"Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation?" Gender, equality, and Genesis in John Locke's political thought.

AuthorSkidmore-Hess, Daniel
PositionCritical essay

"Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation?" Gender, Equality, and Genesis in John Locke's Political Thought

John Locke (1632-1704) is a seminal figure in modern political thought, of this fact, most, if not all readers of this article would agree. Beyond this observation, however, there is an almost dizzying array of diverse interpretations and disagreement as to the meaning, intent, and significance of his work. As Paul Sigmund, the editor of a recent critical edition of Locke's works notes, in looking at Locke "there is something for everyone," to either condemn or to praise in often contradictory readings of his classic texts. (1) A reader can find proof of a "covert Hobbesian or an apologist for unrestrained accumulation of property," although there is plenty in his corpus to contradict any narrow view of Locke as "hedonist, materialist, atomistic individualist, collectivist, deist, secularist, advocate of majority tyranny, and naive believer in human perfectibility." (2) Controversial interpretations of John Locke's views that Sigmund's critical edition describes as "refuted" still have their defenders. (3)

The authors of this study hope to make a contribution to Locke scholarship that emphasizes above all the importance of understanding and evaluating Locke within his historical context. To that end, the methodological commitment of this study is both textual and contextual. In other words, the primary text needs to be read closely and within the context of seventeenth-century social and political assumptions. Specifically, with regard to the issues discussed here, it is crucial that Locke first describes the pre-political State of Nature as a situation within which "all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal." (4) Locke's working assumption was that in all instances human societies are formed by social interaction, not a la Hobbes by isolated survivalists, but rather by people who even without a sovereign state would already, and "by nature," be engaged in a set of relationships including economic, familial, and even religious ties. None of these are at any point in Locke's corpus described as dependent upon the order created by the will of the sovereign. Indeed, the "inconveniences" that Locke continues on to describe as typical of the state of nature presume that not only does human society exist in nature but so to do the norms, the laws that govern us at all times and in all places. (5)

By approaching Locke's understanding of politics as fundamentally "reciprocal" patterns of "power and jurisdiction" one can better appreciate the crucial role that gender relations play in his outlook and gain critical insight into his concept of natural equality. Locke, as Nancy Hirschmann describes "in some ways... provides the foundation for liberal feminism. But his gender politics are somewhat inconsistent, suggesting that women have at best an uncertain and incomplete relationship to liberty." (6) These ambiguities are described in further detail below, however the point here is not only that Locke provides an ambiguous legacy with regard to the natural rights and equality of women, but that one cannot fully grasp the whole pattern of his political philosophy without attending to the natural in/equality he describes between women and men.

The main contribution of this study is to describe the ambiguities and interplay of equality and inequality in Locke's discussions of gender. He is at once proto-feminist, an engaged revolutionary whose politics at base rested on a critique of patriarchal absolutism, yet also a man who at times, it seems, accepted naively (and at other times seems to fundamentally question) conventional patterns of male dominance. To the extent Locke's theoretical descriptions of gender in/equality inform his theoretical work as whole, they would then by this account also help us to understand his views on such issues as class, education, and representative government. While it is beyond the scope of this present work to analyze all of these connections, one illustration is attempted specifically Locke's reading of the biblical book of Genesis in two key texts; the First Treatise on Government and the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). (7) While the later text makes little mention of women as such, it notably repeats patterns of thought from his studies on government and thereby provides further illustration of the discernible ambiguities in Locke's concept of equality. This article focuses on the parallels between Locke's political and religious texts, showing that despite some ambiguities, a liberal egalitarian pattern of thought recurs in his critique of patriarchal absolutism, property, and theology.

Locke's Critique of Patriarchy

Locke is best remembered in the history of political thought for his Second Treatise of Civil Government, commonly considered a foundational text of classical liberalism and modern conceptions of individual rights and limited sovereignty. (8) Locke's First Treatise of Civil Government is a less-studied critique of Robert Filmer (1588-1653), an early seventeenth-century theoretical defender of monarchical absolutism. The object of Locke's criticism in the First Treatise is Filmer's absolute monarchist text Patriarcha, (9) written six decades prior to the publication date (1689) of Locke's two treatises, although for still obscure reasons left unpublished until Locke's day. Thus it was the case that more than three decades after his death in 1653, Filmer was regarded as a defender of the absolute monarchy and Stuart interests with whom a thinker of Locke's political sensibility would need to come to terms.

Filmer's defense of absolute monarchy is predicated on a reading of scripture, which the Anglican Filmer presents as a counter to Roman Catholic theories of sovereignty. In Filmer's exposition, the doctrine that temporal government is based on consent is grounded in neither reason nor revelation, but is merely a product of medieval Scholastic sophistry. Filmer depicts the Catholic theorists Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) as false teachers, who would subvert the divinely ordained truths of the bible and the order and sovereignty of the English monarch as head of the church, state, and patriarch of a Christian people. It is of interest in this context that Filmer published a review of Thomas Hobbes's great work of social contract consent theory, Leviathan, in which he praises the absolutist conclusion that Hobbes reached. Nonetheless, Filmer critiques Hobbes's method for relying upon the doctrine of consent, "I consent with him [Hobbes] about the rights of exercising government, but I cannot agree to his means of acquiring it" (i.e., by consent of the governed). (10)

In Filmer's view, the biblical text of Genesis establishes the basis for absolute monarchy through a divine grant of authority to Adam to dominion over the earth. This divinely ordained right of the first man to have dominion over the earth is, on Filmer's account, extended to the dominion of the patriarch over all other persons such that if "Adam himself were still living, and now ready to die, it is certain that there is one man, and but one in the world, who is next heir." (11) Since Adam's true heir by primogeniture is unknown, "the kingly power escheats in such cases to the prime and independent heads of families." (12) By contrast the first woman, Eve is regarded as the origin of sin and a curse is placed on her that extends to all women in their subordination not only to Adam and his heirs, but to all husbands and fathers. Indeed, even as to the parentage of a child, Filmer argues that mothers may not be permitted to undermine patriarchal authority, "it is not the will of the mother to make whom she pleases the father, for if the mother be not in possession of a husband, the child is not reckoned to have any father at all." (13) Filmer recognizes no parental authority for mothers and puts forth a selective reading of the Ten Commandments to support his position that all authority is patriarchal; "we find in the Decalogue that the law which enjoins obedience to kings is delivered in terms of 'honor thy father' as if all power were originally to the father." (14)

Filmer recognizes no distinction between the public and the private realms as he regards each household as a monarchy in miniature and the whole kingdom as the household of the king-patriarch. "There is no differentiation between political authority, paternal authority, and Divine authority," notes Zillah Eisenstein in her summary of Filmer. Furthermore, "hierarchical relations of the family structure the relations of society as well" in the interchangeable roles of patriarch and ruler. (15) Effectively then, one might argue that there is a kind of negative equalitarianism in Filmer's thought insofar as no subject has any natural right that may be upheld against the father-figure king. To the contrary, Filmer like Hobbes, argues that rights are conventions, that is to say, privileges granted by sovereigns just as they see fit.

Filmer's patriarchal politics served as apologetic for the Stuart dynasty. Yet, James Stuart's immediate predecessor goes unmentioned. The Stuart ascendancy was, after all, the product of Elizabeth Tudor's childlessness, and Stuart absolutism owed much to her effective rule. Indeed, it is on this point that Locke makes a striking criticism of Filmer, noting that a queen as well as a king may hold legitimate sovereignty. Locke's response to Filmer relies on the rightful authority of women as mothers as well as occasional rulers. Citing both Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor, Locke argues that even in the case of a sovereign queen who marries, she may retain her position of sovereignty under the terms of the marriage. Here Locke remarkably anticipates the modern role of a prince consort. (16) Further, Locke argues that within a family, mothers as well as...

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