Key thinker: Carole Pateman (1940–)

Carole Pateman (1940–)


Carole Pateman was born in Maresfield, Sussex. She received her early education at Lewes County Grammar School for Girls but left after her O-levels when she was only 16 years old ( After school, Pateman worked a series of clerical jobs before enrolling at Ruskin College, Oxford, an independent adult-education school for students from working class backgrounds, in 1963. In 1965, Pateman sat the Oxford University Postgraduate Diploma in Politics and Economics examination and won a place to read for a BA in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, then still a women’s college ( She completed her undergraduate studies in 1967 and stayed on at Oxford to study for a DPhil, which she obtained in 1971.

Pateman began her academic career at the University of Sydney, where she was appointed Reader in Government in 1980. After teaching at Sydney, Pateman held visiting fellowships at universities including Princeton and Stanford. In 1990, Pateman joined the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is currently Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Political Science ( Pateman has published and edited books on social contract theory, democratic theory, theories of political obligation, and feminist theory. She has received numerous awards for her contributions to the field of political science, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the UK Academy of Social Sciences (


Pateman is best known for The Sexual Contract (1988) (see 10.3. The Sexual Contract), a feminist critique of social contract theorists like Hobbes (see Chapter 5 on Hobbes), Locke (see Chapter 7 on Locke), and Rousseau (see Chapter 9 on Rousseau). For Pateman, the supposed universalism of social contract theory (see Box 10.2. The Social Contract: Key Points) only serves to cover up its gender bias. Because social contract theory incorporates patriarchal assumptions about the relations between men and women, only men are considered free and equal individuals and women are systematically excluded from its egalitarian politics (see Box 10.3. The Sexual Contract: Key Points). The liberal idea that legitimate political authority is derived from the consent of free and equal individuals thus ignores what Pateman calls ‘the sexual contract’, which preserves sexual hierarches in liberal society and limits who can legitimately participate in politics.

The social contract, then, relies on a prior sexual contract to ensure that patriarchal relations between men and women remain in place. Pateman argues that social contract theory reinforces the subjugation of women in contractual relationships or institutions such as marriage or surrogacy ( She reserves her strongest criticism for the institution of marriage, arguing that it is a contractual relationship that is founded on an imbalance of power between the consenting individuals (see 10.6. Conclusion). But why do women ‘freely’ enter a contract that is so obviously disadvantageous? For Pateman, the answer is simple: the institutions that uphold the sexual contract—sexual objectification, family, domesticity, marriage, maternity, and so on—are already in place before the egalitarian social contract is even formed. While the sexual contract continues to ensure the patriarchal control of men over women’s bodies, the social contract established the political authority of men over women (see 10.3.1. Women and Marriage).

Pateman’s influence cannot be understated; her major works, The Problem of Political Obligation: A Critical Analysis of Liberal Theory (1979), The Sexual Contract and The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism, and Political Theory (1989) continue to inspire feminist theorists and other critics of liberalism. Pateman’s critique of social contract theory can, for example, be expanded to address the exclusion of people of colour or the working class from contractarian politics. Charles Mills (see Chapter 10 on Charles Mills) has built on Pateman’s writing to show that liberalism’s egalitarianism only ever applied to white, propertied men. Similarly, the critique of the ‘ableist’ contract has used Pateman’s work to show how the self-image of liberal theorists is founded on the assumption of ‘able’ personhood and the subsequent exclusion of disabled persons (Pinheiro, 2016). 

Pateman and Mills co-authored the 2007 book Contract & Domination, a collection of articles and conversations about their respective thoughts on the history, present and future of social contract theory (Pateman & Mills, 2007). Although they agree that social contract theory is founded on the exclusion of certain groups or individuals, they disagree on what should happen next. Mills believes that we can form a more inclusive social contract that departs from the ideal assumption of equality by taking historical injustices into account. But Pateman insists that the social contract cannot be reformed (see 10.6. Conclusion). Because a reformed social contract cannot ensure that individuals overcome the oppressive histories that formed their individual or group identity, we must do away with the idealist abstraction of the social contract and focus instead on real-life processes of political negotiation and compromise.

Further Reading

Pinheiro, Lucas G. (2016) ‘The Ableist Contract: Intellectual Disability and the Limits of Justice in Kant’s Political Thought’. In Disability and Political Theory, ed. Barbara Arneil and Nancy J. Hirschmann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 43-78.

Pateman, Carole and Charles Mills (2007) Contract and Domination. Cambridge: Polity.

Thompson, S., Hayes, L., Newman, D. et al. The Sexual Contract 30 Years on: A Conversation with Carole Pateman. Fem Leg Stud 26, 93–104 (2018).

Onora O’Neill, “Friends of Difference”, London Review of Books, 14 September 1989.

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