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Why All British Women Should Care About Gender Exclusion Among the Peerage

Feminism's beef is with patriarchy in whatever form it takes. The women's movement should be outraged that son preference is building gender inequality into the basic structure of the British government.

Feminism has been conflated with Marxism for so long that many have come to think the women’s movement should only address the needs of the poor and working class. From that perspective, no prosperous or professional women (“elite” women) deserve support from anyone who calls herself “feminist.”

Such a stance may be a self-satisfying one to take, but it is not feminism. Feminism’s beef is with patriarchy in any form it may take. All women are subject to patriarchy and therefore all, even the richest, are the rightful concerns of the women’s movement.

The economic exclusions suffered by women have applied to all classes. And, as I have demonstrated in The Double X Economy, excluding women from the economy in any way ripples out with a negative effect on other women, other issues. I’m going to show you another example of that phenomenon here today.

The “law of primogeniture,” the feudal custom of passing along family assets only to the eldest son, is still the rule among the aristocracy in Britain, even though it no longer applies to the royal family and is a completely outdated and foreign idea among ordinary British citizens. The rule constitutes sex discrimination, pure and simple, so we should all be horrified that such a thing still exists in modern Britain. And, as I will explain here, the practice builds gender inequality directly into the national government.

Nevertheless, when they hear about it, most British “commoners” say something like “well, the peerage should be abolished anyway” or “feminism isn’t about women like that.”

"Primogeniture" is a word with a toxic synonym in international policy: son preference. In so-called "traditional societies"—that is, the poorest, angriest, least educated, and most misogynistic places on earth—only sons can inherit. As a direct result of this practice, females have no value when they are born. Female infanticide, in which the parents kill a newborn if it is a girl, is rooted, quite specifically, in the expectation that a female child has no value because she cannot inherit a property or a name. Because girls can't inherit even a poor farm, they are sold as wives even while they are still children. Because of son preference, poor families will sell a girl child to slavers. The United Nations attributes a whole range of gender-based violence to son preference.

In sum, primogeniture is not a unique, quaint, or harmless practice of the British aristocracy. It is a worldwide scourge and all of Britain should be deeply ashamed that it is allowed to continue in any corner of a society that fancies itself civilized.

I recently watched a video where Charlotte Carew Pole, founder of Daughters'=Rights, a campaign against primogeniture, describes her aristocratic family 's reaction when her first child, a daughter, was born. Of course, they were happy to have the baby. But, she said, there were frequent comments about what a shame it was that the child couldn't inherit and how Charlotte and her husband "must try again." Can you imagine the heartbreak of seeing that reaction to the birth of your first child? Charlotte says she had not, until that moment, seen that people would actually feel "a girl might not be the right baby to have."

A girl might not be the right baby to have. No feminist, no woman, no civilized person should stand for any rule that insists a female child be cherished less than her brother.

From a governance perspective, perhaps the most important impact of this medieval practice is on the gender composition of the House of Lords. As one institutional half of the Parliament, the House of Lords plays a central role in determining the statutes Britain must obey and on setting the conditions for public and private life. What the House of Lords does has impact on every citizen, including the women.

There are 92 seats in the House of Lords that go with hereditary titles—all of them are held by men. Women don’t hold these seats because they cannot inherit the titles that give you a right to be there. Therefore, unequal representation of women is built right into the basic structure of British government by the rule of primogeniture. That is not OK.

A “life peerage” can be awarded to people who do not already hold hereditary titles; the life peerage cannot be inherited or passed along to subsequent generations. A majority of the House of Lords hold life peerages, which are mostly awarded to people who have already given a lifetime of public service to the government—so they are old. (The average life peer is 69.) Life peerages are also mostly awarded to men. (Surprise, surprise.) From a structural perspective, then, the life peerages merely perpetuate the long-term circumstance in which the House of Lords remains an institution intrinsically at odds with gender equality.

Here’s a shocking example of how the life versus hereditary peerages are awarded. When Margaret Thatcher retired from public life, she was given a life peerage, but her husband was awarded a hereditary peerage. Denis Thatcher may have been a lovely man, I really don’t know, but his contribution to British history apparently was golf-playing and gin-drinking. I can’t think of anything that better exemplifies gender bigotry than to have slighted the first female Prime Minister of Britain (and the longest-standing PM in the 20th century) strictly on the basis of her sex, passing over her to favor her husband, strictly on the basis of his.

The Lords deflect objections to son preference in their half of the government by suggesting that women should instead work on increasing the number of life peers who are female. It’s not that life peerages are not prestigious—they are. But their existence does not address the inherent sexism of primogeniture. When the Lords make this argument, it is merely a way to skirt the issue; they must be trying to trick what they think are stupid women.

I thought public corruption was a crime in Britain. When the hereditary peers even consider bills on this matter, it represents a conflict of interest (where someone “derives personal benefit from decisions made in their official capacity”) and when they then kill the bills intended to reverse the inequity, they commit an act of public corruption (“the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”).

The way this exclusion perpetuates the male monopoly on capital should also be a concern for all women in the UK. Women have a completely different relationship to capital than applies to class. The barrier to women’s access to capital is rooted in pre-literate family customs that were later codified by law; these insisted on passing wealth from male to male only. That is what the rule of primogeniture is still doing in Britain and, to the extent it ensures that wealth and power stays in the hands of men, it hurts all women economically.

As I have explained in The Double X Economy, women-owned businesses, everywhere but specifically in Britain, are stopped on their path to growth by the biased attitudes the investment sector has toward females. The result is a shamefully uneven dispensation of capital: women own a third of British businesses, but only get 9 percent of the available investment capital. I have suggested that the only way we will ever even this out is to encourage women of wealth to invest in other women. That can’t happen unless women hold wealth. A significant percentage of British wealth is owned by aristocrats with hereditary titles—and those are men.

The uneven gender distribution of wealth—and the power that comes with it—is also ultimately rooted in ancient prescriptions that barred women from owning land (also in the book). Those laws were reversed by the Married Women’s Property Act (of 1870, for God’s sake), but the effects are still visible in the ownership of land. Right this minute, only 13.7 percent of the UK’s land is owned by women. More than a third of the land is owned by the (male) peerage.

Most British women, however, make their living from paid employment. Even here, the gender distribution of wealth matters. Men, because they control the wealth, have owned the companies in which women work. To date, research has suggested that women-owned businesses make better employers for women, that females have much improved chances for development and advancement in those firms (also covered in the book). So, we can speculate that funneling more investment to women would build more working environments friendlier to females. With more balance in the Parliament, the British government might even stand up and enforce the equality laws in the workplace, who knows?

In public discourse, much is made about the need to get more women into positions of leadership, especially in government. Insincere men wring their hands about how they are ever going to accomplish such a difficult task! Here's one way to get it done: by ridding the British government of son preference.

Feminism doesn’t tolerate sex discrimination, full stop. It also doesn’t stomach institutional structures that negatively affect the lives of women as a class of citizens. In no way, shape, or form, must feminism ever condone son preference. Campaigns like Daughters'=Rights aim to put an end to this preposterous exclusion—and all of us should stand behind them.

The House of Lords' repulsive reaction to the reform campaign made me want to grab a burning torch and start marching. Bills have been put forward to lift the rule of primogeniture. The Lords have managed to kill all of them. The excuses these self-serving men give are infuriating and insulting to women. They say, for instance, that it’s just too complex to spend the time changing it. Or, that they have heard all this before and don’t want to hear it again. Or, that the Lords simply won’t vote for it. Or, there are more important things for the government to take up. Or, they won’t take it up because it “smacks of feminism.”

Or—and this is my favorite—they can’t treat the women right because it would be unfair to the men.

Too often, people will accept offensive balderdash like this when the subject group is women.

Regardless of how privileged aristocratic women may be, the excuses being levelled at this question are insulting to all female citizens because they imply that women’s rights are to be addressed only if it can be done simply, at the first hearing, on a day when business is slow, and without irritating the very people whose interests are being served by the current state of affairs.

I think it’s high time for feminism to show the Lords what smacking really looks like.

Here’s what I propose:

· Raise awareness of the issue and change the attitudes among the public. Tweet your outrage. Put it out on other social media. Tell your friends. If you are a journalist, please cover this story. Daughters’=Rights have provided a pdf that summarizes the issues succinctly. (See link below.) Feel free to use the ideas in this blog or even the blog itself as content.

Summary Daughters' Rights[1]
Download PDF • 204KB

· Write your objections to the government. The main contact would be Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution, at Maybe we could flood her email? You can also send letters to the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.

· Look for other legal avenues. It seems to me that when the hereditary peers even consider bills on this matter, it represents a conflict of interest (where someone “derives personal benefit from decisions made in their official capacity”) and when they then kill the bills intended to reverse the inequity, they commit an act of public corruption (“the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). Isn’t public corruption a crime? Anything to be done with that?

I am sure readers of this blog are informed, capable, and creative enough to come up with their own ideas for bringing about this reform. Please put your mind to it. This situation is unacceptable.


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