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In Defense of Women: Equality in Locke's Political Theory

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Abstract:

John Locke was not a feminist, but he was a believer in
individual rights, and his liberalism envisioned a civil society that
included rather than excluded women. Locke opened new places for women
by granting them property rights, whether married or unmarried, as well
as shared responsibility with the husband and father in raising
children. His feminist critics, however, worry about the husband’s
superior decision-making power in a marriage. Indeed Locke describes
the husband as “the abler and stronger” when making decisions about the
family, but feminist interpretations of Locke’s conjugal relationship
between a husband and wife accuse him of supporting the natural
subordination of the wife and mother in marriage and family life The
equality promised in his civil society is thus compromised, argue
feminists, because women as a consequence of being unequal to the men
in their lives are prevented from participating in politics.
For feminist critics of Locke, his granting of authority to a husband
over his wife reads more like a divine ordinance than a custom. As I
understand Locke’s position, however, the authority of husband over
wife tells me more about the conditions of seventeenth-century feudal
England than confirms a natural inferiority of women. I remind feminist
critics to remember that Locke’s conjugal authority for the husband
extends mainly to common interests and property of husband and wife.
Locke recognizes that a husband and wife have “one common Concern,” but
have “different understandings” and “different wills.” Assigning “the
last Determination” or “the Rule” to “the abler and stronger” man, I
admit, weakens the idea of equality in a relationship of mutually
consenting adults. Yet I feel certain that Locke does not surrender
women’s basic freedom or political capacities. For John Locke,
political life has chiefly to do with one’s standing as a citizen who
is a rights bearer. This can be distinguished from the issue of what
qualifies one to take part in public deliberations, that is, lawmaking.
Both men and women, as my thesis makes clear, have equal standing as
citizens. While other evidence argues that Locke did not include women
in his account of lawmakers, this does not defeat their equal standing
as citizens. Locke indeed sees some men as more qualified to be
lawmakers than other men. Membership as an equal citizen in the
political system and qualifications for deliberating as a lawmaker,
however, are two different values. For critics
of Locke who argue he ascribes differential rationality to women and
the poor, I suggest another distinction to be drawn between membership
as an equal citizen in the political system and legislative competency:
For Locke, women, the poor, and day laborers are equally rational in
that their reason meets the threshold that distinguishes them from
children, and thus entitles them to be free, but are perhaps less
likely to possess the more sophisticated reasoning that lawmaking
requires.
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Association:
Name: The Midwest Political Science Association
URL:
http://www.indiana.edu/~mpsa/


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URL: http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p82934_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Rodrigues, Helena. "In Defense of Women: Equality in Locke's Political Theory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The Midwest Political Science Association, Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Illinois, Apr 15, 2004 <Not Available>. 2009-05-26 <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p82934_index.html>

APA Citation:

Rodrigues, H. A. , 2004-04-15 "In Defense of Women: Equality in Locke's Political Theory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The Midwest Political Science Association, Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Illinois <Not Available>. 2009-05-26 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p82934_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: John Locke was not a feminist, but he was a believer in
individual rights, and his liberalism envisioned a civil society that
included rather than excluded women. Locke opened new places for women
by granting them property rights, whether married or unmarried, as well
as shared responsibility with the husband and father in raising
children. His feminist critics, however, worry about the husband’s
superior decision-making power in a marriage. Indeed Locke describes
the husband as “the abler and stronger” when making decisions about the
family, but feminist interpretations of Locke’s conjugal relationship
between a husband and wife accuse him of supporting the natural
subordination of the wife and mother in marriage and family life The
equality promised in his civil society is thus compromised, argue
feminists, because women as a consequence of being unequal to the men
in their lives are prevented from participating in politics.
For feminist critics of Locke, his granting of authority to a husband
over his wife reads more like a divine ordinance than a custom. As I
understand Locke’s position, however, the authority of husband over
wife tells me more about the conditions of seventeenth-century feudal
England than confirms a natural inferiority of women. I remind feminist
critics to remember that Locke’s conjugal authority for the husband
extends mainly to common interests and property of husband and wife.
Locke recognizes that a husband and wife have “one common Concern,” but
have “different understandings” and “different wills.” Assigning “the
last Determination” or “the Rule” to “the abler and stronger” man, I
admit, weakens the idea of equality in a relationship of mutually
consenting adults. Yet I feel certain that Locke does not surrender
women’s basic freedom or political capacities. For John Locke,
political life has chiefly to do with one’s standing as a citizen who
is a rights bearer. This can be distinguished from the issue of what
qualifies one to take part in public deliberations, that is, lawmaking.
Both men and women, as my thesis makes clear, have equal standing as
citizens. While other evidence argues that Locke did not include women
in his account of lawmakers, this does not defeat their equal standing
as citizens. Locke indeed sees some men as more qualified to be
lawmakers than other men. Membership as an equal citizen in the
political system and qualifications for deliberating as a lawmaker,
however, are two different values. For critics
of Locke who argue he ascribes differential rationality to women and
the poor, I suggest another distinction to be drawn between membership
as an equal citizen in the political system and legislative competency:
For Locke, women, the poor, and day laborers are equally rational in
that their reason meets the threshold that distinguishes them from
children, and thus entitles them to be free, but are perhaps less
likely to possess the more sophisticated reasoning that lawmaking
requires.

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