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“This is some Jane Austen-level BS”: why it's time to stamp out Britain's sexist inheritance rules

emma thompson and kate winslet in sense and sensibility, jane austen.jpg

Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. In the week that two women missed out on inheriting the fortune of Britain’s third richest man - simply because of their sex - Stylist.co.uk’s deputy editor, Kayleigh Dray, says it's time to make a stand against the UK's ancient and deeply sexist inheritance laws.


Feminist Kayleigh Dray says:

Earlier this week, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor – better known to the general public as the Duke of Westminster, and Britain’s third richest man - passed away after suddenly falling ill at his Abbeystead Estate.

As a result, his 25-year-old son, Lord Hugh, has suddenly found himself with a title after inheriting the family seat in Cheshire, Eaton Hall. He's also likely to become a cool £9 billion pounds richer, as a result.

This in spite of the fact that Hugh is, in fact, the third of his father’s four children.

THE FAMILY OF THE DUKE OF WESTMINSTER LISTENING TO HIM MAKING A SPEECH. HIS WIFE DUCHESS NATALIA DAUGHTERS LADY EDWINA AND TAMARA AND SON LORD HUGH

The Duke of Westminster's family; his wife, Duchess Natalia, his daughters, Lady Edwina and Lady Tamara, and his son, Lord Hugh

That’s right; the Duke of Westminster’s elder daughters, Lady Tamara and Lady Edwina, have drawn the short straw in this lottery-style version of Passover – and it’s not because they daubed lamb’s blood on their doors, either.

It’s because they’ve committed the ultimate aristocratic sin; they were born without a penis.

That’s some Jane Austen level BS right there, isn’t it?

The rule of primogeniture -  a feudal dictate by which a hereditary title passed to the eldest son puts male children ahead of their siblings, regardless of their age - is alive and kicking in 2016.

And while this centuries-old tradition is arguably something of a champagne problem (Lady Tamara and Lady Edwina are unlikely to find themselves on the bread line, after all) it's the principal of the thing that really stings. 

This is the very same rule that saw Henry VIII become obsessed with bonking every woman in the kingdom in a bid to get himself a son. It’s where the phrase “an heir and a spare” stemmed from.

It’s the Downton Abbey trope that saw Lady Mary’s claim to the family fortune challenged when her male cousin, Matthew Crawley, arrived in town back in the early 1900s.

The rule does not affect everyone in the UK; in fact, it's a peculiarity specific to folk with a title (admittedly, a minority slice of us).

How so? Well, in 1925, the British Parliament abolished primogeniture as the governing rule in the absence of a valid will – and, nowadays, an estate is shared equally between all children of the deceased, regardless of gender. 

Hereditary peerages, however, are a completely different kettle of fish; due to rules dating back through to Normandy times, titles have to pass to and through men. As if that weren’t strict enough, these male heirs must all be legitimate (aka the sons of married parents – hence why being a bastard is made such a fuss of in Game of Thrones).

This means that an aristocrat's eldest daughter cannot inherit her father's title - but she can be left her fair share of his property and money, if he chooses to do so in his will.

Unfortunately, however, the majority of aristocratic fathers tend not to do this. Instead, they prefer to leave their estates to the same man who inherits their title - and this is mostly down to historical tradition, and pressures from their fellow Lords, Earls, Dukes, and so on.

A Private Member's Bill to remove male-preference primogeniture in succession to hereditary peerages had its first reading in the House of Commons on 25 March 2013 and was sponsored by Conservative MP Mary Macleod. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that male MPs outnumber women by more than four to one, the Bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament during the 2012-13 session

So why would an aristocrat prefer his title to be bestowed upon a man?

Because a title is a form of property. And property is power, obviously. As we've seen throughout the course of history, the idea of a powerful woman is one which sends shivers down the spine of any unenlightened man.

Offering their own conclusion as to why the Bill had been so unceremoniously dismissed, a legal expert told stylist.co.uk: “While inheritance laws have evolved for regular people, resistance has been met when it comes to peerages and estates granted to aristocrats – possibly because a number of the people voting on the issue are men who have inherited estates and therefore would be voting against their own self-interest.”

Conservative MP Mary Macleod

Conservative MP Mary Macleod sponsored a Private Member's Bill to remove male-preference primogeniture

Naturally the country’s countesses and marchionesses are less than impressed with the antiquated law, with many joining forces to lobby for Equality for Women in the Peerage.

Writing in The Telegraph earlier this year, Lady Liza Campbell – a prominent member of the movement to change primogeniture - explained that she realises the concept may seem as ridiculous as first-class passengers campaigning for more leg room.

“Perhaps some readers will be thinking, ‘Why can’t the whole lot get flushed away?’” she said.

“My answer is that, if you want that to happen, make it your task, but, while the circus is in town, at least make it fair.” 

Yes, no-one should inherit titles and yes, the aristocracy will (hopefully) be dissolved in the future. In the 21st Century, no-one should ever be granted privilege and status above others. But, until such a time as this is a reality, we can’t turn a blind eye to the discrimination going on right under our noses.

To do so would be to endorse an outdated patriarchy. More alarmingly, we’re teaching daughters that they are a disappointment, and women that they are second-best to men.

We’ve already abolished primogeniture in the British monarchy, thanks to the Succession to the Crown Act 2013. This means that Prince William and Kate Middleton’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, will not be usurped as fourth in line to the throne if the couple have any other boys. The country’s youngest princess will no longer be overlooked because she is “just a girl”.

Prince George, Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, Prince William in a photograph taken late October at Kensington Palace, London 18 Dec 2015

Princess Charlotte of Cambridge will no longer be overlooked because she is “just a girl”

Now it’s time to correct another historic injustice – and stop allowing the aristocracy to propagate sexism on the grounds of a hallowed tradition.

 “Being born into a titled family is an incongruous experience for a girl,” says Lady Campbell.

“The outside world tells us that Women’s Lib has long been under way, there is ongoing debate about achieving equal pay.

“And yet right here, in the heart of British life, in the bosom of one’s own family, however loved you are, a girl is less than a boy.”

If we want world equality, we need to abolish the aristocracy.

But, if we truly desire to end gender discrimination, we need to put an end to male primogeniture now. 

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.  

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