British writer Mary Astell (1666–1731) is considered one of the first British feminists. A devout Christian who possessed strong reasoning skills and an interest in philosophy, Astell set forth her thoughts upon the inequities of the "woman's sphere" in such works as 1697's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and Some Reflections upon Marriage, the latter published in 1700.
Although she was not of high birth, Astell gained the learning and skill to match wits, in print, with some of the intellects of her age. In addition to expressing her conservative opinion regarding political and theological matters in a published forum, Astell also gained a popular following through her writings on the status of women. In A Serious Proposal to the Ladies she reflects on the education of women, while Some Reflections upon Marriage exhorts women to make marriage matches based on reason rather than necessity.
Rendered Unmarriageable by Family Setback
Astell was born on November 12, 1666, in the English coal-mining town of Newcastle on Tyne. The daughter of Peter and Mary (Errington) Astell, she grew up in a strict Anglican household, despite the fact that her mother had been raised a Catholic. Although her Tory family was of the middle class, Astell did not attend school; instead, she was taught at home, at first by her uncle, Ralph Astell. A clergyman loyal to the crown who was heavily involved in Newcastle's St. Nicholas Church, Ralph Astell was also a Neoplatonist–a member of the Cambridge-based philosophical school that espoused a rationalist belief system centering around the teachings of Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras–and he inspired his young niece through his intellectually challenging instruction. Unfortunately, Ralph Astell died when Mary was thirteen, leaving her on her own in pursuit of further education. During her teenage years she continued to read in many subjects, kept abreast of the political debates of the day, and began an in-depth study of political philosophy.
Ralph Astell's death was not the first setback young Astell faced; the previous year, in March of 1678, her father had died, leaving the girl in the care of her widowed mother. Mrs. Astell moved with her daughter and son Peter to the home of Mary's aunt, thus allowing the family to avoid poverty. Still, finances were severely constrained from this point on, particularly after Mrs. Astell's widow's pension was curtailed in 1679. Such circumstances made it unlikely that Mary would be a suitable wife for someone of her social class, as her dowry prospects were dim. Perhaps it was this knowledge that spurred the intelligent young woman's interest in intellectual pursuits.
In early October of 1684 Astell's mother died, and within a few years Mary moved to the Chelsea district of London. A relatively rural suburb, Chelsea was home to many artists and intellectuals, as well as to wealthy families who sought to escape the stress and grime of the city. By 1688 the 22-year-old Astell had fallen on hard times, but she rallied with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Fortunately for Astell, she was also befriended by Lady Catherine Jones, who introduced the budding intellectual to many in her educated and high-born social circle. The pious Astell proved to be a charming companion whose well-reasoned, challenging conversation made her popular, and she collected a number of friends whose discussions helped her to hone her thoughts regarding philosophy and the status of women in society. Lady Elizabeth Hastings, Lady Ann Coventry, Elizabeth Thomas, Lady Mary Chudleigh, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu numbered among Astell's friends, patrons, and admirers.
Gained Respect as Intellectual Despite Gender
The close of the 1600s brought to an end a tumultuous century that had witnessed civil war, the subsequent Protectorate of Oliver and Richard Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles in 1660, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that removed unpopular Stuart monarch James II and brought William of Orange and Queen Mary to the English throne. Despite such political upheaval, little had changed regarding the political or social status of women. In an era where the ideas of political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were causing intellectual foment, Astell provided a voice for intellectually engaged women and, through her outspokenness and persuasive writings, gained a significant following among other members of her sex. However, she did not limit herself to issues relevant to women; her passion lay in critiquing contemporary theories according to her rational Platonist world view. Beginning in September of 1693, she exchanged several letters with Cambridge scholar Reverend John Norris, and this year-long exchange was published in 1695 as Letters Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris. Wherein His Late Discourse Shewing That It Ought to Be Intire and Exclusive of All Other Loves, Is Further Cleared and Justified. Dedicated to Lady Catherine Jones, the volume provides clear evidence of Astell's insight and analytical ability as she takes issue with fellow Platonist Norris over his arguments relating to the role of pain in God's plan. Norris, while surprised that a woman would argue so forcefully, graciously acknowledged Astell's points and ultimately modified his Practical Discourses upon Several Divine Subjects.
Although Astell went on to publish such works as 1703's pro-royalist An Impartial Inquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in This Kingdom as well as a barbed attack on Daniel Defoe titled A Fair Way with the Dissenters and Their Patrons. Not Writ by Mr. L—y, or any Other Furious Jacobite Whether Clergyman or Layman; But by a Very Moderate Person and Dutiful Subject to the Queen in 1704, she remains best known for her feminist writings. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her Sex was printed by London publisher Richard Wilkin in 1694, and Some Reflections upon Marriage followed six years later, when its author was in her mid-thirties. As was the case with all her writings, Astell never published under her own name; instead her works appeared either anonymously or under the pseudonyms Tom Single or Mr. Wooton.
In A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Astell addresses herself directly to women readers, encouraging them to study and gain knowledge in order to better serve God and be more productive friends and companions to their husbands and families. As a means to this end she outlines a detailed plan for a religious community of women. Astell maintains that the seventeenth-century system of education relegates women to a state of ignorance in which they are "Tulips in a Garden," useful only "to make a fine show and be good for nothing."
In 1687 she expanded upon her first book by publishing A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II. Wherein a Method Is Offer'd for the Improvement of Their Minds. In this work—her most popular tract—Astell provides detailed instructions on how to develop logic and clarity of thought. In true Neoplatonist fashion, she argues that one should evaluate all issues in an organized, rational manner, beginning with basic assumptions and moving from there to more complex issues, and accepting as truth nothing that cannot be proven or otherwise objectively demonstrated.
Advocated Women's Intellectual Advancement
The belief that not only men but also all women can master clarity of thought is an important element in the most reactionary of Astell's writings, Some Reflections upon Marriage, Occasion'd by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine's Case, published in 1700. Written in response to witnessing the divorce of a friend of Lady Catharine Jones, this work argues that a sound education is a requirement for any woman wishing to enter a healthy marriage. In addition to criticizing men who marry for money, power, or out of the vain desire to display an attractive wife, Astell paints marriage as an unhealthy state for most women, and therefore a state sought only by the irrational: "A Woman has no mighty Obligations to the Man who makes Love to her; she has no Reason to be fond of being a Wife, or to reckon it a Piece of Preferment when she is taken to be a Man's Upper-Servant; it is no Advantage to her in this World; if rightly managed it may prove one as to the next." While economic necessity and social constraints might force a woman into such an injurious institution as marriage, according to Astell a sound education would arm her with the skills necessary to turn the situation to her favor.
In 1706 Astell released a third edition of Some Reflections upon Marriage, responding to critics of her work and urging England's womenfolk to strive for a marriage based on true friendship rather than necessity or pride. "Let us learn to pride ourselves in something more excellent than the invention of a Fashion," she counsels readers, "and not entertain such a degrading thought of our own worth as to imagine that … the best improvement we can make of these is to attract the Eyes of men." In the Appendix of this work is her most-quoted line among feminists: "If all men are born free, how is it that women are born slaves? as they must be if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will of Men, be the perfect Condition of Slavery?"
Perhaps because it was not overtly defiant of male authority, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies was immensely popular among women readers, and through its wide circulation Astell won many fans. Perhaps not surprisingly, it also won its share of detractors. In June and again in September of 1709 the popular Tatler included essays by writers Jonathan Swift and Richard Steele that attacked Astell's idea of a women's school. Dubbing Astell "Madonella," the essays satirized her so-called "Order of Platonics" by imagining this order of reclusive, fragile nuns hiding while their nunnery is rudely entered by a group of rough gentlemen. Flattering Madonella by praising her writing skill, the men gain mastery over the situation; in short, they hold these educated women to their "inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will."
The proposal for a quasi-religious college for women that Astell first outlined in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies was revived in The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England, a plea for furthering women's education that was addressed to England's Queen Ann, who had taken the throne in 1702. Although because of this work the school was reported to have been at least considered by Anne, it never came to fruition due to rumors by Anne's Protestant advisors that it would result in the reestablishment of Catholic nunneries. After 1709, perhaps partially in response to the ridiculing she received in the Tatler, Astell ceased writing. Her last published book was a revised edition of Bart'lemy Fair; or, an Enquiry after Wit; In Which Due Respect Is Had to a Letter concerning Enthusiasm, which appeared in 1722. Now in middle age, Astell refocused her attention toward opening a charity school. With the help of her patrons, she succeeded, and a school for girls was established at London's Chelsea Hospital that remained operational until the late 1800s. Ultimately succumbing to breast cancer, Astell died on May 9, 1731, at the age of sixty-four in Chelsea, England.
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