Category Archives: Feminism

John Locke on Gay Marriage

In 1988, Carole Pateman discussed the strange misalignment between modern contract theory, as conceived by John Locke and others, and the special case of the marriage contract: “unlike other contracts, the marriage contract cannot be entered into by any two (or more) sane adults, but is restricted to two parties, one of whom must be a man and the other a woman” (167).  One would think that in a true contract society, this restriction on marriage contracts would be a contradiction because the status of the two parties should not be a factor.  But for Pateman, there is no contradiction but instead a misunderstanding of contract: the “attack on sexual difference [by those advocating for individual equality] . . . suffers from an insuperable problem: the ‘individual’ is a patriarchal category” (168)

Her argument was that the sex-designation of the marriage contract has not resulted from the failure to overcome this last remnant of status difference (as others have argued), but rather has deeper roots.  While Locke “remarked that marital society established through the marriage contract, ‘consists chiefly in the spouses’ ‘Communion and Right in one another Bodies,’” Pateman argues that it is actually based on “male sex-right” rather than an agreement for mutual access.  Locke, she argues, did not advocate an egalitarian contractarianism over a Filmerian patriarchy, but rather located political authority in one sphere and domestic authority in another.  Thus, “Locke agrees with Filmer that there is a natural foundation for a wife’s subjection.”  The original husband in Locke “must have exercised conjugal right over his wife before he became a father” (93) and was able to exercise political authority.  So Locke, Pateman argues, assumes that the the non-political authority of the male in the natural (“non-political”) sphere comes first and is not negotiated (or negotiable—no matter what goes on between Mirabell and Millamant). 


 The husband’s dominance is instead founded on the assumption of male sex-right.  This is the hidden contract behind the contract; it is the reason why the marriage contract can, contradictorily and unlike in any other contract, designate in advance the sex of each party.  The sex-designation of marriage reveals for Pateman not so much the limits of contract theory, but the patriarchal assumption behind the very category of the individual.  The individual of “individualism” is a Lockean, political subject who has already exerted natural (non-political) rights over a woman to place him in the public sphere as the representative of a family.

Maybe it’s way too early to say “until now.”  But what does it mean for the sexual contract that a US President can defend marriage equality?  Many will say that this is not a feminist issue or a contract theory issue at all, but rather an issue of the relative authority of religion.  But the way religion makes its way into policy has always been highly selective.  Dante placed sodomites and usurers in the same circle of hell (number 7!). 


I have yet to meet a Christian who eschews usury out of conscience or fear of hell, nor can I think of a government policy designed to eradicate it.  On the contrary, it seems to be encouraged. 

At its most radical, Pateman’s Sexual Contract suggests that individualism and contractarianism do not represent progress; on the contrary, they are impediments to feminism because they are designed to assume a particular, hidden hierarchy.  The category of the “individual” will never include everyone, and the best evidence for this was the (contradictory) sex-designation of the marriage contract.

What does Obama’s declaration do to this argument?  Does it suggest that the category of the “individual” is expandable after all?  Was “male sex-right” actually a residual hold-over, as the theorists to whom Pateman objected had claimed, rather than an inherent aspect of contract?   

  Liberals argue that gay marriage does not change the definition of marriage.  But if Pateman offers any insight into Locke and early concepts of individualism, then gay marriage does redefine the marriage contract. And maybe that’s the best part.

Works Cited

Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.


Legacy of What?

Voltaire, Father of the Enlightenment


Last night I saw the play Legacy of Light, which I had previously mentioned on the blog. It follows the story of Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet as she struggles to finish her work upon discovering a pregnancy (not by Voltaire) that she suspects will lead to her death.  The play parallels her story with that of 21st-century Olivia, an astrophysicist married to Peter, a schoolteacher.  Olivia, a middle-aged cancer survivor, wants to have a baby after many years devoted mainly to her work, so the couple hires Millie, a young girl who wants to be a fashion designer, to bear a child for them.


Emilie du Châtelet, mother of three children

I was tempted to see this play by past good experiences with Arena Stage (South Pacific, Damn Yankees) and the possibility of an engaging story of an eighteenth-century women scientist and the “father of the Enlightenment” (a phrase used to describe to Voltaire about 47 times), as well as the play’s claims to a feminist, or at least nonsexist, perspective.  Alas, it pretty much struck out on both counts.  The most distracting element was the playwright’s embarrassing misreading of Voltaire.  Both du Châtelet and Voltaire chirp throughout the play that they live in the “best of all possible worlds.”  When Emilie dies, Voltaire repeats this line with a bit of sarcasm, but this is the only glimmer of recognition of the profound irony of those words.  The play explains du Châtelet’s complex personal life (married, but also living with Voltaire and sleeping with a younger poet as well) in one line: “We’re French!” 



The modern plot digs a little deeper into the characters but also disappoints by suggesting that Olivia will not become truly valuable until she becomes a mommy.  Olivia conceives the idea for a child in the midst of a car crash.  As the baby grows inside Millie, however, Olivia becomes more and more reluctant to compromise her pursuit of science and face motherhood.  She becomes fearful of how the baby will change her life to the point of backing out of the adoption, a possibility she announces hysterically after climbing up a tree (where she meets Voltaire, the father of the Enlightenment) to hide from Millie.


Millie’s plot offers the greatest complexity.  Grieving over the recent loss of their mother, Millie and her brother struggle to keep their family home out of foreclosure.  Millie tells Olivia and Peter that she wants to have their baby to earn money to go to fashion design school, assuming that her true motive (avoiding homelessness) would come across as unworthy.  There is more potential here for the analysis of middle-class values around family, education, reproduction, and bloodlines than the play takes advantage of, but it is nevertheless a poignant plot. The play also creates an ominous sadness around Millie’s apparent attachment to the unborn child.  At the same time, even Millie’s intricacy felt a bit manipulative as it was pitted against Olivia’s resistance to maternity that must be broken down before the end of the evening and the sense that du Châtelet’s legacy, unlike that of Voltaire (father of the Enlightenment) ultimately must rest with her offspring rather than her science.

School for Scandal at the Folger

 Joseph Surface attempting to seduce Lady Teazle


          Is it possible that the eighteenth-century stage offered more adventurous female possibilities than our own can imagine?  Or is it that we can’t imagine that they imagined them?


          These questions run through my mind nearly every time I see an eighteenth-century play on stage—or as the public radio commercial for the recent Folger Theater production of R. B. Sheridan’s School for Scandal would have it, a “Restoration comedy.”



          First let me say that there were some very wonderful moments, fine acting, and astute theatrical decisions in this production.  The cast nailed the “screen scene,” in which the hypocritical Joseph Surface hides Lady Teazle behind one panel while her elderly husband peeks out from behind another, only to have Joseph’s rakish brother Charles expose the lady (and her would-be seducer) in this compromising situation.  Kate Eastwood Norris brought exactly the right balance of ambition, provincialism, and good-heartedness to her Lady Teazle.




          Undermining this otherwise successful production was the decision to cast a man in the part of Lady Sneerwell.  Apparently, skilled actresses over 35 are in such demand that none were available. Gender-blindness was not the point, for the production opens with a wigless and topless Sneerwell enjoying a massage from Snake.  Why does the original Gossip Girl, who controls all the reputations in London, become a transvestite male in the Folger production?   




          The most obvious possibility is an attempt to get some mileage out of eliding the eighteenth century with the nineteenth century, setting the play in “the time of Oscar Wilde” when “the veneer of respectability covers the hidden depth of scandal” (Director’s Notes). If you are setting a play in the time of Oscar Wilde, why not turn one of the female characters into a gay man?  Directors often think that Restoration and eighteenth-century plays aren’t funny enough, and add things to make them more contemporary.  Sometimes such ideas work and sometimes they don’t.




          But I have a darker theory.  With Lady Sneerwell, Sheridan recalls the figure of the powerful, sometimes embittered, and always sexually experienced women who appeared regularly in the period’s earlier, less sentimental comedies that Sheridan admired.  They include such memorable characters as Mrs. Loveit from The Man of Mode, the Fidget ladies in The Country Wife, Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World, Betty Frisque in The Countrey Wit, Mrs. Turnup in The Morning Ramble, Mrs. Jilt in Epsom Wells, and Angellica Bianca in The Rover.  These women attempt to turn neglect into power and/or pleasure, with varying degrees of success.  Unlike these earlier figures, however, Lady Sneerwell embraces an alternative to sexual maneuvering: gossip.  While The School for Scandal, like The Rover and The Man of Mode, ultimately expels its dangerous amazon, she offers an intriguing alternative to the virginal, rumor-adverse Mariah. (If a director really wanted to challenge the audience, why not Mariah as a gay transvestite man?)  Contemporary readers and directors find these disreputable female characters puzzling because they do not comport with popular images of pre-1900 female gender constructions.  Yet it also seems possible that the Restoration- and eighteenth-century theaters imagined possibilities for women that lie beyond the scope of the contemporary scene.



NYT on the culture wars and traditional literary study

Someone on my student listserv brought our attention to this article, which looks back at Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and its offspring. It’s started an interesting conversation among students about how we feel about “multi-culturalism” and the study of historical literatures. Why are the approaches to historical lit so apparently hostile to the politics of race, gender, and class?

Our conversation reminded me of several times when students in various Ph.D. programs have said they often feel uncomfortable bringing up, e.g., race or gender in the context of Shakespeare or Milton. While some professors actively encourage “political” conversations about literature, there is no shortage of those who assume that to politicize a text is to demean (or at least ignore) its formal/aesthetic value.

This is something I’m obviously interested in keeping an eye on. Beginning graduate students who have studied postcolonial theory or queer theory in undergrad often go on to take graduate courses in historical literature, and sometimes find that their usual methods of analysis are taken as immature or knee-jerking, and instead of being encouraged to apply them in a more historically conscious way, they often feel that the application is seen as inappropriate altogether.

My more generous side wants to reply that historical-lit professors are particularly wary of students fitting late-20th-century terminology to periods in which those categories have not been fully formed. When a student calls attention to a “racist” passage in a 17th-century poem, the professor will usually respond by trying to tease out the history of the construction of “race,” which may, unfortunately, come across as invalidating what could be a very fruitful conversation about colonialism and early modern cross-cultural confrontations.

But my less generous interpretation fears that the unwillingness to talk about global contexts and non-heteronormative sexuality in historical lit is an effect of politics not being within a professor’s particular interests, and that they may feel like these conversations are best saved for contemporary lit classes. Semesters can feel very crowded, and since so much of class time in historical lit must be taken up with hermeneutic and rhetorical analysis, a conversation about politics may feel like a derailing.

The effect, then, is that young scholars who may want to learn how to apply their interests to historical lit feel marginalized to the point that they eventually return to studying late 20th-century texts. (I have an acquaintance who had hoped to do an MA thesis on Defoe and enslavement who got so discouraged by the apparent resistance of his professors that he “retreated”—his word—to African-American Studies.) And I think the early modern period, especially the eighteenth century, suffers from the loss.

We have all seen clumsy applications of gender and race theory to texts in our period, but I’d argue that it’s a problem of failing to sufficiently historicize gender or race, not a problem with the desire itself, and the encouragement to historicize these approaches has to come from somewhere. The white masculinist academy has often sidestepped these issues in historical literature, even when the authors themselves explicitly address them. To politicize a reading of Defoe, in my opinion, is not to ignore what Defoe is doing, but to do justice to it.

The good news is that this is changing. Many young scholars of my acquaintance are starting to see this battle between “identity politics” on the one hand and “traditional literary scholarship” on the other as a false binary. Surely this is because people like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have been troubling it all along by working on queer theory that isn’t just robust enough to analyze Jeannette Winterson, but also robust enough to analyze John Donne. (Post)colonial theory, too, is becoming incredibly useful, not just for Nigerian lit, but also for Milton. This year, Queens College welcomed a new Asst. Professor, Eric Song, whose work analyzes English nativism in the context of early globalization in seventeenth-century poetry.

When I think about the scholarly possibilities that arise not from breaking down traditional approaches to historical lit, but supplementing them with long-overdue political awareness, I get very excited for our field and the scholarship that can come out of graduate students and young scholars over the next twenty years.