John Locke attacked patriarchy in both the political and private sphere and when compared to his contemporaries his views on women were surprisingly progressive.

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Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Assistant Editor of Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. He is interested in libertarian themes in political thought throughout ancient, medieval and early modern history.

It is uncontroversial to say that John Locke is one of the most influential philosophers in the western philosophical canon, especially as it pertains to the history of liberalism. In one of Locke’s most renowned works, Two Treatises On Government, he powerfully articulates the case for a constitutionally limited government that respects people’s inherent natural rights. But while scholars agree on this much, there are a dizzying number of divergent interpretations of Locke’s thought, ranging from descriptions of him as a communitarian to being an unflinching capitalist.

However, Locke’s attitude towards women remains obscure to non‐​academics. I am by no means making the claim that Locke was a feminist, but I would argue that Locke’s thought, especially as rendered in Two Treatises On Government, were important stepping stones on the long and unfinished path towards gender equality. Many of Locke’s views of women would today be quite accurately deemed problematic and demeaning to women; but by the standards of his time, Locke radically broke with many of the dominant assessments of women in favor of a relatively progressive view. For this reason, Locke should be identified as an early critic of patriarchy in the western tradition.

What is patriarchy?

Feminists, both past and present, have extensively discussed how to dismantle the patriarchy, which is, in the simplest terms, a system in which men exploit women by manipulating social, legal, and economic systems to benefit themselves at their counterparts’ expense. In the simple etymological sense, ‘patriarchy’ means ‘the father’s rule’, a system in which older men control women’s bodies, labor, and time. While patriarchy’s definition has evolved and expanded in scope over time, the fundamental premise stays the same: men in power exploiting the disenfranchised, especially women.

Structure of Two Treatises

Locke’s Two Treatises was published in 1689 in response to Sir Robert Filmer’s De Patriarchia, a posthumously published work that grounded all political authority in paternal rights. A complete antithesis to Filmer, Locke argued that the mainspring of political authority is consent. The second of Locke’s two treatises is the most often read and quoted, while the first is rarely read outside of academia due to its drier analytical tone. The first treatise is wholly dedicated to demolishing Filmer’s arguments in an extremely comprehensive manner, while the second treatise describes the alternative to Filmer’s theory of legitimate government. Despite its tedious nature, the first treatise encapsulates many of Locke’s anti‐​patriarchal attitudes. Therefore it is essential to analyze both Filmer’s arguments and Locke’s responses to them in order to draw out Locke’s anti‐​patriarchal thought.

Locke’s Opponent Robert Filmer

Filmer was an ardent advocate of absolute monarchy. He based his arguments for absolute monarchy on the biblical text of Genesis, which, according to his reading, justified the divinely ordained authority of Adam’s dominion over the whole earth. Adam’s authority was then passed down through primogeniture to his male heirs, giving them the same unlimited authority he once held. This power was passed down throughout generations to the kings of Filmer’s day, who, in his eyes, had the ultimate power of life and death over all of their subjects; Filmer explained that the “lordship which Adam by command had over the whole world, and by right descending from him the patriarchs did enjoy, was as large and ample as the absolutist dominion of any monarch hath been since the creation.”

But what of women? After all, men are not alone in being parents. Eve is turned into a complete antipode to the kingly power of Adam; Filmer relegates Eveto complete subservience and subordination as the originator of sin. As punishment for eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, Eve is condemned by God in Genesis 3:16, which reads “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Eve acts as a representative of all women; subsequently, women must suffer the pains of childbirth and endure their husbands’ rule. Filmer constantly evoked the fifth commandment–”honor thy father and thy mother”–but replaced it with “honor thy father,” thus making no reference to a mother’s authority over her own children.

For Filmer the Familial is Political

Unlike Locke, who described men as “by nature, all free, equal and independent,” Filmer believed that people are born weak and fragile; it takes time to mature enough to earn independence. From this observation, he extrapolated that no one is born free and we are instead born in a state of subordination to parental authority (or more accurately, patriarchal authority). Thus consent could not be the foundation of political authority.

By presenting political authority as an extension of the patriarchal family order, Filmer portrayed any rebellion against a political ruler as a rebellion against parental authority, which was condemned in the biblical book of Deuteronomy as a serious sinful offence. For Filmer, there is no difference between a king and a father; he even described the king’s duty towards his subjects as “universal fatherly care.” Thus, all political power was neatly repackaged as paternal power, which was always absolute and unquestionable by its fundamental nature. Summarizing Filmer in his own words, “There is and always shall be continued to the end of the world, a natural right of a supreme Father over every multitude.”

Why did people take Filmer seriously?

Filmer’s arguments might seem bizarre to modern readers, but they held sway in 17th‐​century England where patriarchy was a constant reality of life. Even aristocratic women had few rights and a minimal degree of choice in how they lived their lives. Filmer’s views come as no surprise, considering he was the eldest son of an aristocratic, wealthy, land‐​owning family. By 1629 Filmer took the mantle of patriarch, after which his entire family fell under his strict authority. Patriarchy and male supremacy were cultural bastions rooted not only in scripture but also in nature and historical experience. Any challenge against the patriarchy thus entailed a fundamental assault on the underpinnings of 17th century society.

Locke did not attempt to attack patriarchalism on anthropological or historical grounds. This was because in Locke’s view, “An Argument from what has been, to what should of right be, has no great force.” Instead, Locke focused on the moral case against patriarchalism. By doing so, he wished to create a clear distinction between family and politics, the two being separate entities. While Locke did not set out to explicitly defend women, subtly interwoven into the fabric of the two treatises we can find evidence of Locke’s progressive attitude towards women.

Locke Refuting Through Scripture

Filmer wanted to use scripture as a basis for legitimating patriarchal authority in the political realm. Locke countered this by showing that Filmer was not honestly assessing the claims of scripture but was instead selectively quoting scripture to suit his preferences for absolute monarchy. Firstly, Locke questions the validity of Adam’s dominion over the earth. Why would God chastise Adam by granting him special privileges while Eve is condemned to her miserable fate? Therefore the donation of the earth to Adam is a misreading, Locke concludes that “disclaiming his wrath against them both, for their disobedience, we cannot suppose that this was the time wherein God was granting Adam prerogatives and privileges.” Secondly, He also points out that Filmer was not quoting the full fifth commandment, which reads “honor thy father and thy mother.” If fatherly honor obliges one to obey authority, then why does motherly authority not carry the same weight? Furthermore, Locke questions the validity of applying Eye’s punishment to all women. Versed in contemporary medicine, Locke saw no reason for women not to avoid the pains of childbirth.

How Locke’s Argument Differed From Others

Two Treatises aimed to demolish the absolutist argument, and then build from the rubble a rational account of legitimate and limited political authority that is established by consent. Locke was by no means the first to make this attempt; both James Tyrell and Algernon Sidney also responded to Filmer’s De Patriarchia, rejecting political patriarchy in favor of limited political authority through consent. However, while Tyrell and Sidney rejected political patriarchy, they wholly affirmed patriarchy in the domestic sphere, explicitly arguing for women’s unlimited submission to their husbands and fathers. Where Locke diverges from his fellow Whigs is that he begins the attack on patriarchy in all areas of life by affirming an admittedly limited yet potent defense of women’s autonomy.

Unlike Filmer, Locke did not believe people were born into the world with a set position in the social hierarchy. Instead, he thought political power was a wholly artificial construct created to allow for a more peaceful and efficient existence than that offered by the state of nature. Locke wrote, “Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection.” Power can only be justified by consent, leading to the social contract that legitimates the state but conversely limits its authority. However, Locke did not believe this model of consent was solely relegated to political authority; he also argued for it within the family and marriage.

Women & Property

Modern feminist authors have criticized Locke for a particular passage where he writes that “the husband and wife, though they have but one common concern, yet having different understandings, will unavoidably sometimes have different wills too; it therefore being necessary that the last determination — i.e., the rule — should be placed somewhere, it naturally falls to the man’s share, as the abler and stronger.” This passage at first would seem to disqualify Locke from having any proto‐​feminist credentials.

But Locke only tentatively grants husbands the final say over matters of joint property. He explicitly states that any property that a wife owned before marriage is firmly owned by her, stating that “whether her own Labour or Compact gave her a Title to it, ’tis plain, Her Husband could not forfeit what was hers.”

Women, just like men, have a right to property. While discussing political conquest, Locke references wives’ property in title saying that a conqueror “cannot take the Goods of his Wife and Children; they too had a Title to the Goods he enjoy’d, and their shares in the Estate he possessed.” Thus women may enter marriage without giving up their bodies or property to an all powerful patriarch. When Locke wrote that “every Man has a Property in his own Person” which “no Body has any Right to but himself,” it is apparent he believed this maxim also applied to women. Just like people do not owe unlimited obedience to the State, a wife does not owe unquestioning obedience to her husband. In the realm of politics, Locke argues that a person cannot “by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.” Similarly, wives cannot enter marriage as if they were slaves. In fact, according to Locke mothers and fathers both hold authority over their children and that over the life of a child “the Woman hath an equal share, if not the greater, as she nourish the Child a long time in her own Body out of her own Substance.” Yet again, Locke attacks patriarchy not only in the public sphere but in the private sphere also.

Education for Both Sexes

The primary function of a family for Locke is to provide for the education of children. As long as a family provides for this function, the rest of the details may be left to the judgement of free and equal individuals. Locke mentions families in which the children are left wholly to the mother and others where the woman has multiple husbands. While Locke most certainly prefers the traditional nuclear family, he leaves open the question of how families are structured as long as they effectively educate children. The traditional family will be the default for most people, but the family is also a fluid social unit that can be altered to fit various circumstances. This more nebulous reading of the family yet again undermines the strict rigidities of the patriarchal family that people such as Filmer upheld.

In Locke’s time, women were rarely educated to the same extent as their male peers. Even if they were, the education they received mostly revolved entirely around being charming and subservient in the hopes of marrying a good husband. Authors like Christine De Pizan in the14th‐​century criticized the unequal education of the sexes writing,“If it was customary to send little girls to school and to teach them all subjects systematically, as one does in the case of boys, the girls would learn and understand the finer points of all arts and sciences just as well as the boys can.”

There is ample evidence that Locke believed women to be rational beings capable of reason. This sounds like the lowest bar possible for labeling Locke an advocate of gender equality. But when one considers the historical context, Locke’s assessment changes in character. Preceding Locke, philosophers–and society at large–constantly denigrated women as irrational creatures incapable of matching their male intellectual superiors. Authoritative ancient scientists such as Hippocrates, Galen, and the esteemed Aristotle all gave “scientifically” informed accounts of women, which described their irrationality as a quality based on their fundamental nature. In a world where unquestioning misogyny was the overwhelming norm, Locke’s modest proposal on women’s rights takes on a comparatively radical character.

Some Thoughts On Education

In Locke’s later work, Thoughts On Education, he explained the kind of education befitting of a gentleman. Initially, this work began as a series of letters to Locke’s friend Edward Clarke advising him on how best to raise his eldest son. Locke had no intention of talking about women’s education; however, he later gave the Clarke family advice again on daughters’ education. While he made some minor alterations in the cases of diet, lodgings, and clothing, Locke maintained that girls ought to have similar education to boys. In a letter to Edward Clarke’s wife, Locke wrote that “I acknowledge no difference of sex in your mind relating… to truth, virtue, and obedience, I think well to have no thing altered in it from what is writ for the son.” In short, Locke affirmed that boys and girls both ought to be educated in the use of reason.

Theory Confirmed by Experience

This confidence in women’s ability was affirmed by Locke’s experience interacting with the top female intellectuals of his day. His close relationship with Damaris Cudworth Masham, a proto‐​feminist and women’s education advocate, confirmed his belief in women’s intellectual abilities, writing that “her judgment is excellent, and I know few who can bring such clearness of thought to bear upon the most abstruse subjects, or such capacity for searching through and solving the difficulties of questions beyond the range, I do not say of most women, but even of most learned men.” While Locke probably believed in men’s natural superiority, his commitment to individualism and his experiences with particular women brought him to the conclusion that women could not only match men’s intellect but that they could surpass them.

While we cannot call Locke a feminist in the current meaning of the word, we can, at the very least, conclude that he was an important stepping stone in the history and progress of feminism. While Locke’s attack on Filmer was mainly intended to debunk Filmer’s political vision of patriarchy, Locke ended up arguing against patriarchy in the private sphere as well. Locke affirms women’s right to self‐​ownership and subsequently, property.