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Published: Monday, 4/25/2011

Rules of succession

Our colonial ancestors were not fond of British royalty when King George III sat on the throne more than two centuries ago. Today, though, Americans can hardly get enough of the royal family, especially when something as special as Friday's wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton presents itself.

U.S. television networks are dispatching news teams worthy of the outbreak of World War III to the storied isle to cover every imaginable angle before, during, and after the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. The only place their prying cameras appear to be banned is the wedding bower. We can only hope the prose of Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, et al is worthy of Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and other Brits buried in the abbey's Poets' Corner.

TV coverage on this side of the pond will begin in earnest at 4 a.m. Friday -- two hours before the marriage service is set to begin. With all the cooing over wedding dresses and the hats that Windsor women seem obliged to wear, you'd be forgiven if you longed for just one serious topic associated with the wedding.

Prince William is second in line to become titular monarch over not just Great Britain, but also 15 other countries, including Canada and Australia. He would become head of the Church of England.

One royal question that deserves consideration is primogeniture, the law that gives males preference for the British throne. Queen Elizabeth turned 85 years old this week. Appearances to the contrary, she can't live forever.

Prince Charles, the heir to the throne who turns 63 this year, is not destined to have one of Britain's longer reigns. His son William, who will be 29 in June, likely will be king at a relatively young age.

Ask anyone to name the five or six most famous British monarchs. The list inevitably will include Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II. The first Queen Elizabeth reigned as England gained ascendancy as a world power. Victoria ruled an empire over which the sun never set. Elizabeth II has overseen the dissolution of that empire and its evolution into the Commonwealth of nations.

Yet legally, none would have become queen if she had had a younger brother -- even if he was a dolt. Primogeniture dates back to the Act of Settlement in 1701.

The practice of trying to keep wealth, power, and land in the hands of male heirs is centuries older. It is based on the notion that women have no value except to have babies and to be handed out as marriage prizes to cement alliances. It is not just a harmless vestige of the past.

Ending primogeniture would require every country over which the British monarch nominally rules to agree. So be it. It's time to stop relegating even royal women to second-class status.

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