The legacy of the Enlightenment lies not only in the principles of human equality. It also lies in the invaluable advances in science and medicine enjoyed today in the West. In giving primacy to reason, the Enlightenment promoted scientific research and experimentation. Among its greatest benefits is the power today to control reproduction and ensure women’s survival through pregnancy and childbirth. Without these, women’s ability to enjoy equality, to make choices in their lives, and to reach their full potential, is diminished.

Today, as an Englishwoman, Wollstonecraft would not have died as she did. But such progress has not been felt everywhere. Maternal death rates in some parts of the world are shockingly high. In Australia the rate is among the world’s lowest (about eight in 100,000 on recent data), but in sub-Saharan African one in 22 women will die in pregnancy or childbirth. In Afghanistan, it is one in 16. Neo-natal infant mortality is similarly elevated.

These Third World statistics expose an appalling lack of antenatal services and obstetric care. They are also revealing of cultures where girls are married young, often before they are physically adult, and certainly before they can exercise personal choice or judgment. The statistics speak of subordination, compounded by ignorance, lack of education, and poverty.

That such experiences are rare in the West today is due to science, medical research, and education. These are legacies of the Enlightenment. When we find ourselves tempted to romanticise tradition or apologise for customary practices that harm women, we should remember this, and give thanks to pioneers like Wollstonecraft. Long may she, and the women like Sitara Achakzai who have followed her, be remembered.

Helen Irving is professor in the faculty of law at the University of Sydney.