Mary Astell is widely considered one of the first and foremost English feminists. Her pioneering writings address female education and autonomy in the early modern period and had a profound influence on later generation of feminists.
Astell was born into a middle class family in 1666. Her father was Newcastle coal merchant who died when she was twelve, leaving the family debt-ridden. Though lacking formal academic training, she was educated by uncle, a former Anglican minister. In her teens, she suffered from a deep depression, writing poems to convey her melancholy and frustration at the limited prospects for academic careers women faced. At twenty, she left home for London, where she lived mainly in Chelsea, with very little money. Falling into another depression, she wrote to William Sancrof, the archbishop of Canterbury, appealing for help. He was impressed by her intelligence and assisted her financially. He also gave her important contacts. She became acquainted with a circle of intelligent and aristocratic women including Mary Chudleigh, Judith Drake, Elizabeth Elstob, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Elizabeth Thomas, who became her friends, admirers and patrons.
Astell was influenced by French Platonist and Neo-Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1714) and his English follower John Norris (1657–1711). She was also influenced by René Descartes (1596–1650). She engaged in the debates with the philosophical greats of her days such as John Locke, George Berkeley, John Norris, and Earl of Shaftesbury on major philosophical problems: epistemology, the existence of God, nature of soul and body and the boundary of faith and reason. She disagreed with John Locke on his empiricist conception of thought and was a critic of his philosophical and religious ideas in his famous work, Essay concerning Human Understanding.
Astell’s best-known feminist works are Serious Proposal to the Ladies (Part 1, 1694; Part 2, 1697) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700). The first work was an appeal for more education for women. She exhorted women to do their very best to gain knowledge, develop their own minds, and the ability to think for themselves, which would guide them in live virtuous lives. As she saw it, the problem was with the cultural assumptions about femininity and the popular attitude about women, according to which women did not demonstrate the same kinds of intellectual abilities as men because women were inherently more closely united to their bodies. The practices and fashions of seventeenth-century society turned women into ignorant and frivolous feminine beings, ill-prepared for life’s vicissitudes. They wasted their time acquiring graceful social skills and accomplishments to please men, and were given little education and training in reasoning. To overcome this, she proposed self-discipline and the establishment of an academy along Platonist lines where women could receive a proper and serious education in religion and philosophy. As Astell wrote in her first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies:
And since the French tongue is understood by most ladies, methinks they may much better improve it by the study of philosophy (as I hear the French ladies do) Descartes, Malebranch and others, than by reading idle novels and romances. ‘Tis strange we shou’d be so forward to imitate their fashions and fobberies, and have no regard to what is really imitable in them! And why shall it not be thought as genteel to understand French philosophy, as to be accoutred in a French Mode?
Her second book examined women’s subordination in marriage and their lack of freedom. She urged women to refrain from marrying if they were not prepared to take the vows of obedience and subservience. She spoke against domestic tyrants and recommended that women be better educated so they could choose their husbands wisely. She also believed that affection in marriage depended on benevolence and not physical desire, and urged the acquisition of virtue as the true means to women’s happiness.
Astell was an inspiration for a number of eighteenth century women writers and intellectuals. She helped to convince Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to publish her Turkish Embassy Letters, and wrote the preface for them in 1724. Mary Chaudleigh acknowledged her intellectual debt to Astell and dedicated a poem to her (“To Almystrea”). Astell’s works enlightened women and transformed the way they saw themselves. She is an important figure for her contribution to an early feminist movement.
Featured Image: Vermeer, Johannes. (c. 1670). Woman writing a letter, with her maid (oil on canvas). Dublin:National Gallery of Ireland