Whether you're an avid Downton Abbey fan who has firm opinions on everything from Lady Edith's latest love interest to the Dowager Countess's latest hat, or just a casual watcher (like that's possible), you've likely noticed that most of the troubles of the Crawley clan boil down to the sexist laws of inheritance that insist only males can inherit lands and titles. Well, since its early 1900s setting, many things have changed, but these 400-year-old laws are still in the process of being overturned. The latest strike against this sexist system is being credited to Lady Mary. (Sybil would be so proud!)
The Telegraph drew our attention to a bill called "Downton Law" that is currently making its way through the House of Lords. Reporter Georgia Graham breaks down its pop culture-savvy name:
"The Bill is known as the 'Downton law' after the anomaly of female succession at the heart of ITV’s Downton Abbey, in which the character of Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the drama’s fictional earl, was unable to inherit the family seat because it had to pass to a male heir."
Of course, if she had been able to inherit, she never would have met Matthew and we'd all be the sorrier for it. But good drama aside, should it pass--which seems likely--this bill would revise the 400-year-old system of agnatic primogeniture, which favors first-born males over any other kin in the line of succession. The proposed law (also known more formally as the Equality Titles Bill) was originally introduced to allow dukes, earls, viscounts and other such titles to be passed to female heirs, but baronets had been excluded until now.
Four baronets have banded together to have this title added so that their titles and all attached status may pass on to their daughters upon their deaths. Sir Nicholas Stuart Taylor led the charge, hoping to pass his titles to one of his two daughters rather than having it go extinct. Until the bill passes, the only place in the UK that has allowed for female baronets is Scotland, which accounts for four of 1,260 currently holding that title.
As a crass American, I was frankly stunned to hear such laws are still in place in the UK, but it turns out I'm not alone. Conservative MP and former royal aide Mary Macleod explains: "I think the Bill is getting more support in the Commons than people realise; the problem is that very few people had any idea this still existed. Anyone I spoke to about it felt incredulous that still, today in this day and age, girls and boys and were not given equality of opportunity in terms of heredity peerages and estate.”
It seems the only people aware of this persistently pernicious policy were those directly impacted by it. Taylor's 24-year-old daughter Virginia Stuart Taylor who stands to take his title if this law passes, recounted how her mother wept at her birth for disappointment that Virginia's gender put her husband's title at risk. “I don’t mind if I am the first, the 10th, the 100th [baronetess] 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," She told the paper. “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.”
I'll be showing my support of this bill by marathoning Downton Abbey for days straight. You're welcome, baronetesses!
Downton Abbey will return to the US via PBS on January 5th. In case you need a refresher, I invite you to revisit my GIF review of the end of season three.