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Social Contract: Why Have Feminists Subjected Western Political Thought to Sustained Criticism

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Estelle Freedman “Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently part of equal worth, most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between men and women with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies”(2014, 4). Due to the ways in which political thought and societal life had oppressed women for too long the need for a movement and change was needed, from this began the feminist movement. Women around the world had began to realise they had a place in society and not just to be somebody’s wife or mother but to many men “new political assumptions challenged many traditional assertions” and continues to do so even in the 21st century. Clarke and Lange (1979, 1) describe in the sexism of social and political theory that sexism is “so deeply enrooted in the Western Political tradition” as to neglect the possibilities of equality between the sexes.

Feminists have subjected Western Political Thought to sustained criticism as “the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Tyson, 2006. 83). Women were excluded from politics based on emotional and intrusive behaviour as opposed to that of a self-righteous rational male from many of the key writers and thinkers of the political thought.

If we look toward Aristotle he believed that women were inferior to men, he defined “polis”(city) as the most sovereign and the household as other, this within the political sphere resulted in the undermining of women’s contribution to political thought.

Social contract theorists’ writings have been seen to hold gender bias and the exclusion of women. Coole’s critiques of social contract first deals with the idea of citizenship, these theorists base the idea of who can participate in these contracts which then determines the terms established for ‘social and political status’, other critiques of the social contract are the issues of social relations in a liberal society. Coole notes that “in this context and in line with the developments of feminist theory there has been a shift from analysing the actual place of women within the contract to the interpretation of the contractarianism as a way of discourse that privileges masculinity as the norm”(1994, 191). She also notes that “in every case women end up in patriarchal families excluded from participation in the contract”(1994 170)

When looking at the writings of Hobbes, Locke and Rosseau, they define the state of nature is based on “egalitarian premises” and therefore refute the presence of a natural pattern of authority, they regard individuals as having equal status and ability. Through their writings we also see how they view the structure on which way things should be and from there we see why feminists have criticised such political theorists.

Hobbes state of nature describes women as ‘equally desirous’ and ‘engaging’ but he concludes his writings in a social contract with the assumption that women’s subordination is purely based on their consent, that this is what they want as without social contract women as physically weaker and would hold no bearings in society so therefore accept a husbands authority.

Locke also brings in relationships as “conjugal” he states that within the “family there can only be one authority which is male” showing his preference for a patriarchal structure. He cites that with regard of the head of the family becomes King and his children accept his authority as mere government hence showing Locke’s acceptance of private patriarchy resulting in public patriarchy” (1994, 194).

Both Hobbes and Locke depict women as possessing equal natural nights in the ‘state of nature’ but post-contract phase depicts women as submitting to the authority of men, Feminists criticise these theorists as due to such writings they were still held near enough under the same way, male leads over the wife, women were excluded from active citizenship and hence play no role in the social contract other than wife and mother and yet women’s social contract is only finalised by their husbands.

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Rosseau concept of general will is the “expression of the active and continuous concept of all citizens”(1994, 196) but from reading his writing in ‘Emile’ we can note that in no way does Rosseau infer that women are apart of his general will, in fact he considers women incapable of transcending their particular wills, and thus lacking the “autonomy, judgement and capacity for abstract reasoning” to express their consent in the contract. He argues that women cannot gain the self-mastery that is necessary to develop a ‘constant will’ and thus Coole notes Rousseau femininity is a “combination of modesty, chastity….heteronomy and irrationality…to be reinforced with appropriate education and a firm male hand”.(1994, 196). Education for women in his view should concentrate on appearances and purely personal relationships, to do this day feminists and women around the world are still trying to break the barriers these men and society have burdened them to, women must be seen to be pretty, slim, a housewife and looking after men. Mainstream media today highlights insecurities of women with high end celebrities with Botox, lip filler, skinny and tan. If a woman wants to break away from her family then this becomes ‘sectional associations’ which do not reflect his general will, he describes femininity as contrary to citizenship for him society should be guided on gender lines and thus has led to what we see in the world today, masculine/feminine, culture/nature and public/private.

Throughout the history of western political thought lies misogyny especially in works of Hegel, just like his counterparts he also takes use of the word ‘induvial’ as to mean the male species. Hegel view of women is that they are not individuals but also not capable of human development for social education. Pateman highlights that “Hegel even goes as far as to state women are like plants, they require development only sufficiently to be governed by arbitrary inclinations and opinions…by living rather than acquiring knowledge” (1990, 170) Through many of these western political thinkers, these men who condemned that women pose only a threat to their ways and ideas embedded the future of politics and society through its social contract and general will, but soon women would be sick of constantly having no place in society to grow and have something of their own and not shortly after during the 19th century began to grow the first wave of feminism and it criticisms of the injustice they were receiving.

Experts agree that the feminist movement has three different phrases or ‘waves’. The first wave dealing with the lacking inequality women were receiving, these women were known as the suffrages or ‘The Suffragate Movement’, from the early 1800s to 1900s this era of the first wave took place for women to go out demand to be given equal status as men which would allow them property, an education, a job but most importantly a vote. Feminists and women a like all campaigned to bring change to the world for the first time ever in their lives they could be equal to the male population. Without such feminist movement sparking up and criticising the system itself women might possibly not have had the vote for several decades later. The movement first started in America and gradually caught on in Europe and due to this on the 26th August 1920 the 19th Amendment was passed to the American Constitution that bore “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote”(8) and not to be denied on the account of their gender. American Constitution.

During the period of 1920s to 1940s the World had gone through two world wars. Men were gone away to fight for their countries and all over the world it was the women who kept the homes and streets going, they were working in factories to help make machinery for weapons and also uniforms for the fighters. A way to get women into those factories was the prominent photo of ‘Rosie the Riviter’, a photo of a strong woman in uniform clothing with the tag ‘We can do it~ Produced by Artist J. Howard Miller(9) but it wasn’t long before the men returned from war and women began to experience how they were being treated through workplace discrimination, sexual abuse. Feminists were not at all pleased with how once again society was treating them and this is what sparked the 2nd wave of feminism during the years 1960s to 1980s.

The second wave is where most people would connect feminism with today as this wave was focused on ‘gender inequality, sexuality, workplace, family and reproductive rights and it begins with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which came out in 1963(10). There were prominent feminist thinkers before Friedan who would come to be associated with the second wave. The Feminine Mystique rails against “the problem that has no name”: the systemic sexism that taught women that their place was in the home and that if they were unhappy as housewives, it was only because they were broken and perverse which was completely wrong for feminists.

Once the 3 million readers who had read the book, began to spread what they read in the book to their friends and family and share their voices and opinions and began to realise that they were angry that’s truly where the second wave kicks off, women were angry and now to them, they had a unifying goal, too, not just political equality, which the first-wavers had fought for, but social equality. “The personal is political,” (Carol Hanisch 1970). Feminism second wave had some truly ground breaking wins that the first didn’t, The Equal Pay Act of 1963 theoretically outlawed the gender pay gap; a series of landmark Supreme Court cases through the ’60s and ’70s gave married and unmarried women the right to use birth control; Title IX 1972 gave women the right to educational equality “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.' and in 1973, Roe v. Wade guaranteed women reproductive freedom. The feminist movement worked to outlaw marital rape, to raise awareness about domestic violence and build shelters for women fleeing rape and domestic violence as deeply enshrined from western political thinkers social contracts before women were to be controlled by fathers or husbands actually it was under common law doctrine of covertures “men gained control over their wives property and money (men had complete control over their wives) if a woman was to shoot her husband this would be seen as a homicide whereas if a man shot his wife under the law it would be known as “passion shooting” from these you can understand why feminism has subjected western politics to sustained criticism and somewhat more it is deserved.

During its height feminism was radical enough to scare people according despite the popular story of Miss America ‘bra burners’ this turned out to be false, according with Helen Kritzler says there was no mass burning of bras during the second wave feminism “but the myth of bra-burning stuck. Critics jumped all over the idea, labeling the women hairy-legged and humorless. But the participants had a ball. “It felt very joyous and free”. The media painted feminists as angry and man-hating and lonely would become canonical as the second wave began to lose its momentum, and it continues to haunt the way we talk about feminism today. It would also become foundational to the way the third wave would position itself as it emerged.

Moving towards the 3rd wave of feminism which has been going from 1991 and still is continuing, fighting against workplace sexual harassment and working to increase the number of women in positions of power, it is deeply enrooted with Kimberly Crenshaws a scholar of gender and critical race who was the first to coin the term “intersectionality” (1989) and Judith Butler, both womens combined influence would shape how the third wave feminism was/is embraced. Feminists were now arguing to be called woman instead of girls who wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. The third wave was a different movement without a central goal, and as such, there’s no single piece of legislation or major social change that belongs to the third wave the way the 19th Amendment belongs to the first wave or Roe v. Wade belongs to the second but depending on how you look at it with the #MeToo movement over the last few years has seen many high prolific women finally take the stage and share some of the horrific acts and things or sexual advances men made upon them, and to finally have people listen as before it was merely brushed away or ignored altogether.

Feminism has criticised a lot of western political culture, but it was not unfounded, these women had been pushed and held back for too long and now with such movements arising women can now hold jobs in nearly any sector of the world. Just for years ago we America almost elected its first female president, we have a woman who is chancellor in Berlin Angela Merkel, the same can be said here in Northern Ireland where the two main party leaders are women and in Scotland also. The old ways of the Social Contracts and General Will kept men where they were comfortable, they feared that women would be a threat to their system” it was a contract by and among men that appeared to exclude women from participation (Tannenbaum, 2012: 211), they said and done whatever it took to keep women subdued and held down but as the women rose together and fought together the world has changed much drastically since. These aren’t the only criticisms given to western politics they will always be more as feminism isn’t a movement dedicated to solely women’s rights but for the rights of all genders for inclusivity.

  1. Christie Launius, ‎Holly Hassel –Threshold Concepts in Women’s and Gender Studies: Ways of Seeing, Thinking and Knowing 2014
  2. Lorenne M. G. Clark, Lynda Lange, The Sexism of Social and Political Theory: Women and Reproduction from Plato to Nietzsche. Edited by Lorenne M. G. Clark and Lynda Lange 1979.
  3. Lois Tyson - Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd ed., 2006.
  4. Diana Coole, Women, Gender and Contract: Feminist Interpretations’, in David Boucher and P.J. Kelly, eds., The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 191
  5. 7 Diana Coole, Women, Gender and Contract’, p. 192
  6. Diana Coole, Women, Gender and Contract’, p. 196
  7. Carole Pateman The Sexual Contract 1990 p170
  8. The 19th Amendment to the American Constitution 1920
  10. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique 1963
  13. Kimberly Crenshaw, University of Chicago Legal Forum titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. 1989
  14. Helen Kritzler
  15. Tannenbaum, 2012: 211
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Social Contract: Why Have Feminists Subjected Western Political Thought to Sustained Criticism. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from
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