How did women like Elizabeth and Victoria come into power and how did the relatively misogynistic and conservative society of Britain accept it?
There is no short answer to this question, though I will try to encapsulate some of the major events that brought about Elizabeth's ascention to the throne. Along with the timeline here, it cannot be overstated that Elizabeth's intelligence and cunning helped her immensly along the way. (And for a comprehensive but not overwhelming study of Elizabeth's reign, please visit the links below):
- Elizabeth is born to Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn. Although the king would have preferred a son, Elizabeth was the "heiress presumptive" to the throne of England.
- Boleyn is beheaded. Elizabeth and her half-sister, Mary live in exile.
- In 1544, Parliament passes the Acts of Secession, making Elizabeth the "true" heir (and declaring Mary a "bastard.") But Elizabeth still had obstacles, one being her 9 yr old brother, Edward, who took the throne first.
- Struggles with Mary, who was devoutely Catholic, and the Protestant Elizabeth. Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower for 2 months.
- In 1558, Mary dies and Elizabeth becomes Queen.
In response to the final part of your question, yes, I think females in power have long been more accepted and revered than in the States. There is still an Elizabeth on the throne of England and Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a long term as PM, while we have relatively few women in positions of power, and since Sandra Day O'Connor left the Supreme Court, only one woman (Ruth Bader Ginsberg.)
The answer to the question of how women such as Elizabeth (do you refer to Elizabeth I) and Victoria came to power is fairly simple. Unlike the French, who had their Salic law, The English monarchy has never had a legal bar to women holding the throne. Actually the first woman on the throne in England (after the Conquest) was Maude, the daughter of Henry I and her reign was not accepted because of her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou who was a foreigner. The English were more afraid of foreignors than women. The civil war lasted 20 years. The next woman on the throne, Mary Tudor, was also not popular. She was known as Bloody Mary for the martyrdom of over 300 protestants. Elizabeth succeeded in holding the throne for several reasons: There were no male heirs; she was a Protestant; she was the daughter on Henry VIII; her only real competitor was also a woman (Mary Queen of Scots); and finally, she did not marry. Victoria also became Queen at a time when there was a lack of male heirs. Furthermore, her predecessors had been morally lax older men and the people of England were ready to accept Victoria's youth and innocence. Finally, although Victoria married, she chose someone without a large inheritance thus little personal power and she never allowed Alfred the title of King, although he really became the power behind the throne during his lifetime.