Downton Abbey and Modern Inheritance Discrimination

by Leslie Morgan Steiner

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I have one brother, a kind and unselfish man who lives 3,000 miles away from me.  When our mother died three years ago, the money she had carefully put away for us was divided equally among her children. 

She had always been clear that in our family, despite her children’s varying academic and athletic talents, combined with our unique abilities to get into and out of trouble, there were no favorites.  Mom loved us, and divided her money among us, in equal measure.

U.S. law considers us equal too, when it comes to inheritance at least.

I never thought too much of Mom’s fairness beyond being grateful for it, and respecting her wisdom when it came to raising children.  Then I started obsessively watching Downton Abbey.   Please let me note that my mother’s estate was a rounding error on the Downton Abbey annual ledgers.  But as in my family, as in most families, luck and talent were distributed unevenly among the Crawley clan.  But unlike in American families, in British ones, money was distributed only to male heirs.

On Downton Abbey, there is no Crawley son.  Most of the Season One plotline is taken up with this Crawley dearth. The lack of a son wreaks havoc upon the family as they search for a male heir to inherit and safeguard the breathtaking family estate and fortune - much of it provided, ironically, by Lord Crawley’s wealthy American wife Cora. Under early 20th century English primogeniture laws, none of the girls or Cora have any right to inherit the family possessions or the title that goes with the estate.  When Lord Crawley dies, they will become either  penniless or dependent upon the male heir’s largess, even if he is a distant cousin they’ve never met.

To my surprise, British inheritance laws remain much the same today. This kind of blatant discrimination based on anatomy would be legally actionable here in the United States.  How is it that institutionalized sexism remains law in the land that our country sprang from?

There are some indications that the sands are shifting across the pond. Parliament recently passed a law allowing the monarchy to be passed along to the monarch’s first-born child, regardless of gender.  This means that Kate and William’s baby, whether a boy or girl, will be third in line to the British throne. 

And perhaps due to the 24 million viewers who watched Downton Abbey’s third season, and continue to be enthralled by a plot embedded with the unfairness of Britain’s male-only inheritance laws, Brits are reconsidering this ancient tradition.  Change would come too late for the Crawley girls, but would surely be welcome to their female descendants today.

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