René de Groot (with thanks to the 'Museum aan het Vrijthof' René de Groot (with thanks to the 'Museum aan het Vrijthof' Sacha Ruland

“Unequal position of women in nobiliary law is hard to justify”

In Culture
Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 28 May 2014 10:20
The High Council of Nobility will celebrate its 200th anniversary on 23 June. René de Groot, Maastricht professor of Comparative Law and International Private Law, will deliver the keynote address in the presence of King Willem-Alexander. De Groot’s position on nobiliary law is anything but vague: one should refrain from overhauling such a historic institution. "But should you choose to modernise it, you have to treat men and women equally."

Clad tastefully in a tweed suit, waistcoat and bow tie, with measured words and dignified diction, De Groot could almost be noble himself. But by no means is he high-born, he explains in his usual cheerful tone, not in the least perturbed. No, that’s not something he loses sleep over.
He may not be noble, but he is certainly held in high regard. Not everyone gets to speak in the presence of the king. The invitation came, he thinks, because he is the only professor in the Netherlands to publish regularly on nobiliary law. Here, too, it speaks in his favour that he himself has no vested interest. "A lot of people get involved in debates about amending the law because it might benefit themselves or their children." That De Groot supervised the PhD of the current secretary of the High Council of Nobility probably didn’t hurt either.

Institutionalised inequality

The High Council’s anniversary coincides with the 200th anniversary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This is no coincidence. The majority of the Dutch nobility was created in 1814 by King Willem I, who felt that no sensible kingdom could do without. In De Groot’s view, reflecting now and then on the roots of the modern Dutch state is no bad thing. He is positive, too, about the royal house. "It has a lot to do with the family. I think the Oranjes have played their roles well."
Nobiliary law, according to De Groot, should primarily be seen as protecting the status of the nobility. Besides the right to a title and a coat of arms, it has little substance. "Nobiliary law is a historical institution and it’s nice to cherish that, just as we do the royal house." So far, so good. "But then a curious thing happened", he goes on, as though reading aloud from a thriller. "In 1994 an attempt was made to revamp the nobiliary law. But is that really possible? Can you modernise a historical institution that necessarily entails built-in, institutionalised inequality?” Ominously: “Well, the legislature thought so. And therein lies the rub."

Male line

After much debate, the legislature agreed on two amendments. Children born out of wedlock and adopted children would henceforth be allowed to inherit titles – but only through the male line. "This was an improvement, but the elephant in the room is the question of equal treatment for men and women. Shouldn’t a child also be able to inherit a title from the mother’s line?" This was rejected on the grounds that it would result in too many nobles. "For me, there are big question marks as to whether that’s a convincing argument."
The issue is by no means unique to the Netherlands; other countries are today also grappling with how to treat women equally in their nobiliary laws. In his address, De Groot will compare Dutch nobiliary law with that in other European states. "I doubt I’ll be able to get around this issue."
What complicates matters is that succession to the throne has indeed become gender neutral. "If Beatrix had had a younger brother, he would have been first in line for the throne. But if Willem-Alexander were to have a son, he’d be fourth in line." This law, then, reflects the spirit of the times. "My position is that if you want to maintain a historical institution, you shouldn’t alter it. But if you do decide to modernise nobiliary law, you have to give men and women equal rights. Giving it a facelift here but not there is hard to justify. That’s why we have to keep on asking the equality question."

Fancy names

De Groot’s interest in nobiliary law stems from his main work in the law regarding surnames. "Questions like these are often pertinent when it comes to fancy names. People don’t sue over whether they can be called Jones or Smith. But if it’s Jones or Furst von Furstenberg, that’s a different story. After all, with the fancy name might come a fancy title. If a name evokes historical memories or involves a special status, people are more willing to go to court." There are matters of greater importance in life, he readily admits. "I’m more likely to lie awake at night over whether someone should be allowed to become a Dutch citizen than whether he can belong to the nobility."
In any event, the new nobiliary law adopted in 1994 will prevent many noble families from dying out. De Groot laughs: "We don’t have to worry about that anymore."

René de Groot (1951) is professor of Comparative Law and International Private Law at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Law. He is a world-renowned expert in the field of nationality law.

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