Carole Pateman

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Carole Pateman


Carole Pateman. “Contracting In.” The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford UP. 1-18.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon Books, 1972. 5-190.


Carole Pateman, in her book The Sexual Contract, makes the claim that the whole story has not been told in regards to the modern political theory of the social contract. The social contract is “a theory that claims that free social relations take a contractual form” (Pateman 1) and few of its early advocates, which Pateman mentions throughout, include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Pateman argues that the original contract is both a social and a sexual contract, but with the sexual sphere being thrust into the private. As a result of privatizing the sexual aspect of the contract and ignoring its relevancy, it becomes difficult to see that the contract does not give freedom to all, but that it establishes modern patriarchy and legitimizes men’s right to exercise domination over women.

The Hidden Nature of Patriarchal Right

Pateman stresses that political contract theorists fail to recognize the sexual aspect of the original social contract, which is described as the marriage contract and women’s subordination within that contract. “The missing half of the story tells how a specifically modern form of patriarchy is established” (Pateman 1). The social and sexual contracts are separated into public and private spheres. Once the sexual contract is privatized, “patriarchy then appears to have no relevance to the public world” (Pateman 4). Pateman argues that in reality, patriarchy is widespread throughout Western society and the failure to acknowledge the sexual contract tends to produce the hidden nature of patriarchy.

Pateman also takes into account that modern society no longer operates upon the notion that paternal right is equivalent to political right. As a new social contract is developed, following the end of paternal right, “the new social order, therefore appears to be anti-patriarchal or post-patriarchal (Pateman 2). Again, this idea portrays how modern patriarchy is ever present in the social contract but simultaneously its presence is hidden.

Patriarchal Account of Masculinity and Femininity

The patriarchal view of what it means to be male and what it means to be female legitimates men’s natural right to dominate women. “Only the masculine beings are endowed with the attributes and capacities necessary to enter into contracts…” (Pateman 5), which suggests that men are the only ones that receive political freedom and have the right to dominate women. It also seems to be apparent within the patriarchal view of masculinity and femininity that women are not individuals, but are subjects or property of men. Pateman writes that “Women are not party to the original contract through which men transform their natural freedom into the security of civil freedom. Women are the subject of the contract. The (sexual) contract is the vehicle through which men transform their natural right over women into the security of civil patriarchal right” (Pateman 6). Comparable to the conjugal relationship between Edna and Léonce in Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, Léonce expresses the patriarchal view that his wife is his property, “[Léonce was] looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property…” (Chopin 7). By instituting the patriarchal conception that there are natural differences between men and women, and what it means to be male or female, allots men the natural right to dominate women.


Carole Pateman raises an essential point that is often overlooked in the social contract theory. The sexual contract is a significant element of the contract theory because it brings the hidden nature of patriarchal right to the surface. The theory has neglected women’s rights by subordinating them to private sphere.

A critique I would like to address, however, is that Pateman fails to acknowledge the differences between women. She mentions that “…but in the exploration of contract and patriarchal right, the fact that women are women is more relevant than the differences between them. For example, the social and legal meaning of what it is to be a ‘wife’ stretches across class and racial differences” (Pateman 18). It appears that Pateman extends what it means to be a wife in white, Western society, cross-culturally, which tends to be problematic. The experience of subordination or what it means to be a wife varies among women of different race and class. Pateman’s idea does work, however, for The Awakening, as the novel focuses primarily on Edna’s situation, as a white female that experiences patriarchal oppression in her own life that the women of color throughout the novel do not experience.

--Pulcheria 13:09, 23 May 2008 (EDT)

See Also:

  • Gayle Rubin for an anthropological analysis of the "sex-gender system," as contrasted with "patriarchy."