Nov. 29, 2004 — -- Gabriel is just a little over a year old, but soon he'll learn that his big sister, Elisabeth, can push him around. In a few years, he'll understand that one day she will rule -- literally.
In fact, 3-year-old Elisabeth is slated to one day become Belgium's first reigning queen.
The little princess is a member of an elite but growing group of girls destined to wear crowns in their own right. It's due to an increasing trend among European monarchies to adopt absolute, or cognatic, primogeniture -- meaning the ruler's eldest child, whether boy or girl, inherits the crown.
Sweden became the first European kingdom to adopt cognatic primogeniture. When the constitutional change was made in 1980, the baby Prince Carl Philip was suddenly demoted. His older sister, Victoria, became the heir to the throne now occupied by their father, King Carl XVI Gustaf.
"It's said that the only person who really disapproved of changing the line of succession was the king," said Paul Rapacioli, editor of The Local (www.thelocal.se), an online site providing Sweden's news in English. "As far as equality-conscious Swedes are concerned, Victoria is the rightful heir."
Indeed, the future queens have been welcomed enthusiastically by their future subjects -- or at least as enthusiastically as a future king would have been. When Princess Elisabeth celebrated her first birthday, Belgium issued a special stamp to mark the occasion. The Dutch, who have had female rulers since 1890, got another future queen when Princess Catharina-Amalia was born Dec. 7, 2003, to Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Crown Princess Maxima.
Norway's Princess Ingrid Alexandra is still in diapers, but she's rapidly becoming a star. The infant made her first state visit when her parents, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit, traveled to Iceland. And she's already been featured on the gossip pages: A German magazine reported Norwegians were concerned that the 10-month-old's lack of hair could be symptomatic of a "mystery illness."
Not every monarchy is giving equal rights to girls. In Britain, Spain, Denmark and Monaco, sons still take precedence over daughters. In the grand duchy of Luxembourg and the principality of Liechtenstein, the succession goes through all possible male heirs in order of birth; if those are exhausted, it goes to male descendants of the eldest female descendant.
A lack of male heirs is causing a controversy in Japan, where females are barred from inheriting the Chrysanthemum Throne. The enormous pressure to produce a son is believed to be a major factor in the malaise gripping Crown Princess Masako, wife of the current heir to the throne. She has largely retreated from public life while she struggles with an "adjustment disorder."
Since the current crop of youngsters in the extended imperial family contains no boys, there is increasing talk of changing the law so that Princess Aiko, only child of Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito, can one day become empress.
Changing the law would not be difficult, and polls show most Japanese would have no problem with a reigning empress. There have been reigning empresses before, although not since the 18th century. But rightists don't believe a female can carry on the imperial line.
"They believe that if a woman ascends to the throne and then gives birth to someone who ascends the throne, then the unbroken blood line would be broken," said Kenneth Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University in Oregon.
Although Aiko turns 3 on Wednesday, people are already thinking ahead to when she is of marriageable age.
"In today's Japan, a princess in line to inherit the throne might have a terrible time finding a spouse willing to play the secondary role," said Ruoff, author of "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995."
Finding a consort has always been a tricky business for women who wear crowns in their own right. Elizabeth I of England spent decades dodging the marriage question, perhaps because she had seen the disasters that arose when her fellow queens, Mary I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, chose husbands who didn't meet the people's approval. (Of course, having a father who beheaded her mother and one of her stepmothers might have given the "Virgin Queen" a sour view of marriage.)
Even in modern times, prospective royal husbands have faced opposition from palace officials and the populace. Some grumbled when the future Elizabeth II married Prince Philip, whose four sisters were all married to German princelings, even though Philip himself had served in the British Royal Navy during World War II. When the future Queen Beatrix of Holland married German diplomat Claus von Amsberg in 1966, there were protests because he had served in the armed forces under the Nazis.
Princess Catharina-Amalia, Elisabeth of Belgium and Norway's Ingrid Alexandra are all too young to be worrying about marriage -- after all, Ingrid Alexandra doesn't even have hair. But at 27, Victoria of Sweden is constantly confronted with conjectures about when -- and who -- she will marry.
The princess' commoner boyfriend, Daniel Westling, is the current focus of speculation.
"But the problem is, he's not exactly [seen as] royal material," said The Local's Rapacioli. "He's a fitness instructor who allegedly doesn't speak great English and is shy about all the media attention."
Swedes have also noticed that since Westling started dating his future queen, his gym has been making a lot more money, Rapacioli said.
"In a sense he can't win," said Rapacioli. "If he's a bog-standard fitness instructor he's mocked for not being sophisticated or educated enough to be royalty, but if he's the owner of a thriving fitness empire he's accused of having used his royal connection."
Victoria herself recently admitted that the unrelenting attention can make life difficult for any man in her life.
"It's not easy to be together with me," she told Sweden's TV4, "but the situation is the same for anyone who's in the spotlight."
Which may be one way of saying that if Westling is going to stick around, he'd better get used to it.