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‘Megxit’ wouldn’t surprise these 18th century political thinkers

Rousseau, Burke and Wollstonecraft all saw how democracy would transform the family — including the royal family

- January 24, 2020

On Jan. 9, ABC News tweeted “ROYAL FAMILY FEUD … Prince Harry defied an order from Queen Elizabeth to keep discussions about taking a step back from royal life private — as Duchess Meghan returns to Canada to be with their son.” That same day, the British tabloid the Sun dubbed the event “Megxit.”

However sensational, this portmanteau of “Meghan” and “Brexit” is useful for political science. “Megxit” suggests a woman — the former actress Meghan, Duchess of Sussex — has used her position as Prince Harry’s wife to launch a rebellion against the United Kingdom’s political order. While Brexit stages the exit of Britain from the European Union after a contentious popular referendum, Megxit dramatizes a different and in some ways deeper form of democratization. By leaving for Canada with their baby, Meghan and Harry will be abandoning their official royal duties and public funding to live free from the intrusive “media” coverage at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. These young “retiring royals” are pushing the British royal family to modernize.

Political thinkers predicted Megxit

Political science, it turns out, predicted Megxit over 200 years ago.

Megxit’s dynamics confirm the theories of three leading political theorists of the European Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft foresaw the family’s transformation from patriarchal and hierarchical forms toward something more egalitarian. Although they disagreed about the political value of the egalitarian transformation of the family, Rousseau, Burke and Wollstonecraft each argued that aristocratic and royal families would not be immune. Like it or not, they concluded, royal families would show the costs and benefits of social and political leveling.

Modern royals in 18th-century family feuds

When they posted their decision to “carve out a progressive new role” in the British royal family on Instagram, Harry and Meghan challenged the news media’s power to dictate their lives and shape their public images. But they simultaneously harnessed the power of art and print to subvert aristocratic social and political traditions from within.

Rousseau, Burke and Wollstonecraft believed egalitarian political change would be driven by cultural changes, beginning in the family. They observed these changes in the highly visible lives of royals and aristocrats like Queen Marie Antoinette of France.

Like Meghan, the young queen bristled at her celebrity status and sought to retreat from the public eye. A follower of Rousseau, she tried to establish a simpler way of life for herself and her four children — closer to nature — in a rustic hamlet that she and her husband had built behind Versailles. The queen’s retreat into her palace gardens may have been inspired by Rousseau’s “Julie, or the New Heloise” (1761), the era’s most popular novel.

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Burke lamented the leveling of the family

Watching France’s royal family fueled Burke’s prediction that the 1789 revolution had ushered in destructive civilizational change. In “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), Burke described the queen as “glittering like the morning star” when she appeared near the Versailles gardens. By contrast, he railed against the women’s march of October 1789, which forced the royal family to leave the palace. All this was an omen, he thought, of the destruction of the hierarchical family from the aristocracy on down. Seen in Burkean terms, Megxit arose from a vicious cycle of “bad manners”: the news media’s overtly racist and sexist treatment of Meghan, who is biracial, followed by the royal couple’s defiance of the queen in their Instagram announcement.

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Wollstonecraft sought the elevation of women and the poor

With the tabloids framing Meghan as a troublemaker, Megxit foregrounds a political question that made Wollstonecraft famous: Do women have a right to challenge the social and political institutions that oppress them? In her 1790 “A Vindication of the Rights of Men,” Wollstonecraft openly mocked Burke’s hysteria about the decline of the aristocracy. She cared more for defending the rights of the poor market women to march on Versailles to protest the price of bread than she did about preserving the opulence of the French royal family. Yet she insisted women “great and small” — from “the Queen” to the “women who gained a livelihood selling vegetables and fish” — deserved the same “pity.” All women, she argued, “have almost insuperable obstacles to their progress toward true dignity of character,” due to the inequality of the sexes at all levels of society.

Escaping the castle

Wollstonecraft went on to write a novel about how difficult it was for women — of all social ranks — to escape the abuses of the patriarchal family, aristocracy, and monarchy. Her unfinished manuscript of “Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman” (c. 1797) has several drafted endings. The most optimistic imagines the heroine Maria breaking out of the asylum where her abusive husband has imprisoned her. She gets out with the help of a poor servant woman and former prostitute, Jemima, who reunites her friend with her infant daughter. In that moment, they suggest a family life that’s happier, freer, and more equal than their hierarchical society had imposed in the past.

When Meghan awaited Harry on Vancouver Island, to reunite him with their baby, one wonders if she was thinking something similar. The egalitarian transformation of the hierarchical family may be difficult, even dangerous, for those trapped within it, no matter their social status. Like Wollstonecraft’s last novel, Megxit has an open-ended conclusion. Meghan and Harry’s new life represents a public opportunity to reconsider the political significance of the family — royal or not — for modern constitutional democracies, especially on enduring issues of gender, racial, and economic inequality.

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Eileen Hunt Botting (@BottingHunt) is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Family Feuds: Wollstonecraft, Burke, and Rousseau on the Transformation of the Family (SUNY, 2006) among other titles.