Downton Abbey and a brief history of women’s property rights

May 20, 2022 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Crawley family in front of Downton

Fans of the beloved television series Downton Abbey (2012-2015) have been invited into the Crawley family estate one last time with the release of the saga’s second full-length film, Downton Abbey: A New Era. 

Downton Abbey, for anyone unfamiliar, takes viewers on a journey into post-Edwardian England, where we follow the lives of the “old money” Crawley family as they navigate the changing early-20th-century world. 

While the family drama and witty dialogue have captivated audiences across the globe, the show has another vital component that should be of interest to anyone who values property rights 

As the show takes great care to highlight, throughout the majority of history, women were not afforded the same property rights as men.  

No girls allowed…to own property  

While women could technically inherit property in the 18th and 19th centuries, many noble estates—like the fictional Downton Abbey—were irrevocably tied to a title that could be inherited only by a male heir.  

For Downton Abbey’s patriarch Robert Crawley, this is infuriating. Robert, the Earl of Grantham, has three daughters and no sons. He knows that after he dies, his property will be inherited by a distant male relative—not his own daughters. With his daughters unable to inherit or even control Downton Abbey, the family risks losing the mansion that has been a home to the Crawleys for generations, along with their financial well-being.  

The family’s predicament stems from the medieval “primogeniture system,” which for centuries left women with inadequate property rights.  

A most antiquated law  

Under the primogeniture system, European monarchs and noble families’ titles must be transferred through men.  

When France’s King Charles IV died in 1328, for example, he left only daughters behind, all of whom were unable to inherit the throne.  

Without a son, the next hair to the throne should have been the king’s nephew. But he was the son of the late king’s sister and thus was also denied the throne, because his lineage ran through a female—that’s how extreme the system was.  

But the law went even further.  

The primogeniture system was later extended to real estate through what was called an “entail.”  

And it was this entail that barred the eldest Crawley daughter, Mary, from inheriting her father’s estate, along with his noble title.  

It is absurd to consider that while Downton takes place 600 years after King Charles’ passing, the antiquated legal structure was still barring women from enjoying the same property rights as men.  

Worse still, this was not an injustice isolated to Europe alone. 

Girls just wanna hold property  

The foundation of the United States is deeply rooted in British common law.  

Our Founders were avid readers and followers of Sir William Blackstone, and colonial lawyers were seldom found traveling without their four-volume copies of his Commentaries on the Laws of England.  

While we adopted some of our greatest legal virtues from Britain’s common law, including the rule of law and individual rights, the U.S. also adopted its draconian views on female property rights.   

During the colonial period, when colonists were still subject to the British crown, a husband was given sole control over not only his own property, but any property that he inherited through his wife’s family. 

In 1718, Pennsylvania took a then-progressive approach to property rights, extending management rights to women, but only if their husbands were incapacitated.  

Just years before the Revolutionary War began, New York carried the torch, giving wives a say in the management of joint assets.  

The 1771 New York law required a wife’s consent if the husband was going to sell property that he inherited from her family through marriage. It also gave extra assurance to the wife by letting her meet privately with a judge to confirm that no coercion or forgeries had occurred in the sale.  

It would be nearly 70 years before any more progress would be made.  

In 1839, Mississippi became the first state to let women hold property in their own names.  

In 1844, Maine granted women the right to “separate economy” independent of a man.  

Arguably one of the most important milestones in the fight for female property rights came in 1848 with the passing of New York’s Married Women’s Property Acts.  

The law was a huge victory because it allowed women to enter contracts without their husbands or male relatives. It also allowed a woman to file lawsuits on her own behalf.  

Oddly enough, while women had virtually no rights to their joint assets, until the passing of this law, women were still liable for their husband’s debts.  

Crucially, the Married Women’s Property Acts also allowed women the right to receive their own inheritance.  

Unfortunately, this was a U.S. law and not one the Crawley family could use to their own benefit. But it helped inspire a similar 1870 British law that allowed married women to keep their property—a win for female property rights, although not a solution to the Crawleys’ entail problem. America’s Married Women’s Property Acts would have far-reaching and radical implications. By 1900, every state had passed similar legislation. 

You’ll notice the law was specifically about married women. Interestingly enough, in many cases, single women had more autonomy as far as property and finances were concerned. But this did not apply across the board.  

It wasn’t until 1862 that the U.S. Homestead Act would remove barriers that made it difficult for widowed, divorced, and single women to make property claims in their own names.  

California moved the ball forward from there: That same year, the state passed a law that recognized the financial independence of women, going so far as to let them control any deposit that was made in their own name.  

These victories may seem like relics of a distant, backward past. But the fight for a woman’s right to control her own property, including money, would not be fully won in the U.S. until 1974—less than 50 years ago.  

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed single, divorced, and widowed women who wanted to open a line of credit the freedom to do so without a bank requiring a man to cosign. 

Finally, after nearly 200 years, U.S. women had equal access to property. 

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, some women are still experiencing the “Mary Crawley” problem. In 2013, some parliamentarians introduced a bill that would allow titles—and any land connected to them—to be inherited by female heirs. The bill was informally dubbed “the Downton Abbey Law.” Alas, it failed to pass. 

Life, liberty, and property—for all  

In his Second Treatise of Government, the brilliant English philosopher John Locke wrote, “Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” He also wrote that “where there is no property there is no injustice.” The Crawley family would most certainly agree.  

Locke was a firsthand witness to the British government’s inclination to disregard an individual’s right to property. And our Founders and Framers were careful to incorporate this wisdom in our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution to ensure that governments never trampled on this sacred right. 

But this guarantee, as we have seen, has not always protected all individuals equally in Locke’s country, nor our own.  

One of our most cherished founding mothers, Abigail Adams, once wrote to her husband, John, counselling him as he helped shape the future of the country.  

“Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.” 

It may have taken two centuries for her hope to be realized, but both our American and British female ancestors can rest in peace, knowing their daughters have finally won the right to control their own property, and thus, their own destinies.