chapter
18 Pages

Introduction: Women’s lives, human rights

ByDEBRA BERGOFFEN, PAULA RUTH GILBERT,

The social contract theorists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began their political reflections by referring to a mythical state of nature where all men were endowed with natural rights and lived among each other as equals. This state of nature and its respect for natural rights were the standards against which the legitimacy of sovereign states was weighed. In the eighteenth century, the American and French revolutionaries transformed the mythical natural rights of the social contract theorists into political instruments. Before taking military action, the Americans legitimated their rebellion in the name of the inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Where the Americans published their Declaration of Independence in advance of their attack, the French published their Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen after their triumph. Justifying their revolution after the fact, they sealed their victory by distinguishing the human rights principles that would ground their government from the principles of the illegitimate state they overthrew. Whether they justified their rebellions before or after the fact, however, the Americans and the French legitimated their particular political grievances in terms of universal human rights principles. They claimed that their battles were waged in the name of all human beings and that others had the right to oppose any government that deprived them of the rights of man.