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The Queen delivering a dinner speech at the Commonwealth summit, in Perth. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is seated on the left. (Ron D'Raine/AP Images)

Leaders of the Commonwealth nations have unanimously approved sweeping changes in the succession of the British monarchy.

The reforms, which will end the long-ingrained favoritism given to male heirs to the throne, will mean that if Will and Kate’s first-born child is a girl, she would be first in line to become the monarch after her father.

The approval by the Commonwealth, which will now be implemented by Parliament, was expected – but it still represents an historic moment, the most significant change to succession in centuries.

The reforms not only end the practice of male primogeniture but also remove the ban on those in the line of succession marrying Catholics. They also more or less put an end to the bizarre requirement that all descendants of King George II need the permission of the monarch to get married. (There are probably thousands of the king’s descendants today.)

“Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen,” said Prime Minister David Cameron, who had been pushing for the reforms.

Speaking to the summit of Commonwealth leaders in Perth, Cameron said: “The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic – this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become.”

The Queen, as head of state, opened the Commonwealth leaders’ meeting, and is said to be a supporter of the reforms, according to BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell. Though she did not mention the succession law directly in her opening speech, she spoke about the role of women in society.

Modern life, she said, “encourages us to find ways to show girls and women to play their full part,” she said.

“I’m very enthusiastic about it,” said Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard. “You would expect the first Australian woman prime minister to be very enthusiastic about a change which equals equality for women in a new area.”

Gillard, a republican, added: “But just because they seem straightforward to our modern minds doesn’t mean that we should underestimate their historical significance, changing as they will for all time the way in which the monarchy works and changing its history.”

On the other hand, Republic, an organization that wants to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state, felt that “nothing of substance” has changed.

“The monarchy discriminates against every man, woman and child who isn’t born into the Windsor family,” Republic spokesman Graham Smith told the BBC. “To suggest that this has anything to do with equality is utterly absurd.”

Covering the Queen in Perth, the BBC’s Duncan Kennedy noted that there had been at least 11 unsuccessful attempts to change succession laws in recent years, but said that “with the arrival of Kate and William on the public stage, a sense of urgency has overtaken the drag of inertia.”

The Telegraph suggested, however, that the real credit should go to Queen Elizabeth.

“The Queen’s own career makes the case for a female ruler better than any politician could,” wrote the paper in an editorial. “During the course of her reign, she has been vital in building up the Commonwealth she heads to its strength of 54 countries, and finding a role for the organization in the modern age.”

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By Paul Hechinger