Gender Equality

The royal glass ceiling: Why can’t women be kings?

It is proposed that laws be changed in Great Britain to allow a firstborn child to inherit the throne, even if that child is a girl who later gets a younger brother. In other words, the line of succession may become gender-blind, which should be encouraging to girls and women, says the Queen.

Many royal houses have made this move in recent decades, but none of them have achieved true gender equality, none of them have systems in which women genuinely are equal to men.

A woman still cannot reach the pinnacle of a monarchy — a woman, so to speak, cannot become king! 

The limitations that persist become clear through the titles emerging from marriage.

If an heir to the throne marries, their new spouse can get a comparable title. Prince Haakon of Norway married Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby and she became Princess Mette-Marit. Princess Victoria of Sweden married Olof Daniel Westling and he became Prince Daniel.

When Haakon becomes King of Norway, Mette-Marit will become Queen. But when Victoria becomes Queen of Sweden, Daniel will not become King; instead, he will remain a prince.

Or, to be more precise, both will become Consort to the Regent. Mette-Marit will be the Queen Consort, as is her mother-in-law, Sonja. Daniel will not be a King Consort, but instead a Prince Consort, like Henrik of Denmark.

Why is this? The answer seems clear and simple. Monarchies codify the superiority of a man to a woman. A king always outranks a queen — a man always outranks a woman. The highest position in a royal house may never be occupied by a woman because the highest position is that of king, which is reserved for a man.

When a princess-by-marriage becomes a queen, that creates no confusion regarding the legal position of her husband, the king. But a man who has married a princess cannot become a king, lest we become uncertain about who is really in charge.

A woman who is heir-to-the-throne does not ascend to the highest position in the monarchy. But when she becomes Queen, the highest position — that of King — is kept vacant.

The monarchies in this way, systematize deeply sexist and discriminatory perspectives on the relative value of men and women.

If the Scandinavians or the Brits or any Royal House wants to do something truly egalitarian, they would not only let women inherit the throne, they would let their husbands become King, and nonetheless insist that the Queen is at the top of the heap.

But this is perhaps too much to expect of such venerable institutions. On the matter of royal sexism, it’s perhaps easier to simply chuckle and conclude: We are quite amused.

This post also appeared on The Huffington Post.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Anne Perschel ska@bizshrink says:

    Well done Kurt. It occurs to me upon reading your post the related rules of chess would need to change as well, and that would be equal or more challenge than changes to monarchies.

  • curt rice says:

    Indeed! But I’ve always thought the king in chess seemed a lot less powerful than the queen :)
    The important point, though, is that none of these things have to be the way they are. Different systems are easily imagined. It’s just a matter of will power to make a different future!

  • Vittoria says:

    There are two types of queen: queens consort and queens regnant. A king certainly outranks a queen consort, who is merely the wife of a king, but I do not believe that he outranks a queen regnant, who is a women who reigns in her own right, having inherited the throne from a man who was her blood relative. They are both heads of state and must be equal in rank.

    You would never see Queen Elizabeth, who is a queen regnant, curtseying to the Kings of Sweden, Belgium, and Norway.

    Moreover, the only kingly title the husband of a queen regnant could receive would be “king consort”. A king consort would rank below his wife, the queen regnant.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Thanks for leaving this comment, Vittoria. You’re well-informed about the subtleties of the monarchies. And, of course, you are right that there is a difference between being a regent and being a consort. You’re also that it is hypothetically possible that a queen regent have a king consort as a husband. However, this is not widely practiced — never, for example, in Great Britain has there been a King Consort. The reason for this is exactly the kind of thing that I write about in this blog — it threatens the supremacy of the queen regent, because there’s an intuition and practice and legacy of male primogeniture that a King is above a Queen. So, while it’s normal, as I noted in the piece, that a King Regent has a wife who is a Queen Consort, it is not at all normal — indeed very, very, very rare — that a Queen Regent has a King Consort. There are one or two cases in history, and they’re all clearly perceived as deviant.

  • Peter says:

    Υou are talking about equality and monarchy?
    Is this a joke?

    how can there be equality when there are royals and “peasants”.

    If you want to have equality then the King and Queen positions should be abolished althogether.

    then we can talk about equality,

    But instead you are asking not to have a male monarch but to have a female.

    A monarch is a monarch no matter what his/her gender is.

  • ann says:

    why can’t women be called “king”? A king is automatically bigger than the queen, so if a women is to occupy the highest position, she should be called a “king” as well. King Elizabeth sounds right to me!

  • Laraine says:

    Why would a reigning queen want to be called king anyway? It’s a bit like a woman wanting to be called Mister.

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