After the Revolution: The Natural Rights of Women
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The post-Revolutionary American woman was idealized as an embodiment of virtue, heralded for fulfilling her duties to family and society, but kept well outside of politics, academia, and other traditionally masculine environments. And yet the ideals of the American Revolution were seated in the concept of rights as natural and inalienable, as devices that granted the power specifically to challenge exclusion from government. This social contract theory, most famously expressed by John Locke in the late seventeenth century, held that members of society traded some personal freedoms in exchange for government protection of life, liberty, and property, thus stressing the importance of personal duties as well as personal autonomy. However, Americans’ focus during the Revolution fell more heavily on the latter, emphasizing man’s individual liberties, and more specifically, his political liberties, as the essence of natural rights. In contrast, women’s natural rights were conceptualized in accord with theory originating from the Scottish Enlightenment shortly before the American Revolution. In this view, rights were benefits conferred by God, with necessary duties attached, and these rights and duties became indistinguishable. While the Lockean conceptualization of natural rights found its place at the very heart of the American Revolution, writings from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrate how the Scottish theory of natural rights was differentially applied to women, equating their rights with duties and thus justifying the denial of the same natural rights as men.
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