Anne Boleyn: A Feminist Icon?


It has been the tradition of the last fifty years for feminists to search history for its icons. Some are more traditional: from the fiery stand of Emily Pankhurst, the powerful reign of Elizabeth I or the seductive prowess of Marilyn Monroe all being favourites. But it seems one powerful contender has always mistakenly been missed out: Anne Boleyn.

Most famous portrait of Anne [National Gallery]
Most famous portrait of Anne Credit: National Gallery
We probably all met Anne in Primary School, introduced as the ‘wicked’ second wife of Henry VIII who caused Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon and break away from the Catholic church, leading to the establishment of the Church of England. But she is a lot more than that, Anne is rather a powerful feminist icon. In a time where women were expected to behave and act as lesser to men, she attempted to take on the establishment. She skilfully managed to control Henry VIII, one of the most powerful kings in British history, and make herself Queen of England. In short, she managed to overturn all societies’ conventions and show that woman could achieve whatever they set their mind too. This was also never forgotten as 30 years after her death, her daughter Elizabeth I would take her mother’s fiery attitude and go on to become one of the most famous women of all time. As Hilary Mantel, the author of Wold Hall, describes Anne:

She is one of the most controversial female figures in English history; we argue over her, we pity and admire and revile her, we reinvent her in every generation. She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist.

Anne also broke many other conventions. Firstly, she was not conventionally beautiful. The standard for the time was very fixed: a lady of the court would have blonde hair and pale white skin. With dark brown hair, or even jet-black according to some reports, and without changing her skin colour through the application of layers of powder (Tudor make up) she proudly presented herself to the Tudor court, a mole on her face and all. She stood against Tudor standards of ‘acceptable appearances’ and what beauty consisted of and drew the highest attention for it. Essentially, she made a statement that women’s beauty was not to be determined by men; a statement that stands as a  precursor to the modern adaption of ‘feminism through fashion’.

Portrait of Anne and Henry deer-hunting [Wikipedia]
Anne and Henry deer-hunting [Wikipedia]
Anne didn’t stop there. She then spent the next three years demanding that men could not treat her as all other women were treated in the court, essentially as pieces of meat as the double-standard of the time allowed married men to take mistresses and then abandon them (which indeed Henry VIII did with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn). Anne, however, to the shock of everyone demanded more; this is something that no woman had done before her (marriages were typically not romantic affairs but diplomatic ones). Through a unique set of 17 love letters sent from Henry to Anne from 1526-8 we can see Anne refusing to simply bow to Henry’s demands that she become his mistress, even his ‘sole mistress’. Being aware that Henry’s words, to take Bordo’s phrase, were just ‘clothes’: an appearance. This left Henry begging for Anne’s devotion:

Beseeching you earnestly to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us two. It is absolutely necessary for me to obtain this answer, having been for above a whole year stricken with the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail of finding a place in your heart and affection [sic]

We have to note, that Anne is not necessarily controlling and manipulating Henry. Rather she was raising the bar and demanding that where woman have to just have sex in marriage, or be outcast, she expects the same treatment from Henry. She is essentially making a very pertinent stand against the double-standard. This is what the biggest feminist heroes of all time have done. Marilyn Monroe demands male attention in a patriarchal world in a revolutionary way, and the suffragettes stood against the double-standard of voting. It is indeed what feminists still protest for today (for example, based on recent evidence that even the University of Southampton still regularly pays its male staff more than its female). Anne adopted, and perhaps became a trendsetter, for a mode of female suffrage which has been so pivotal for the modern day woman.

However, all of this eventually led to her untimely downfall. She continued, after her rise to queen in 1533, to demand that she could behave as a woman in a man’s world. This, however, was eventually too much, for the sixteenth century to handle. Regardless on if she was brought down by Cromwell, as the historian Eric Ives would have us believe, or brought down by her own bad reputation and a whirlwind charge of adultery, which to me seems the more plausible option, it was essentially her feminist demanding that woman deserved more power and equal treatment that saw her fall. Married men could flirt without a second glance, but married woman could not.

We then must take a step back and admire Anne Boleyn. She stands as a prototype early modern feminist, going against the standard patriarchal structure to demand female equality, even if it was just for her. She knew that woman could achieve their aims as much as men, and proved it in the most memorable way. She rightfully deserves her place in the cannon of feminist icons, and to be lauded as even a feminist martyr as she lost her life showing that the double-standard of patriarchal culture needed to come to an end. If it ever has, or will, is yet to be seen.


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