Locke's political theory is a liberal one, understood to be liberating for the individual; it provides theoretical grounds for religious freedom, wide suffrage and other basic civil rights belonging to individuals. 1 The epistemology that serves as the basis for Locke's political theory is set out in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 2 There one finds expressly stated the theory of knowledge implicit in his political works, especially in the political mandate that individuals should be free to follow the dictates of their own reason.
Locke worked out his political theory as he not only thought about but also participated in the struggle against absolute monarchy in seventeenth century England, basically a struggle for limited monarchy and religious toleration. What has not been adequately recognized is that Locke's epistemology, like the political philosophy which it supports, was formed in the context of this political struggle. Neither John Locke's epistemology nor his political philosophy were conceived in political innocence and as this essay will argue, his epistemology undercut the epistemology and political theory of many women and men engaged in class and gender struggles during the seventeenth century.
Locke's liberal epistemology and liberal political theory had definite implications for women; liberal, enlightenment feminists used Locke's arguments to express their own demands for the recognition that women have the same basic rights men have: the right to legal standing, suffrage and freedom of religion.
To see feminists as inheriting only strengthening tools from Locke, however, is to miss part of the picture. Most Locke students have not fully recognized that the political struggle in seventeenth century England was not a two-way struggle--between the king and the people--but a three-way struggle involving conflicting interests among classes of the people. Thus, the picture of that struggle as one between the Tories (who supported absolute monarchy)