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.
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.
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...
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