12/11/2012 01:48 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

The Royal Baby and What It Means for Women

So much for the rumor that the Duchess of Cambridge couldn't have children! She is now a few months pregnant and, all being well, her baby -- who will be third in line to the throne of England -- will be born early next summer. Messages of congratulations have poured in from all over the world, and pages of newsprint have already been devoted to every imaginable aspect of the child's future. It's the news that everyone has been waiting for during the last year -- not least of all, I imagine, Kate and William.

Becoming pregnant can be difficult at the best of times. In this particular case, the constant rumor mongering and media speculation about when and if it would happen was certainly a real trial for the newlyweds.

But what will have pleased them both, I feel sure, is that they made the announcement themselves. They were not trounced by a tabloid newspaper or some eagle-eyed passerby's tweet. That said, the announcement came earlier than they would have liked. (The royal family found out just hours before the public did.) Kate is not yet beyond the critical three-month stage, and, until she is, there must be concern. But when it became clear she needed medical attention, there was no alternative but to go public. She was in danger of dehydration from a rare pregnancy-related condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum, which causes severe vomiting. So the announcement from the Palace arrived on the heels of her admittance to the hospital. This was a necessary step, for her presence at the hospital, even a facility as discreet as the King Edward VII Hospital, would have resulted in questions asked and assumptions made. Their secret would have very quickly become public.

The condition Kate is suffering from can last throughout the pregnancy, but generally only hits during the early stages, so it was good news when, a few days ago, Kate was seen leaving the hospital. Surely, she'll shortly be back on her feet again.

If the announcement of the royal baby has ignited this much of a frenzy, one can only imagine what the birth itself will be like. We may not yet know the due date, but whenever their first child arrives, the event will make royal history: For the first time in over three hundred years, this baby, whatever its sex, will one day succeed to the throne.

Britain has had some very strong and successful queens throughout history, but, since the Act of Succession in 1701, they have only been eligible to take the throne if they had no brothers. If there was a boy in the family, no matter where he came in the order of birth, he leapfrogged his sisters to take the title. The current ruler, Elizabeth II, became queen because she had no brothers. The Act of Succession (which also forbid a Roman Catholic from ascending the throne) was clearly long overdue for repeal. Indeed, in these days of sexual equality, it was positively offensive -- but changing it was never going to be easy.

The Queen is monarch of fifteen sovereign states, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and each of those countries had to approve the change. Successive prime ministers chose to avoid the issue. Because the current queen's eldest child was a boy (Prince Charles), and then Charles' eldest child was also a boy (Prince William), there was no urgency. But when William married, it was obvious that the matter couldn't be avoided any longer. So Prime Minister David Cameron set the wheels in motion.

The new rule, stating that the first born of either sex will inherit the crown, has not yet technically become law, but Queen Elizabeth II, unsurprisingly, is fully behind it. The proposal also won unanimous agreement from the other fifteen heads of government when the queen raised the matter at a meeting of Commonwealth countries in Australia last year.

It will certainly be an interesting several months for royal watchers as we anticipate the royal baby who -- be it a boy or a girl -- will be the future king or queen of England. For now, a big congrats from me to Will and Kate.

Penny Junor is the author of Prince William: The Man Who Will be King.