Magazine article The Spectator

Where There's a Will

Magazine article The Spectator

Where There's a Will

Article excerpt

Why haven't ladies challenged male primogeniture?

When the Labour MP Keith Vaz introduced a private member's bill in January 'to remove any distinction between the sexes in determining the succession to the Crown', he mentioned that, although not one of those in line for the throne, he did need to declare an interest. Vaz is a fervent monarchist who believes that in order to save itself, the monarchy must change; that it must fall in line with modern Britain's values on gender or die.

You wonder why, in the face of a thousand and one more pressing social issues, anyone would want to bugger with the Act of Settlement, which has sat like a fat cat in the corner of the British constitution for more than 300 years. Really, does anyone care? Does anyone hear any princesses rattling their silver spoons in protest? Or for that matter, the thousands of daughters of aristocrats who, not even oppressed by some law but by a culture of male primogeniture and property entailment, have watched, for ever, as brothers make off with the booty?

Well, I will be one of the teeny tiny minority who care when that bill is tabled in May.

I am the firstborn of the younger brother of an earl. There are no hereditary titles and my father's estate was not inherited or entailed to him . I have a younger sister and three younger brothers. Nonetheless, at the reading of the will after my father's recent death, I was firmly reminded of my place by certain clauses bestowing his 'residuary estate' 'upon trust for my first son A during his life and subject thereto', followed by 'A's first son', then 'his son B and his son', then 'his son C and his son, provided always that A's male heir shall mean son or grandson ascertained in following order of priority'. Blah, blah, blah.

Unlikely as it may seem, I hold no antipathy towards my younger brother. It's the system, not him. He has grown up expecting and accepting both the privilege and the responsibility of inheriting the bulk of my father's assets. Neither do I bear my father any animosity. We benefited financially in other ways and he was conditioned by a custom that kept the estate he bought and cared for together.

What I regret is that I failed to question this country's misogynistic perceptions and attitudes for so long. Growing up, I accepted that my younger brother would inherit the family estate and all its chattels. I was flattered that my father considered me ' pretty enough to marry someone very rich'. I thought it normal that my education was inferior to my brothers' and that my extremely bad reports were of no consequence. I heeded his advice that 'there's nothing more boring than an educated woman' (hence I became a model and actress). I thought it reasonable that women left the table so men could talk seriously. Even after years of living in Australia, where you spread equality on your toast for breakfast, I never really confronted my father on the preposterous notion of male primogeniture. I was too feeble to ask questions that might anger those who perhaps sensed what thin ground they stood on. I was too devoted to family to risk alienation. Too conditioned to knowing my place.

How did this happen? I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies. Women from other classes were heading off to university, stamping their feet, raising their voices, demanding woman's rights and justice. What happened to us? In the name of tradition, for the sake of family estates, we conspired in the consolidation of power for the male head of the family and divested ourselves of any power at all. …

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