Academic journal article CEU Political Science Journal

Feminist Interpretations of Thomas Hobbes: A Response to Carole Pateman and Susan Okin

Academic journal article CEU Political Science Journal

Feminist Interpretations of Thomas Hobbes: A Response to Carole Pateman and Susan Okin

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Thomas Hobbes is an exception among early contract theorists in his ostensible affirmation of gender equality. (2) Carole Pateman and Susan Okin acknowledge this, but maintain that Hobbesian gender equality is, in the final analysis, a chimera. Okin claims that Hobbes excludes women from political life, and "[assumes] the necessity for male dominance in both the family and society at large." (3) Carole Pateman is similarly critical: "In the natural state all women become servants, and all women are excluded from the original pact, that is to say all women are also excluded from becoming civil individuals. No woman is a free subject." (4)

They skillfully advance this thesis with respect to many thinkers, past and present. In the case of Hobbes, however, their criticisms are misplaced. This essay will argue that Hobbes's political theory does not exclude or subordinate women as Pateman and Okin claim. Their conclusions are based on the failure to appreciate the gender inclusiveness of Hobbes's language, as well as misinterpretations of his state of nature narrative, the basis of equality, and the nature of the person. Reinterpreting these concepts allows for a rereading of Hobbes as a proponent of substantive gender equality.

I begin by defining what I mean by "gender equality," and outlining the reasons Pateman and Okin have for denying that Hobbes is a gender egalitarian (Section 2). The three subsequent sections respond to this critique. Section 3 argues against the claim that Hobbes's use of masculine nouns and pronouns excludes women. Section 4 broadens the argument: Hobbesian gender equality is meaningful, not merely linguistic or hopelessly abstract. The final section will develop a more robust account, arguing that Hobbesian gender equality is substantive, capable of recognizing and accommodating differences between men and women in ways that maintain or promote equality. In other words, women's equality to men is not contingent upon similarity to men.

2. Hobbesian Gender Equality and the Feminist Critique

For the purposes of this essay, when I refer to Hobbes as a "gender egalitarian," or say that he believes in "gender equality," I mean that his claims about the equality, liberty and rights of men also apply to women in the same way, and to the same extent. For Hobbes, gender and biological sex are not categories that affect one's moral, political, or social status. Many theorists think that this formal equality is the limit of Hobbesian equality. When merely formal equality is a standard of justice, equal treatment may fail to respect individuals as equals in any meaningful way. (5) This becomes problematic insofar as it involves "treat[ing] unequals as if they were equals" which, as Okin notes, "has long been recognized as an obvious instance of injustice." (6) The "equal treatment" of men and women can be unjust if a male standard is accepted as normal or natural. (7) I believe that Hobbesian theory recognizes this type of injustice as injustice. It recognizes the relevance of differences--including the differences between men and women--and takes them into account in ways that establish or restore equality. The principle of equality has priority, and insofar as this is the case, Hobbesian equality is substantive, not merely formal.

Both Pateman and Okin acknowledge that Hobbes is unique insofar as he posits all human beings as equal, regardless of their sex or gender. (8) In Leviathan, he claims that equality is "the natural condition of mankind." (9)

   Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body
   and mind, as that, though there be found one man
   sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker
   mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the
   difference between man and man is not so considerable
   as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any
   benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.