From 'Lilibet' to HRH: How Queen Elizabeth II became the 'ultimate feminist'

A young girl with tight brown curls that once smiled wickedly alongside her sister in photographs adorning mantelpieces.

The girl with a penchant for dressing up in plush coats and pushing doll-laden prams, boasting a childish adoration for horses and dogs.

It’s a vision that sounds familiar to us all. 

Nicknamed ‘Lilibet’ by her family as she couldn’t pronounce her name as a tot, you’d be forgiven for thinking that young Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor sounded like any other young girl – rather than Her Majesty the Queen.

Raised in a tight-knit family of four, shared between a Royal home in London, and one in Windsor Great Park, the family lived a relatively quiet life.

Though an affectionate sister to Margaret – her baby, and only, sibling by four years, but whom she’d sadly grow to outlive – an ordinary sibling rivalry ensued. 

Despite the future Queen once claiming that her sister ‘always wants what I’ve got, while Margaret insisted to be ‘second best to [her] grave,’ they were home-schooled together, in a ‘same socks, same skirts’ fashion, according to royal biographer, Andrew Morton. 

Elizabeth was said to be her father’s ‘pride’, while Margaret his ‘joy,’ – it was the start of a tense, highly-publicised relationship that would be the centre of scrutiny for years to come – one we’d eventually follow on Netflix, fascinated from our sofas, clad in pyjamas.

Queen Elizabeth II dead: Key details

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has died after 70 years on the throne, with her death announced by Buckingham Palace on 8 September 2022.

She passed away at the age of 96 years old surrounded by her family at her home in Balmoral, including her son and heir to the throne Charles, the Prince of Wales, and her grandsons, the Duke Of Cambridge, Prince William and the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry.

Follow’s live blog for the latest updates.

Since she lived in the long shadows of men – her father Prince Albert, Duke of York (soon-to-be King George VI), and uncle David, the Prince of Wales – it was unlikely that this seemingly ordinary, strangely familiar-sounding girl would ever become Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

She was third in line to the throne, something alien to her world of soft ponies and fluffy dogs (of which she’d come to own over 30 of in her lifetime) – unaware of scrutiny or gossip. 

That was until the tender age of 10 when, following the death of her grandfather King George V in 1936, her uncle David (King Edward VIII) abdicated after one year on the throne to pursue a divorced woman, she and her family were thrust into the spotlight.

She went from curly-haired, dutiful ‘Lilibet,’ to Princess Elizabeth: heir to the throne.

But this new burden didn’t change her world entirely. During her teens, Elizabeth regularly made broadcasts to the British people on Children’s Hour, boosting the morale of children and adults alike during the outbreak of World War II. 

And by 18, Elizabeth was turning heads as a trailblazing woman. She’d personally requested to join the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service – fixing cars in dirty overalls, training as a mechanic and military truck driver. 

To this date, Elizabeth was the only female Royal to have ever been in the armed forces – a scene showed cheekily in The Crown, a dramatic reimagining of her life, when she shoos away bolshy men when it comes to fixing her broken-down car.

TIME magazine’s Dan Stewart described her as a woman that ‘personifies British endurance,’ and even in her teenage years, Elizabeth consistently paved the way as a female figurehead of stability and hope; proving her future credentials to be the monarch that Britain needed in stormy weather.

And through those storms, Elizabeth wanted to be amongst the people – her people – not towering above them. Even as her father reigned crowds from a palace on Victory in Europe Day in 1945, Elizabeth and her sister de-robed responsibility, and slipped into the crowds, giggling and linking arms – riding on the thrill of potentially being recognised. ‘I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief,’ Elizabeth said.

Two years later, she defied standards once more for announcing her engagement to her pen pal of six years, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. Soon to become the Duke of Edinburgh, Philip was an exiled poor boy from a family with marital links to Nazi Germany.

Still, they married the following year, on 20th November 1947 in an unfamiliar, war-torn Britain, in a dress made from material Elizabeth was forced to buy with ration coupons.

It was five years later, still in the throes of her marriage, when Elizabeth and her husband were touring Kenya, and staying in the Treetops Hotel when her beloved father took his last breath after a long battle with lung cancer.

‘For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen,’ her bodyguard wrote in the hotel’s guest book.

Martin Charteris, the then-princess’s private secretary quoted in a book, The Queen: A Life in Brief that no-one saw her shed a tear, and ‘she was sitting erect, fully accept[ing] her destiny’ – a reputation, steeped in stoicism, that she would soon grow to uphold.

For a coronation that wasn’t predicted to happen anytime soon for the young Elizabeth, she did it with her head held high, one year after her dearest father had died, and her much-scrutinised dress – not bought with rations this time – a symbolic statement. 

It was one of many to come in her record 70-year reign – something that would be transformed into over 100 films and TV shows, with her character played by Dames she would soon come to appoint under her power.

Emblems of the countries that she now reigned, as a 27-year-old Queen, adorned her coronation gown on June 2 1953. She stood tall, peppered with embroidered Tudor roses, shamrocks, Welsh leeks, thistles, maple leaves, and other iconic flowers of the Commonwealth.

‘She’s the breadwinner,’ Olivia Colman, a Norwich-born actress who played the Queen for two seasons on Netflix’s The Crown, explained in a 2019 interview. ‘She’s the one on our coins and banknotes. Prince Philip has to walk behind her. She fixed cars in the Second World War. She insisted on driving a king who came from a country where women weren’t allowed to drive. She’s no shrinking violet.’

The so-called ‘ultimate feminist,’ as deemed by Colman, was an icon throughout her record-breaking reign.

Having given birth to a son, Charles, in 1948, she went on to have three more children, Anne (born in 1950), Andrew (1960) and Edward (1964) – who recently was ‘revealed’ to be the Queen’s ‘favourite’ by royal biographer Matthew Dennison.

Although a stoic, powerful figure, who ruled with grace, clarity and a clear-headed personality – Elizabeth never forgot the value of human interaction.

She famously delivered the Royals into the world’s hands for the first time, dismissing the security of her car to be seen on ‘walkabouts’ amongst crowds, shaking hands and laughing with the people.

Despite this human touch, Queen Elizabeth was a famously private woman, and once dubbed by historian David Starkey as ‘Elizabeth the Silent’.

Except, according to royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith, ‘she was ‘much livelier in private than what the public sees.’ 

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‘You can hear her laugh throughout that big house,’ Bedell Smith said of the Queen, at her Sandringham residence. But, it was in silence and fuelled by the love for her family that helped the steadfast mother of four, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of 12 make the most monumental impacts of her Royal career. 

In 1992, by her own words her ‘annus horribilis’ despite it marking her Ruby Jubilee, she endured three of her children’s divorces – including Charles and Diana’s, of which the sordid details were later broadcast to the world – and a devastating fire to her Windsor home. 

And just five years later, when the late Princess of Wales died in a tragic car accident in Paris, the grandmother came under worldwide scrutiny for refusing to return to London from Balmoral with her grandsons.

As thousands of mourners swarmed the Palace, the Queen remained at Balmoral, refusing to fly the Union flag at half mast – eventually caving in to pressure to bring the young, mourning family home and make a rare television appearance for ‘The People’s Princess’: Diana.

‘This was the first time in a long reign that the Queen was thinking about her family before her people,’ Tina Brown wrote in The Diana Chronicles. ‘We should admire her for that. Her thoughts were with her grandchildren and she wasn’t thinking about how this would be played out in the media.’

Even after enduring her ‘annus horribilis’ and the tumultuous years that followed, Elizabeth proved that one of her greatest achievements was staying headstrong and true to herself, her family and nation – and she certainly didn’t falter in her later years, either.

Her actions spoke louder than words in 2003, when she reportedly took Saudi King Abdullah for a ride in her Land Rover on her Balmoral estate – the leader of a country where, at the time, women were banned from driving.

Elizabeth continued to be an advocate for her sex in 2011, when she quietly made a monumental change to succession laws that meant both the sons and daughters of future British monarchs had equal rights to the throne – instead of just the first-born son.

And then, in a time of great uncertainty once more for Great Britain, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our Queen dialled in to assure 24million viewers that the UK would ‘succeed’ in its fight against the disease.

She promised: ‘We will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again’.

She cut a silent and lonely figure on April 2021, at the funeral of her beloved husband of 73 years, Prince Philip: the picture of her sitting away from her family in her mourning clothes symbolic of the effect the pandemic had on those who lost loved ones.

As strict social distancing guidelines were still in effect, the Queen could not speak to her loved ones. It was reported at the time by Private Eye that Downing Street offered to relax lockdown rules for the funeral, but the Queen herself declined.

She said no on the grounds it would be unfair to all the other people grieving loved ones in lockdown, the paper said.

It meant what had been planned as an 800-person event was cut to the allotted 30 and households had to sit in bubbles.

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But even through the immense grief of losing someone who has been by your side for a lifetime, the Queen did not swerve away from duty.

Despite contacting coronavirus in February 2022, the Queen vowed to continue working, undertaking ‘light duties’ from her desk while she had ‘mild, cold-like symptoms’ – even signing and sending a message of congratulations to Team GB’s curling teams after their success at the Winter Olympics, Beijing.

There were fears that the monarch’s declining health may have stopped her from attending the Platinum Jubilee events, with her having pulled out of numerous key engagements: including the opening of Parliament, where heir to the throne, Prince Charles, was forced to step in in her place.

However, as well as heading to the Royal Windsor Horse Show – said to be her favourite event in the calendar – the Queen pleased subjects with her presence throughout the four day celebration, including the Trooping of the Colour and the grand opening of London’s Elizabeth Line – a train service named after her.

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Queen Elizabeth II continued to work just days ago, even after doctors advised against it; breaking tradition by welcoming Liz Truss, her 15th Prime Minister, in Balmoral instead of at Buckingham Palace, due to her ongoing mobility issues.

Now, as her family grows in line with the ever-changing centuries, living in different countries and making significant footnotes in the pages of history, our monarch’s legacy lives on through them – as a proud daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother.

But most of all, as a proud woman – a proud working woman, still carrying out duties at the impressive age of 96.

By becoming the longest reigning monarch in British history, though she claimed in 2015 that the record ‘was not one to which I have ever aspired,’ it’s no doubt that a monarch had never witnessed such a seismic change – in both society, and in the treatment of her sex, of which she made such a watershed impact on.

All in silence, and with great dignity and honour.

Long may her legacy reign, defend our laws, and ever give us cause.

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