When we think of princesses, our mind will likely jump to Disney.
Or maybe a young child’s birthday party, complete with a lot of hot pink and rhinestones.
We might think of the way the term is sometimes wielded as an insult edged with just a hint of misogyny (“Whatever, princess,” a man once said to me when I suggested he might not need three seats for his thighs at a crowded airline gate. Prince Charming he was not.)
It’s a surprisingly complicated word, bringing up a whole host of images, both good and bad, and as royalty becomes more decorative and less political, it’s understandable that we might not associate princesses with any real power these days.
But is that fair? Sure, today’s princesses might not be riding into battle with babies strapped to their backs (Lakshmibai) or wielding armadas against powerful enemies (Elizabeth I), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t posses their own form of 21st century power.
Maybe that’s why princesses and royal weddings still hold such a fascination for a lot of women. It isn’t just the glitz and glamour, but watching a woman — and these days, often a woman from a perfectly ordinary and non-royal background — step into a role in which her every move might be scrutinized, every dress subject for debate, but also one in which she can bring attention to causes that matter to her.
It’s easy to dismiss interest in all things royal as frivolous, but long before Meghan Markle shook up the House of Windsor, royals were changing the game in ways women never could before, using their positions and power to affect all kinds of change, both political and social.
As we wait to see how Markle adapts to her newly royal life, let’s look at three royal women who played the game of thrones — and won.
One of the two French-princesses-turned-English-queens who were referred to as “She-Wolves,” Isabella of France came to England as a teenage girl/political pawn who eventually ended up overthrowing her royal husband and putting her own son on the throne.
Her story is often reduced to a kind of femme fatale deal — the beautiful, sexually unfulfilled queen who throws in her lot with a rakish nobleman hungry for power — but Isabella’s political acumen almost certainly saved England during a particularly tense time.
There were few things worse than a weak king during the Middle Ages (okay, plague was worse, but just barely), and Edward II was an ineffective leader, relying heavily on unscrupulous “favorites,” and alienating both his domestic and foreign allies.
Thanks to Isabella’s intervention (read: coup), Edward II was replaced with his son, Edward III, who would go on to be one of medieval England’s strongest kings. He’d also go on to more or less cause the Wars of the Roses, but we’ll focus on the positive for now.
Isabella lost a good deal of her power during her son’s reign while her lover, Roger Mortimer, eventually lost his life for getting a little too comfortable with his proximity to the throne, but there’s no doubt that through her actions, she changed English history irrevocably.
Born in Sussex to the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, Princess Sophia was an activist, suffragette, and a pain to various royals. (King George V once blurted out, “Have we no hold on her?” when he was told she wouldn’t pay taxes.)
After reading chemistry at Cambridge in the early 1900s, Princess Sophie earned an MD from Northwestern Women’s College in Illinois before taking a trip to India in 1907 that would change the course of her life. Princess Sophie grew up in England as part of the upperclass; Queen Victoria was her godmother, and she lived a life similar to most socialites of the time, complete with fancy dresses, an apartment at Hampton Court, and all the tiny dogs a girl could want.
The visit to Lahore changed all that, however. There, Sophie met with Indian freedom fighters and began to understand just how much damage the empire had done to her family’s homeland. She returned to England determined to support the suffragette cause not just there, but in various British colonies as well. Turns out, having the word “Princess” in front of your name is very useful when it comes to fundraising and getting attention, and Princess Sophie excelled at both. She spent the rest of her life promoting the advancement of women, both in England and in India, before dying in 1948.
This list wouldn’t bee complete without Eulalia, a woman who once received a telegraph from the King of Spain — her nephew — telling her not to publish a particularly controversial book she’d written. (She told him no.)
The youngest child of Isabella II of Spain, Eulalia was born in Madrid and had a fairly dramatic childhood. Her family was deposed in a revolution when she was four, only to be welcomed back onto the throne six years later.
Eulalia’s brother, Alfonso, became king in place of his mother, and Eulalia spent the next few years living at various palaces around Spain before undertaking that most cherished of royal traditions, marrying a close family member.
The family member in this case was her cousin, Antonio, and while the marriage was a dud, Eulalia fulfilled her royal duties by having two sons before beginning a literary career that would shock her royal relatives.
Traveling to the United States, Eulalia visited the World’s Fair in Chicago, met with President Grover Cleveland, and then eventually made her way to both Puerto Rico and Havana, Cuba.
She wrote extensively of her travels, as well as her opinions on education, the rights of women, marriage, divorce, social issues, and a host of other subjects polite young women weren’t meant to talk about, much less publish.