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Women and John Locke; or, Who Owns the Apples in the Garden of Eden?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Lorenne M. G. Clark*
University of Toronto


The idea of creating a society guaranteeing equality between the sexes has never been considered by most political theorists. They have either endorsed, or simply accepted, the assumption that there is a natural inequality of the sexes which ought to be preserved in civil society. This same presupposition has excluded the family from the theorists’ framework of what are thought to be distinctively political institutions. Despite the centrality of the family to human life, it has been consigned to the domain of purely natural phenomena. The related belief that women and children must be relegated for theoretical purposes to the family, to be safely ignored in a realm of brute nature, suffices to allow such theorists to exclude women from the ontology of politics.

In looking at major theorists from this perspective, the task is not simply to show that they display sexist attitudes. The main purpose is to demonstrate that their theories rest on these assumptions and that they would be vastly different theories if these assumptions were not made.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1977

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1 See my “Rights of Women— Politics and Law: The Theory and Practice of the Ideology of Male Supremacy”, in Contemporary Issues in Political Philosophy, Eds. King-Farlow, J. and Shea, W. eds., Neal Watson Academic Publications, New York, 1976.Google Scholar

2 This is to say that, in so far as women are exclusively relegated to the family, in so far as their basic and primary function is regarded as reproductive rather than productive, women are not members of political society. In so far as they are producers rather than reproducers, they do gain visibility within the framework assumed by traditional political theory. This point is elaborated ibid.

3 Locke, John The Second Treatise of Government,liberal Arts Press, New York, 1952, Peardon, T. P. ed, p. 73.Google Scholar All further references to this work are to this edition. References to The First Treatise of Government are to Two Treatises of Government,Mentor Books, 1963, Laslett, P.Google Scholar ed. Though much has been written about Locke's influence on the founding fathers of the American Constitution, it is interesting to note how close this phrasing and sentiment is to the feelings expressed in the famous phrase of the major document determining Canada's constitutional future, the preamble to Section 91 of the British North America Act, in which the powers and ends of the Federal Government are said to be the “peace, order, and good government” of the nation.

4 The First Treatise, op. cit., p. 209.

5 Ibid., p. 208.

6 Ibid., pp. 209-210.

7 Ibid., p. 212, and see also p. 211: “… this Text gave not Adam that Absolute Monarchical Power our A. Supposes,… but the Subjection of Eve to Adam, a Wife to her Husband”.

8 The Second Treatise, op. cit., p. 31.

9 He is singularly silent, however, on the issue of whether these are “natural” differences. Given the things he cites, it hardly seems possible to construe all of them as in any way “natural”. Thus, the differences between individual women, which can compensate for their “natural” disadvantage, are likewise social and not natural.

10 The Second Treatise, op. cit., p. 46.

11 See Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 20, and Laslett's footnote to p. 364, Two Treatises of Government, op. cit.

12 Ibid., p. 45.

13 Ibid., p. 59.

14 If anything lies at the heart of traditional political theory's inability to devise a theory which does guarantee sexual equality it is the assumption that women's unique capacities with respect to reproduction are natural, rather than social or conventional, disadvantages. Reproduction is consistently regarded as a natural liability. The point of the present paper is to show the centrality and necessity of this assumption within Locke's theoretical perspective.

15 I am much indebted to Professor John King-Farlow for many helpful comments he made on an earlier draft of this paper, particularly with respect to the conditions under which women's “natural” inferiority may be overcome.

16 Most notably by Professor MacPherson, C. B. in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962.Google Scholar I am in complete agreement with MacPherson's view of what Locke was about and my own work has been greatly influenced by his views. Like MacPherson, I see Locke as beginning from certain assumptions, which he designates “natural”, which he then uses to justify gross inequality, when the reality of the case is that he must arrange social affairs to create the allegedly “natural” state of affairs which is in fact necessary to bring about the state of inequality which he considers desirable.

17 The Second Treatise, op. cit., p. 30.

18 Ibid., p. 31.

19 Ibid., p. 36.

20 Ibid., pp. 3-4.

21 Ibid., p. 40.

22 Ibid., p. 36.

23 Ibid., p. 44.

24 Ibid., p. 46.

25 Ibid., p. 37.

26 Ibid., p. 45.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., p. 44.

30 Ibid., p. 32.

31 I do not mean to suggest here that only males have sexual desires, or that it is regrettable that they do. I mean to point out only that Locke did not acknowledge that men had any such desires.

32 The Second Treatise, op. cit., pp. 106 and 98.

33 Ibid., p. 47

34 Ibid., pp. 33-34.

35 Ibid., p. 37.

36 Ibid., p. 41.

37 Ibid., p. 46.

38 Megarry, R. E. A Manual of the Law of Real Property, 2nd Edition, London, Stevens & Sons, Ltd., 1955, p. 538.Google Scholar

39 Ibid., p. 291.

40 It is interesting that the dower rights of a widow entitled her to a life-estate in one-third of her husband's estate, whereas the courtesy rights of the widower entitled him to a life-estate in the whole of the real property of his deceased wife. Women in England were worse off than black men in America. While black men were declared to be 3/5 of a white man, English women were clearly only 1/3 of an Englishman.

41 Megarry, op. cit., p. 316.

42 The Second Treatise, op. cit., p. 37.

43 Ibid., p. 40.

44 Ibid., p. 42.

45 Ibid., p. 43.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., p. 44.

48 Shorter, E. The Making of the Modern Family, Basic Books, New York., 1975,Google Scholar Chs, Two and Six particularly.

49 The Second Treatise, op. cit., p. 104.

50 Ibid.

51 The basis of English land law from the Norman conquest on was that all land was owned by the Crown, and was held by individuals only on sufferance. By the 17th Century, this was, of course, being eroded. For all practical purposes, land was owned by individuals, in the sense that it was individuals who had exclusive right to the disposition of property they held, at least under some forms of holding. But the legal principle continued, and, indeed, continues to the present. Legally speaking, all land is held by the Crown. Locke attacked that fundamental conception of the basis of English land law at its very root in arguing that the land was given by God to all men in common. He is thus attempting to provide an alternative basis of individual rights of ownership, and to trace rights of ownership from God rather than from the Monarch. No doubt it was his strong desire to wrest rights with respect to land away from the monarchy which lies at the heart of his strong distaste for monarchy.

52 The Second Treatise, op. cit., p. 66.

53 The idea that the certainty of paternity and the need for continuity through time are basic issues motivating the direction of western political theory is discussed and developed by Mary O'Brien in “The Politics of Impotence” in Contemporary Issues in Political Philosophy, op. cit. The issue of the relation between control of the means and products of production and control of the means and products of reproduction is discussed further in my paper “Politics and Law”, op.cit.

54 Shorter, op. cit., Chs. Four, Five, and Six.

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