Week 1: Empire and Universal Rights


Depiction of Phillis Wheatley
This depiction of Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped as a child and sold as a slave to a Boston family, testifies to her fame as a celebrated poet of the revolutionary era. The engraving, attributed to Scipio Moorhead, appeared on the frontispiece to Wheatley's 1773 book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (source: “Phillis Wheatley, Negro servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston,” Library of Congress).


Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest’
 What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

– Phillis Wheatley, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” 1773


“And if we are allowed an equality of requirement, let serious studies equally employ our minds, and we will bid our souls arise to equal strength. We will meet upon even ground, the despot man; we will rush with alacrity to the combat, and crowned by success, we shall then answer the exalted expectations, which are formed.”
– American essayist Judith Sargent Murray, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” 1790



Phillis Wheatley’s invocation of “freedom” and Judith Sargent Murray’s of “equality” were part of the natural rights language of modern liberalism. Yet these women witnessed new structures of power that secured the consent of the governed by reinforcing racial and gender hierarchies that were themselves alleged to be natural. Legacies of these foundational definitions of the natural and the universal continue to shape political thought.


Secondary Readings

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Pateman argues that the so-called social contract of political liberalism presupposes a sexual contract in which women are subordinate to their husbands. In this sexual contract, a woman’s rights are defined by her conjugal relations with her husband and she therefore is by definition excluded from the category of the “individual” that underpins much social and political theory of the modern era. Pateman demonstrates how patriarchal family structures supported the redefinition of women’s labors as service rather than work and upheld the subordination of women as a natural condition. The result, she argues, is that the freedom championed in Euro-American politics as part of the modern state necessarily relies on unfreedom or subordination of some of its citizens.

Landes, Joan B. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Landes argues that in revolutionary France, the overturning of aristocracy and formal recognition of “natural rights” led to greater restrictions on middling and elite women because “natural rights” concepts were rooted in beliefs about gender difference. One enduring result was the division of human endeavors into so-called separate spheres, with men properly involved in a realm defined as public and women in a realm defined as private. Politics, in the new republic, was a public, and therefore male, activity.

Knott, Sarah and Barbara Taylor, eds., “Women and Revolutionary Citizenship: Enlightenment Legacies?” In Section 9 of Women, Gender, and Enlightenment, 565-691. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

The six essays in this section challenge Landes’s negative assessment of the lost opportunities for women in the American and French Revolutionaries’ calls for expanding rights. With a focus on political practice—petitioning, protesting, publishing, debating, and organizing—rather than political theory, these authors identify expanding roles for women in an expanding context of what politics could mean.

Midgley, Clare. “British Women, Women’s Rights and Empire, 1790-1850.” In Women’s Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives, edited by Patricia Grimshaw, Katie Holmes, and Marilyn Lake, 3-15. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Midgley points out that early 19th-century British feminists critiqued white women’s social and political subordination to men by making comparisons to the subordination of enslaved women in the British Caribbean—in other words, the white women's arguments in favor of women’s rights were framed by British imperialism. British feminists simultaneously deployed a narrative of civilization and improvement that compared the status of British women favorably to women in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. These women’s reform politics—consisting of boycotts, petition campaigns, and publication—focused on women of color in British colonies by calling for abolition of colonial slavery in the Americas and abolition of sati in India. Ultimately, British feminists argued that full political rights would enable them to complete the British Empire’s goal of “civilizing” its colonies.

Keating, Christine. Decolonizing Democracy: Transforming the Social Contract in India. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Keating uses the history of British colonial rule in India and the 20th-century independence movement to explore the “politics of compensatory domination” within social contract theory, developing new ideas within concepts outlined by Pateman. In a liberal state, equals contract together and give up their right to self-government. Yet some classes of individuals are excluded by race or gender from this contract. Subordination to inequitable social contracts happens through force, ideology, and compensatory domination. According to Keating’s analysis, political authorities build consent by consolidating inter-group and intra-group hierarchies: In British colonial India, elite colonized men lost political power but gained power over women in a “fraternal bargain.” In the early 20th century, Indian feminist and Indian nationalist movements found convergence over expanding suffrage by rejecting compensatory domination. The right to vote was guaranteed regardless of gender or caste, but new divisions between public and private enshrined subordination in a new social contract.

Primary Sources

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2009.

Wollstonecraft, writing in 1791, argues for the right of women to be educated to the same extent that men are, in the sciences and in civic engagement. She opposes the practice of seeing women’s education as complementing their so-called “natural graces” or supposed frailty. Instead, proper education in politics would give women the business sense necessary to avoid seeking marriage or prostitution out of desperation for financial stability. She argues that denying women a means of education is detrimental to society, as doing so creates an artificially dependent class unable to use their natural ability for the benefit of themselves or others.

De La Cruz, Sor Juana Inéz. “A Reply to Sor Philotea.” In The Essential Feminist Reader, edited by Estelle Freedman. New York: Random House, 2007.

This 1691 letter was written by philosopher and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as a response to a letter from her bishop that criticized the attention she dedicated to her secular writing. In the letter, she argues that both her intellectual and creative pursuits have been inspired by God, as were those of biblical women such as Deborah, Esther, and Rahab.

Fourier, Charles. "Degradation of Women in Civilization." In Théorie des Quatre Mouvements et des Destinées Générales, (The Theory of the Four Movements and of the General Destinies), 3rd ed. (originally published in 1808). Reprinted in Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen, eds., Karen M. Offen, trans., Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750-1880 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983), 40-41.

French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier uses comparisons between “civilized” countries and counties of “Barbarians and Savages” in their treatment of women. He states that “the progress of women toward liberty” in a country leads to social progress.

back to top