What Does Locke Say about Women’s Rights?


John Locke was one of the most noted liberal philosophers in western history. His ideas can be compared to and used to support John Stuart Mill\'s vindication of equal rights of women. Because Locke did not live in the same time period as Mill, direct indications of whether he supported or opposed extended rights of women are vague and hard to be found. Mill\'s main focus was on the individual and its rights, but his and Locke\'s ideas parallel. By studying Locke\'s ideas of the state of equality, liberty of man, and freedom of nature, it can be concluded that he supports Mill\'s call for extended rights of women.


The first of Locke’s ideas, state of equality, is included in his general construct of the state of nature, the "state all men are naturally in….a state of perfect freedom(244)." He promotes a state of equality where all people should "be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection(244)." It can be inferred by reading Locke\'s writings that he included women in the state of equality, which would argue that women should not be socially subjected to men. It also implies the agreement of his ideas with Mill\'s because Mill also believed that "the legal subordination of one sex to the other-is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement(388)."


Another one of Locke\'s principles that argue for the extension of rights to women can be found in the idea of the natural liberty of man which is "to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man(249)." He basically suggests that no person should have the right to be the superior power over another, similar to the political power that men had over women in his time, i.e. the exclusion of women in the right to vote. In regard to man’s social dominance Locke’s statement that we are "all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another one in his life, health, liberty, or possesions(244)” supports women’s equality in natural rights to men. The fact that we are "all the servants of one sovereign master…there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us(244)" also suggests Locke’s opposition to the interference of a man on a woman\'s natural rights. In the natural liberty of man, no one is to be under the legislative power of another just as is stressed in Mill\'s writings. He emphasizes the fact that it should not be accepted that women are naturally inferior to men. This can also be related to the system that Mill opposed that was present in his time, "which entirely subordinates the weaker sex to the stronger(Mill 389)." This system "rests upon theory only….and cannot be pretended to have pronounced any verdict(Mill 389)." He believed that there was no valid proof or reason that women should be considered inferior to men therefore agreed with Locke\'s idea of the natural liberty of humans.


Locke\'s idea of the freedom of nature also parallels Mill\'s beliefs that women should no longer be oppressed. This idea means "to be under no other restraint but the law of nature(250)." This would imply the opposition of the then traditional idea that women should be under the control of a man. He says that "this freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man\'s preservation….(250)."This refers to the preservation of life which Locke finds very important and emphasizes throughout his writings. It can be defined as the right to own your own life and to protect your rights, therefore implying the right of all people, women and men alike, to their own natural liberties.


Although, not stated directly in Locke\'s writings , it can be argued that had he been faced with the issue of women\'s social equality with men, he would have strongly supported it. Since he was not faced with this now controversial issue, one cannot be certain of his position, but by applying the preceding points of the state of equality, liberty of man, and the freedom of nature found in Locke\'s Second Treatise of Government one may come to some kind of conclusion.