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Olden Lore

The UK’s “Downton Law” Seeks to Let Women Inherit Titles

At first I was going to go with a happy image of Downton Abbey‘s Mary Crawley, since doubtless if this bill had been passed back in her day she’d have been very pleased to be able to inherit her father’s title herself instead of having to marry her cousin Matthew. You know, assuming she weren’t fictional. But the allure of the Mary Crawley “judging you” look is just too strong.

Four baronets have taken some time off from being rich, drinking tea, and shopping for jodhpurs (that’s what happens in the British peerage system, right?) to add an amendment to a bill making its way through the House of Lords that will make it possible for women to inherit their father’s titles. The bill has been nicknamed the “Downton law” after, you guessed it, Downton Abbey, which had as a plot point in its earlier seasons the fact that lead character Mary Crawley couldn’t inherit her father’s Earlship because she was the wrong gender and tradition! History! Honor!

According to its supporters the bill is gaining some traction, which is good, because in the great multiple choice question that is this story the rule that keeps women from inheriting is

A) Pointless
B) Antiquated
C) Sexist
D) All of the above

The law already included earls, dukes, viscounts, and other hereditary titles, but baronets had to make a special effort to get in on it for reasons to do with the peerage system that frankly I don’t understand and don’t really care about. One of those baronets who went the extra mile is Sir Nicholas Stuart Taylor, whose baronetcy will become extinct if one of his daughters cannot inherit his title. One of those daughters is Virginia Stuart Taylor, whose parents “were so disappointed not to have an heir that her mother cried when she learnt she had given birth to a girl,” according to The Telegraph.

“I don’t mind if i am the first, the 10th, the 100th [baronetess],” says Stuart Taylor,

“but I’ve been brought up the rest of my life — apart from those first years of disappointment of not being a boy — as completely equal to men.
I have been brought up believing that girls are equal to boys, often getting better grades at university. Everything is equal and it seems kind of ridiculous that we are trying so hard to make it fair for women in other areas of life but not in this one.”

Of the 1,260 baronets in the UK, only four of them—all in Scotland—can be passed down to daughters. Mary would doubtless be very pleased if this were to change. Ditto Edith. Edith for life.

(via: Jezebel)

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  • Anonymous

    Since when is Baronet an inheritable title? I thought it was like Knighting; one and done.

  • Dan Wohl

    Of course, points A) and B) above also apply to the peerage system as a whole. It’s better to have this rule change than not, but the entire thing is pretty ridiculous. I laughed at Virginia Stuart Taylor saying “everything is equal” in the context of discussing something that is very embodiment of inherited privilege.

  • Dan Wohl

    I should have included C) as well, but I was thinking about this with the assumption that this law would lessen at least that part of it.

  • Anonymous

    Nope. There are Life Peers (like Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. His son will not inherit his title.

    Lord Fellowes added the “Kitchener” because the first Lord Kitchener was given an Hereditary Earldom–set up to pass through his brothers, first, since he didn’t mess about with females. The last Earl Kitchener died with no male heir, so the title went extinct. Fellowes was pissed because his wife was the next in line….

  • Anonymous

    I find the idea of the firstborn automatically inheriting also a bit silly … what privileges the eldest child over the others? What if your first child is a total horror? What if your other children just happen to turn out wonderfully otherwise?

  • April

    No it doesn’t. Titles are a relic of a horrifying and barbaric age and should be done away with.

  • MeatyStakes

    While I appreciate the feminist perspective of this issue, as a citizen of a country born of colonization; I hold no love for monarchy nor it’s hierarchies.

    With the risk of sounding insensitive, and fully aware that it is at it’s core about power dynamics between genders and yet another example of how women are not treated as equals, my first thought was “This is the whitest problem I have ever seen”

  • Rachel

    While I agree with all of the political stuff in this article, I feel obligated to point out that in the end, Mary was quite thrilled to marry Matthew, even though no one seemed to mind that they were cousins.

  • Anonymous

    Les Cousins Dangereux!

  • Anonymous

    Whilst y’all are decrying the unegalitarian nature of titles, I’ll be hopping across the pond to marry into lesser royalty to gain even more privillege!

  • Anonymous

    Everyone has some degree of inherited privilege, the British peerage if anything is one of the least harmful these days. Little power beyond money and there is more of that in other quarters.

  • Anonymous

    So institutional misogyny should be ignored when it impacts only on a small number of women? It isn’t like this comes at the expense of any of the other issues.

  • Anonymous

    Flailing around and screaming ‘anachronism’ at things one doesn’t like isn’t really an adequate justification for their removal. Democracy itself is the relic of an age of horrifying barbarity as well and it has no bearing on its merits.

  • LifeLessons

    About damn time.

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t say we should ignore anything.

    I criticized Taylor because of her privilege. She thinks it’s “ridiculous” that many women consider some issues more pertinent to their lives than gender equality in British peerage.

    According to her comment, she can’t understand why so many women — who don’t share her life — don’t consider her dilemma worth “trying so hard” at as things like equal pay and domestic violence.

    it’s not as much a numbers game than a privilege “game.” She doesn’t seem to realize that she has a benefit many women don’t have — that of her social status. She may not be able to inherit a title now, but she has status because of her family and that enables her to enact political change much, much more easily than a lot of women. Which is why we HAVE to “try so hard” at other things, because these issues frequently affect women with less education, money, and social connections.

    I agree with you that no, issues shouldn’t be ignored because of the number of people they impact, because then we would never protect the rights of minorities; thank you for saying that.

    However, I’m of the firm belief that aristocratic titles are outdated. You may (or may not) disagree with that. I think the state formalizing an independent social class is undemocratic, for both men and women. One could argue that titles come with pretty much nothing now, so nobody should be bothered by the system at all. it’s not like they get any real benefits except certain addresses. Then why can’t everyone get titles?

    Similarly, it’s nice that Britain enacted constitutional changes so women may inherit the throne. But I’m an anti-monarchist … I don’t think men or women should be inheriting any kind of sociopolitical power (as limited as it is).

  • Anonymous

    Really? This is her comment:
    “I have been brought up believing that girls are equal to boys, often getting better grades at university. Everything is equal and it seems kind of ridiculous that we are trying so hard to make it fair for women in other areas of life but not in this one.”
    Nothing about thinking that lavishing attention on other areas is ridiculous or not understanding why more people don’t think it pertinent to their lives, that is all you. she simply states it is ridiculous to ignore one area of gender inequality while focusing on many others and she is correct. Women who are privileged shouldn’t be expected to put up with gross inequalities just because they are privileged, otherwise you end up back at the ‘we can’t combat inequality in British/American/Whatever women until we combat inequality in Afghanistan/Somalia/Wherever’. When we should be doing it all.
    I think you are overstating how much political power a title has as well. Even if you are fortunate enough to be a peer with a seat in the House of Lords your actual power to affect political change is virtually non-existent as it is a house of review only.

    I am sceptical of labeling anything as outdated to justify it’s removal, to be honest. The aristocracy has had no little power beyond what money brings for decades and even the nmost of the aristocracy are no more wealthy than the rest of the middle class. some considerably less well off. A title brings little benefit (except in America ironically, great for booking tables at restaurants…) in itself beyond a bit of ooing and aaing from certain people. The reason the aristocracy has survived the past few decades really is because no one is bothered by them and as for why can’t everyone get titles, everyone can if they are deemed meritorious enough by the government of the day.

    Well we won’t agree on that, I’m strongly anti-republican. Constitutional monarchy is the best form of government, demonstrably so, so we will never agree on that.:)

  • Anonymous

    “I think you are overstating how much political power a title has as well.”

    No, I only mentioned the power of a monarchical title. I’m not as well-versed as you are on the topic, but I’m aware that English titles basically confer no legal privileges or political powers. Concerning peerage, I specifically wrote, “It’s not like they get any real benefits except certain addresses.”

    “Women who are privileged shouldn’t be expected to put up with gross inequalities just because they are privileged, otherwise you end up back at the ‘we can’t combat inequality in British/American/Whatever women until we combat inequality in Afghanistan/Somalia/Wherever’.'”

    That’s a slippery slope argument that’s your interpretation, not mine. I don’t think it’s “ridiculous” that we’re “trying so hard” (again, Taylor’s words) at some issues over others because 1) they affect more women, as a fact, 2) they have an effect to a greater and often more serious degree, and 3) there has been historically immense difficulties in rectifying these inequalities.

    Even within the gender equality movement itself, there remains a great problem in terms of representation from marginalized and racialized groups. Lots of women are left out of gender equality, frequently poor, heavily discriminated against, and in precarious living or working conditions.

    No, Taylor equating her plight with theirs is not immoral or “wrong”, but it’s not quite tasteful and certainly not mindful of the fact that her plight currently stands the chance to be corrected at the highest levels of British government.

    I live in a constitutional monarchy, so yes indeed, we shall never agree on that! I certainly do not feel that if Canada were to not have a queen or king tomorrow or a decade from now, that we would not continue to have the otherwise same political processes in effect, if not in name.