The following post is from Natalie Sweet, research assistant to Susan Bordo. She is the creator of Semper Eadem: An Elizabeth I Blog, and is currently at work on a book project that focuses on life within Abraham Lincoln’s White House. This post is a part of the guest blog series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”
Almost half a millenia ago, various persons throughout England anxiously waited for news from Greenwich palace. Within its walls, Anne Boleyn labored to bring a new royal child into the world. The flurry of gossip around Henry VIII’s new queen was undoubtedly as heavy as it had been in the months since Anne’s coronation, during which onlookers could not miss the swell beneath her gowns. Those close to the court anticipated Anne “tak[ing] to her chamber” as early as August sixth in 1533. (1) From the time that Anne exited from the public eye of the court, the question that was likely on everyone’s mind was whether or not a prince would emerge from that most feminine of circles, the birthing chamber. Certainly, the signs seemed to suggest that a prince’s birth was imminent – astrologists had predicted the birth of a prince, and thus, announcements had already been drawn up to proclaim the male heir’s birth. At the close of September 7, 1533, however, an additional “s” had to be added to the announcements. A princess had been born.
I couldn’t help but think of those nearly 480 year-old announcements a few weeks ago, when the birth of Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was announced to the world on July 22, 2013. As anachronistic as it may seem, we were all a bit like those who waited just within reach of Anne Boleyn’s birthing chambers, for thanks to modern technology, the world was bound to learn of young George’s arrival within hours of his birth. Thus, in a sense, those who waited on the news (myself included) became the nosy courtiers waiting outside of Duchess Catherine’s chambers.
Our proximity to The Big News wasn’t all that made me think about the old Tudor announcements. For the first time in European history, perhaps in all recorded history, a significant majority of the population had wished for a royal birth to result in a young princess, not a prince. After the nearly five-hundred years since Queen Elizabeth I’s birth, there were many people who would now have to strike rather than add the “s” from their Facebook and Twitter announcements.
Not that the old preference for a male heir was utterly absent. One CNN royal commentator called Kate “brilliant” for delivering a male child (as if she somehow willed his anatomy into cooperation), and the Internet was littered with jokes about Kate being allowed to “keep her head” (in an obvious reference to Anne Boleyn).
And yet…there was a decidedly subdued tone after it became clear that the baby was a “George” and not a “Georgina” (or perhaps, better to say a “George Alexander” and not an “Alexandra,” as certain bookies predicted). I hadn’t even realized how invested I was in the topic until I reviewed my own social media posts leading up to the event. On Facebook, I posted my preference for the name “Mary Catherine” as the child’s name, as the delivery was on that day the Feast of Mary Magadalene (I felt like bestowing a name medieval-style that day) and because that was my great-grandmother’s name. In a texting back-and-forth with friends, I noticed that several Anglophiles eagerly hoped the baby would be a girl – it would be historic, for as had been decided in 2011, a girl would become the United Kingdom’s future Queen whether or not any brothers followed her.
The Internet proclaimed its desire for a girl child, too. It fairly bounced with hope in pieces that squeed, “Kate Middleton Hints She’s Having a Baby Girl!” . Little “Keep Calm” rompers in pink proclaimed, “My Granny Is The Queen” (although, you can now replace that with “One Day I’m Going to Marry Prince George.”). Even the bookies’ marks reflected the national desire – when news of the pregnancy first was announced, Ladbroke’s posted 8/1 odds that the royal baby would be female and named “Elizabeth.”
When the news finally broke that the baby was a boy, attention turned to his name, as was to be expected. However, a Jezebel piece spoke for many when it admitted in its headline, “We Kinda Wanted the Royal Baby to Be A Girl.” Within it, a Time piece by Belinda Luscombe was also quoted: “dammit, I wanted a queen. I wanted a royal baby girl.” Her reasoning? Not because of “a feminist impulse,” but because “female monarchs are like male emerald swallowtails: more rare and fun to look at.”
In many ways, those of us who hoped for a princess speak positively to the evolving ways that women are being viewed by society. However, our investment in the baby’s sex/gender also places us squarely in the age-old tradition of heaping expectations and judgment upon new mothers. I vividly remember when my own son was born the countless people, both friends and strangers, who pried for news of whether I wanted a boy or a girl. Which was fine, as it was a natural way of connecting to a new mother in her excitement about a pregnancy. What wasn’t fine, however, were those who looked at me sadly after I said I was having a boy and said, “Aww, didn’t you want a girl?” I’m certain that these comments stemmed from a reaction to my very obvious stance as a feminist, and a mistaken assumption that feminist = desire for girls. In reality, I actually didn’t know whether I wanted a boy or a girl; I had already drawn up a substantial list of hopes and fears about my child, whether it be a girl or boy, prior to the big reveal, thanks in part to an unknown medical condition that could have complicated my pregnancy. What I did know, however, once I knew that I was having a boy is that I would love him tremendously no matter what. It’s a bit hurtful to a new mother to hear another person speak to her “in sympathy” about the upcoming birth of her child.
Intrusive comments about the baby’s gender are, of course, the least of it. Just as hurtful to new mothers are the endless discussions of whether or not they are doing the right thing in the manner that they raise their children – a mother’s every decision about feeding, diapering, and disciplining comes under the close scrutiny of others. If you have ever been on a mother’s forum within the past five years, you know of the arguments that can break out over the seemingly slightest of parenting decisions. And the judgment doesn’t end once the diapers are dispensed with – what you feed your child, when you put them to bed, what afterschool activities they attend – each one of these actions and more come under fire from the Internet, your television, and your regularly scheduled playgroup that meets at the park every Friday morning (and if your kid isn’t in a playgroup, well, there’s another mark against you. But don’t worry – there’s a mark against you if your child is in a structured playgroup, too). A mother exists under a cloud of judgment from the moment her pregnancy is announced. Kate is already getting a taste of this mother-judging – look no further than the gossip about whether or not George was placed properly in his car seat or the fact that Kate was spotted wearing a dress designed for breastfeeding. So in this way, perhaps, we are not as evolved as we could hope to be; we may eagerly welcome the birth of a princess, but we continue to heap judgment and scrutiny upon the child’s mother in more modern, but no less significant, ways.
As time goes on, the memory of the public’s desire for a baby girl this go-around may fade. Or perhaps it won’t. I only have this to say to Prince George in the event that he one day goes cruising around the Internet for public reaction to his birth: That jump-the-gun announcement on the royal baby’s gender has happened before. The result was pretty rocking awesome.
(1) Sir John Russell to Lord Lisle. James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: August 1533, 1-10,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 6: 1533, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=77564&strquery=August 1533