It is a rainy afternoon in November 2019 and a group of around 25 women have gathered in a conference center near London’s Kings Cross station. Cups of tea and pieces of cake are being served and there is a buzz of chatter and laughter. They are there to talk about their work, but the light-hearted atmosphere belies the seriousness of the roles they perform.
They are members of the Women Mediators across the Commonwealth, a network of women on the frontlines of peacebuilding across 20 countries. Many are victims of conflict themselves, and some continue to face threats to their lives. But on that particular day there is a sense of positivity and hope as they discuss their experiences with Sophie, Countess of Wessex.
Sophie, who married Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son Edward in 1999, has taken up the cause of women’s empowerment as a central part of her royal work. On International Women’s Day 2019—the same day that the eyes of the world were on Meghan taking part in a panel discussion—Sophie stood up in Buckingham Palace and made a pledge. Promising to do all she could to help survivors of sexual violence in conflict and champion the international Women, Peace and Security agenda, she said: “As someone who firmly believes in the equality of men and women, I feel drawn to your cause and to do what I can to help raise further awareness.”
Even in the grand and imposing setting, the Countess did not shy away from the brutal realities of her subject. She recalled meeting Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege: There is “nothing like speaking to someone, who as a gynecologist, has treated hundreds of victims of the kinds of rape and abuse that defies belief,” she said. “Dr Mukwege painstakingly stitches these women back together and does what he can to care for them. It is so desperately sad therefore, that many of them end up back at his clinic only months later.”
Since making her pledge just over a year ago, Sophie has taken her message to New York, India, Lebanon, Kenya, Kosovo, Oslo, Sierra Leone, Munich, and South Sudan. During a visit to Juba, South Sudan for International Women’s Day 2020 she said, “My message to the men is to encourage you all to listen to your women folk and to support them to take their place at your side.”
Her work does not regularly receive the kind of media attention that the younger royals command, but Sophie, now 55, has become a stalwart member of the “firm.” Her husband is far down the pecking order at 11th in line to the throne, but the Wessexes are two of just a handful of full-time working royals. And the spotlight on Sophie has intensified in the vacuum left as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle step back.
When the coronavirus pandemic gripped the UK, the Queen told the nation: “You can be assured that my family and I stand ready to play our part”, and it was not long before the Wessexes’ efforts played a key role. Sophie’s 16-year-old daughter Lady Louise filmed her from inside their home for a video pointing parents and carers in the direction of helpful resources.
And when Britain took part in its first Clap for our Carers initiative to honor those on the front lines fighting the virus, the Wessexes released a video of the whole family joining in.
Just yesterday Sophie released a message on social media to women peacebuilders, activists, and survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.
As well as joining a conference call with @whatthewomensay The Countess also sent a video message to support Women Peace Builders and Survivors and Advocates against Conflict Related Sexual Violence. pic.twitter.com/eQiKzeMcXw— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) April 4, 2020
She began with "To my friends" and went onto say: "As we all grapple with the coronavirus pandemic I wish to dedicate a few thoughts to you." She continued: "I know that your bravery, creativity, problem-solving skills and empathy will be even more valuable at this moment." The Countess closed with the words: "I stand with you all, now and always."
Like all royals, the Countess is now getting used to working remotely, contacting her charities via video chat and telephone. She is patron of more than 70 organizations and carries out approximately 240 engagements each year. As well as focussing on women and girls globally, she also has a strong interest in agriculture and raising awareness about preventable blindness.
Sophie’s low-key approach to duties pre-dates her willingness to hop on video calls; she is known to surprise her hosts by driving herself to and from engagements, waving goodbye from behind the wheel of her own car.
“She actually presents herself as an ordinary person and I think that is increasingly what the royal family needs to do,” says Amanda Pullinger, CEO of 100 Women in Finance, an organization which Sophie champions.
“The Countess is one of the unsung members of the royal family and in fact she’s been working on quite gritty subject-matters for a lot longer than many people realize,” Hello! Royal Editor Emily Nash tells T&C. She adds that Sophie is “very well-liked” and that the Queen is “particularly fond of” her.
Indeed, Sophie is often chosen to accompany the monarch by car to church at Sandringham on Christmas morning while other members of the family walk. In a speech at Buckingham Palace in October 2019 to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Trust, she called the Queen “Mama” and told her she has been “so proud to share with you the work I have witnessed being carried out.”
Sophie's children, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor and James Mountbatten-Windsor, Viscount Severn, 12, have often been seen horse riding with the Queen at Windsor Castle or Balmoral. The family live at Bagshot Park in Surrey which is just 11 miles from Windsor.
Gender equality may be high on the Countess’s agenda in part because she had a career of her own before marrying into the royal family. Sophie Rhys-Jones began dating her prince in 1993 while working in public relations and she went on to set up her own company. In an episode that demonstrates the difficulty of combining royal life with other work, she stepped down in 2001 after being secretly recorded by a tabloid making indiscrete remarks.
Sophie recovered and turned her energies exclusively to royal work after that. In 2003—the same year her daughter was born—she started the Women in Business Committee for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which helped the prominent royal charity to reach more people. In 2014, she launched the organization’s Women’s Network Forum, which brings together leaders in the workplace to promote gender balance and equality.
“Despite making giant strides forward since my mother’s generation and even current working generations many women in this country still face discrimination, sexism and inequality on a daily basis,” Sophie said in a speech this January before female students from secondary schools across London. “Your generation I hope will make even greater strides towards gender equality than we have and, believe me, we need you to.”
Sitting down with the girls afterwards, she listened to their hopes for their careers. “I’ve sat at a number of tables and listened to her interact with young people. She’s fantastic,” said Pullinger of 100 Women in Finance. “She really is down to earth, gives them incredibly good advice—she’s got a teenage daughter herself. She actually asks incredibly smart questions and it really does reflect the fact that she had a professional life before she became a royal.”
Pullinger also notes Sophie’s candor. “It’s interesting—she’s not nicey nicey. Of course she’s polite, but she’ll tell you what she thinks. If she disagrees she’ll say, and she’s done it to me a number of times. And I think that’s fantastic. I think she’s somebody who’s gained a lot of confidence in this area.”
Another area of royal life where Sophie’s past career is useful is an intuitive understanding of what the media needs to best highlight causes she cares about. “She was a PR all those years ago so I think she’s very aware of the value of a picture,” says royal photographer for Shutterstock Editorial, Tim Rooke. “She’s always very aware of the cameras and quite accommodating. She doesn’t pose but she will always be aware of what we need and make sure we get it.”
Rooke adds that while pictures of Sophie don’t automatically make their way into the newspapers in the same way an image of the Cambridges or Sussexes might, there is a steady demand for her work. “I think there’s more interest in her now,” he says.
Photographers like Rooke also enjoy covering Sophie because her engagements are usually more intimate. He describes being on her overseas visits as a “much more pleasant” experience than busier royal tours. “You’re almost part of the team.”
As well as championing her charities, Sophie supports the Queen by carrying out regular engagements across the UK. During a day trip to Oxfordshire in November she visited the Sylva Wood Centre and tried her hand at wood “planing,” cheerily answering “I’m both” whether she was right or left handed. “What was most impressive was that she was ambidextrous,” said Joe Bray, head of the Wood School, after he showed her how to use the equipment in both directions. The same day, Sophie sat on the floor playing with children at the Footsteps Foundation, which provides therapy for children with neurological disorders.
Amanda Pullinger notes how the Countess is “thoughtful” about how she dresses when meeting young people, choosing outfits that make her “approachable.” Of course, she also plays her part during lavish royal events in ballgowns and tiaras. Emily Nash describes her as a “fantastic style ambassador for the UK and for British labels in particular,” adding “our readers love details on what she’s wearing.”
There has been much made of whether there is a “plan” to make Sophie more prominent now Harry and Meghan have stepped back, but the reality is that the Countess has been steadily playing her part for more than 20 years. And it is her sincerity as much as her status that people value. “She is really genuinely with women peacebuilders. It’s not just cosmetic,” one peacebuilder from Sri Lanka told T&C.
“I’m poised to continue because I see her coming towards me,” said Esther Omam, who has worked on development issues in Cameroon for almost 20 years. “When I go back home I will keep her image in my heart, knowing that some way the Countess came to us, gave us encouraging words and promised to support our work.”
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