Secular Philosophy’s Contribution to Patriarchy

Today it is not uncommon for critics of religion to emphasize these deeply seeded misogynistic traditions. But an overemphasis on the patriarchal character of monotheistic religious traditions can lead to a distorting understanding of the pervasiveness of patriarchy. As I have shown in previous work,[1] many of the Enlightenment philosophers who questioned conventional religion, religious intolerance, slavery, and monarchy failed to equally question assumptions about the inferiority of women to men. In fact, many readily promoted patriarchy.

In his renowned defense of republicanism, The Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, Montesquieu explicitly states that too much equality would likely reduce respect for government leaders, old age, parents;

and “deference to husbands will be likewise thrown off, and submission to masters.”[2]

Speaking directly to the patriarchal thought model which continues to inform the prevailing form of masculinity today, Montesquieu warns that equality threatens male domination:

“Wives, children, slaves will shake off all subjection. No longer will there be any such thing as manners, order, or virtue” (Ibid).

In 1762, the French philosopher Rousseau argued in his work Emile that women are by nature mentally and physically inferior to men, as well as predisposed to love beauty and other trifles. He says women’s normal and true business is giving birth[3] and that because a husband must be made confident that the children she bares him are his own, a wife’s infidelity is treasonable and far worse than a husband’s.[4] As an adult woman is destined to live a life of subordination both to “propriety”[5] and her husband, girls must be taught “to bear the yoke from the first, so that they may not feel it, to master their own caprices and to submit themselves to the will of others.”[6] And should be instilled with the “docility which woman requires all her life long, for she will always be in the subjection to a man, or to man’s judgment, and she will never be free to set her own opinion above his.”[7] In fact, women must

“learn to submit to injustice and to suffer the wrongs inflicted on her husband by her husband without complaints,”[8] that through her “gentleness” she will eventually be victorious over him, “unless he is a perfect monster.”[9] He further claimed that the “assertions as to the equality of the sexes” are “vague” and inconsequential[10] and proclaims that women are far more in need of men than men are in need of women because women are dependent on men for both fulfillment of her desires and her needs. She needs him to fulfill her purpose in life:

“Nature herself has decreed that woman, both for herself and her children, should be at the mercy of man’s judgment.”[11]

To sum it up, identifying organized religion as the sole proponent of patriarchal thought is both dishonest and, I would add, obscures how deeply entrenched the ideology of male supremacy is in Western thought.

[1] Jeff Nall, “Exhuming the History of Feminist Masculinity: Condorcet, 18th Century Radical Male Feminist,” pp.42-61. Culture, Society & Masculinities (vol.2, Issue 1, Spring 2010)

[2] Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), 109. (Bk viii, ch. ii.)

[3] Rousseau, J. (1995). Duties of women. In I. Kramnick (Ed.), The portable enlightenment reader (pp. 568‐579).New York. Penguin, p.572 [4] Rousseau 572 [5] Rousseau 578 [6] Rousseau 578 [7] Rousseau 578-579 [8] Rousseau 578 [9] Rousseau 579 [10] Rousseau 572 [11] Rousseau 575


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