Updated at 1:05 p.m. ET
In 2015, Charlotte Carew Pole gave birth to her first child, a daughter she named Jemima. Having her was “a bit of a struggle,” she told me, with some understatement. Carew Pole had been through miscarriages and IVF before Jemima arrived, tiny and blonde and—to her mother—utterly perfect.
“We were absolutely delighted,” she said, over coffee and biscuits at her family’s home in Cornwall, southwest England, “but I was surprised by some people’s reactions. Even if it was tongue-in-cheek, people said, ‘What a shame’ … ‘You must try again,’ and ‘Don’t worry, it can go to your nephew.’”
Ah, it. Charlotte’s father-in-law, Sir Richard Carew Pole, is a baronet, an aristocratic title bestowed on his family by King Charles I in 1628. Like many English titles, it can be held only by a man. Sir Richard is the 13th baronet; Charlotte’s husband, Tremayne, will one day be the 14th. But baby Jemima could not be the 15th. And so Charlotte was told by well-meaning acquaintances that her baby daughter was a disappointment. She must have a son.
In a very quiet, English way, the experience radicalized her. She began to see how acquaintances had lower expectations about the education of their daughters. She noticed how businesses were often passed from father to son. And she realized why great swaths of land and property stayed in the hands of men. The year after Jemima was born, 25-year-old Hugh Grosvenor inherited the multibillion-dollar estate of his father, the Duke of Westminster, ahead of his older sister, Tamara. It included 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia, London’s most desirable districts, as well as land in Lancashire, Cheshire, Scotland, Wales, and Spain.
Flushed with polite zeal, Carew Pole decided to act, taking over an existing campaign to change the law so that English and Welsh titles could be passed down to firstborn sons and daughters equally. (Many Scottish titles already operate this way.) She quickly rebranded it from The Hares to the snappier Daughters’ Rights. At stake are not just names, estates, and money, but the 92 seats in the United Kingdom’s Parliament reserved for hereditary peers, all of which are currently held by men. In Britain, the traditions of the upper class distort democracy for everyone.
What follows is a strange story, because it is about discrimination toward the privileged: feminism for aristocrats. It reveals a country trapped between tradition and modernity, between the Middle Ages and the 21st century. Britain allows those who have inherited dukedoms created half a millennium ago to sit in our Parliament, while recording on the legislature’s official website how many of them are nonbinary. (None, as yet.) Britain permits transgender people to change their legal sex—unless it would affect the inheritance of an earldom. And Britain gives the male heirs of men who fought in the Wars of the Roses a special right to pass laws about Uber and Facebook.
Before we start, a short explanation of the peerage is necessary. Britain has more than 800 hereditary peers—aristocrats whose titles were bestowed by the monarch of the day, and are handed down to their descendants. Perhaps your ancestor won a big battle against the French. Perhaps he was a favored courtier, or a valuable politician. Perhaps he was the king’s bastard son. In descending order of swankiness, the titles go: duke, marquis, earl, viscount, baron. Their holders are entitled to run for election to the 92 places in the House of Lords allocated to hereditary peers.
There are also more than a thousand baronets, a title associated with country squires that ranks below a baron and is not part of the peerage. Many baronetcies can also be inherited only by men. A baronetcy gives you the right to be addressed as “Sir,” as Sir Richard Carew Pole is, but is not to be confused with a knighthood: Sir Elton John is not the descendant of a long line of noblemen who fought valiantly for some long-forgotten monarch; he grew up in social housing in a London suburb and was given an honor by the Queen for performing the best song in The Lion King.
The wife of a marquis, incidentally, is called a marchioness. Because Britain has had an aristocracy for more than 1,000 years, we have forgotten how ridiculous that sounds. In fact, while we’re here, let’s try a quiz: Hereditary peer or Harry Potter character? Alexander Scrymgeour, Valerian Freyburg, Merlin Hay, Godfrey Bewicke-Copley, Rupert Ponsonby, Edward Foljambe, and Roualeyn Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce. Trick question! They are all current members of the House of Lords.
Peerages and baronetcies are hereditary, and only children whose parents are married can inherit them. Most are passed down to the firstborn son, a practice known as “male primogeniture.” Some can be inherited by the eldest daughter if a younger brother doesn’t arrive; others go extinct if there is no male heir. This practice drives the plot of Downton Abbey—in which the Earl of Grantham has three daughters but no son—and Pride and Prejudice, in which the Longbourn estate will go to Mr. Collins, a cousin, rather than any of the five Bennet sisters. Until 2011, the British monarchy ran on male primogeniture too: Queen Elizabeth II would have been elbowed out of the succession if her parents had gone on to have a boy. The law was changed ahead of the birth of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s firstborn.
The reasons behind male primogeniture were, for centuries, obvious to everyone. Most titles came with a grand estate: a castle, tenant farms, perhaps a summer house or two. These stately homes cost a fortune to run, so keeping the title and all the assets bundled together made sense. The eldest son inherited the lot. The danger of passing on titles and wealth to an eldest daughter was that she might marry into another noble house, uniting both sets of titles and land. From the monarch’s point of view, that was dangerous, potentially allowing aristocratic families to become an alternative power base to the throne.
This all made perfect sense in 1620, or even 1720. But it’s harder to understand in 2020, when Britain has had two female prime ministers, 50 years of equal pay under the law, and its female monarchs are generally agreed to have a better batting average than their male counterparts. Yet despite all the advances made by feminism in Britain, male primogeniture endures among the nation’s aristocracy.
In fact, let’s call the British situation what it is—son preference. This phenomenon is seen across the world, in India and China, where female fetuses are aborted in their thousands, in sub-Saharan Africa, where boys are regularly given better access to schooling, and even bigger portions of food and across pretty much the entire world, where they often get fewer chores at home.
The British version is of course much more limited, yet it has persisted. Robin Neville, Baron Braybrooke, had eight daughters in the hope of eventually having a son: Amanda, Caroline, Henrietta, Victoria, Arabella, Sara, Emma, and Lucinda all came along, but no heir. When he died in 2017, the title went to a distant cousin.
The most absurd election of modern times took place four years ago. The prize was a seat in the House of Lords, Britain’s second legislative chamber, which has the ability to amend or block legislation sent there by the House of Commons. Every member of the Commons is elected: The average constituency has 66,000 voters. The members of the Lords, by contrast, are mostly appointed, and include former political advisers, distinguished athletes, business leaders, and yes, a good dollop of cronies.
Until 1999, every one of Britain’s hereditary peers was also entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Tony Blair’s Labour government decided to put a stop to that anachronism, which jarred with its vision of a modern, classless society. The late foreign secretary Robin Cook once observed that Britain and the small African nation of Lesotho were “the only two countries with reserved seats in their parliament for hereditary chieftains.”
The Conservatives, however, were opposed. As the traditional party of the upper class, they benefited from the fact that most aristocrats were right-wing. Blair’s government came up with a compromise: 92 hereditary peers could stay in the Lords, with their party affiliations based on the existing ratio. There would be 49 Conservatives, then four each from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, plus 35 who were not linked to any party. This would continue until the end of time, or until further reforms were passed. Whenever one of the party-affiliated peers died or retired, their ideological allies in the House of Lords would vote on their replacement, choosing from all the hereditary peers who had registered an interest.
So when Lord Avebury died in 2016, the other Liberal Democrat peers were the only people allowed to vote in the election to replace him. All three of them. The process used the alternative-vote model, in which candidates are knocked out over several rounds. It need not have bothered: Viscount Thurso got all three votes. Bad luck to the six losers: Lord Somerleyton, an Eton-educated hotel owner; Lord Kennet, whose father was a left-wing journalist; the Earl of Carlisle, family motto: “Volo non valeo” (“I am willing, but not able”); Charles Rodney Muff, the third Baron Calverley; Earl Russell—family motto: “Che sera, sera” (“Whatever will be, will be”)—and Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, the great-grandson of the former prime minister.
These candidates, you might have noticed, are all men. Because fewer than 90 titles can be passed to female heirs, no women are among the hereditary peers currently sitting in the Lords. (The most recent, the Countess of Mar, retired in May.) Yet since taking over Daughters’ Rights, Charlotte Carew Pole said, she has found it hard to enlist mainstream feminist organizations and activists to support her. She suspects they fear being represented as elitist and out of touch. But the glib left-wing retort—Who cares about feminism for aristocrats?—ignores the fact that Britain’s son preference deforms the very institution that sets our laws. There are, essentially, seats in our Parliament reserved for men.
The Labour peer Lord Grocott has proposed a bill to scrap these by-elections three times, so far without success. He told me that he wanted to have the hereditary peers “humanely removed” from the House of Lords, a phrase that makes them sound like a much-loved family dog making a final trip to the vet. “The by-elections are idiotic,” he added. “A hundred percent turnout. A hundred percent [of votes] for one candidate. It’s better than North Korea.”
Until taking on Daughters’ Rights, Carew Pole was—as she described herself—“just a housewife.” But what a house. We met at her family’s country home, a gorgeous gray-stone mansion called Antony. It stands in 42 acres of woods, on a peninsula in southwest England, with grasslands stretching off into the distance and down to the sea.
In 1961, the family gave Antony to the National Trust, a charity dedicated to preserving historic houses, and now rents it back. “It means the roof gets repaired,” Carew Pole observed pragmatically. Her son, Lucian, arrived a year after she had Jemima, and there is a jarring disconnect between the family kitchen, which is very clearly the domain of two small children, and the main house, with its wood panels and generations of dour-faced ancestors staring down from the walls. (I would say they’re no oil paintings, except they are.)
Life at Antony feels almost parodically English. During Britain’s first lockdown, Tremayne donated tons of turnips, grown on the estate’s farm, to the local food bank. To help the nearby stables, which were closed because of the pandemic, the family took in two ponies—Candyfloss and Dancer—which the children learned to ride, taking them down the peninsula to the sea. A greyhound, Alba, completed the picture. Carew Pole greeted me in a pale-pink sweater, with pearl earrings and swept-back hair, paired with jeans and sturdy boots. “I’m Zoom-ready on the top, and horse-ready on the bottom,” she said.
She was not born to this, and loftier aristocrats have occasionally reminded her that she, as a middle-class girl raised on a farm in southern England, has “done quite well.” She worked for an advertising agency and as a motorcycle test driver before meeting Tremayne. As an outsider, she is polite and deferential to the aristocracy’s strange codes. In fact, this politeness itself reveals her class: One of the hallmarks of poshness is blithe, bluff insouciance—not caring what anyone thinks.
Carew Pole took over the equal-rights campaign from the journalist Victoria Lambert, the wife of the Earl of Clancarty, whose title will become extinct when he dies, because the couple’s only child is a daughter. Lambert bowed out amicably, having “had enough.” She initially tried a “private members’ bill,” a proposed law which can be introduced by anyone sitting in the Commons or the Lords. Most of these fail, unless they are adopted by the government of the day, because debating time is limited and the government controls the timetable. This one was no exception.
The campaign also took a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Britain was practicing sex discrimination. This action required claimants, so Carew Pole rounded up five daughters willing to fight for their right to inherit. Assembling the women was difficult, she told me: Many did not want to upset their families. Eventually, enough names were collected, and the claimants submitted their applications on July 13, 2018. They are still waiting for an answer.
Despite the failure of the private members’ bill, Carew Pole has not given up on the parliamentary route. She recently made her case to Chloe Smith, the minister for the constitution, but came away feeling dejected. Carew Pole believes the government fears that the bill would be amended from a narrow reform to a nuclear bomb: Perhaps someone would suggest the removal of all hereditary peers from the Lords, depriving the government of reliable votes for its policies. To calm ministers’ nerves, Carew Pole has secured a promise from Lord Grocott—who introduces exactly this proposal every time he gets the chance—that he would not hijack the bill. “I have no intention of amending any bill designed to promote equality,” he told me.
In Carew Pole’s telling, the government threw rock after rock into her path: How would large estates handle their tax planning? What would we call the husbands of women who held peerages in their own right? What would her proposal mean for titles bestowed by acts of Parliament, rather than the monarch? Unable or unwilling to defend the principle of male primogeniture, the government fixated on the practical hurdles that any change would create. (When asked for comment, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said, “Reform of the succession to the hereditary peerage raises a variety of complex issues, and any changes would need careful consideration and wider engagement.”)
The real reason for the government’s reluctance to engage, I would imagine, is that ministers don’t want anyone looking too closely at the House of Lords, in case we commoners get revolutionary ideas. Women make up only 28 percent of the upper house. Its members’ average age is 70. Former politicians and bankers are overrepresented. For years, the Lords has been dogged by complaints that, although its members do not receive a salary, they are entitled to generous taxpayer-funded expenses. Last December, The Guardian revealed that the Labour peer Lord Brookman, a former labor-union official, claimed nearly £50,000 in attendance allowances and expenses without speaking in a single debate or asking a single written question. “Forty-six peers did not register a single vote, including on Brexit, sit on a committee or hold a post,” the newspaper reported. “One peer claimed £25,000 without voting, while another claimed £41,000 but only voted once.”
What do the British public think about the House of Lords? The answer is, they don’t. In 2018, the pollsters YouGov found that 59 percent of us volunteered that we knew “not much” or “nothing at all” about the upper house. A third of respondents supported its replacement with a chamber that is at least partly elected, and 21 percent would be happy to see it abolished entirely. The last time a hereditary peer made the news was when Lord Bethell, a minister in the Conservative government, claimed in August that “fluffing” his exams at school “taught me how to hustle.” He might have added that attending a £41,000-a-year (about $54,000) private school and inheriting a peerage didn’t hurt.
When I reached Lady Tanya Field by phone, she joked that it was “Blursday.” She is a social worker, and her life has become even busier since the pandemic began. Field might have joined the European Court case, but she has comprehensively rejected her aristocratic upbringing: She doesn’t use her title, she married a man who grew up in public housing, and she lives in a semidetached house near Oxford. She collects vintage cars—but not rare, high-end ones. She likes Minis. “The reason that I’m interested in mass-produced cars is because I’m much more interested in normal people,” she told me.
Field, the eldest of three daughters, is cheerfully unembarrassed about wanting to inherit her father’s right to stand for election in the House of Lords. She left her job at a car factory, where she met her husband, to have three sons, then spent 15 years as a carer for her mother-in-law, who had mental-health problems. The 49-year-old now works with youth groups and as a legal advocate for those with learning disabilities, as well as running a community larder in a deprived area of Oxfordshire. “I would want to talk about all those issues,” she said. “I’ve got the hands-on experience.” She would sit as a cross-bencher, because she is not a member of any political party.
I was struggling, I told her, with the idea of Carew Pole’s modest reforms rather than revolution. Would she support the removal of all hereditary peers from the Lords? “Yes, I would in principle,” Field responded. “But if they are there, it has to be equitable.”
The Honorable Sarah Long’s motivations are similar. Her younger brother, James, is disabled, blind in one eye and in constant pain, after their mother took the morning-sickness drug thalidomide during pregnancy. He was bullied at school, and spent months in hospital as a child, but later worked as a fashion photographer. As James approaches 60, however, his condition has deteriorated, and he now lives in social housing in London. He would love to campaign for others affected by thalidomide, but doesn’t have the strength. Both siblings wish that Sarah could take up the cause on his behalf. “I adore my brother,” says Long. “But he won’t be having any children … I’ve got things I would like to say about the thalidomide families.”
Long was very young when she realized that she was seen as inferior because she was a girl. “I must have been about six,” she told me. Her father produced a gold-and-red leather tube. “And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘That’s not for you.’” Inside that leather tube were letters patent—the official documents, issued by the monarch, granting her father his title as Viscount Long. They were destined for James.
All three women—Long, Field, and Carew Pole—reject the idea that they are motivated by money. Field grew up on a farm, in her family’s grand house, Shirburn Castle, in Oxfordshire, where she remembers that she never had to visit a gas station; the family kept its own petrol tanks and usage was noted in a ledger in the hall. But those days are gone. Her grandfather decided to divide up the estate, and in 2004 her father was evicted from Shirburn Castle after a legal quarrel with his younger brother. In any case, Field is happier in her normal home, surrounded by normal people, driving her normal cars. Long also grew up in a manor house, in the Wiltshire village of Steeple Ashton, which came with a butler, but when she was 17, the family could no longer afford its upkeep, and she “left that life behind.” She has worked all her life and is now an art dealer.*
These stories are common across the aristocracy: The titles endure, but the grand fortunes have gone. The stately homes, once bustling with footmen and undergardeners and scullery maids, are now financial black holes, draining the remainder of a family’s savings. Yet most of them are now visited by more people than they ever were in their glory days as private homes. The National Trust owns 300 buildings and had 5 million members in 2018. Britons might claim that we find aristocrats embarrassing, antiquated, and undeserving of their unearned advantages in life, but good God, do we like poking round their rose gardens on a sunny weekend.
During my visit to Antony, Carew Pole was never less than kind to me, but I could sense her nervousness. After all, when your newest high-profile supporter is Charles Henry John Benedict Crofton Chetwynd Chetwynd-Talbot—otherwise known as the Earl of Shrewsbury—your campaign is easily dismissed as Rich People’s Problems. Some British women don’t have a safe place to sleep tonight, so why should we care that some others don’t have dukedoms?
And yet. We wouldn’t accept a new law barring racial minorities or LGBTQ people from inheriting peerages, so why accept the old law barring women? Traditional sexism is still sexism. The government must know that its current position is indefensible, but ministers fear that Carew Pole and her supporters are pulling on an ermine thread. Tug too hard, and the whole thing might unravel.
All that explains why, when we spoke, Carew Pole repeatedly emphasized the limit of her ambitions. Feminism is regularly described as radical, but many of its pioneers have been conservatives who just want to be included by the system, rather than tear it all down. (Think of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the violent suffragettes, who later stood for Parliament as a Tory.) Perhaps the right person to remove the sex discrimination at the heart of British democracy is not a firebrand, but the mistress of an imposing manor house with grounds as far as the eye can see.
After finishing our coffee, Carew Pole and I went through the family kitchen to the back garden, where Jemima painted my nails with more enthusiasm than skill, spattering my fingers with varnish, and Lucian lay on the floor, starfished, enraptured by the cloudless Cornish sky.
Watching them both, I had an echo of the thought that their mother had five years ago. All the other arguments are secondary: The law of England currently says that one of these children is worth more than the other. And that simply isn’t right.
* An earlier version of this article misidentified where Tanya Field grew up. It is Shirburn Castle, not Shibden Hall.