Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Discussion of male primogeniture

This piece is from a feminist website:

Queens, Virgins, and Sluts

Warning: There is some strong language on the site. Not a great deal, but it's there.

(I hope to post more parts of this is anyone's interested in reading it. And let me clarify I'm an American and I don't actually dislike the monarchy or think it should be abolished, I just don't like some of the sexism that comes with it)

The monarchy in Great Britain is one of the few monarchies in Europe that still has male-preference primogeniture. For the unfamiliar, basically that means that when the throne is vacant, it goes to the oldest son. Only if there are no sons can it go to a daughter. If there are no children at all, it goes back through the line of the next son back a generation. For example, if a King had a girl first, and then a boy, the boy would get the throne even though he's younger than his sister. If he has no sons and one daughter, she gets the throne. If he has no children at all, it would go to his younger brother or his brother's descendants.

Getting passed [sic] the general unfairness of getting anything simply because you were born to the right family at the right time, it's also unfair in another sense. It's astonishingly outdated and sexist. That's the reason the monarchies in Sweden, Norway, and Belgium, among other places, changed it to absolute primogeniture, which is where the eldest child, regardless of gender, takes the throne. One of the main reasons Britain hasn't changed like those other countries is that it just hasn't come up since Queen Victoria's children. Every monarch since Queen Victoria has either had a sons first, or hasn't had sons at all. If the current Queen had had a younger brother, she would not be reigning right now unless the law had been changed in her favor.


This raises several points. To begin with, the one she mentions in passing, the "general unfairness" of inheritance. It's unfair to the newborn heirs, true, but it is entirely fair to the deceased who bequeath the inheritance. Having worked to create or maintain something, a person has every right to pass it on to their own blood, rather than have the government seize it in the name of "fairness". It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that the reason people today are less likely to save money, or invest it in something lasting, but instead spend it on having fun, is that inheritance taxes mean that there is no point in saving. The importance of being able to leave a legacy cannot be overstated. Without it, we would quite literally still be living in caves.

Capitalists point out, with much truth, that people work to invent things or build companies and so on so that they can enjoy wealth and a feeling of accomplishment. What we seem to have forgotten is that one of the most powerful reasons that people work is to create something that will last longer than we will: a nation, an estate, a company, a house, a dynasty, even a code of values. (That last is one more thing it's become increasingly difficult for us to pass on to our children!) With a code of law which is constantly changing, criminally high inheritance taxes, and a compulsory education system which is designed to subvert the values many parents would prefer to teach their children, it is very difficult to believe that anything one builds will last for one's entire lifetime, let alone past it. I love capitalism, but nonetheless, greed is not enough.

Admittedly, it is not "fair" to the various babies who are born to commoners that they won't get to be king. (Here we are assuming that being a monarch is a desirable state, which is highly debatable. It's a difficult and often thankless job.) However, is it "fair" to the entire citizenry of a nation to subject them to the abuses and shifting sands of democracy, just so that no child will have his feelings hurt by not being able to expect to be king?

So let's talk about male primogeniture. This is going to be rather depressingly pragmatic, but bear with me. When our most vital institutions are under fire, one is forced to bare the dreary cynical purposes they serve as well as the more uplifting and dignified.

The reason for primogeniture in the first place is that, to be blunt, the first child or two is more likely to be legitimate. (Richard Coniff discusses this widespread phenomenon throughout the animal kingdom as well as among humans in his amusing work of evolutionary psychology, A Natural History of the Rich.) If a wife is going to be unfaithful, then in a less decadent era than our own, it will generally take her a few years to overcome her own scruples and worries. In addition, husbands are likely to be less attentive - and less vigilant - once they've had her for a few years and have an heir or two. (Mr. Coniff points out that Camilla Parker Bowles was faithful to her husband for several years after their marriage and produced two legitimate heirs before her affair with Charles resumed.)

So why was primogeniture male? It wasn't only because for most of history, people have had a low opinion of women's ability. It was because a lord or a king was likely to have to draw a sword and lead soldiers into battle, and women can't do that. (I know that in our enlightened age I am supposed to pretend that women are just as strong as men. I decline to join that lie. I spent my school years being beaten up by boys so that my feminist teachers could feel liberated by not telling them not to hit girls.) All right, there is a very small percentage of women who can, but even if a queen just happened to be that sort, her country wasn't about to let her go risking the royal womb that way. They needed her to be producing heirs. In an era when child deaths were common, there could never be too many heirs.

A certain anti-feminist blog I came across in my search for articles about monarchy asked, “Why did women ever succeed to the throne at all?” He then explains:

Those who managed to get themselves into power wanted to cling to it by any means, including passing it on to their children. A breakdown in the royal succession often led to civil war and foreign invasion, and everyone wanted to avoid that. The worst outcome for a monarch was to die childless. It is no surprise that the Royal daughters became Plan B. If the King had a daughter but no sons, then she would often succeed to the throne in order to maintain political stability. At the same time, do not imagine that Royal women in the past were passive idiots; they were just as rich and arrogant as the men, and they maneuvered on their own behalf.

Male primogeniture, like much else in society, is a cultural reflection of human nature, not some sinister misogynist conspiracy.


And by the way, there were more female heads of state before feminism, when most nations were monarchies, than there have been since Women's Lib.

Perhaps that much, male primogeniture, really is outdated, in an era when a prince in the army is kept well away from harm. But I prefer to leave this custom as it is, if only because we have made too many changes already over the past horrific century. There is no very good reason to change this one, therefore we should not change it.