On October 20 of this year, Meghan Markle sent a letter to the Democratic US Senate leadership, Senators Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, to lobby for the inclusion of paid family leave into legislation being proposed by Democratic President Joe Biden. You can see Meghan’s letter lobbying for paid family leave in the United States here.
The issue of paid family leave in the United States is a popular one, because the USA is one of few countries in the developed world to not have any guaranteed paid leave after things like becoming a parent. It’s an issue that most US lawmakers, worker’s advocates, and gender equality advocates are working very hard to get passed. There is currently a tight political split in the US Senate (50 Democratic senators and 50 Republican senators, with Democratic Vice-President Kamala Harris able to cast a tiebreaking vote if needed). Items in the Build Back Better Bill that are considered too controversial or expensive or that would, for any reason, theoretically make the bill less likely to pass the tight Senate vote, have been summarily axed. Important items in the bill have been removed for pretty trivial reasons, including for reasons of optics and whether or not any Republicans could be swayed to vote for the bill. Which is why Meghan publicly attaching herself this issue could end up being much more harmful than helpful for the issue itself.
The reason that Meghan Markle could end up setting back the fight for paid family leave in America is that Meghan Markle is not universally loved and adored in the United States. Although her favourability ratings are higher in the US than they are in the UK, there are still parts of the country that do not like her and that would choose not to vote for a bill that (at least partly) has Meghan’s endorsement. I’m not sure Meghan or her advisors thought that far ahead. I think she/they only thought, “This will be a great PR move for me, and when it passes it will look like I was responsible for getting it passed.” I truly don’t know if anyone pointed out to Meghan that making her the public face of this issue could kill the item from the bill if enough lawmakers are annoyed that she used her UK royal title (below) to lobby US government officials on the issue.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex letterhead and Meghan’s signoff as Duchess of Sussex at the bottom of the letter are highly unusual in terms of members of a foreign royal family lobbying for a political issue, even if Meghan says that “it’s not about Right or Left”, and even if Meghan is writing in what she calls a personal capacity.
The reaction to Meghan’s actions has been mixed. Some (mostly American) fans and media outlets have thanked Meghan for using her voice to try to enact change and have decried the current lack of paid family leave in the US as unfair and something that disproportionately affects women. Other people and media outlets, while mostly agreeing that paid leave is a worthwhile cause, have criticized Meghan for seemingly reminding us of her normalness and status as just a “concerned and engaged citizen”, while also constantly using her royal title.
Senator Susan Collins, whom Meghan called and to whom Meghan introduced herself as “Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex”, said that she felt a person using a royal title to call a US senator was “ironic.” Roya Nikkhah of The Times wrote that palace aides responded by saing, “The Duchess of Sussex doesn’t have the right to have a more powerful voice [on the issue] than any other mother in America. She should not be playing in politics.”, and that “another courtier described the intervention as “outrageous”.”
The Build Back Better Bill is tentatively scheduled to be voted on this coming week. It will be interesting to see if paid family leave is included in the bill, if it has been axed completely, or if there is a watered-down version of paid leave in the final version. I do know one thing: if any form of paid family leave passes, it will be good for Americans, and Meghan Markle will take credit for it.