The Political Theory of Carole Pateman

Carole Pateman‘s work has been in the realm of political theory. Pateman argues that for political theory to become more democratic it must develop a truly general theory of the political. This must necessarily avoid the trap of disqualifying certain categories of persons from being political subjects.

Rereading Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx, Pateman’s work has focussed on two particular issues: (a) The issue of legitimate political obligation: Pateman believes that a convincing explanation for political authority based on consent is absent in political theory. That is if we ask why any individual should obey the law, political theory can give no answer. (b) The nature of political society, and the distinction between the private and public spheres: The definition of the political almost entirely in terms of the public sphere/civil society has affected the political rights of women. The domestic sphere, reproduction, mothering, kinship, emotional bonds are seen as the woman’s domain, in the area of particular and local interests. The public sphere is thus the site of reason, rationality, autonomy and creativity. This system therefore makes the entry of the woman into the public sphere extraordinarily difficult.

(1) Pateman argues that the woman’s “domestication” implies that she cannot participate in the public sphere with any great efficacy. The public sphere and the political require rationality and objectivity. The woman by being (represented) irrational and emotional cannot therefore undertake such an office. The “free and equal” individual, the subject of liberal political theory is thus only the man.

(2) Pateman further argues that political theory continues to read canonical texts which do not account for the woman’s role in the social and political life. The transition from tradition to modernity as seen in political theory can be equated with the opposition between the public and private spheres. The public society and body politic revolves around the male individual who is constructed through the separation of civil society from women. Thus to grant citizenship to women is to suggest that the woman assumes a male identity. The only means of entry into the public sphere for the woman is to imitate men: for they cannot be different and citizens at the same time. This means that women must first reject their bodies.

(3) Evidently what is required is a new approach to the idea of the politic. Patenian argues that since the woman did not consent to the Social Contract, the Contract has not been fully realized. Likewise in marriage, women cannot be said to have given their consent for an unequal power relation. The problem is to understand how a private/individual sphere (such as marriage) which is not subject to the law but which has unequal relations and the subjection/silencing of one “side,” can be retained in a truly democratic society. The private-public dichotomy must be therefore rethought to discover a new political theory.

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