For years social contract theorists had monopolized the explanation of modern society. John Locke was among those who advocated this theory of a collectively chosen set of circumstances. Carole Pateman, on the other hand rejects many of the pillars of the social contract and specifically attacks certain aspects of Locke’s argument regarding paternalism and patriarchy. Pateman defends her idea that the individual about which Locke writes is masculine, instead of the gender-encompassing form of the word “man.”
Pateman also argues that Locke denies the individuality of women. Instead of scrapping his entire work, however, she grants him a couple of concessions, even acknowledging Locke as anti-patriarchal. If John Locke were around to defend his theories, he would probably have an opinion about the treatment of his work.
To accurately discuss Pateman’s view of Locke’s paternal/patriarchal theory, a working knowledge of the theory itself is necessary. According to Locke “all men by nature are equal”(Second Treatise: 43) with the exception of children who have not reached the full state of equality, but must obey their parents. Domestic and political power is vested in the Father, according to Locke. As he puts it, “the natural fathers of families, by an insensible change, became the politic monarchs of them too.”(Second Treatise: 42) Locke does not reserve domestic power regarding children solely to the Father, however. Instead he claims that the mother “hath an equal title.”(Second Treatise: 30) He even defends the rights of children. Locke argues that children have the same moral rights as any other person, though the child’s inadequate mental faculties make it permissible for his parents to rule over him to a limited degree. “Thus we are born Free, as we are born Rational; not that we have actually the Exercise of either:
Age that brings one, brings with it the other too.” (Second Treatise: 30) Locke does
specify that children are free because of their “father’s title,” in addition to being
governed by the law of their father. It is less clear in this situation whether Locke is using
the term “father” to include both parents as the “term” man can be interpreted to mean
both sexes. It is likely, based on the tradition of male heredity prevalent during his time,
that Locke literally meant only a Father’s legacy affects the children.
With at least a basic background of Locke’s views on paternal power, it is
possible to examine a feminist, namely Carole Pateman’s, view of the same theories.
Much like the other social contract theorists, Pateman believes that Locke leaves women
out of the picture.
In Pateman’s eyes Locke excludes women from “participation in the
act that creates civil society.”(Sexual Contract: 21) Others have generously argued that
Locke omitted women from the original contract in order to keep from alienating his
(male) audience or, even though they are not mentioned directly, women still “could
have been party to the social contract.”(Sexual Contract:21) Pateman believes his
omission was the direct result of Locke’s idea of an individual being masculine. When
Locke speaks of man and man’s role in the social contract, Pateman takes “man” literally
to mean the male gender instead of as a universal term.
Pateman also concerns herself with Locke’s status as a believer in paternal or
parental power. Although Locke stresses the Bible’s fifth commandment (Honor thy
father and mother) he does not extend women’s equality to other arena’s. Instead,
according to Pateman, “the husband still exercises power over his wife, but the power is
less than absolute.”(Sexual Contract: 22) It is in this manner that Pateman attributes
male dominated government and politics to a traditional patriarchal system. To quote
The genesis of the (patriarchal) family is frequently seen as synonymous with
the origin of social life itself, and the origin of patriarchy and the origin of
society are treated as the same process.(Sexual Contract: 25)
Despite the image depicted here Pateman does grant that Locke appears to be
anti-patriarchal in many of his views.
Locke separates the family from politics. It is through this separation that Pateman benevolently attributes his anti-patriarchalism. To begin, Locke states that a man has no more power over his offspring because he conceived them than he earns through the care for these children. From this it can be drawn that fathers have only the power of benevolence with which to control the home. Paternal power in the home must be earned and is forfeited through misuse.
Pateman claims that “the separation of the family from political life had everything to do with Locke’s view of women.”(Sexual Contract: 21) Locke also brings into the picture a different kind of domestic power, that of conjugal power. Unlike many other critics, Pateman realizes the difference Locke presents between conjugal power and paternal power. A man exercising control of his wife conjugally is using “the power that men exercise as men, not as fathers.”(Sexual Contract: 22) The status Pateman grants Locke as Anti-patriarchal does not mean Locke accepts women as equals in the political arena, but simply that the kind of control men express at home is different from their political control.
A discussion of the critique of Locke’s work would not be fair if the subject of criticism were not given a forum to retaliate. Locke would most likely have a response to much of Pateman’s description of his theories. Based on his emphasis of the fifth biblical commandment and the equality of respect parents deserve from their children,
Locke could argue that Pateman unfairly describes the role of fathers. Locke questions the dominance of a father in the family by stating: But what reason can hence advance this care of the parents due to their off-spring into an absolute arbitrary dominion of the father, whose power reaches no farther, than by such a discipline, as he finds most effectual, to give such strength and health to their bodies, such vigour and rectitude to their minds, as may best fit his children to be most useful to themselves and others.(Second Treatise: 35) It is obvious from this that Locke does not mean for a father’s power to extend into all facets of the family. Therefore, he could contest that he allotted only the same small measure of control to men in the political world. Although it seems logical for Locke to argue that the same checks apply to a father’s political power as his domestic, Pateman could easily counter this defense by drawing attention to the passage where Locke pronounces fathers as “political monarchs.”
Another far-reaching defense Locke could pose for his theories is a simple clarification of terms. Pateman relies heavily on the fact that Locke’s definition of “man” is man, not humanity. If the late philosopher were present today he could clarify precisely what he meant by this term, and dispel or support Pateman’s accusation.
John Locke’s view of the the social contract comes under attack by the criticism of Carole Pateman. She not only refutes his use of terms, but also accuses Locke of ignoring women. Pateman claims that Locke purposefully left women out of the original contract in the same fashion that he denies their individuality. Like most people, Locke would likely defend himself and his theories to the best of his abilities if he were able. Either way, Pateman’s critique provides the opportunity for reexamination of a widely accepted theory and theorist.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis: Hackett
Publishing Co, 1980.
Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.