Breaking the Sexual Contract as an Urgent Climate Policy

18 April 2020

This entry was a finalist in our inaugural Blogging Democracy Contest. University of Chicago undergraduates were asked, “Does climate crisis demand a new social contract?” Below is Goksu Zeybek’s reply. 


Climate change will affect the world’s poorest well before it affects residents of developed countries, but not in a gender-neutral manner. Today, approximately 70 percent of those living below the poverty line are women, and the livelihood of around 60 percent of women living in Asia and Africa depends on climate-sensitive agriculture. Climate change threatens women who cultivate land and, in this sense, puts women at the frontline of danger.


In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke claimed that property belongs to those who exert their labor on land to produce it. The Lockean theory of property, however, does not reflect the reality of women’s disadvantaged position. In developing countries, women perform 45 to 80 percent of agricultural labor, but often without controlling the goods of their labor, because only 5 to 13 percent of agricultural property belongs to women. Indeed, in many poor countries, women are not granted the right to own property or conduct business without their husband’s consent, and are marginalized from other financial and material resources.


Climate change is poised to exacerbate these inequalities. More than ever, the world needs to invest in women’s empowerment. All nations stand to benefit from enabling educational opportunities for women, but this is especially true in nations with large agricultural sectors, given the threat that rising temperatures pose to the future of their economies. But classical contract theory cannot fully account for these gendered consequences. Jean-Jacques Rousseau tackled the relationship between domination and the unequal distribution of resources head-on—yet only for male citizens. As such, Carol Pateman argues that the social contract is at the same time a “sexual contract.” While contract theorists tried to distinguish paternal power from political power, they actually reimagined patriarchy by granting men political rights over women both in the private and the public spheres. Pateman’s critique shows us that a climate policy that focuses only on economic development—without correcting for gender inequality—will only create a revised version of patriarchy, failing to address the adversity women will face as resources become increasingly scarce. Gender equality is therefore an urgent component of our answer to climate change, alongside scientific and economic considerations.


If women are indeed part of the sovereign body politic, governments cannot ignore the disproportionate levels of poverty women face. Perhaps, the most important place to start is the household, because households are a primary site of power relations. Women’s subordinate position in the household institutionalizes broader gender inequality. To achieve equalityin the public sphere, we must break the bonds of servitude in the private and equalize the positions of women and men at home.


Compulsory education laws are a powerful first step, but the quality of education girls receive is equally important. As Martha Nussbaum argues, school education should inspire girls to exercise their reason, senses, and imagination. Only when women internalize a belief in their own internal capabilities and, hence, in their equality, can they resist their oppression. In Rousseau’s words, a quality education can help them become women who prefer “a perilous freedom to a peaceful slavery.” Yet Rousseau’s educational model did not aim to cultivate these internal capabilities in women and instead enforced a passive acceptance of gender roles. Mary Wollstonecraft pushed back, claiming that any revolution that is not followed by a “revolution in female manners” is doomed to be incomplete. In combatting climate change, we must understand our duties collectively and educate girls accordingly.


If we can free women from the yoke of an unequal economic and political system, they can use their reason, knowledge, and imagination to help build a more sustainable economy. While women are often marginalized from climate-related planning, women in low-income countries often have a strong knowledge of their environment—thanks thanks to their responsibilities in agricultural labor, water collection, or forestry. Their presence in decision-making councils is therefore highly desirable for determining practical and effective methods of crop-production and food security, as well as water supply management. Furthermore, a McKinsey report estimates that if women participate in the labor market as frequently as men, they could raise the global annual GDP by $28 trillion. That amount covers the $894 billion that some estimate we will need to spend each year before 2030 to finance the battle against climate change. Investing in women’s empowerment is therefore our arsenal against climate change.


Climate change threatens to alter our social fabric in ways that we have never experienced. However, history shows us that it is during times of turmoil that people start to reassess the foundation and responsibilities of their governments. Tocqueville put it best: “a world that is new demands a new political science”, and we should see climate change as an opportunity to re-evaluate what it means to be a political society in the twenty-first century. We do not have much time, but dissolving the sexual contract would certainly be a good first step.


Photo Credit: Great Himalaya Trails, Far West local women farming, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.


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