Securing women's citizenship: Indifference and other obstacles

In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman investigated how women’s lesser status as citizens is founded on their subordination in marriage and employment. Now, she writes, global inequalities introduce a racial dimension to the “classical” sexual contract.

If we look back over the past century, there have been very many improvements in women’s social and economic position and in their political, legal and civil standing since 1911. Nevertheless, the question can still be raised whether women today are full citizens in any country of the world.

How this question is answered, of course, depends on what “full citizenship” is taken to mean. The suffrage is the emblem of citizenship and if that is taken as the measure, the contrast with 1911 is very marked. A century ago women were part of only three national electorates: New Zealand, Australia and Finland. In 2011 the right to vote is almost universal – the vast majority of women and men now take part in their countries’ elections – with Saudi Arabia still being a notable exception. However, important and necessary though it is, the right to vote is only one part of citizenship.

Other basic political and legal rights are also required; if citizenship is to be more than formal, if it is to be meaningful in everyday life and of equal worth to all citizens, then every individual has to be accepted on an equal footing as a participant in all areas of social and political life. Citizens must all be seen as, and accepted as, equal members of their polities in a substantive rather than merely a formal sense. It can be argued that citizenship is not just a problem for women; not all men are full and equal members of their polities either. Poor men and men from a variety of racial and ethnic groups are pushed to the margins or persecuted in many countries of the world. But women are faced with some specific problems about citizenship, although some of the matters I shall discuss are also relevant to men.

The contrast with 1911 is not nearly so dramatic if aspects of citizenship other than the suffrage are considered. Many problems that existed a century ago are still with us, albeit in a very different context. Women around the globe still face numerous difficulties in fully securing their status as citizens. Some problems are more prevalent or more serious in specific countries and areas of the world than in others; some are found globally, but the form that they take differs according to the particular context and culture. Over a decade ago the United Nations extended its studies of human development to include a Gender-Development Related Index and a Gender Empowerment Measure. This was necessary because of the extent of inequality between women and men and the extent to which women are marginalized or excluded from political and economic life; in other words, the gender indexes are needed because of women’s lesser social, economic and political position. Or, to make the point a different way, structures of sexual and racial power systematically undercut their formal citizenship.

But why has women’s citizenship proved to be such a problem? There is no simple answer to the question of why the obstacles are so intractable. Legal and political reform has been easier to achieve (even if globally there is still a long way to go) than changes in social practices, beliefs and attitudes and in conceptions of masculinity and femininity. But this is not so surprising when what is at issue are questions of power and privilege, domination and subordination. The powerful are never eager to relinquish their position, especially when, as in the case of masculine power, it reaches into everyday and domestic life and into the most intimate areas of individuality, so that every man can have some share, however small, in the privileges of masculinity.

To illustrate the problem, consider the right to vote, that emblem of citizenship, together with the right to stand for election to office. Today, universal voting is seen as necessary for the formation of a legitimate government – and the very long struggle that it took to obtain votes for all citizens is forgotten. In the United States and Britain, for example, it took 60 years of continuous campaigning in the face of deep-seated hostility and sometimes violence before all women obtained the vote, and in the United States it was not until the reforms that began in the 1960s that all African-American women and men could freely exercise the suffrage. In several European countries, all women did not have the vote until the 1970s and one Swiss Canton held out until the end of the 1980s.

But if voting is now generally uncontroversial, women’s election to office and participation in decision-making bodies is a different matter. Women members of the British House of Commons have found that many male MPs still regard them with hostility or as a (sexist) joke. Inter-Parliamentary Union figures for December 2010 show that the average percentage of women in the world’s legislatures was still only 19.2, but there is a very wide variation between countries.1 In lower or single houses the Nordic region has 41.6% of women, but Rwanda has the highest percentage for a single country, 56.3%. Many of the rich countries rank well below the poorer; for example, Mozambique has 39.2% women, Ecuador 32.3%, whereas the UK has only 22% and the USA 16.8%. Women are usually better represented in local councils and similar bodies, but this has been true since the nineteenth century. Local decision-making is more easily seen as a proper area in which women can be active than the national arena.

In recent years many more women have held executive office (from 2008 until 2010, the Spanish cabinet had a female majority) and since the 1960s women have served as prime ministers and presidents. Nevertheless, men still monopolize authoritative positions, whether in legislatures or government (when photographs are taken the picture is typically of statesmen) or in the economy, military, judiciary, religious institutions or universities.

The Nordic countries took special measures to obtain a proper representation of women in legislatures and government, and in the last decade or so more than a hundred countries have adopted quotas of various forms for the selection of women candidates for office. Norway has also taken its efforts into another area, in 2003 mandating that public limited companies should have 40% of women on their boards by 1st January 2008, a figure that was reached in 2009 (compare to the US with about 15%).

Examples of the under-representation of women could be continued, but the general point is that men are still seen as more authoritative figures than women. Men’s words count for more than those of women. This is one obstacle to women’s full citizenship, and it is an aspect of the broader ramifications of beliefs about masculinity and femininity which I discussed in my book The Sexual Contract (1988).2 Notwithstanding the many changes that have taken place over the past several decades, boys and men still count for more than girls and women. In areas of the world, for example China, where there is an extremely strong preference for boys, selective abortion, infanticide and general neglect has resulted in a large demographic imbalance in favour of men. The best-known account of this is Amartya Sen’s calculation in 1990 that over 100 million women are “missing”.3

I shall come back to the problem of who counts for most; I now want to say something about another obstacle to women’s citizenship – poverty. Over the past quarter century there has been a marked increase in economic inequality and insecurity both within countries and between the global North and the global South, which is being exacerbated by the current economic recession. This has been driven by neoliberal doctrines of structural adjustment, deregulation (including financial institutions, which sparked the recession) and privatisation, doctrines that underlie many of the large changes now grouped together under the heading of “globalisation”. The 2005 United Nations Human Development Report provides a summary of the extent of global inequality. Despite some improvements in areas such as illiteracy and preventable diseases, income inequalities have increased in countries inhabited by over 80% of the world’s population. 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day and more than 1 billion live on less than $1 a day. The richest 10% enjoy 54% of global income.4

Poverty is a problem for the citizenship of both men and women, but women tend to be among the poorest of the poor. Poverty is correlated with malnutrition, poor health, lack of education and general marginalisation in society. With global food prices rising rapidly, the suffering of the poor will increase. It is not easy to be healthy if you are one of the one billion people with no access to clean water or one of the 2.6 billion who have no access to basic sanitation. How much is citizenship worth if you are constantly debilitated, hungry and have to labour endlessly merely to keep alive? Women in poor countries also have more specific problems: for example, more than half a million die annually in childbirth; women and girls often spend many hours a day collecting water or firewood; in some countries women cannot inherit land; they are more likely to be illiterate than men; and the world’s refugee and displaced persons camps are full of women and their children. One element in increasing inequality is the reduction, privatisation or elimination of public services. This has increased the burdens upon women in their daily lives, especially in poor countries.

The millions of women who live in circumstances of extreme poverty and destitution mostly live in the poor, non-white countries. But inequalities have been increasing within the rich countries also. For example, if the United States used the common measure of poverty – living on 60% of median income – then 23.8% of the population would have been living in poverty in 2000. In rich countries, women and non-whites are disproportionately found in the ranks of the poor. Women still earn less than men; they tend to be concentrated in the lower paying and lower status sectors of the occupational structure. Their career patterns, and the legacy of the old breadwinner model of the welfare state, mean that they usually have less to live on than men in their old age. In this material sense, women’s citizenship is hardly of equal worth to that of men.

Moreover, although most women in the rich, white countries are now in the labour force, they are, typically, still responsible for domestic caring work. Men free ride; they refuse to do their fair share. One recent study of 28 countries found that men averaged 9.4 hours housework per week and women 21.13 hours.5 One consequence of men’s free riding in caring work, plus a desire to avoid marital conflict, is the reappearance of domestic servants. Today, the servants are increasingly likely to come from abroad, including poor non-white countries, rather than from the local working class: there is now “a global transfer of the services associated with a wife’s traditional role […] from poor countries to rich ones”.6 Many poor women emigrate to work as maids and nannies and send home remittances to support their families. They move from Southeast Asia to the Middle and Far East, from the former Soviet bloc and Africa to western Europe, and from South to North in the Americas. To be a maid or a nanny (unless the nanny wears a uniform and looks after the children of the very rich or celebrities) is to be at the bottom end of the workforce.

The re-emergence of domestic service has happened in the 20 years since The Sexual Contract was published. In the book I emphasised that it was not possible to understand women’s lesser status as citizens without an investigation of how it is connected to their position in the household and in the workplace, also both interrelated. Employment has been tightly linked to citizenship for over 150 years, but has moved into a new phase. In the United States and Britain, in particular, the power of neoliberal doctrines and the move from welfare to workfare (the requirement that benefits will be paid only if recipients enter the labour market) has meant that the link between citizenship and “work”, i.e. paid employment, is now stronger than ever. All able-bodied adults are now supposed to be in the paid labour force; in the United States, since the 1996 welfare reform, this includes even mothers with young children, which is an historical shift.

This development underscores the point that feminists, including myself, have been making for so long – that the unpaid caring work that women do in their homes is not seen as the “work” that makes a “contribution” to citizenship. Because women do most of the caring work it is still hard for them to be seen as making a contribution as citizens in the same way as men. Their unpaid work also affects their contribution in employment; women are much more likely to work part-time than men (so that they can continue to do their other job). That women are still not seen as “public” participants in the same way as men is indicated, too, by the continuing prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the number of discrimination lawsuits brought by women in high status occupations, such as investment banking.

In The Sexual Contract I argued that the sexual contract was about (stories about) the creation and justification of a specific form of political order: the modern constitutional state (in the language of the classic theorists, this is the “civil society” that replaces the “state of nature”). I explored the way in which actual contracts, in particular the marriage and employment contracts, reproduced women’s subordination. My concept of “the sexual contract” derived from the tradition of the classical, early modern theories of an original contract. These earlier theorists have a great deal to say about the institutions and power structure of the new form of political society; they were concerned with everything from masculinity and femininity to marriage, private property, and the form of government within the state.

However I do not think that “contract” used in the tradition of the classic theorists can be stretched to cover global patterns of inequality. In my recent book Contract and Domination, co-authored with Charles Mills,7 I have tried to say something about the intersection of the sexual and racial contracts, using the maid trade as one illustration of this. In my discussion of this wider contract, I am using “contract” in a metaphorical sense, as do most contemporary contract theorists.

While the classic theorists are often invoked by contemporary contract theorists, the fact that the former were arguing about the power structures of institutions and about sexual and racial power has faded from the discussions. Rather, the focus since John Rawls published A Theory of Justice has been on moral reasoning and on the moral principles that we would choose if we thought rationally about the choice.8 That is to say, contract does no work, and the argument could easily take place without it. Nevertheless, as a broad metaphor, “contract” can be useful for some purposes.9 For example, the term “sexual contract” is now used quite widely but, typically, in order to highlight the claim that women’s subordination to men is justified, that men have a right to govern women. It is the ubiquity of women’s subordination, in a multitude of forms and in varying degrees of severity, which has allowed feminists to use the term “the sexual contract” to capture this.

Norman Geras also uses “contract” metaphorically in his notion of the “contract of mutual indifference”.10This contract, he argues, reflects a world in which, in general, people remain unmoved by large-scale atrocities, mass deprivation and distress. He does not deny that there are people and groups who are motivated by humanitarianism and make efforts, sometimes very heroic efforts, to assist others in torment. However most people, most of the time, do not do so. The contract, Geras states, reflects general, not universal, relations of indifference, taking the form of a pact: I do not come to your aid in an emergency and I do not expect you to come to mine. We are governed by mutual indifference.

As Geras notes, there are many organisations and individuals who devote themselves to helping others in distress – but it is often overlooked that not all cases are seen as equally worthy of attention. It is not possible to understand this phenomenon and indifference without also taking into account sexual and racial contracts or, more precisely, the global sexual-racial contract. Response and lack of response are refracted through the sexual and racial contracts.

Consider the indifference for a quarter of a century to the death toll and atrocities in East Timor after it was invaded and annexed by Indonesia. Consider the lack of concern about the fate of the 5 million people who perished during the wars and their consequences in the Congo. Consider the question of human rights and women’s rights. It was not until campaigns in the 1990s that violations against women, committed not only by the state and armed groups but by their husbands and kinfolk, began to be acknowledged as violations of human rights. Women have always been seen as one of the spoils of war and rape is used on a mass scale as a weapon of war; but rape during war began to receive major publicity only when it happened in the early 1990s in Europe. Little was heard about the quarter to half-a-million women, almost all Tutsi, raped in 1994 during the genocide in Rwanda, and little is heard about the many thousands of women raped in the conflicts in the Congo.

It is easier to pass over the misery of others if those involved are seen as having brought their distress upon themselves, or are perceived as worth less, as inferior, as barely human, as alien, or as another “race”. Their sufferings can then be seen to be of little or no account. Charles Mills argues that the racial contract requires that the distress of whites counts for a great deal more than that of non-whites. I agree, but the sexual contract plays just as large a role in fostering indifference. Geras’ argument about the contract of mutual indifference is about dire emergencies and extreme suffering, but indifference is part of everyday life. Prevailing conceptions of “race” and masculinity and femininity cultivate and sustain indifference. The lesson that little girls and women are worth less than little boys and men, and that “their” women are worth less than “our” women, is conveyed in a multitude of ways.

The most graphic illustration of the global sexual-racial contract is the sex trade and violence against women, including rape. The growth of the sex trade – the demand by men for sale of women’s bodies as a commodity in the market – has expanded apace since I wrote The Sexual Contract. The trade is fuelled by women’s impoverishment (including in Russia and the former Soviet bloc) and by the wars of the last two decades. Women emigrate to work in the industry and are also tricked and forced into it; numerous criminal organisations have women as one of their products. Women and young girls in refugee camps and conflict zones all too frequently have to provide sex to their “protectors” in the form of UN peacekeepers and aid workers for the means of survival. The global flows of women into the sex industry are well defined enough, like the flows of the maid trade, to be mapped.11

Meanwhile, violence against women continues unabated. The World Health Organisation report on domestic violence (2005) shows that it is a global problem, occurring in rich and poor countries alike, something that feminist scholars and activists have been aware of for quite some time. In no country is women’s bodily integrity secured. Rape is endemic worldwide, committed by men with virtual impunity. For example, the UN found that in Haiti almost half of all the girls in the slums of Haiti had been raped or subjected to other sexual violence (the report was published before the earthquake, now the rapes take place in makeshift settlements). A reporter visiting Haiti writes that he had asked a senior member of the UN staff there why so little had been done and why so little publicity had been given to such violence. The response was “you cannot imagine the lack of interest there is in the UN system in this problem”.12 No emergency or “war on terror” has ever been declared because of the scale of violence against women.

Despite the indifference, the problems I have been discussing are now far better recorded and far more publicity is given to them than ever before. Nevertheless, it is a great deal easier to set out the obstacles to women’s full citizenship than to provide answers to the question of what can be done about it. A solution is made all the harder as policies of privatisation and deregulation continue to be pursued and the so-called “war on terror” continues. The latter encourages the same kind of thinking as during the old colonial era; the position of women at home can always be favourably compared to that of women in countries now presented as harbouring “terrorists” and as being on a lower level of civilisation.

I do not have any easy solution to how a decisive break can be made in the interaction of the contract of mutual indifference with the global sexual-racial contract, but I do have one small suggestion for a policy that could begin to make a real difference to women’s citizenship. In 1792, as part of her argument for women’s equal citizenship, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that all women, whether married or single, should be economically independent.13 Achievement of this goal is hampered by the fact that, whereas the right to vote is now accepted, the right to a decent standard of living is typically rejected. One step towards securing such a right and a step towards full citizenship is a basic income for all citizens. (Brazil is the only country that has legislated for a basic income but there is growing grassroots support around the world for the policy.)

The idea of a basic income is that each citizen would receive a regular payment, as an individual, that is entirely free from conditions; thus marital or employment status is irrelevant. One key question is at what level such an income should be set. My argument is that the policy only has something distinctive to contribute to citizenship if the payment is set well above the level for poverty relief – it should be sufficient for what I have called a modest but decent standard of life; it should enable individuals to participate in the life of their societies.14 Globally, it could be set at a level appropriate for each country.

A basic income would make available a range of opportunities to women and, if they were willing to live on the income, would allow them to exit from demeaning relationships and jobs. More generally, a basic income would provide a material basis for citizenship for everyone and, just as importantly, it would also be a symbolic affirmation that each individual counted as an equal member of society and was of equal worth as a citizen. Basic income has the potential to open some questions vital for the improvement of women’s citizenship. But the potential will only be realised if basic income is argued for in a certain way; its importance for democratisation and women’s freedom has to be put at the centre of the debate (this is not the case at present; academic discussions are typically conducted in terms of social justice and feminist scholarship is largely ignored).

If the case for basic income is argued for in the right way, discussion of the policy could stimulate debate about the relationship between marriage, employment and citizenship, the relationship between paid and unpaid work and the question of what counts as “work”. These issues are usually peripheral to conventional political debate, but they are fundamental to the maintenance of structures of sexual power and thus to women’s citizenship. The structures have been shaken over the past quarter century but they have by no means crumbled; there is still a long way to go until all women around the globe achieve full citizenship.

This is an updated version of a talk given at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra in February 2008.

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

Amartya Sen, "More than 100 Million Women are Missing", New York Review of Books, 20 December 1990, 61-66.


See: Roger Dobson, Roger Waite, "Men Opt Out of Housework after Marriage", Sunday Times, 12 August 2007.

See Barbara Ehrenreich, Arlie Hochschild (eds.), Global Women: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, New York: Metropolitan Books 2002.

Carole Pateman, Charles Mills, Contract and Domination, Cambridge: Polity Press 2007

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1971.

See Charles Mills, The Racial Contract, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1997.

Norman Geras, The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust London/New York: Verso 1998.

Joni Seager, The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World, Rev. ed., New York: Penguin 2003.

Renton, Alex, "The Rape Epidemic", The Guardian Weekly, 11 January 2008.

Mary Wollstonecraft, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" [1792], in Janet Todd (ed.), The Political Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1993

Carole Pateman, "Freedom and Democratization: Why Basic Income is to be Preferred to Basic Capital," in Keith Dowding, Jurgen De Wispelaeire and Stuart White (eds.), The Ethics of Stakeholding, London: Palgrave 2003; also, "Democratizing Citizenship: Some Advantages of a Basic Income," in Politics and Society, 32(1) 2004. Published also in E. O. Wright (ed.), Redesigning Distribution London: Verso 2005. For more information on basic income see

Published 7 March 2011
Original in English
First published by Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais 89 (2010) (Portuguese version)

Contributed by Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais © Carole Pateman / Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais / Eurozine



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