Against Primogeniture

I'm not just a chromosomal faux pas (may require registration): The second daughter of the Thane of Cawdor argues that it's time to abolish male-only primogeniture so that her older sister inherits the title instead of her younger brother. And of course she's right. If the Japanese can change their rules to allow an Empress, why can't the English change their rules to allow a châtelaine of Cawdor?

It is a strange anomaly. After all, western women are no longer closeted at home or deprived of formal education. We have suffrage, have embraced the freedom that divorce and contraception have given us, have fought for our countries. Primogeniture harks back to a time when rape charges were reduced if a victim was pretty and when wives were chattels.

As a child, I was oblivious to our family's internal hierarchy until, at the age of about 11, my mother told me in passing how she had been “so desperate” after my arrival that she had bought a pile of self-help books – titles such as How To Conceive A Baby Boy and Conception: Sex Determination Made Simple. She followed a salt-free, low potassium, iron-rich diet, all in an attempt to have a boy.

As it turned out, she was already pregnant with my brother. She laughed gaily about the silliness of it all, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I had had no idea that boys were the favoured sex.

It was also confusing to be given this information by another female; one who clearly thought that what she was saying was completely normal. But it was normal and remains so. I know few women living within the primogeniture system who oppose it. They are so steeped in male dominance that they uphold it unthinkingly.

As I reached my teens, my father began to reinforce my secondary status. He had a phrase he liked to repeat in the car. It was: “Your face is your only fortune, so strap your belt.” If I asked him what he meant, he would reply: “It was ever thus.”

When my father died, there was no reference to the existence of three daughters in his will. The omission was chilling. Here was a document composed by a man who had adored us but who also held that we were always superfluous to requirements.

In our culture, a woman joins her husband's family by adopting his surname. The underlying fear about not having a son is the demise of the family name, and therefore the family's very identity. Some families found a half-baked way around impending disaster by creating double-barrelled names. None of this palaver is necessary. A woman changing her name to her husband's is merely a convention, not a law.

If there is a change from primogeniture to ultimogeniture or cognatic primogeniture – when the first born inherits, regardless of sex – then there is nothing to stop a husband either changing his name to his wife's, or their children bearing her name rather than his. Men might shudder with horror at the idea, but they will get used to it. We did.

Currently, men can elevate women to their titles, but not the other way around. My brother's wife is now a countess, but as ladies our husbands remain misters (and my mister doesn't even remain a husband). If titles are desirable at all, this surely, can be reversed.

In 1999, the European Court of Human Rights rejected as inadmissible several appeals in Spanish cases where elder daughters argued that the preference to males in the transmission of noble titles was a violation of their human rights. The court held that “amending the rules of law to comply with the principle of the equality of the sexes would be to introduce anachronistic requirements into a practice moulded by history”.

I wonder if they would rule that female circumcision was “moulded by history”? My hope is that it was just badly translated and should have read “a practice mildewed by history”.

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