Pateman challenges the way contemporary society functions by questioning the standard interpretation of an idea that is deeply embedded in American and British political thought: that our rights and freedoms derive from the social contract explicated by Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau and interpreted in the United States by the Founding Fathers. The author shows how we are told only half the story of the original contract that establishes modern patriarchy. The sexual contract is ignored and thus men's patriarchal right over women is also glossed over. No attention is paid to the problems that arise when women are excluded from the original contract but incorporated into the new contractual order.
One of the main targets of the book is those who try to turn contractarian theory to progressive use, and a major thesis of the book is that this is not possible. Thus those feminists who have looked to a more "proper" contract- one between genuinely equal partners, or one entered into without any coercion- are misleading themselves. In the author's words, "In contract theory universal freedom is always a hypothesis, a story, a political fiction. Contract always generates political right in the forms of domination and subordination." Thus the book is also aimed at mainstream political theorists, and socialist and other critics of contract theory. The author offers a sweeping challenge to conventional understandings- of both left and right- of actual contracts in everyday life: the marriage contract, the employment contract, the prostitution contract, and the new surrogate mother contract. By bringing a feminist perspective to bear on the contradictions and paradoxes surrounding women and contract, and the relation between the sexes, she is able to shed new light on fundamental political problems of freedom and subordination.