In the last forty years, many feminist commentators claimed that state power is patriarchal. Others disputed such claims; yet others argued that governments should be more rather than less fatherly. Such disputes have a long pedigree. The explicitly patriarchal character of territorial and ecclesiastical rule had been contested for centuries – by disaffected communities of believers, towns with a proud heritage of municipal governance, social groups convinced that they should have a say in decisions affecting their lives. One such dispute occurred 400 years ago, in an era when modern states began to emerge in Europe. On one side were those who argued that a God-ordained patriarchal family was the ideal model of absolutist power, on the other those for whom a social contract between free citizens was a more appropriate model of rule. Inspired and taken up by powerful social groups, the dispute had far-reaching historical consequences. In its regional variations, it also became part of standard accounts of the development of modern democracies.