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Why Do Women Always Get Stuck With the 'Heiress' Label But Men Are Rarely Called Heirs?

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Real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump, pictured in August, said Tuesday he was pulling out of a Republican debate he had been due to moderate this month, after all but two of the candidates declined to appear.

Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, the richest woman in the world, is a jerk. She’s earned widespread loathing for her fondness of dumping on working people and strategizing how to pay them peanuts. She seems to think that the world consists of herself and unwashed hordes of tippling wastrels who want something for nothing.

However. A recent profile in the New Yorker reveals that virtually every time she is mentioned in the press, Rinehart is described as an “heiress” because she grew up rich and inherited a mining company from her father.  By her account, that company was in the toilet when she got it – riddled with debt and generally a mess. That’s a self-serving story, but it is true that the company has multiplied in value since she took it over.

In any case, William Finnegan, who wrote the New Yorker story, points out that men who inherit fortunes are almost never referred to as “heirs” in the press. You never saw Mitt Romney, for example, described as an “heir,” despite the fact that his father, George Romney, was head of Detroit automaker American Motors Corp. (he was also thrice the governor of Michigan). Romney liked to tell the whopper that he didn’t inherit any money and often got away with it. When pressed on the obvious mendacity of that claim, he would insist that it wasn’t as much as people thought, and anyway he gave it all to charity (right!).  Other gazillionaires have also largely gotten away with the self-made lie. Take Donald Trump, who likes to say that he hoisted himself up by his bootstraps, when in fact he was the Richie Rich son of a real estate tycoon and took over his father’s corporation.

The historical use of the term “heir,” as in the term, “heir apparent,” suggests a line of succession in which the son legitimately claims the power or title of the father. But add the fatal “ess” (as in waitress, hostess, or actress) and you’ve piled on negative associations. In the case of “heiress”, what comes to mind is a jet-setting, credit-card burning Daddy’s girl who could not tie her own shoes without assistance.  Paris Hilton has built a career on exploiting –and often embodying -- that stereotype.

Male heirs still catch way less flack, perhaps because in the back of our minds, there's the lingering association with primogeniture and the notion that men inheriting wealth is somehow the natural order of things, whereas women inheriting money are somehow aberrant and good for little besides propping up the career of a politician.

Gina Rinehart reminds us that women can be corrupted by the power and money they inherit just as thoroughly as men. But even at the top, sexism endures.