top of page
  • Writer's pictureIago Mora Arcas

Family, marriage and nature: a critical analysis of the place of women in Locke's political theory

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

Family plays a relevant role in John Locke’s political theory.[1] It does so because it is one of the main points of dispute in his argument against Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Filmer argued that the only difference between paternal and political power was one of extension, and that therefore the kind of power that Adam would exercise over his family would be essentially the same than that of the King over a commonwealth (Filmer, 1949: 78). As opposed to this view, Locke would defend that family, as “first society”, was prior to the political society, both historically and in the life of the individual, and that parental power was completely separate and distinct from political power (II, 71)[2].

It is this last point that I will be putting my attention on in this paper. Children are born helpless, and remain not being completely rational and free until their adulthood. Because of this, they need to be raised and preserved by their parents, whose power over them is a condition of possibility of the proper development of the children. This power (unlike the political) is confined to the period during which this particular situation in the children’s lives exists, and so disappears once they have reached adulthood. But how could subjects have some kind of power over someone else? (II, 71). In Filmer’s model, no answer could be given to this. Since parental and political power were for him fundamentally the same, the monarch would have been the only legitimate ruler of the children. Locke’s separation of parental and political power therefore allows here for a more satisfactory answer.

Parental and political power differ too in that the first is shared by the father and the mother, not exercised by a single figure (I, 55), and most remarkably in that parental power did not reach the children’s life or death or their property (II, 65), since unlike in political power that was not necessary to meet their ends, which are procreation and upbringing as well as mutual assistance (II, 83). We can hence affirm that according to Locke family and marriage are clearly not political, and that therefore the contract between a husband and a wife must be substantially different from the social contract by which individuals agree to enter civil society.

The reason why men and women come together in a “voluntary compact” is because they are naturally inclined towards social contact, as well as for the existence of a number of common interests (II, 77, 78). In doing so, they are able to decide some of the ways in which they wish to conduct and organize their relationship, although others are already determined by the law of nature (since, we cannot forget, we are not in the realm of the political). It is because of this that the husband has “no more power over her [wife’s] life than she has over his” (II, 82). But nature also comes into play to decide over matters that had not been described by Locke in his previous account of the natural law.

When different opinions would emerge in the conjugal society, it is according to him necessary that the last determination (“i.e., the rule”) “naturally falls to the man’s share, as the abler and the stronger” (II, 82; italics not in the original) in all matters of their common concern. It could be somehow argued that this is an empirical claim, and that the prevailing opinion should simply be that of “the abler and the stronger” -which in Locke’s account of reality happened to be men. In §48 of the First Treatise, this idea had already made its appearance, although in this case without any justification; we may however simply state that to find that justification we just need to see the previously cited passage from the Second Treatise and its empirical interpretation.

But, once more, nature comes into play, in a fragment of serious implications:

God, in this text, gives not, that I see, any authority to Adam over Eve, or to men over their wives, but only foretells what should be the woman's lot, how by his providence he would order it so that she should be subject to her husband, as we see that generally the laws of mankind and customs of nations have ordered it so, and there is, I grant, a foundation in nature for it. (I, 47; italics not in the original)

To make sense of the apparent contradiction between the first part of the sentence and the rest of it we should frame it in his discussion of Filmer’s patriarchal power, indicating that the power of the husband over the wife is not equivalent to that of a monarch over the citizens, but that however his power over the woman (notably, the term being used interchangeably with “wife”) does exist[3], and that it is founded in nature (or in God’s providence).

What kind of contract can be made under conditions of natural, intrinsic, subjection? Not one between free individuals. This hence requires a reconfiguration of what we understand when we are speaking about marriage in Locke. Because it takes place outside the sphere of civil society, the parts of the marriage do not have the possibility to access an independent judge to solve their disagreements. Why would that not be necessary for the husband and wife, when it is one of the main incentives for the people to agree to the civil society (II, 87)? As Kelly (2002: 361, 369) and others have noted, it is because family is conceived as a fundamentally peaceful realm. He however had recognized (II, 82) that “unavoidably” the husband’s and wife’s wills would differ. Now we can see how that disagreement did not constitute a threat to the family’s peace, and therefore did not make necessary the figure of an independent judge: because, as long as it was a matter of their common concern, his would be the opinion that would prevail, and it would be so because she is, by nature, subject to him (except with regard to her own life or property, at least in theory).

The argument that, in a case of sexist violence in the domestic realm, the law of nature could be of help to the woman sees itself highly weakened from this perspective. Certainly, a key aspect of the natural law is that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (II, 6). But how could this be taken into practice when a constitutive element of the relationship is the subjection of one member to the other in all common matters? Leaving aside the fact that it would be hard to defend that seeing yourself constantly subjected in everyday decisions does not prejudice your mental health or liberty, the truth is that that this subordination in decisions affecting the two (and the children) clearly produces a climate in which violence towards women is much more likely to happen. It could be argued that, if this happened, the law of nature could again be of help, since “the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man’s hands” (II, 7), that is, everyone can punish the offender for their break of the natural law. But how could that woman have the guarantee that punishment would be enforced justly when sexist biases were completely widespread in Western societies, to a higher degree than now? There does not appear to be any satisfactory answer to this problem in Locke’s political philosophy, in a reiteration of its reliance on a supposed peacefulness of the household that is not accurate today and that was even less accurate at his time (Kelly, 2002: 374). This problem may have been tackled through the defence of a neutral mechanism of arbitration, of the “meddling” of a justice system into what was thought to be non-political. But, of course, and especially if we consider that this task would be performed by the state, that would go radically against Locke’s separation of the political and the conjugal society (Kelly, 2002: 378).

Finally, it would be interesting to see how this asymmetry of power justified by an appeal to nature could be compatible with the assertion that the state of nature is “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” (II, 4), or to what extent are the “common interests” that lead men and women into marriage really similar, given the deeply patriarchal educational and social conditions of most women at that time (which also have strong implications for the consideration of the real possibilities of their access for divorce, an otherwise highly progressive aspect introduced by Locke). These tensions invite us to at least question the utility of a Lockean framework to articulate feminist politics that follow his postulates in a strict manner, but above all to reassess the many political theories that were directly influenced by his work in light of its many problems and blind spots that attentive feminist readings bring to light, and which can only be complemented and expanded by incorporating perspectives that place the focus on, among others, colonial or class-related elements that I have not discussed here.


  • Filmer, R. (1949 [1680]). Patriarcha. Hoboken: Blackwell.

  • Kelly, K. A. (2002). Private Family, Private Individual: John Locke's Distinction Between Paternal and Political Power. Social Theory and Practice, 28(3), 361-380.

  • Locke, J. (1947 [1689]). Two Treatises of Government. New York: Hafner.


[1] I would like to thank Prof. James Hill for his counterarguments offered in the course “Perspectives on the Liberalism of John Locke”, taught at the Charles University in Prague during the year 2020/2021. This article incorporates and responds to several of them. [2] From here on, all references to John Locke’s First (I) or Second (II) Treatise of Government will be referenced in this way. The number next to the “I” or “II” will indicate the section that is being referred. [3] Something that had also appeared in his early enumeration of different types of power: “The power of a magistrate over a subject may be distinguished from that of a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave” (II, 2).

143 views0 comments
bottom of page