Mary Astell Essay - Critical Essays

Astell, Mary


Mary Astell 1666-1731

English nonfiction writer, essayist, and poet.

Astell is often called the first British feminist. She published works on various contentious subjects, ranging from women's education and marriage to political and religious philosophy. Issuing her essays and pamphlets anonymously to guard her privacy, Astell weighed in on many controversial issues of the day, particularly those concerning the status of women. In such pamphlets as A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1694) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), Astell expressed her belief that women should not be forced into marriage and promoted the idea of a Protestant equivalent of a convent, where unmarried women could devote themselves to education and religious concerns. In Some Reflections upon Marriage and other writings, including The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705), Astell also showed herself to be an astute critic of the social theories of John Locke. Though hailed as an early feminist, Astell was a complex figure whose support of the monarchy and the Anglican Church is sometimes seen as contradictory to her feminist views. However, it is just such complexity in Astell's thought that has been the source of much scholarly interest during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Biographical Information

Not much is known for certain about Astell's life. There are only a few contemporary biographies, and much information in them seems to be based on rumor, with many periods of her life unaccounted for. What is known is that Astell was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, into a family that was involved in commerce and somewhat well-to-do. She received much of her education from her uncle, Ralph Astell, a curate at St. Nicholas's church in Newcastle. He gave her a good education for the time, probably teaching her logic, mathematics, and philosophy, and perhaps Latin and French as well. Although her uncle died when Astell was 13 years old, she probably continued to read on her own, and it is surmised that her family may have hired a tutor for her. After the death of Astell's father, Peter, in 1678, the family suffered financial difficulties. These were compounded six years later, when her mother, also named Mary, died as well. Orphaned at the age of 18, Astell moved to London before the age of 20. Not much is known about Astell's early years in London. She may have been helped by Archbishop Sancroft, to whom she sent two volumes of her poetry in 1689. Astell eventually surrounded herself with a circle of other educated women who shared her intellectual concerns, including Lady Catherine Jones (to whom she dedicated at least one work and with whom she may have lived at one point), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Estob, and Lady Elizabeth Hastings. Residing primarily in Chelsea, Astell lived a retiring, even ascetic life, perhaps necessitated by ill health, and preferred to release her works anonymously. Beginning with the publication of her first work, A Serious Proposal, in 1694, Astell entered her most productive period, issuing eight works in a little more than a decade. She also tried to put into practice the ideas she proposed in her writings. None of her proposals were implemented, however—at least in a form she would have approved—though a school for girls was established in Chelsea by others in 1729. The suggestion for a Protestant nunnery she made in A Serious Proposal met with resistance because it had Popish implications. At the end of her life Astell became increasingly reclusive and concealed the fact that she had breast cancer. Despite surgery to remove her breast, Astell died from the disease in 1731. She was buried in Chelsea.

Major Works

Most of Astell's works are concerned with the religious, social, and political questions of her day. Writing in an aggressive, confident style, Astell debated in print with some of the leading intellectuals of the period. Although not all of her works directly address women's issues, her sex and her concerns about women's status pervade many of her texts. They continually argue against the notion that women are naturally inferior and maintain that women should be educated in intellectual matters to make them better Christians. A Serious Proposal argues for an alternative to marriage and urges that a “Religious Retirement” be founded for women to devote themselves to education and religious matters. This work had at least four editions, and was followed by A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II. Wherein a Method Is Off'd for the Improvement of their Minds in 1697. A response to objections to Astell's original proposal, this work offers a way for women to educate themselves, expounds on the philosophy behind potential methods, and discusses the search for truth. Some Reflections upon Marriage expands on the views propounded in A Serious Proposal, contending that women should not marry out of duty nor be forced into a situation of subjugation, but instead should marry prudently. Astell stresses the need for equality in marriage and endorses spinsterhood as an acceptable alternative. Here and elsewhere Astell bases her views on a foundation of religious principles; indeed, religion was the primary focus of many of Astell's other works. Of particular note is a volume of Astell's correspondence with John Norris, the Rector of Bemerton. In 1695 Norris published their letters under the title Letters Concerning the Love of God Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris. In the letters the two debate the nature of God and divine love, why pain and sin exist, and other spiritual concerns. Astell's 1705 work, The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England, also considers the nature of God and His affect on humans and their lives. In addition to again raising issues related to women's education, this work critiques the theories of Locke and others, exploring ideas of political philosophy and their relationship to religion. Religious themes were also at the forefront of Astell's last published work, Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry After Wit (1709). Written in response to Lord Shaftsbury's 1708 pamphlet, Letter concerning Enthusiasm, this text by Astell, a staunch supporter of the Anglican church, assails Shaftsbury's call for a rational, moderate religion.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime Astell was a respected participant in the social and philosophical debates of the day and was actively involved in the so-called Battle of the Books. Although she was often vilified in the press for her proposals concerning women's education and marriage, and her ideas were satirized by many, including Jonathan Swift, Astell was recognized for playing a role in the educational development of women. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Astell's writings and contributions were largely forgotten. A slight revival of interest in Astell in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted in the first full-length study of the author, Florence M. Smith's 1916 publication, Mary Astell. It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century, however, that there was significant and sustained critical interest in Astell's life and works. Recent criticism has focused on the nature of Astell's feminist views, placing them in the contexts of the author's own life and experiences—particularly their relationship to her religious beliefs—contemporary attitudes regarding women in society, and prevailing social and political philosophies. Some scholars have pointed out inconsistencies between some of her positions, such as that between her progressive social stance and her conservative religious and political beliefs. What has emerged for critics is a picture of an intriguing and complex figure, a woman holding perhaps contradictory opinions but nevertheless a woman of penetrating intellect whose critiques of John Locke significantly anticipated those of later commentators, a woman who could be witty and assertive—even aggressive—in the defense of her beliefs, and a woman who preferred to live obscurely and publish anonymously while engaging in broad public debates on contentious social and political questions.

Principal Works

A Serious Proposal To the Ladies For the Advancement of their true and greatest interest. By a Lover of her Sex (nonfiction) 1694

Letters Concerning the Love of God Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris, wherein his Discourse shewing That it ought to be entire and exclusive of all other Loves, is further cleared and justified [correspondence with John Norris] (letters) 1695

A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II. Wherein a Method Is Off'd for the Improvement of their Minds (nonfiction) 1697

Some Reflections upon Marriage Occasion'd by the Duke & Duchess of Mazarine's Case which is also consider'd (nonfiction) 1700

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 (nonfiction) 1704

An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom. In an examination of Dr. Kennett's Sermon Jan. 31, 1703-4 and vindication of the Royal Martyr (nonfiction) 1704

Moderation truly Stated; or, a Review of a Late Pamphlet entitl'd Moderation a Vertue with a Prefatory Discourse to Dr. D'Avenant concerning His late Essays on Peace and War (nonfiction) 1704

The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (nonfiction) 1705

Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit in which due Respect is had to a Letter Concerning Enthusiasm. To my Lord ***. By Mr. Wotton (nonfiction) 1709


Florence M. Smith (essay date 1916)

Smith, Florence. “Character and Influence.” In Mary Astell, pp. 160-66. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916.

[In the following excerpt from her book-length study of Astell, Smith summarizes the views expressed in Astell's works and how they influenced later women writers.]

Although Mary Astell's chief interest was in the education of women, the variety of subjects she discussed and the different groups of people she knew show a catholic taste. Her interests lay, however, more in speculative writing than in pure literature. She had read widely in political and religious controversy and had a fair acquaintance with current philosophy. The “great Mr. Locke”...

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Joan K. Kinnaird (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Kinnaird, Joan K. “Mary Astell and the Conservative Contribution to English Feminism.” Journal of British Studies 19, No. 1 (Fall 1979): 53-76.

[In following essay, Kinnaird argues that Astell is the first major English feminist. She examines her writings and intellectual leanings in the context of her feminism as well as the era in which she lived.]

In 1675 Mrs. Hannah Woolley, schoolmistress and writer of books on cookery and household management, published The Gentlewoman's Companion. Her Introduction contains this unexpected diatribe:

The right Education of the Female Sex, as it is in a manner everywhere...

(The entire section is 10991 words.)

Ruth Perry (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Perry, Ruth. “Mary Astell's Response to the Enlightenment.” In Women and the Enlightenment by Margaret Hunt, Margaret Jacob, Phyllis Mack, and Ruth Perry, pp. 13-39. New York: The Haworth Press, Inc., 1984.

[In the following essay, Perry discusses how Astell's writings and attitudes were both reflective of and totally against the principles of the Enlightenment.]

All of the contradictions of the period we call “The Enlightenment” were embodied in the life and writings of Mary Astell, a feminist intellectual who lived from 1666 to 1731. She argued for the rights of women yet she upheld absolute monarchy in the state. She believed in Reason but distrusted...

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Bridget Hill (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Hill, Bridget. Introduction to The First English Feminist: Reflections Upon Marriage and other writings by Mary Astell, edited by Bridget Hill, pp. 1-62. Aldershot, Hants: Gower/Maurice Temple Smith, 1986.

[In following excerpt, Hill provides an overview of Astell's life and works, focusing on A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and Some Reflections Upon Marriage.]

Today Mary Astell is better known in the U.S.A. than in her own country. Yet few works of social history on the period of her life fail to make some reference to her. Often she is labelled by the authors as an early—if not the first—English feminist. Such a claim is made on the basis...

(The entire section is 21053 words.)

Hilda L. Smith (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Smith, Hilda L. “‘All Men and Both Sexes’: Concepts of Men's Development, Women's Education, and Feminism in the Seventeenth Century.” In Man, God, and Nature in the Enlightenment, edited by Donald C. Mell, Jr., Theodore E. D. Braun, and Lucia M. Palmer, pp. 75-84. East Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1988.

[In the excerpt that follows, Smith provides an overview of contemporary education philosophies as exemplified in the works of Astell, noting that early feminists such as Astell recognized that lack of education was a root cause of women's exclusion from equal opportunities.]

In the seventeenth century, both works about education and the...

(The entire section is 4450 words.)

Ruth Perry (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Perry, Ruth. “Mary Astell and the Feminist Critique of Possessive Individualism.” Eighteenth Century Studies 23, No. 4 (1990): 444-57.

[In following essay, Perry examines Astell's political beliefs and writings on the Glorious Revolution as well as her ideas concerning the affect of the revolution on the status of women in her time.]

It long has been assumed that democracy—that egalitarian political practice expressed in the simple formula that “all men are created equal”—is good for women and compatible with feminism. It is assumed that women, however devalued and disempowered, will benefit from the democratic extension of power—and be counted...

(The entire section is 7357 words.)

Kathleen M. Squadrito (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Squadrito, Kathleen M. “Mary Astell.” In A History of Women Philosophers, Volume III: Modern Women Philosophers, 1600-1900, edited by Mary Ellen Waithe, pp. 87-99. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

[In following essay, Squadrito offers a survey of Astell's life, career, and writings.]


Mary Astell, seventeenth-century English philosopher, was born in Newcastle on November 12, 1666. Although she was a well-known Platonist during her time, the facts about her life and works are relatively obscure. A short account of her life and influence is recorded by Ballard in his Memoirs of Several Ladies of...

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Margaret Olofson Thickstun (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Thickstun, Margaret Olofson. “‘This was a Woman that taught’: Feminist Scriptural Exegesis in the Seventeenth Century.” In Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, Volume 21, edited by Patricia B. Craddock and Carla H. Hay, pp. 149-58. East Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1991.

[In following essay, Thickstun discusses Astell's writings on scripture and other religious matters, including her beliefs about the appropriate role for women in these areas.]

In reading contemporary criticism of seventeenth-century women writers, I have noticed that critics tend either to ignore or to misunderstand the feminist implications of women's claim to religious...

(The entire section is 3950 words.)

Catherine Sharrock (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Sharrock, Catherine. “De-ciphering women and de-scribing authority: The writings of Mary Astell.” In Women, Writing, History, 1640-1740, edited by Isobel Grundy and Susan Wiseman, pp. 109-24, 218-21. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1993.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1992, Sharrock examines issues of ideology, authorship, and class in Astell's writing.]

Mary Astell perceived the women of her society to be mere ‘Cyphers in the World’ but she was not prepared to acquiesce with this definition of them.1 Her texts embark upon the de-ciphering of the social codes that authorize the marginalization of the female subject. This...

(The entire section is 8252 words.)

D. N. Deluna (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Deluna, D. N. “Mary Astell: England's First Feminist Literary Critic.” Women's Studies 22, No. 2 (March 1993): 231-42.

[In following essay, Deluna examines the two parts of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies as primary examples of Astell's feminism, as well as what these publications advocated for the women of her day, and how they were received by other social critics.]

For literary critics and historians concerned to explore the early configurations of modern feminism in England, it has become old news that Mary Astell is a figure who deserves serious attention. This is news which Ruth Perry, more than anyone else, helped spread. In work partly...

(The entire section is 5029 words.)

Christine Mason Sutherland (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Sutherland, Christine Mason. “Mary Astell: Reclaiming Rhetorica in the Seventeenth Century.” In Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Andrea A. Lunsford, pp. 93-116. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

[In following essay, Sutherland analyzes three works by Astell in the context of Astell's education, as well as her contributions to the rhetorical tradition of the seventeenth century, noting her skills in argumentation and persuasion.]

Mary Astell has been celebrated as one of the earliest English feminists. Certainly in her own day she was well known and highly regarded. Yet, like many other women who made their...

(The entire section is 10284 words.)

Cynthia B. Bryson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Bryson, Cynthia B. “Mary Astell: Defender of the ‘Disembodied Mind’.” Hypatia 13, No. 4 (Fall 1998): 40-62.

[In following essay, Bryson argues that Astell's version of Cartesian dualism, her criticism of John Locke's theories, and her importance as a political theorist and metaphysician demonstrate the reasons why she has been declared the first English feminist.]

“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

There has been a recent growing interest in the political and philosophical theorizing of late-Medieval and Renaissance women...

(The entire section is 10846 words.)

Van C. Hartmann (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Hartmann, Van C. “Tory Feminism in Mary Astell's Bart'lemy Fair.The Journal of Narrative Technique 28, No. 3 (Fall 1998): 243-65.

[In the following essay, Hartmann examines Astell's Bart'lemy Fair: Or, An Enquiry After Wit in the context of her life, work, and times, comparing it to similar literature of the era, primarily the works of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.]

Although Mary Astell has received considerable scholarly attention over the past two decades, that scholarship has focused primarily on her writings about marriage and the education of women; only secondarily have critics taken note of Astell's energetic espousal of...

(The entire section is 8245 words.)

Patricia Springborg (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Springborg, Patricia. “Mary Astell and John Locke.” In The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1650-1740, edited by Steven N. Zwicker, pp. 276-303. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Springborg examines Astell's critique of the writings of John Locke, analyzing the differences and similarities between the two writers, as well as providing an overview of Astell's contributions to the political and literary debates of the Augustan era.]

A poor Northern English gentlewoman, Mary Astell was born in 1666 of a mother from an old Newcastle Catholic gentry family, and of a father who had barely completed his apprenticeship...

(The entire section is 12239 words.)

Kristin Waters (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Waters, Kristin. “Sources of Political Authority: John Locke and Mary Astell: Introduction.” In Women and Men Political Theorists: Enlightened Conversations, edited by Kristin Waters, pp. 5-19. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Waters summarizes Astell's political philosophies and arguments on marriage, comparing them to the writings of John Locke and several other writers of the time.]


[Descartes'] radical epistemology put women on a theoretical par with men.1

A study of Mary Astell's philosophy is not for the faint of...

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Further Reading


Perry, Ruth. The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986, 549 p.

Critical biography of Astell, including numerous examples of her correspondence.


Springborg, Patricia. “Mary Astell (1666-1731), Critic of Locke.” American Political Science Review 89, No. 3 (September 1995): 621-33.

Argues that Astell was the first to offer a systematic critique of John Locke and anticipated modern criticism of liberalism.

Squadrito, Kathleen M. “Mary Astell's Critique of Locke's View of Thinking Matter.”...

(The entire section is 138 words.)