Vale, Queen Elizabeth II: Here’s to a remarkable woman and a life lived in service

Vale, Queen Elizabeth II: Here’s to a remarkable woman and a life lived in service

By Stephanie Bastiaan

One of the most enduring figures in modern history, it was hard to imagine a time without Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, as our Sovereign. Her quiet passing has left a void in the hearts of Australians and, indeed, around the world.

The sentiment of her loss was best captured by a woman who spent hours lining up to pay her respects at Westminster Abbey: "I don't know why I just felt like I knew her."

A servant to her subjects, it wasn't her royal status that drew people to her. Her remarkable humility, loyalty and devotion in carrying out her duties endeared her to people across generations, young and old.

When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II sailed into Sydney in 1954, wearing a dress patterned with the Australian wattle, it was a moment in history that established the Queen in the hearts and minds of Australians. A vision of strength and elegance, Elizabeth was the first reigning Monarch to visit. Over 75% of the population turned out across the nation to catch a glimpse of her during the Royal Tour.

The Queen's relationship with the Australian people was one of mutual respect. She has visited more of Australia during her 16 tours than most Australians have in their lifetime, meeting and speaking with men, women, boys and girls from all walks of life. The Queen often spoke of her admiration for our resilience as a nation and took great pride in our achievements. Australia, in turn, embraced her as a unifying leader during a time of remarkable political, cultural and technological change.

My appreciation for the monarchy stems from my late Grandmother. She grew up during the Great Depression, members of her family fought for 'King and Country' in World War I and II, and as a grazier, she faced many of the economic hardships that came with life on the land, particularly in the years of drought. She held great affection for The Queen, who represented modern Australia and saw her as a role model, particularly for women finding their place in the post-war era.

Even as the young Princess of York, Elizabeth never permitted her sex or her status as a Princess to define or limit her. Enlisting on her 18th birthday, she was the first female member of the Royal Family to serve in the armed forces during World War II as a driver and mechanic.

On the occasion of her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth made a vow that became the framework of her life: "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong."

Four years later, she ascended the throne as a young wife and mother of 25, following the sudden death of her father. Although women's rights had advanced significantly by then, it was a moment that a young aspiring political candidate, Margaret Thatcher reflected, could "remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places".

While the monarchy stays above the political discourse of the day, the Queen demonstrated with grace and skill that female leadership could command respect and admiration.

In a speech at Parliament House in NSW in 1954, The Queen commended the role women played in bringing Australia to nationhood under the most challenging conditions. She repeated these sentiments during her Christmas address in 1966, saying, "The struggles against inhuman prejudice, against squalor, ignorance and disease, have always owed a great deal to the determination and tenacity of women."

Prior to a vote to amend the British succession laws at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in 2011, The Queen used her opening speech to promote the importance of women playing their full part in society. The leaders of the Commonwealth went on to vote unanimously to amend the British succession laws giving daughters equal rights with sons. Until then, women could only ascend the throne if there was no direct male heir.

When England won the European Women's Football Championship, the Queen congratulated the team noting their success was for more than the trophy they had won: "You have all set an example that will be an inspiration for girls and women today, and for future generations."

The Queen had a unique ability to uphold tradition while embracing progress. While she led the Commonwealth, she made it clear that Phillip was head of the household.

Rather than reigning from within palace walls, she was a Monarch who connected daily with ordinary people.

Royal life is one of privilege, but it also comes with enormous sacrifice. Royals live a life confined by constraint with very little personal freedom, privacy and individuality. In an age where self-entitlement is prioritised over the common good of the community, the Queen was unwavering in her commitment to service. Commentator Brendan O'Neil summed it up perfectly when he wrote, "She embodies virtues and ideals that are at risk of extinction. She represented history in an era of anti-historical hysteria, forbearance in a time of narcissism, and public service in an era of self-worship and self-regard."

The Queen was the Patron of over 500 organisations in her lifetime, from charities and military associations to professional bodies and public service organisations. The Queen personally carried out several hundred official engagements per year. Despite the decline in her health, she was dutiful until the end, inviting Britain's new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, to form government just two days before she passed away.

The Queen described her Christian faith as 'an anchor and an inspiration’. Despite holding immense status and influence, her belief that she was accountable to someone greater than herself kept her grounded, and motivated her selfless approach to duty and service.

The Queen has never taken her role as Queen of Australia for granted. She publicly supported the monarchy's future as being a matter to be decided by the Australian people. Her critics who slam her as a symbol of 'colonisation and oppression' ignore that Australia decolonised and established itself as an independent sovereign nation under the Commonwealth with Federation in 1901.

Through her actions, rather than platitudes, the Queen considered everyone equal regardless of whether they were First Nations, immigrants or the descendants of convicts and settlers. Over her reign, she developed an affinity with members of the indigenous community and showed a keen interest in their welfare and advancement. She engaged with Indigenous Elders both here and in Buckingham Palace, and in her speech at the Sydney Opera House during her visit in 2000, acknowledging that many Indigenous Australians "face a legacy of economic and social disadvantage". She called on all Australians to work together to ensure the country's prosperity reached all members of the community.

As our nation fractures under the weight of identity politics, her benevolent altruistic spirit will be greatly missed.

The loss of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II not only marks the end of an era in our national story, but we have also lost a leader who has shown true devotion and loyalty incomparable to her elected political counterparts.

Stephanie Bastiaan is a Research Fellow with Women's Forum Australia.