Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke, Women, and Freedom - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Locke, Women, and Freedom - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Locke, Women, and Freedom
“Marriage Contract and Social Contract in Seventeenth Century English Political Thought.” Western Political Quarterly 32 (March 1979): 79–91.
John Locke solved an important problem in the political theory of seventeenth-century English liberalism. The idea of liberty involves the view that human beings are free and equal in the state of nature. This view jostled with the fact that almost all social relationships of the time were hierarchical. Specifically, the analogy between political authority and a husband's authority over his wife posed an important problem which Locke solved by developing a new analysis of marriage.
During the English Civil War, the royalist supporters of Charles I such as Sir Dudley Digges appealed against the parliamentarian's claim that their consent to the king's acts was necessary by citing the marriage contract. Once husband and wife consented to be married, the terms of the contract were alleged to come into force irrevocably. These dictated that the husband possessed absolute rights over his wife. In like manner, the king possessed absolute authority over the people of his realm.
Parliamentarians such as Henry Parker and William Bridge tended to counterclaim that there were inherent restrictions upon the husband's power. For example, Bridge maintained that if a man committed adultery, his wife had the right to separate from him. The great poet, John Milton, used the analogy of marriage and politics to argue that the political bond of loyalty to the king could be dissolved. Most of the Puritans, however, were limited in the use to which they could put divorce arguments by their own conservative views on marriage.
During the reign of Charles II, James Tyrrell, a liberal writer who was a friend of John Locke's, argued against patriarchal justifications for royal power. He defended a view of marriage based on mutual consent but was ambivalent in his attitude toward women. At times he accepted the conventional view that they were the natural inferiors of men.
A more consistent position on the marriage question was taken by the great theorist John Locke. He denied that there was an analogy between political and familial authority. So far as the latter was concerned, marriage was based on consent, and the parties might agree to virtually any terms they chose. Although there are a few remnants of male supremacy beliefs left in his work, he strikingly anticipated the opinions of later writers favoring female emancipation. This is especially so in his denial of the idea that a woman surrendered control of her property to her husband upon marriage, and in his sympathy for divorce.