This chapter discusses John Locke’s theory of the social contract, which became one of the primary frameworks of political thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It focuses on one of his books, The Second Treatise of Government, first published in 1689. Since Locke sees humans as essentially rational beings, he believes that even without a ‘power to keep them all in awe’, humans could live in relative peace with each other, form social lives, and regulate themselves according to the Laws of Nature. While seemingly presenting a universal individual, Locke’s social contract theory in fact contrives only specific individuals as the contracting agents: propertied, European (if not English) men. The chapter situates Locke’s contract within a global historical context by considering the voices that have been excluded from or marginalized within this story. Through these different figures—the servant (wage labourer), the wife, the Indigenous, and the slave—we see a series of tensions between formal equality and material, racial, and gender inequalities.
This chapter expounds on the political thought of feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, with a focus on her influential analysis of gender inequality. It highlights her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by focusing on its radical arguments on gender, reason, and education. The chapter contextualizes Wollstonecraft’s work within the republican tradition, which underpinned her opposition to slavery and her recognition of global inequalities. The chapter suggests that her arguments for emancipation were justified by problematic assumptions of universalism that were made more complicated by the tensions of class, motherhood, and Orientalism. It also tackles the backlash against her memoir, published by her husband, as it unveiled her suicide attempts, a dysfunctional childhood, and a child being born out of wedlock.