exceptional about the humanitarian work Markle has done: traveling to Rwanda to promote access to clean drinking water, advocating for girls’ education in India. Other celebrities have taken on similar causes. And those sorts of trips are very much in the royal mold. Princess Diana was known for her active involvement in campaigns to raise awareness about AIDS, land mines and leprosy. Prince Harry has taken up some of her issues and added others, including support for military veterans and wildlife conservation.
But Markle is different from other British royals, Mayer said, in her “views and lived experiences.”
Markle is also an American, an outsider. Although she will become a British citizen, she may not instinctively know, or automatically accept, or her place in Britain’s rigid class system. “That’s enormously helpful,” Mayer said.
Party politics will almost certainly remain a no-go zone. But beyond that, Markle may find she has some leeway.
The heir to the throne is Prince Charles, 69, who goes on about carbon footprints, organic manure, holistic medicines – and his hatred of modern architecture. As king, perhaps he would provide some room to maneuver for an activist daughter-in-law.
It also may help that Markle is marrying a “spare heir,” who was recently bumped down to sixth in the line of succession with the birth of his nephew, Prince Louis.
“The closer you get to the queen, the stronger the restrictions. You can’t have a campaigning monarchy,” Bogdanor said. But he added that there is “less worry for those who are quite far away.”