MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
For centuries, the British have handed down estates and titles from father to son. That tradition of following the male line continues even today in the lofty corners of the British aristocracy. But now, there's a move to modernize it, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from London.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You could hardly find a bigger megaphone for this issue than the global TV phenomenon "Downton Abbey."
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SHAPIRO: In the very first minutes of the very first episode, the heirs to Downton Abbey sink with the Titanic. That's not just a tragedy, it's a disaster. The lord of the estate has three daughters, no sons. British law says only a man can inherit the title.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) I thought Lady Mary was the heir.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character) She's a girl, stupid. Girls can't inherit. But now, Mr. Crawley's dead, and Mr. Patrick was his only son. So what happens next?
SHAPIRO: What happens next, indeed? Questions of hereditary peerage, as the issue is known, are not merely reserved for fiction.
TIM TORRINGTON: I'm a hereditary peer with three daughters only, and my heir in theory is a very distant Canadian cousin.
SHAPIRO: This is Tim Torrington, officially the 11th viscount Torrington. He chairs the Hereditary Peerage Association, sort of like a trade union for lords, dukes, earls and barons. He would like to see his oldest daughter inherit his title, but ultimately it's not so important to him. Torrington's title comes with no land. And unlike some titles, his no longer carries a seat in the upper house of Parliament.
TORRINGTON: The only privilege that hereditary peers have is the right to be called by government departments by their proper name, by their titles. Well, I've never been called by any government department correctly by my name.
SHAPIRO: The issue does have huge significance for Lady Liza Campbell and her political allies. Campbell is quick to acknowledge that lords and ladies occupy a peculiar backwater of British life.
LADY LIZA CAMPBELL: But it exists, and nowhere should girls be born less than their brothers. Yes, it's the aristocracy, but it's still sexism. You can be an atheist and support the idea of women bishops, I think.
SHAPIRO: Campbell's father was the Thane of Cawdor. That title might sound familiar. It's in the play "Macbeth." Campbell was raised in an ancient castle that people today call Macbeth's castle. Liza was the second daughter born in her family.
CAMPBELL: I remember my mother saying how worried she was when I had been a second girl and she didn't have a boy, and feeling loved, but at the same time getting the message that girls were not what was needed.
SHAPIRO: The movement for gender equality in the aristocracy went nowhere until the royal pregnancy came along last year. Parliament changed the law so a firstborn girl could inherit the throne. Lady Campbell and her allies thought now might be the time to apply that principle to lords and ladies. Hence, the so-called "Downton Abbey" Law now before Parliament.
Campbell says what with the economy and Syria, lawmakers might not get around to her little corner of society. But if they don't, she has a backup plan.
CAMPBELL: Half a dozen women who have no brothers, whose titles will hop, you know, to a second cousin, third cousin, or whatever, will take their cases to Strasbourg and claim the titles.
SHAPIRO: Strasbourg is the European Court of Human Rights. The aristocratic women have a human rights lawyer who has agreed to represent them. He also serves in the House of Lords.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.