British Succession: Entering the 21st Century

I was travelling to work yesterday morning when I heard this on the news: “British Prime Minister David Cameron has begun the process of trying to reform outdated and controversial Royal succession laws that favour males over their older sisters as heirs to the throne.” (CTVNews, Oct 13) According to the 1701 Acts of Settlement, the British throne is to be passed down to the eldest male heir, regardless if other female heirs preceded him. The only time a woman was to be the natural heir was (and is, as with the case of the current Queen Elizabeth) if there were no male heirs in the line. Much though I think it is high time that this is done, I could not help but be mildly offended at several levels when I explored some of the background to this release.

First of all, I am disappointed that it has taken this long to change something that should so obviously have been changed decades ago. I read one blog (Meredith Carroll) that asked: “Am I alone in being surprised every time I read about some antiquated, sexist custom that still stands?” No, you’re not alone. Many of us in the Commonwealth didn’t know that it was still that way. We’re rather appalled that we’ve been party to a system that is so misogynistic.

I wrote a paper in 2003 entitled, “Women and GIS in Arkansas”, in which I found that in most counties of my adopted U.S. state, the distribution of women in GIS (Geographic Information Systems: my field) is relatively even. Women are well represented in leadership and technical roles in all but two counties. I was disappointed to hear that in this sense, the British monarchy has more in common with those two outliers in Arkansas than with the rest of the modernizing (and civilized) world.

One might argue that, because the current monarch, her heir and his heir would all follow the same succession whether or not the rules change, it does not make much difference right now. Such was what Prime Minister Harper said a few months back, in April: “The successor to the throne is a man. The next successor to the throne is a man,” Harper said at the time, referring to Prince Charles and Prince William. “I don’t think Canadians want to open a debate on the monarchy or constitutional matters at this time. That’s our position, and I just don’t see that as a priority for Canadians right now, at all.” (Montreal Gazette) Such a comment illustrates Harper’s lack of vision and foresight. Not only is it (or at least: should it be) always an issue to maintain gender equality, anywhere in the world, but the issue could become significant over the next few years.

But I also think it is an issue now. Note the line of succession as listed in Wikipedia. Note in particular where Princess Anne, the first daughter (and second child) of Queen Elizabeth, lies in the series of inheritance. She is not immediately after Prince Charles and his children (William and Harry), which would put her fourth in line under the proposed system: but is the last of Queen Elizabeth’s children in line, putting her tenth. In fact, Anne’s younger brother’s daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie, born in 1988 and 1990 respectively, come before Anne: solely because of Anne’s gender with respect to her siblings. And that doesn’t take into account any possible progeny from the recent marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

In my mind, the fact that it is not an issue now is precisely why we should deal with it. I think we should correct an outdated system because it is outdated… and well before there’s a question about who the next heir should be. Equality should be established as the foundation of the system, and not patched in when necessary.

I also remember a related issue coming up some years ago when I was exploring citizenship in the U.K.; my parents are from England, and I wondered if any of their status would transfer to me. What I discovered (though it’s no longer true: it looks like changed in 1983?) is that I could claim British citizenship “by descent” if my father was a British citizen. They are apparently correcting pieces of an outdated system as time goes by. And it is definitely time for the monarchy to reflect those changes.

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