Downton Abbey
Electric lights, refrigerators, drop-waisted dresses, and feminism

In 1912 the Titanic sank throwing the Crawley family of Downton Abbey into such an upheaval that it would take six seasons and five Christmas specials to set everything in order once more. You see the vital male heir to the estate died on the Titanic and not a single living person had the power to break the entail that said it must go to a man. Which is not a great set-up if you’re looking for some girl power along with candlelight and corsets.  

Downton Abbey is, of course, not a real place but is a real TV series so beloved in both the UK and the US that the entire cast – including Maggie Smith – is reuniting for a movie! And I cannot wait to spend more time with the incredible women of Downton. 

A British period drama is not a likely place to find feminist undertones but the strength of the women both upstairs and downstairs, the bright young things defying convention, the older women deftly guiding the family, and the men who come to appreciate them, are wonderful to watch. By the end of the series the chauffeur turned son and brother in-law to the family actually says, “we like strong women around here.”  

Feminism as a family affair 

The daughters of Downton have incredible privilege which affords them wider margins for testing out new things like short haircuts, editing a magazine, and single motherhood. Yet it is not just their wealth that keeps them from falling afoul of society, the men and especially the older women in their lives support and even encourage their transgressions. And while there are young men in the show it is primarily the young women who drive the social change with their strong wills and their relationships with the older women in their family. 

It is the power and agency given to these older women, both in the family and in the serving staff, that is particularly cheering to watch. In the current media landscape it is rare to see more than one woman over age 40 and rarer still when that woman is a well-rounded character and not a trope or a punchline. In the Crawley family there are three such women – four if you count the special appearances by Shirley MacLaine as the brash, American mother-in-law! 

In the first few seasons the women are more covert in their machinations but as the daughters mature and the world goes through a war the Crawley women stop asking forgiveness or permission. When Lady Edith first wrote an article for a magazine her father disparaged her at breakfast, but by the end of the series she is running the magazine and has hired another woman as her co-editor. And when Lady Mary first takes on the role of running the estate her father thinks she is not prepared, but when he suffers a burst ulcer everyone defers to her as The One in Charge. 

Admittedly not every storyline in the series has such a girl power message, but to force modern feminism into the aristocracy of the 1920s would be anachronistic and not nearly as entertaining as watching Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham wield her power with a well placed facial expression. 

The entire series is available for Amazon Prime subscribers (in the UK) if you’re keen to get ready for the upcoming movie. And if you’re not too busy finding the feminism I’d suggest admiring the absolutely beautiful clothing the women wear, especially Lady Edith’s empowered-woman London looks.

Originally published on a site called Six Hot Chicks which has unfortunately shut down.

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