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‘Downton Abbey law’ gives equality to the landed gentry

On Sunday night, millions of Americans watched the start of a new season of the PBS series “Downton Abbey,” dedicated in part to the struggles of Lady Mary, one of the show’s main characters, to assert control of her inheritance. And now, 91 years after the period depicted in the show, Lady Mary would be pleased to see women’s aspirations being recognized in the British Parliament’s House of Lords.

Under a system that dates back to the Middle Ages, female members of the nobility are legally unable to inherit their family’s titles, even if they are the eldest children. Instead, the inheritance goes to the eldest son, or next-closest male relative. If there are no male heirs, then the line goes extinct — a worrying prospect if you can trace your family name back 700 years.

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Striking a blow for gender equality, members of the House of Lords have proposed a law — already nicknamed the “Downton Abbey law” — that would allow the eldest daughters of Britain’s various dukes, earls, and viscounts to inherit their family titles. The bill must be approved by the House of Commons before it becomes law, but it deserves broad support. While it’s easy for Americans to scoff at the idea of a landed gentry, it’s important to remember that an inequality is an inequality — even if it only affects the upper classes.

And every “Downton” fan knows that Lady Mary is far more capable than any of the men in the family.

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