Mary Astell Criticism - Essay

Florence M. Smith (essay date 1916)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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”...

(The entire section is 3368 words.)

Joan K. Kinnaird (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 11437 words.)

Bridget Hill (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 4317 words.)

Margaret Olofson Thickstun (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 3637 words.)