The episode of The Crown where The Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth meets the First Lady Jackie Kennedy has to be one of the best moments of television that I’ve ever seen. It’s not great because it’s TV. It’s great because it’s real.
(For more regular TV watchers, I realize I’m about a year behind on this one, but go with me on this for a minute.)
Here’s the premise: In June 1961, Queen Elizabeth and her husband host the Kennedys at Buckingham Palace for dinner. This is only months after the election of President Kennedy here in the U.S., and Jackie is just beginning to captivate and dazzle on the world stage. Even in the UK, she’s treated like royalty, which is saying something (coming from the Queen).
At the time, both of these women are the same age, 31, and as we learn throughout the episode, each grapples with her own identity in the midst of becoming a global phenomenon. Stunningly, in a private moment portrayed in the episode, Jackie confesses to Elizabeth that she’s also quite shy and introverted, having been thrust into the spotlight somewhat unwillingly. As is well known by this point, Queen Elizabeth also felt a bit “unfit to be Queen” in comparison to her sister, who always expressed far more of the temperament for such things.
Throughout the episode, several pieces of history are weaved together to construct a story arc surrounding the two women — who are each beacons for their respective countries at a time when few others had women to look up to.
And while the story is incredibly compelling any way you slice it, the era in which it takes place sets it into another level.
Let’s think back to what it was like for women in the U.S. back in 1961:
- Only 38% of women in the U.S. were a part of the labor force
- For women who were working, their median earnings were about 60% of what men were making
- 4% of the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives were women (that’s 20 women total)
- 0 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (the first wasn’t until 1972)
Okay, let’s now think again about what it must have been like for the two most influential women of their era to meet under these circumstance. One woman who was thrust unwillingly into the role of Queen of a monarchy and another who married one of the most beloved U.S. Presidents to date. Two women leaders at a time when few other women represented world leaders or business decisions who happen to meet each other face to face over dinner. What do they discuss? What do they ask each other? How does it all play out?
Obviously, while I can’t tell if The Crown’s portrayal is fact or fictionalized, the episode hones in on one particular ruling emotion above them all that you might not expect: jealousy.
No, I’m not betraying any major plot point by telling you this. (And by the way, spoilers shouldn’t exist in historical fiction anyway, but that’s a post for another time.) But above all the things these women could have felt, and perhaps should have felt, upon meeting face to face, the prevailing instinct was not that of collaboration…but of competition.
According to this retelling, the Queen was feeling a bit old-fashioned and middle-aged and looked to the First Lady’s youth and style with an envious eye. By contrast, the First Lady was feeling stifled and cornered in her marriage and longed for the open freedom of the Queen to set about her own course of action, however difficult it may prove to be. In a way, each admired the other, but they did not become fast friends. Why not?
Even after a slight kerfuffle in their relationship in which Jackie apologizes, the Queen denies her the satisfaction of acceptance. And rather than recount how Jackie’s slight criticism propelled her to greater things, she chooses to remain silent and hold the course. Why?
This question, I believe, is one that we continue to ask ourselves and puzzle over to this day. In the absence of other peers at this level, why would women like this not build out a more lasting and trusting relationship? Do women help women only when it is convenient for one or the other? Is collaboration only possible when competition is rendered a non-issue? Is the idea that any single gender can unilaterally agree with everyone else of that gender simply an impossible standard?
These are complicated questions and thorny issues. I do think it’s unfair to assume that just because you are a woman, you should support all women’s issues. I have also seen my fair share of women vs. women to this day, even when they are working in the same industry and toward the same greater goal. (And no, this is not just in tech that I’m talking about.)
But just like you wouldn’t automatically expect two men who have a chance meeting at a certain level to become fast friends and support each other, this is certainly not the case for all women either. The complexity is real, even without factoring in the external-facing gender bias that these women certainly faced. I applaud The Crown for teasing out this incredibly subtle nuance and hope that it continues to seed relevant conversations and dialogue about this in the months to come.