Max Weber on the Politics of Wives

One of the weaknesses of Classical Social Theory is that it deals poorly with the nature of gender and the family (for exceptions see Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriett Martineau). In two places in his essay “Politics as Vocation,” though Max Weber brings up the subject of wives. The first reference is near the beginning of the essay where he defines the term “politics.” He admits that there are a range of politics which encompass “independent leadership functions.”

     What is our understanding of politics? The term “politics” is a very wide one and encompasses many kinds of independent leadership functions. One talks of foreign currency politics of private banks, of the interest rate politics of the Reichsbank regarding bills of exchange, of union politics during a strike, a city or town’s school politics, and a club president’s politics of leadership. Finally, one talks even of the clever politics of a wife when she attempts to lead her husband. (p. 135)

After reaching this conclusion, he changes the subject, and only brings it up again 50 pages later when discussing the nature of relationships, and the fact that different ethical codes apply to different relationships. Thus, you do not have the same moral requirements for business relationships, or that with your wife.

     Is it possible that one can put together the same set of moral requirements for erotic and business relationships, family and ministerial relations, and for the relationship with your wife, the greengrocer, the son, the competitor, the friend, or the defendant at the same time? (p. 185)


In developing his argument in this fashion, Weber is leading up to a startling conclusion: Ethics is dependent on profession—a principal reflected in two places, first in the Holy Upanishads of India in which the duties of each caste are spelled out, and secondly in the ethic of “The Calling” developed by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation.

Reference: Weber, Max (1919) in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters. 2015 Palsgrave MacMillan

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