Gender equality legislation is sweeping the world. Constitutions and laws have been recognized by women’s rights activists as important instruments through which decision-making, influence and power are organized and exercised. Since 1990, at least 110 countries around the globe have been engaged in writing new constitutions or major revisions of old ones. In many of these countries, issues of gender equality have been a central concern in the constitutional process. Among others, constitutional provisions concerning the structure of democratic government have led to important changes in women’s political representation. In a few western countries these changes even touched a very ancient and traditional institution of government which over the centuries has preferably been reserved for males, that is, the institution of monarchy.
In four European monarchies - Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium - male preference in the order of royal succession was eliminated and changed to equal (or absolute) primogeniture in the 1980s and 1990s. Recently, in 2009, Denmark also changed to equal primogeniture. Two successive Danish parliaments voted in favour of a new royal succession law that allows a first-born child to one day ascend the throne regardless of whether it is a boy or a girl. The bill was then submitted to a successful referendum, a procedure necessary under the rules for change of the constitution.
Some other monarchies have recently considered changing royal succession to equal primogeniture. In the United Kingdom the Succession to the Crown Bill of 2004 was proposed in the House of Lords as a Private Member’s Bill by Labour peer Lord Dubs, but was withdrawn by him, after the Government said that it would block the Bill. With the birth of Infanta Leonor of Spain on 31 October 2005 to the Prince and Princess of Asturias, the Prime Minister of Spain Zapatero reaffirmed his government's intention to amend the Spanish constitution by introducing equal primogeniture. However, as succession to the Spanish Crown is codified explicitly in the constitution, its reform madates an amendment to the constitution, a complicated and time-consuming process. As the current line of succession will not be affected by the new succession law, there will be plenty of time before a constitutional amendment needs to be enacted. In July 2006, the Nepalese government proposed adopting equal primogeniture, but the monarchy was abolished in 2008.
Gender and succession to the Throne
In a heriditary monarchy the order of succession determines who becomes the new monarch when the incumbent sovereign dies or abdicates. Such orders of succession generally specify a selection process, a formula or algorithm, by law or tradition, which is applied to indicate which relative of the previous monarch, or other person, has the strongest claim to succeed, and will therefore assume the throne when the vacancy occurs. Constitutions, statutes, house laws, and norms may regulate the sequence and eligibility of potential successors to the throne. Historically, there have been various systems of succession, mainly revolving around the question of whether succession is limited only to males, or if females are also eligible to succeed or to transmit the succession rights to their male descendants. The preference for males existing in most systems comes mostly from the perceived nature of the tasks and role of the monarch, that is, being a warrior and a military commander. An alternative theory posits that the preference for males arose out of a desire to maximize reproductive success. It was thought that because of a sexual double standard, in which males were able to produce illegitimate children as well as legitimate children, a son would ultimately increase one's posterity more than a daughter.
But times have changed. With the progressive advancement of women’s rights in today’s world our views have altered. The ancient and traditional institution of monarchy is subject to constitutional change. Equal or absolute primogeniture, a form of primogeniture not practiced by any modern monarchy before 1980, is advancing.
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Chinkin, C., F. Butegwa and T. Johnson, Gender Mainstreaming in Legal and Constitutional Affairs: a Reference Manual for Governments and Other Stakeholders, London, Commonwealth Secretariat, 2001.
- Irving, H., Gender and the Constitution: Equity and Agency in Comparative Constitutional Design, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Lyon, A., "The Place of Women in European Royal Succession in the Middle Ages", Liverpool Law Review, 27 (2006), No. 3, pp. 361-393.
- Williams, S.H. (ed.), Constituting Equality: Gender Equality and Comparative Constitutional Law, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009.