Mary Astell

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Florence M. Smith (essay date 1916)

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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” she knew and respected, however much she might refuse to accept his opinions. She had dared to oppose Swift, Steele, and Defoe, but she commented only on their political writings and activities, as their best literary work was not done until she had ceased to write. Politically she differed from Milton, whom she regarded as “a better poet than divine or politician”; yet his blank verse moved her. In general it is the controversial that attracts her attention, especially when her opposition is aroused as by Dryden's The Hind and the Panther and Prior and Montagu's Hind and Panther Transversed.1

Perhaps as an inheritance from Vives, perhaps from her own observation as to their bad effects, she was opposed to romances and plays for women, and she had read with interest Jeremy Collier's attack on the stage, “a very Learned and Ingenious tract writ against this growing evil.” From an educational standpoint, also, she had followed the controversy as to ancient and modern learning, where she ranged herself with the moderns.

In her estimate of writers of her own sex, her judgment is over-balanced by her pride in them as women. She compliments Madam Dacier and Madam Scudéry, forgetting, in her zeal, her opposition to plays and romances. The Matchless Orinda receives her unqualified approval, as showing what a woman can do if she makes the effort, and Lady Mary Montagu is praised for her masculine intelligence. It is curious that Mary Astell leaves unnoticed such a writer as Anne Schurman, whose pamphlets were then available in an English translation, and whose point of view and general attitude toward life was so closely allied to her own.

It is difficult to give a general criticism of the style of Mary Astell; the first pamphlets differ from the later ones; the political, from the religious. In the early writings, the style, always smooth and rounded becomes eloquent in its sincerity when expressing deep religious feeling. There is a regular rhythm, a recurring rise and fall in its periodicity and sonorousness, often reminiscent of Milton's time. The Reflections on Marriage, a pamphlet of the middle period, is simpler, more ejaculatory, with clear-cut statements and balanced structure. In its concluding passages it too rises into swelling cadences. The later pamphlets are more involved, although in The Christian Religion, Mary Astell returns somewhat to the emotional style of her earlier pamphlets. In the ironic she is most successful. Keen and trenchant from the first, her work later becomes hard and bitter. It is too heavy for wit, although the turns of expression are sometimes very happy, as, “A Woman may put on the whole armour of God without degenerating into a masculine temper.”2 There is an attractive use of figures, commonplace often, but given a new turn by their placing. “Nothing is so lovely,” she writes, “as a Life that's all of a Piece the same even Thread running through it from beginning to end.”3


(This entire section contains 3368 words.)

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Astell's style of presentation and her choice of subject matter show several traits of her character, her religious sentiment, her deep love for the church, her intensity of feeling drawn out by any opposition to either church or state, and the isolation of viewpoint that comes to a pioneer. Most of her biographers have emphasized the austerity of her nature. In this she is often misjudged. The character of her later years is the one that has come down to us, with its oddities and austerities accentuated by the pens of satirists. Lady Arabella Stuart has given much the same portrait, when, hardened by opposition and disappointment and by the misunderstanding and the lack of sympathy of her associates, Mary Astell withdrew into herself. A more attractive picture is the one she presents in the preface toLetters Concerning the Love of God, where with a mother's tenderness she is brooding over the waywardness of the women about her, before repulses and discouragements have narrowed her sympathies. Her reticence and her womanly fear that the purpose of her letters to Dr. Norris should be misunderstood are far different from the caustic statements of An Enquiry after Wit.

Mary Astell's independence of thought and action has given to her the credit of being the “first English suffragette,” a title that can in no way be applied to her in the usual meaning of the term. She had no conception of woman as a factor in politics except through the use of intrigue, of which she entirely disapproved. In fact her belief in the reigning sovereign was such that she would give but limited opportunity for men in political affairs. It was not until her latest pamphlet, Christian Religion, in 1705 that she touched upon the question. She says:

Your Ladiship it's like will wonder why I say so much in a matter wherein women are supposed to be unconcerned. My reason is because the Divines who write Letters and Explain Principles to Ladies insist upon the rest, and because a little practice of the world will convince us, that Ladies are as grand Politicians and every whit as Intriguing as any Patriot of the Good-old-cause. Perhaps because the gentleness of their temper makes them fitter to insinuate and gain proselytes, or that being less suspected they may be apter to get and to convey Intelligence and are therefore made the tools of crafty and designing demagogues. This made me think it not improper to take Notice in this Matter. That if Ladies will needs be Politicians, they may not build upon a rotten and Unchristian Foundation. A Foundation destructive of all government in general, leaving no sort of settled quiet any longer than till a party can be formed strong enough to overthrow it. How busie looks and grand concern about that Bill and t'other Promotion, how whispers and cabals, eternal disputes and restless solicitations, with all the equipage of Modern Politicians, become the Ladies, I have not skill to determine. But if there be anything rediculous in it, I had rather leave the observation to the Men as being both more proper for their Wit and more agreeable to their Inclination.4

A few pages farther on she writes more moderately, with a little prophecy of the future: “the sphere alloted to us women, who are subjects, allows us no room to serve our country either with our Counsel or our Lives. We have no Authority to Preach vertue or to Punish vice, as we have not the Guilt of Establishing Iniquity by Law, neither can we execute Judgment and Justice. And since we are not allow'd a share in the Honourable offices in the commonwealth, we ought to be ashamed and scorn to drudge in the mean trades of Faction and Sedition.”5

It may not be entirely unfair to lay claim to Mary Astell, with [George] Ballard, as the first defender of “the rights and privileges of her sex,” and there is often excuse for much of her caustic satire because of the attitude of the period toward women. Under the existing social conditions, the position of woman in relation to men not of her family brought with it something of a problem in her own life as well as in the lives of those around her. Mary Astell had no patience with the theory of Platonic friendship, which by this time had degenerated into coarse love. She had, however, corresponded widely with men interested in church affairs, and she confesses that she found it a help at times to ask a man's advice upon business or religious problems, but that social conditions made natural relations of friendship between men and women practically impossible.6 She was too independent to let fear of criticism shut her off entirely from society, and her home was open to her friends of either sex.

Mary Astell belongs more to this century than to her own, and would find to-day the support she lacked in her own time. Yet, even then, she did not stand alone. She was the spokeswoman of a body of women interested in the social and educational ideas of the day not in the dilettante fashion of the Femmes Savantes or their English imitators, but with an attempt to grasp problems and to change conditions that pointed to the modern attitude of sociologists. How much her ideas influenced the next generation it is impossible to state, since it is dangerous to attempt to trace streams of influence when the influence is not that of an individual, but of the developing thought of an age. Lady Masham and Elizabeth Elstob sought education for girls, but neither saw so fully as did Mary Astell its bearing on life. That the women of the next generation were indebted to her in some measure Lady Mary Montagu shows clearly. Sarah Chapone, the mother-in-law of Hester Chapone, had Mary Astell's pamphlets in her library and was interested in their contents. Catherine Talbot, Mrs. Delaney, who, as Mrs. Pendarves, was the friend and benefactor of Elizabeth Elstob and the Chapones may have formed a connecting link between the work of Mary Astell and that of the Blue-stockings, but no one until Mary Wollstonecraft so caught the modern sprit. Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, it is true, wanted to establish a “college” for girls, but the general attitude of the Blue-stockings toward education was that of Mrs. Barbauld, who, in spite of her own experience in securing an education, refused to take charge of the proposed school, because she believed herself unfitted to teach music, dancing, and embroidery, the accomplishments of a lady, which could be acquired better under the paternal roof.

Interesting as such a relation would be, there seems no proof that Mary Astell's writings had any direct influence on Mary Wollstonecraft. Suffice it to say that both were laboring to bring in a new era for women: the one, a sincere, earnest daughter of the church, sought education, freedom of reason and, where needful, economic independence for women, who thus might have an opportunity to know and to practice righteousness. Mary Astell's idea of freedom was the breaking away from convention only as it hampered the development of the religious ideal. To Mary Wollstonecraft freedom had a far different meaning. A liberal in religion and the product of a hundred years more of thought, she was unhampered by tradition as Mary Astell was not. Her views were based upon personal experience and upon personal wrongs. She asked for more than the prevention of unhappy marriages; she asked for opportunities in education and in labor equal to those of men. Such ideas were merely a carrying out to its logical conclusions of Mary Astell's desire for economic independence.

Mary Astell's originality in thought lies not wholly, as has been seen, in her plan for the education of women. Lettice Falkland had hinted at economic independence; Mary Astell definitely asked for it. Although both had in mind only gentlewomen, this was an advance when even gentlemen had not learned to work. The Essay in Defence of the Female Sex suggests that English women should take up sedentary occupations as the Dutch women had done, thus leaving men free to fight. The discussion had only begun. In The Gentleman's Magazine of 1739 appeared a letter entitled “A new Method for making Women as useful and as capable of maintaining themselves as the Men are: and consequently preventing their becoming old Maids or taking ill courses. By a Lady,” and succeeding issues continued the discussion. It is Mary Astell's presentation of the economic position of women in society and her attempt to show the relation between woman's education and her economic position in marriage that calls attention to her to-day. In this attempt lies her value at present when the grave questions of the vocational education and the political enfranchisement of women are bound up closely with the problems of the economic relation between women's education and marriage, and when Mary Astell's desire for the education of women, carried out beyond the reach of her wildest vision, seems to be finding its fulfillment in women's search for her highest freedom.


  1. An Enquiry after Wit, p. 73.

  2. Christian Religion, p. 103.

  3. Ibid., p. 116.

  4. Christian Religion, pp. 176-178.

  5. Ibid., p. 323.

  6. Ibid., pp. 219-220.


I. A Serious Proposal To the Ladies For the Advancement of their true and greatest interest. By a Lover of her Sex. London. Printed for R. Wilkins at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1694. [British Museum copy with corrections in Mary Astell's hand, and on the fly leaf, “For the Honourable Md Mountagu from her Ladiships Most humble servant, M. A.] Licensed July 16th, 1694.

A Serious Proposal To the Ladies For the Advancement of their true and greatest interest. By a Lover of her Sex. The Second Edition Corrected. London. Printed for R. Wilkin. At the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1695.

The Third edition Corrected. 1696.

A Serious Proposal To the Ladies Part II. Wherein a Method is off'd for the Improvement of their Minds. London. Printed for Richard Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1697.

[The Dedication is changed from one to Ladies in General to a special one “To her Royal Highness The Princess Anne of Denmark.”]

A Serious Proposal To the Ladies for the Advance-ment of their True and Greatest Interest. In two Parts. By a Lover of her Sex. The Fourth Edition. London. Printed for Richard Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1697.

A Serious Proposal to the Ladies For the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest. Part I. By a Lover of her Sex. The Fourth Edition. London. Printed by J. R. and R. Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard.

[Bound with above] A Serious Proposal to the Ladies wherein a Method is offer'd for the Improvement of their Minds. London. Printed for Richard Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1697.

II. 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. Published by J. Norris, M. A., Rector of Bemerton near Sarum. London. Printed for Samuel Manship at the Ship near the Royal Exchange in Cornhill, and Richard Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1695. Imprimatur. October 7, 1694. C. Alston.

[The first edition is dedicated as follows:

To the Truly Honourable Lady The Lady Catherine Jones in due Acknowledgment of her Merits, and in Testimony of that Just and therefore very Great and Unfeigned Veneration which is paid to her Ladiships vertues. These Letters Are most Humbly Dedicated and Presented.

The Book Contains: The Preface. To the Reader. Letter to M. Astell. Reply from M. Astell. Postscript. Letters between M. Astell and J. Norris.]

The second edition, corrected by the authors, with some few things added. 1705.

III. Some Reflections upon Marriage Occasion'd by the Duke & Dutchess of Mazarine's Case which is also considered. London. Printed for John Nutt, near Stationers Hall. 1700.

[Contents: 1. Advertisement. 2. Reflections.]

Reflections upon Marriage. The Third Edition. To which is added a Preface in answer to some Objections.

London. Printed for R. Wilkin, at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1706.

[Contents: 1. Preface. 2. New Preface by Reflector. 3. Reflections.]

Some Reflections upon Marriage with additions. The Fourth Edition. London. Printed for William Parker at the King's Head in St. Paul's Churchyard, 1730.

IV. Moderation truly Stated; or a Review of a Late Pamphlet entitl'd Moderation a Vertue with a Prefactory Discourse to Dr. D'Aveanant concerning His late Essays on Peace and War.

London. Printed by J. L. for Rich. Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church-Yard. 1704.

V. 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. London, Printed by E. P. for R. Wilkin at the King's Head, in St. Paul's Church-yard, 1704.

[Contents: 1. Fair Way with Dissenters. 2. Postscript concerning “Moderation Still a Virtue.”]

VI. 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. London. Printed by E. P. for R. Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church-Yard, 1704.

VII. The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England London. Printed by S. H. for R. Wilkin at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1705.

Third Edition. 1730 (?) Cf. Ballard Ms. 41:132.

[The third edition of Christian Religion is advertised in the Reflections on Marriage, ed. of 1730.]

VIII. Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit in which due Respect is had to a Letter Concerning Enthusiasm. To my Lord X X X. By Mr. Wotton.

London. Printed for R. Wilkin. At the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard. 1709.

An Enquiry after Wit Wherein the Trifling Arguing and Impious Raillery Of the Late Earl of Shaftsbury In his letter concerning Enthusiasm and other Profane Writers, are fully answered, and justly exposed. The Second Edition. Printed by John Baleman at the Hat and Star in St. Paul's Church-Yard. 1722.

[Contents: 1. Preface. 2. Essay. Ballard XLI: 132.

Letter from Rawlins to Ballard dated 1742-3. “Mrs. Astell's works are lately reprinted from Wm. Parkes at ye King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard—to wit Reflexions on Marriage … edition with additions. Serious Proposal to ye Ladies, 4th Edition. The Xtian Religion as profess'd by a Dgh 3rd edit.”]

Pamphlet Attributed to Mary Astell

An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex in which are inserted the characters of A Pedant. A Squire. A Beau. A Vertuoso. A Poetaster. A City-critick. C. In a Letter to a Lady written by a Lady. London. Printed for A. Roper and E. Wilkinson at the Black Boy and R. Clavel at the Peacock in Fleet Street, 1696.

[In the British Museum copy after “written by a Lady are penciled the words ‘Mrs. Drake.’”]

[Contents: 1. Dedication to Princess Anne of Denmark. 2. Preface. 3. Drake's poem. 4. Essay.]

An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex. Second edition, 1696.

[Advertisement in The Post Boy, No. 181, from Thursday July 2 to Thursday, July 4, 1696.]

An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex. In which are inserted the characters of a Pedant, a Squire, a Beau, a Virtuoso, a Poetaster, a City-Critick. C. In a Letter to a Lady written by a Lady.

The Third edition with additions. London. Printed by M. A. Roper at the Black Boy and R. Cavel at the Peacock in Fleet-street, 1697.

[Contents: 1. Dedication to Princess Anne of Denmark. 2. Preface. 3. Poem by J. Drake. 4. Letter from J. Drake. 5. The Lady's Answer. 6. Essay.]

An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex. In a Letter to a Lady written by a Lady. The Fourth Edition. Corrected. London. Printed by S. Butler, next Bernard's Inn in Holborn. MDCCXXI.

[Contents: As in third edition.]

An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex. Interspersed with Reflections upon Love and Taste. Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex by a Lady. In what will all Men's Ostentation end?

London. Printed for C. Hitch in Paternoster Row and R. Akenhead, jun., at the Globe opposite the Bridge-End Coffee House, Newcastle.

[Welford makes the mistake of considering this the original edition expanded in 1697 (3rd. ed.) This is obviously incorrect as references to Pope's Essay on Criticism and to other writers show this to be a later working over of the original. (Welford. Men of Mark. Vol. I., p. 124.)]

Joan K. Kinnaird (essay date 1979)

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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 neglected, so it ought to be generally lamented. Most in this depraved later Age think a Woman learned and wise enough if she can distinguish her Husbands Bed from anothers. Certainly Mans Soul cannot boast of a more sublime Original than ours, they had equally their efflux from the same eternal Immensity, and [are] therefore capable of the same improvement by good Education. Vain man is apt to think we were meerly intended for the Worlds propagation, and to keep its humane inhabitants sweet and clean; but by their leaves, had we the same Literature, he would find our brains as fruitful as our bodies. Hence I am induced to believe, we are debar'd from the knowledge of humane learning lest our pregnant Wits should rival the towring conceits of our insulting Lords and Masters.1

Mrs. Woolley's complaint was intended for a female audience only, but the themes of her indictment—male oppression, the equal intellectual capacity of the sexes, the injustice of barring women from higher learning—appear openly and often in the literature of Restoration England. Rebellious daughters and emancipated wives, female virtuosi, “she-philosophers”—all rebels against male authority—crowd the Restoration stage. So many took up the cause of women in the “Battle of the Sexes” in the last decades of the century that one scholar has found in the pamphlet literature of the time “a large and well-defined movement, an early ‘liberation war’ of the sex.”2 Finally, in 1694 Mary Astell, self-styled “Lover of Her Sex,” published the first considered plea by an Englishwoman for the establishment of an institution of higher learning for women, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest.3 So much activity on behalf of women might well justify the view that feminism—or, to be more accurate, protofeminism—had its genesis in the Restoration period.

The impulse to this new feminist consciousness, however, remains obscure. In French studies of feminism the governing assumption has been that “modernism and feminism go … together; they are two diverse aspects of one state of mind.”4 A similar assumption informs several English studies as well. Early feminism in Jean Gagen's work on Restoration drama is seen as part and parcel of the ethos of the New Woman—as owing its rise to secular ideas and to the general revolt from authority after the Civil War. In The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, Lawrence Stone links late seventeenth-century feminism directly with John Locke and the revolution in political thought. Locke, in his debate with Robert Filmer, extended the contract theory of government to the family when he contended that a voluntary contract for the begetting and raising of children was the basis of conjugal society. Stone concludes, “New claims concerning the status and rights of women were set in motion by the repudiation of monarchical patriarchy in the state in 1688, and were publicized by a handful of zealous feminists [he includes Mary Astell] at the end of the seventeenth century.” Still another force that has been seen as undermining patriarchal authority is Puritanism or, more narrowly, sectarianism. Keith Thomas, in his important article, “Women and the Civil War Sects,” argues that the Puritan sects, with their various challenges to tradition, ultimately advanced the status of women by contributing “to the general process of substituting secular for divine sanctions for the arrangements of society.” In rejecting the traditional arguments for woman's exclusion from church office, they were challenging the very same arguments used to justify the subordination of women in general. Their demand for religious toleration led to the “redefinition of the limits of paternal power” in the family.5

In view of these interpretations, it is puzzling to note that Mary Astell, considered to be by general consensus the first major English feminist for her defiant praise of woman, had no sympathies with Puritanism, secularism, or Lockean political thought. She was a staunch royalist and a fervid defender of the Church of England. Her loyalties must raise considerable doubt about the validity of linking feminism in this age exclusively with libertarian, antiestablishment trends. It is proposed in this paper—by exploring the main influences on Mary Astell's life and character, the sources of her thought, and the goals of her feminist programs—to demonstrate the paradox that feminism in its earliest phase owed as much, if not more, to conservative and Anglican values than it did to the antiauthoritarian and secular impulses in Restoration culture. Such a study, moreover, should make possible a tentative definition of what might be called “protofeminism,” that is, of late seventeenth-century feminism in both its continuity with and differences from subsequent stages of the movement.

Mary Astell,6 her eighteenth-century biographer George Ballard observed, loved obscurity, “which she courted and doated [sic] on beyond all earthly blessings,” and was “ambitious to slide gently through the world, without so much as being seen or taken notice of.”7 As far as her private life is concerned, Mary Astell almost did succeed in this wish, for regrettably little is known of her personal history.8 She was born at Newcastle in 1666 into a gentry family of royalist sympathy that included lawyers and clergymen, as well as merchants. Ralph Astell, a clergyman uncle, supposedly educated the bright young girl until his death in her early teens. In her twenties, orphaned after the death of her mother, she left home—even though a brother Peter continued to live in Newcastle—and moved to London. By 1695 she was settled in Chelsea. For a time she was an independent householder but later joined the household of the daughter of the Earl of Ranelagh, Lady Catherine Jones, with whom presumably Mary Astell lived until her death in 1731. Mary Astell never married—disappointed, Ballard reports, by the breakdown of marriage negotiations with an eminent clergyman.9

Her circle consisted mainly of Anglican divines whom she joined in theological debate and in literary warfare against the Dissenters, earning thereby a reputation as an “ingenious” lady and a formidable polemicist.10 Despite her stern appearance—she is described as “in outward form, indeed, rather ill-favored and forbidding”—she attracted the friendship of a number of brilliant young women. Besides Lady Catherine Jones, her feminine disciples included Lady Elizabeth Hastings (she who inspired the compliment, “To love her is a liberal education.”); Lady Elizabeth's four half sisters; Lady Anne Coventry, author of devotional tracts; and Catherine Atterbury, wife of Francis Atterbury, the prominent Tory and high church divine. There was also Elizabeth Elstob, the Anglo-Saxon scholar, who came from Newcastle and probably knew the Astell family there. During her years in London, Elizabeth Elstob visited Mary Astell frequently and later furnished George Ballard with many details on Mary's life. Twenty years younger but especially dear to Mary Astell was the future Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who in later life testified to the formative influence Mary Astell had had upon her early years.

There are fleeting glimpses of the feminist's life in Chelsea. Spying from her window idle visitors come for “chatt and tattle,” she leans out to announce that “Mrs. Astell is not at home”—not suffering such triflers to make inroads upon her more serious hours.11 More graciously she receives the young antiquarian, Ralph Thoresby, who had come with the “obliging Mr. Croft, the minister, who introduced me to the celebrated Mrs. Astell.”12 At dinner she argues divinity with Dean Atterbury, no stranger to polemics, who admires her intellect but admits ruefully, “I dread to engage her.”13 At tea she sits with the ladies reflecting on the memoirs of her Chelsea neighbor, the Duchess of Mazarin, who serves “as an unhappy Shipwreck to point out the Misfortune of an ill Education and unsuitable Marriage.”14 An interest in science prompts a visit to Sir Hans Sloane to see his curios and to show him some of hers. She walks through the fields of Chelsea with Lady Elizabeth Hastings to consider possible sites for a school for girls.15 Dramatically she confronts Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with the promise that she will return from the dead, if possible, to prove the truths of the Christian religion to her skeptical young friend.16 And on many a Sunday morning, despite inclement weather, she is seen walking from Chelsea to St. Martin's to hear a celebrated preacher. In the last years, too, there are moving glimpses of Mary Astell stoically enduring an operation for cancer and dying some time later (in 1731) alone—having barred her friends in the last days—with a coffin and shroud set by the bed to fix her mind upon eternity.17

The glimpses are few for a life that spanned sixty-five years. But if obscurity cloaked her personal life, it certainly did not hide her militant views. In 1695 the Platonist divine, John Norris, rector of Bemerton, won her permission to publish their correspondence, Letters Concerning the Love of God, so long as he did not reveal her identity. Mary Astell had initiated that correspondence two years before, and in her first letter struck a note of feminine assertiveness that would echo through all subsequent writings:


Though some morose Gentlemen wou'd perhaps remit me to the Distaff or the Kitchin, or at least to the Glass and the Needle, the proper Employments as they fancy of a Womans Life; yet expecting better things from the more Equitable and ingenuous Mr. Norris, who is not so narrow-Soul'd as to confine Learning to his own Sex, or to envy it in ours, I presume to beg his Attention a little to the Impertinencies of a Womans Pen.18

The early correspondence with Norris reveals as well an identification with her sex as a whole and a personal commitment to the advancement of women that mark the true feminist. These characteristics, it may be argued, distinguish the feminist as a type quite distinct from two other related species—on the one hand, the “learned lady” who, while often critical of males, is concerned only with her own pursuits; and on the other hand, the dissident or unconventional woman whose behavior may violate society's norms but who feels no need to protest or improve the condition of women in her society.19 By contrast, Mary Astell was a true feminist, a woman with a mission: “Fain wou'd I rescue my Sex,” she declared resolutely, “or at least as many of them as come within my little Sphere from that Meanness of Spirit into which the Generality of 'em are sunk.”20

Dean Atterbury once regretted that Mrs. Astell had not the “most decent manner of insinuating what she means, but is now and then a little offensive and shocking in her expressions”; she lacked, he found, “a civil turn of words.”21 Nowhere are the directness and asperity of which Atterbury complains more apparent than in her censure of that meanness of spirit in the female sex. Mrs. Astell upbraided the gentlewomen of her day, all too many of whom were “content to be Cyphers in the World, useless at the best, and in a little time a burden and nuisance to all about them.” Their conversation was insipid—“idle twattle and uncharitable Remarks”—and their company tedious. Preoccupied with fashion, their bodies were “Glorious Temples which enshrine no better than Aegyptian Deities”; they were like to the “garnish'd Sepulchre, which for all its glittering, has nothing within but emptiness or putrefaction!” In her ire, the metaphors spill forth in reckless profusion. “How can you be content,” she rails, “to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden, to make a fine shew and be good for nothing?” Women must wake to a new consciousness of their worth:

For shame let's abandon that Old, and therefore one wou'd think, unfashionable employment of pursuing Butter-flies and Trifles! No longer drudge on in the dull beaten road of Vanity and Folly which so many have gone before us, but dare to break the enchanted Circle that custom has plac'd us in.22

Perhaps not Atterbury's “civil turn of words”—but, confused metaphors notwithstanding, a dramatic manifesto.

Before Mary Astell could rescue other women, she herself had to be freed. What had liberated her own consciousness and empowered her to break through custom's “enchanted Circle”? The answer perhaps startles the modern reader conditioned to anticipate sociological explanations of change and prone, in an age of waning ideologies, to dismiss systems of thought as ineffectual. The magic charm for Mary Astell was nothing less than philosophy. “I have courted Truth,” she exulted, “with a kind of Romantick Passion.”23 And the truth that she courted and that made her free was a heady blend of Cartesian and Platonic principles.

That blend of philosophies did not originate with Mary Astell but with the Cambridge-Platonists. They—most notably Henry More and Ralph Cudworth—were Descartes' earliest admirers in England, able and enthusiastic propagandists for his views. In the 1650s they had eagerly embraced his scientific metaphysics, his proofs for the existence of God, and his dualistic epistemology, for they found in him, or so they thought, a redoubtable champion in the war against both scholastic obscurantism and atheistic materialism. Descartes stood, in their minds, for a sounder union of the modern and the spiritual, and they pitted him against Hobbes, their archenemy. Gradually, it is true, their ardor for Descartes cooled as the Platonists came to appreciate the difficulties that his dualism raised for a providential interpretation of the universe. By 1671, More felt compelled to dissociate himself from Descartes, whom he thereafter classified with the “mechanicks” and atheists; but by that time Cartesian ideas—available in direct translations of Descartes' works and in popularizations, commentaries, and critiques—had passed, sometimes in debased form, into the general intellectual currency.24

Mary Astell refers often to Descartes, but apparently she never read his works in the original; her references are always to translations of French popularizations.25 Perhaps because she worked with translations, or perhaps because she lacked a rigorous training in logic, she seems unaware of philosophical rifts or of important distinctions between philosophical schools. She pays homage impartially to the “celebrated” Descartes and the “ingenious” Locke, and long after More had formally broken with Descartes she continued to link them.26 Throughout her life, Mary Astell remained, somewhat anachronistically, a Cartesian Platonist enthralled with a vision of an ordered universe, with an idea of God as divine rationality. Yet from that allegiance she derived a radically new epistemology based on the thinking self, and this new conception of the mind's essential independence admirably served her purposes as a champion of women.

That science and mathematics in the seventeenth century stimulated the literary imagination has been well attested; that science and mathematics, at least in Cartesian form, encouraged a new feminist sensibility has yet to win the recognition and study it deserves.27 Many women dabbled in science in Restoration England, marvelled at the wonders revealed by microscope and telescope, and eagerly stocked their curio cabinets. Science was, after all, a fashionable pursuit. But feminists such as Mary Astell, Hannah Woolley, Damaris Masham, Aphra Behn, Judith Drake, and Lady Chudleigh did more than dabble. They felt a special intellectual affinity to the new philosophy and were more interested in theory than in amateur experimentation. Aphra Behn was the first to do an English translation of Fontenelle's Plurality of Worlds, inspired, as she says, by “the Author introducing a Woman as one of the Speakers.”28 Mary Astell even claimed theoretical science as women's proper sphere, since “men were made for active life and women to be retired,” and “for this reason [women were] designed by Providence for speculation … and I make no question but great Improvements might be made in the Sciences, were not Women Enviously excluded from this their proper Business.”29 Lady Chudleigh, like Mary Astell, indulged in rhapsodic descriptions of the newly revealed universe—its glorious orbs and limitless vistas. Somewhat bitterly she looked forward to eternal life when men could no longer bar women from scientific pursuits, and they would be free at last to discourse with higher rational beings on the laws that governed the universe—“And we shall then the whole of Nature know; / See all her Springs, her secret Turning view, / And be as knowing and as wise as you.”30 In some curious way the boundless universe with its infinite worlds served to highlight for feminists like Mary Astell the parochial circumscription of their private worlds, and the grand design of the universe—its rationality and lawfulness—seemed to underscore the lack of meaning and the lack of purpose in their own lives.

The Cartesian philosophy fostered an introspective psychology, a radical consciousness of self—important to the growth of feminism—by its insistence on the thinking I as the touchstone of all knowledge and even of existence. “Je pense, donc je suis”: The revolutionary implications of that statement in an age still wedded to a corporate and authoritarian world view cannot be dismissed. Here was a philosophy that began not with revelation or the wisdom of the ancients or even with nature and sense experience, but with consciousness itself. And here was a philosophy presented not in syllogisms or in elaborate academic discourse but in a personal memoir of autobiographical fragments, anecdotes, observations, and reflections. “Truth” in the Cartesian system was not subjective, but it could be known only by and through the self reflecting on innate ideas or proceeding through methodical doubt to a clear perception of truth. Self-awareness is central to the Cartesian experience.

The shaping of a sensibility, of course, cannot be documented. Much easier to establish is the conceptual debt that Mary Astell and other feminists owed to Descartes and his Platonist commentators. The first and greatest debt is to the Cartesian notion of divine rationality and its correspondence in the human mind. Descartes had argued that reason was by nature equal in all men, for since reason alone distinguished men from brutes, it must be found complete in each individual—“the difference of greater and less holds only among the Accidents, and not among the Forms or Natures of Individuals of the same Species.”31 It was this notion, stated clearly in Descartes but not developed in its social implications, that the feminists seized upon so avidly. Mary Astell boldly proclaimed the radical thesis that God had given all mankind the same intellectual potential—whether ancient or modern, rich or poor, male or female. Circumstances determine the extent to which men and women may exercise their rational faculties, but the faculties are present in all, at least as “sleeping powers.”32

Secondly, she took from Descartes and from the Platonists the authority of the thinking self. Looking back on his classical education and rejecting its formalism, Descartes decided it was necessary to sweep away the rubble and begin anew with knowledge tested in the crucible of selfdiscovery. His disciple, who had never enjoyed a formal education, took heart from this suggestion that her lack of schooling put her at no serious disadvantage in the quest for truth. As she wrote to Norris,

For though I can't pretend to a multitude of Books, or the advantages of Academical Education, yet Thinking is a Stock that no Rational Creature can want, if they know but how to use it; and this, as you have taught me, with Purity and Prayer, (which I wish were as much practis'd as they are easie to practise) is the way and method to true Knowledge.33

Later she would use that argument to bolster the confidence of women. God who made nothing in vain had made the understanding for the contemplation of truth and in his “Wisdom and Equity” had given all a “Teacher in their own Bosom” to enlighten them in both human and divine truths or direct them to the proper source of instruction. Worldly knowledge was not essential. “All have not Leisure to learn Languages and pore on Books, nor Opportunity to converse with the Learned; but all may think, may use their own Faculties rightly and consult the Master who is within them.”34

And if occasional misgivings arose about the “Teacher in their own bosoms, … the Master who is within,” then Mary Astell's third debt to Descartes—faith in Cartesian method—dispelled them. Mary Astell was enthralled with methodology, with “right thinking,” the rigorous analysis and orderly progression of thought that made it possible to sweep away preconceptions, prejudices, outworn beliefs, and false notions in the advance toward truth. Again and again in her writings she insisted on the need for clearly defined terms, precise wording, and a simple rational style. So strongly did Mary Astell feel about “right thinking” and its crucial role in the liberation of women that she followed Part One of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) with a Part Two (1697), which was little more than an elaborate exposition of Descartes' Discourse on Method.

Fortified thus with faith in the equal intellectual capacity of the sexes and the authority of the thinking self, and secure in a supportive methodology, Mary Astell could dismiss with almost flippant ease conventional arguments about the inferiority of women. To those who argued that men were physically superior to women and that strength of mind accompanied strength of body, she responded wryly, “'tis only for some odd Accidents which Philosophers have not yet thought worth while to enquire into, that the sturdiest Porter is not the wisest Man!” To those who argued that history celebrated almost exclusively the deeds of men and so demonstrated pragmatically their superiority, she responded with even heavier irony:

Have not all the great Actions that have been perform'd in the World been done by Men? Have not they founded Empires and overturn'd them? Do not they make Laws and continually repeal and amend them? Their vast Minds lay Kingdoms waste, no Bounds or Measures can be prescrib'd to their Desires. … What is it they cannot do? They make Worlds and ruin them, form Systems of universal Nature and dispute eternally about them.”35

If women did not appear often in the pages of history, perhaps it was because men, not women, wrote those histories. And on the rare occasions when they condescended to record the great and good actions of women, men usually said that such women acted above their sex, as much as to say that not women but “Men in petticoats” had performed them.36 An unbiased review of ages past, she contended, with innocent bias on her own part, would reveal that nations, especially the English, had flourished more under feminine than under masculine governance. England had enjoyed a golden age in the reign of Elizabeth, an age in which—as William Wotton's Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694) had demonstrated to her satisfaction—female learning was neither unfashionable nor singular. Mary Astell would have the women of her day imitate the learned ladies of Tudor times. And instead of slavishly mimicking French fashions in speech, dress, and the reading of plays and romances, she would have them look to such models as Mme. Dacier, Mme. Scudéry, and the philosophical ladies of the French salons who studied so earnestly the works of Descartes and Malebranche.37 In her fondest dreams she imagined a new golden age that might dawn in the reign of Anne and rival or eclipse all previous epochs of greatness.

Mary Astell prided herself on her modernity and her self-reliance, and that pride shines through her account of how she had ventured forth unaided by authority on the doubtful mission of rescuing her sex (she writes here in the third person):

She neither advis'd with Friends, nor turn'd over antient or modern Authors, nor prudently submitted to the Correction of such as are, or such as think they are good Judges, but with an English spirit and Genius, set out upon the Forlorn Hope, meaning no Hurt to any body, nor designing any thing but the publick Good, and to retrieve, if possible, the Native Liberty, the Rights and Privileges of the Subject.38

The spirit and genius may have been English, as she says, but the philosophical inspiration for her feminist vision was undeniably French.

“The Mind is free, nothing but Reason can oblige it, 'tis out of the Reach of the most absolute Tyrant”: In describing the autonomy of the mind, Mary Astell writes like an early prophetess of the Enlightenment. And she sounds like a believer in unlimited secular progress when she argues that women should be free to determine and develop their own intellectual proclivities since intellectual variety was as exhilarating and beautiful as physical variety.39 The student of feminism, then, must admit to considerable consternation on discovering what her actual program was for the higher education of women. In A Serious Proposal she makes no plea that the universities should admit women as well as men; she never argues that women have as much right as men to enter the professions and take part in the public life of the nation. Rather she proposes simply the establishment of a “Monastery, or if you will (to avoid giving offence to the scrupulous and injudicious, by names which tho' innocent in themselves, have been abus'd by superstitious Practices), we will call it a Religious Retirement.” To this “Type and Antepast of Heav'n” women of gentle birth could (upon payment of five or six hundred pounds) withdraw temporarily from the world and devote themselves to intellectual pursuits, to corporal works of mercy, to the cultivation of friendship, and to the celebration of the neglected liturgy of the Anglican Church.40 In emphasis, her institution was to be “rather Academical than Monastic.”41 The “Religious” would not “trouble their heads about such unconcerning matters, as the vogue of the world has turn'd up for Learning. …” but rather would devote themselves to a course of study neither “too troublesome nor out of the reach of a Female Virtuoso; for it is not intended she shou'd spend her hours in learning words but things, and therefore no more Languages than are necessary to acquaint her with useful Authors.”42 (Elsewhere she declares that women will not pretend to be “walking Libraries” but will rest content with a “competent Knowledge of the Books of GOD, Nature I mean and the Holy Scriptures.”)43 The academy would serve “to stock the Kingdom with pious and prudent Ladies, who would so inspire the rest of their sex that women might no longer pass for those little useless and impertinent Animals.”44 But women, Mary Astell stated flatly, out of conviction or a sense of pragmatic realism, “have no business with the Pulpit, the Bar or St. Stephen's Chapel.”45

How could such radical fervor, such feminist zeal end in so tame a proposition—a “serious proposal” that, notwithstanding Mary's academic emphasis, seems to promise nothing more than a revival of Anglican nunneries?46 Perhaps a psychological explanation is in order. This feminist who had advanced radical theories might be imagined as retreating in fright when the time came to implement those theories; she might, in short, be seen as sublimating her grievances in some socially acceptable mode of behavior such as religious activity rather than daring to attack the oppressive social order. One passage at least in Mary's writings might seem to support this view of conscious sublimation, as she urges unhappy women to fix their gaze upon eternity:

She will discern a Time when her Sex shall be no Bar to the best Employments, the highest Honour; a Time when that Distinction, now so much us'd to her Prejudice, shall be no more; but provided she is not wanting to her self, her Soul shall shine as bright as the greatest Heroe's. This is a true, and indeed, the only Consolation; this makes her a sufficient Compensation for all the Neglect and Contempt the ill-grounded Customs of the World throw on her; for all the Injuries brutal Power may do her, and is a sufficient Cordial to support her Spirits, be her Lot in this World what it may.47

But one passage can hardly prove a case. And the explanation of timidity of spirit does not fit the personality of Mary Astell as projected in her own writings and as captured in characterizations of her. When a later commentator in discussing A Serious Proposal referred to the author as a “fair and elegant lady of quality,” Lady Louisa Stuart, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's granddaughter, responded with derisive glee:

This fair and elegant lady of quality was no less a person than Mistress Mary Astell, of learned memory, the Madonella of the Tatler, a very pious, exemplary woman, and a profound scholar, but as far from fair and elegant as any old schoolmaster of her time; in outward form, indeed, rather ill-favored and forbidding, and of a humor to have repulsed the compliment roughly had it been paid her while she lived.48

Lady Louisa Stuart's description rings true, and it finds an echo, as we have seen earlier, in other biographical accounts. There one feels with an absolute certainty is the Mary Astell who in Bart'lemy Fair could denounce with waspish severity the Earl of Shaftesbury and the dissolute wits of the Kit-Kat Club. There is the Mary Astell who could needle Richard Steele—no foe to women's rights—into ungenerous satire in The Tatler.49 There, too, is the fearsome polemicist who trounced Daniel Defoe for his dissenting views.50 Dean Atterbury, who had winced often enough beneath her criticism (“She strikes me very home, you see”), would recognize that Mary Astell.51 The theory of sublimation and withdrawal simply will not do: Mary Astell was no timid lady, and her religious retirement was no timid withdrawal from the world.52

What, then, is a more credible explanation? The answer lies in her conservative views on social and political issues, for only these views will illumine the true purpose of her “grand design.” In this light her proposed “Monastery” will emerge as a means of enlisting the energies of the ladies to confront, not avoid, the problems of society in her time. Our difficulty of understanding here may well lie in our tendency to assume that there is necessarily a contradiction between feminism and conservatism.

Seventeenth-century political theory was traditionally grounded in the family as the natural unit of society. The king, in a very real sense, was the father of his people and, conversely, the family was a little monarchy, patriarchal and authoritarian. And since the political order reflected the social order, it might be presumed that the civil war which saw a rebellion against the father figure, Charles I, would have significant repercussions on family relationships. Restoration plays would seem to bear out that presumption, for they show that the institution of matrimony and family authority were being submitted in the last decades of the century to lighthearted raillery and sometimes to searching analysis. The plays abound with women who elope with their lovers in defiance of parental will, demand marriage contracts to guarantee their personal freedoms, and even, in some instances, insist on the same sexual freedoms that males traditionally enjoyed. Some reject matrimony completely, choosing rather to pursue their intellectual interests or their own private pleasures.53

Had her goals been secular, Mary Astell would certainly have found reinforcement in Restoration plays. But she clearly had no wish for support from this quarter. Her contemporary, Aphra Behn, the first successful English woman dramatist, never appeared in her list of women worthy of emulation. Indeed, Mrs. Astell never spoke of plays, playwrights, or of the theater except to denounce them. The licentiousness of the Restoration stage outraged her. Marriage was sacred—“too sacred to be treated with Disrespect, too venerable to be the Subject of Raillery and Buffoonery.” He who made fun of marriage or who depicted the wife as a domestic shrew and the husband as a tyrant or a cuckold should be seen for what he truly was, “a dangerous Enemy to the Publick, as well as to private Families.”54

God had ordained marriage. And further he had willed that man should rule the family. Often enough Mary Astell lashed out spitefully against men in her writings. She chided women for deriving their image of selfworth from male esteem and for failing to realize that they were “capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless heart.” Men, she was fond of declaiming, had for centuries deliberately kept women sunk in folly and ignorance that they might tyrannize over them. This anti-male bias was a decided and, in most ways, unattractive feature of Mrs. Astell's personality. Yet despite her rancor against men, she never challenged their God-given right to rule the family. The seventeenth-century view that the wife belonged to the husband and was his property echoes in her statement, “She who has vow'd her Affections to one, and is his Property, cannot without injustice and even Perjury, parcel them out to more.” Husbands should rule justly, remembering that they were images of divine authority, but if they did not, women had no recourse but submission and no refuge but religious devotions. Not the least of matrimony's advantages, Mrs. Astell tartly observed, is the preparation it offers long-suffering women for sainthood.55

The sole rights Mrs. Astell recognized for women with respect to matrimony were negative ones and anterior to the married state—the right to reject a suitor whom one could not in good faith hope to love, and the right to remain single. Like other feminists and moralists of the time, she inveighed bitterly against those parents and guardians who were so concerned with property settlements or social advantage that they forced their unwilling charges into marriages beneath their social rank or into marriages with detested partners.56 “They only who have felt it, know the Misery of being forc'd to marry where they do not love.”57 More poignantly still, she depicted the plight of the aging unmarried woman in a society that afforded women no real alternative to matrimony. All too often lacking spiritual and intellectual resources to draw upon, the “superannuated virgin” was a tragic figure to contemplate. Mrs. Astell's “Religious Retirement” was designed to provide a refuge for her and for other unmarried women—much like the nunneries of old, but free from compulsory vows. There the young heiress could bide her time until her friends arranged a suitable match. There “Persons of Quality” who were “over-stocked” with children might “honourably dispose” of them without impairing their estates58 or forcing their daughters into marriages beneath their rank—which she saw as “ill Manners to Heaven, and an irreligious Contempt of its Favours.”59 There women—who chose not to marry or who could not find husbands—might be trained in piety and useful knowledge for service in the world.60 Women did have rights before marriage, but with marriage rights ended and duties began. “She then who Marries, ought to lay it down for an indisputable Maxim that her Husband must govern absolutely and intirely, and that she has nothing else to do but to Please and Obey.”61 Marriage for Mrs. Astell was sacred, and the family remained a little monarchy, patriarchal and authoritarian.

These conservative views on marriage are in full accord with Mary Astell's political views. Certain passages in her feminist tracts may seem to suggest that the Civil War had had a liberal impact on her thinking; but when read against her extended works on religion and politics, those passages appear in their true light as ironic arguments designed to meet an opponent on his own grounds. Did her adversary argue that absolute sovereignty was not necessary in the state? Then why was it necessary in the family, “since no Reason can be alledged for the one that will not hold more strongly for the other? If the Authority of the Husband, so far as it extends, is sacred and inalienable, why not that of the Prince?” Here Mary Astell is not challenging the authority of either the husband or the prince; she is taking logic to an extreme in order to expose the inconsistency of a double standard. Did her adversary argue the right of resistance against tyranny? Then why not extend that right (though, again, she is not advocating this) to long-suffering wives? “For whatever may be said against Passive Obedience in another Case, I suppose there's no Man but likes it very well in this, how much so ever Arbitrary Power may be dislik'd on a Throne, not Milton, not B.H. [Hoadly], nor any of the Advocates of Resistance would cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a private Tyranny.”62 Her arguments seem reasonable, but the ironic starkness of her reductive logic is meant to dissuade, not to convince. Mary Astell believed passionately in the sacred and inalienable rights of the sovereign and decried all theories of popular sovereignty and lawful resistance. The Civil War did loom large in her consciousness—but as a specter and a warning.

As she saw it, the Civil War was not an uprising by liberty-loving Englishmen against a Stuart despot but an “unnatural Rebellion” against one of the “most Virtuous and most Religious of our English Princes.” Factious sectarians, abetted by Milton, Buchanan, and those “Mercenary Scribblers whom all sober Men condemn,” had seduced the “Good natur'd English People.”63 Under the banner of popular rights and liberties, the sectarians had set out to destroy the government in church and state and in so doing had served unwittingly as dupes of Rome. Behind the hateful Puritan conspiracy Mrs. Astell detected a more dangerous and more hateful popish conspiracy. It was the Papists who spread seditious ideas, hoping thereby to engineer the overthrow of English institutions and liberties.64 Indeed, the Church of Rome continued to plot the destruction of England, conspiring even now in the reign of Anne through “that dearest Spawn of hers our English Dissenters.”65 The “Deposing Doctrine,” she declared, was “as rank Popery as Transsubstantiation,” and the theory of popular sovereignty was another popish innovation—idol worship of “Lord God the People.”66 Only God's intercession had saved England from papist malice, sectarian fury, and the tyranny of mob rule. In the Commonwealth era “the Free-born People of England” had been forced to wear “the heavy and shameful Yoke of some of the vilest of their Fellow Subjects: Till GOD was pleas'd to restore our Monarch, and with him the Exercise of our Religion, and the Liberties of the English Nation.”67 The lesson Mrs. Astell drew from the Civil War was that the established order must be preserved inviolate to protect religion, civil rights, and property. “Order is a Sacred Thing,” she concluded—the law that God had decreed for Himself and had observed from all eternity.68 She enjoined her countrymen to read and embrace the Elizabethan Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion that defined rebellion as the sin encompassing all other sins. “Let no Man dispise this true Reform'd Doctrine.”69

Such views probably occasioned some scruples about the Revolution of 1688. Although she gloried in the Revolution Settlement and referred to 1689 as “the first year of the Nations Deliverance,” her few references to James II and to the rebellion against him were oblique and ambiguous. Nothing could be “more severe and spiteful” than to argue that the Revolution of 1688 could only be justified by justifying the Parliament in 1643. But she never explained why this was so. On the opposition of the seven bishops, her position was even more noncommital:

Whether those Church-men who brought about the late Revolution did Well or Ill in't? If they did Well, why is it thrown in their Dish, why are they eternally reproach'd with it? If ill, what's to be said but that they Repent, and for the future Detest and Abjure the Men and Principles that led them into it.70

In her view, the Revolution was over. With the death of James in 1701 and the succession of Anne to the throne, even the most scrupulous non-juror should be satisfied. Englishmen could and should unite now behind altar and throne, rejoicing “under the most excellent Constitution and gentle Government in the World.”71

England's institutions were admirable, but unfortunately human nature—or at least male nature—was not. When Mary Astell reviewed the social order, as she did in Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit, she found noble institutions and noble aims corrupted by ignoble men. “The Oppression we suffer, not from our Governours, but from our Fellow-Subjects, is enough to make a wise Man mad.” A glorious monarchy was engaged in a just war, and yet the chocolate, coffee, and gaming houses were crowded with irreligious cowards “who if they were not Poltrons, wou'd be serving their Queen and Country in a Camp.”72 Dissenters openly attacked the Church of England, so admirably settled by the wise and judicious Elizabethan divines. Libertines scoffed at sacred teachings although in all ages and all societies “it was never thought a Service to the Public to expose the Established Religion, no not when it was ever so false and ridiculous in itself.” An Anglican House of Commons—“Men of Sense, Men of the Highest Power and greatest Wit, and who are the noblest Actors for Liberty and Mankind”—passed just laws only to have them perverted. The poor man who sought justice against a rich and powerful adversary discovered to his ruin that “mere Forms, Quirks and Subtilties” prevailed “over Reason and the Equity of Things” and that the best cause availed less than “the greatest Number of Friends.” And the old English nobility (“not more remarkable for their Loyalty to their Prince, than their Piety to their God”)—these natural leaders—had passed away. In their place a generation of dissolute rakes squandered their estates, unmindful of the old obligations of charity, hospitality, and liberality.73 England lived in a degenerate age, and reform would come not with a change in institutions but only with a change in hearts. Englishmen, Mary Astell noted, liked to prate of Roman liberty but failed to realize that there could be no Roman liberty without Roman virtue.74

So a moral reformation75 was called for, and in that reformation English gentlewomen, educated gentlewomen, had a mission to perform. Theirs the task “to revive the ancient Spirit of Piety in the World and to transmit it to succeeding Generations.” Trained in their “Religious Retirement” to virtue and knowledge, the ladies would go forth to counter by their wisdom and example the rising tide of infidelity:

And then what a blessed World shou'd we have, shining with so many stars of Vertue, who not content to be happy themselves alone, for that's a narrowness of mind to much beneath their God-like temper, would like the glorious Lights of Heaven, or rather like him who made them, diffuse their benign influences wherever they come. Having gain'd an entrance into Paradise themselves, they would both shew the way, and invite others to partake of their felicity.76

Their sphere of action would be the family. Mary Astell was not interested in freeing women from domestic tyranny to send them forth into the world. The ladies, in her opinion, were too much in the world already. Rather, she was intent on summoning them home—home from the play-houses and the pleasure gardens, home from the tea tables and the card tables—home to their proper sphere, the family and the hearth.

Although a traditionalist in her premise that families need the rule of a male sovereign—“Nor can there be any Society great or little, from Empires down to Private Families, without a last Resort, to determine the Affairs of that Society by an irresistible Sentence”77—Mary Astell was anything but a traditionalist in her conception of the gentlewoman's role within the patriarchal structure. She belongs in the ranks of those seventeenth-century reformers, Puritan and Anglican alike, who promoted an enlightened ideal of marriage as rational and companionate, and who elevated the status of women in marriage by assigning to them responsibility for perpetuating those domestic virtues that alone can sustain society.78 Her directives for the ideal match were simple: “let the Soul be principally consider'd, and Regard had in the first place to a good Understanding, a vertuous Mind; and in all other respects let there be as much Equality as may be. If they are good Christians and of suitable Tempers all will be well.” Marriage should be based on kindness, esteem, and, above all, on “Friendship”—that ideal of her academy that she defined as “the greatest usefulness, the refin'd and disinterest'd Benevolence, a love that thinks nothing within the bounds of Power and Duty, too much to do or suffer for its Beloved.”79 Much more than other reformers, however, Mary Astell insisted on the need to educate women to their responsibilities in marriage. Men acted against their own best interest, she argued, when they set up “the Scare-Crow of Ridicule to fright women from the Tree of Knowledge,”80 for only a woman of ingenious education could build a strong and happy marriage and reclaim, as was her duty, a wayward husband:

She who is as Wise as Good possesses such charms as can hardly fail of prevailing. Doubtless her Husband is a much happier Man and more likely to abandon all his ill Courses than he who has none to come home to and an ignorant froward and fantastick Creature. An ingenious conversation will make his life comfortable and he who can be so well entertain'd at home need not run into Temptations in search of diversions abroad.

None but a brute would be able to withstand “all those innocent arts, those gentle persuasives and obliging methods” that the virtuous and prudent wife would use to rescue him from vice.81

Equally important, an ingenious education would produce effective mothers. Mrs. Astell decried the seventeenth-century practice of turning the young over to “ignorant wet nurses” and “low-minded servants.” Again in the new reform tradition, she urged women to nurse their infants and watch over their children in their formative years to “give such Form and Season to the Tender mind of the child as will shew its good effects through all the stages of his life.”82 The proper rearing of children was a noble calling, and it was the mother's prime responsibility:

For Fathers find other business. They will not be confined to such laborious work, they have not such opportunities of observing a child's temper, nor are the greatest part of 'em like to do much good, since precepts contradicted by Example seldom prove effectual.

(Mary Astell could never resist the feminist barb!) Like the Roman matrons of yore, the educated gentlewomen would raise up a generation of patriots equal to the moral obligations of liberty. As wives and mothers, or as governesses to the children of gentle families, the ladies would carry out their mission. For the single woman, Mary Astell saw the greatest responsibilities, for “the whole World is a single Ladys Family, her opportunities of doing good are not lessen'd but encreas'd by her being unconfin'd … her Beneficence moves in the largest sphere.” To the ladies was reserved perhaps “the Glory of Reforming this Prophane and Profligate Age.”83

Such was Mary Astell's feminist vision. And when restored to full outline and perspective, its seeming paradox disappears—her mingling of radical feminist zeal with a conservative program. Her feminism was not born of liberal impulses but of conservative values. She preached not women's rights but women's duties, not personal fulfillment or self-expression but corporate responsibility, not a secular but a religious way of life. Far from being a lonely critic of the established order, she was a supporter of the Establishment and a respected and influential figure in an aggressive Anglican resurgence.84 Her plan for a “Female Monastery” was as much a contribution to that Anglican revival as her later polemical tracts against the political influence of the Dissenters.85 When the Occasional Conformity controversy seemed to threaten a Tory crisis in church and state in the early years of the eighteenth century, she joined such divines as Henry Sacheverell, Francis Atterbury, Charles Leslie, Thomas Sherwill, and Thomas Wagstaffe in defense of the Anglican cause, publishing in 1704 two bitter tracts against the Dissenters and those who favored toleration of them—Moderation Truly Stated and A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons. There is no real break here between her earlier feminist writings and these partisan attacks; they are of a piece. Conservative thought in the late seventeenth century was marked by creative energy and originality as men and women devoted to church and throne sought intellectually to hammer out a new political mythology (providential divine right replacing hereditary divine right) to justify the overthrow of James II, politically to curb the growing power of the Dissenters, and morally to bring about that reformation of manners and morals that alone could secure the Revolution of 1688.86 Mary Astell belongs to that revitalized conservative world.

A review of her career makes possible now a concluding statement on the nature and scope of English protofeminism. Feminism proper, associated with the late nineteenth century, is the doctrine of the complete equality of the sexes. Such seventeenth-century protofeminists as Mary Astell, Hannah Woolley, and Lady Mary Chudleigh made no such claim; they preached only equality of “souls” and hence, according to the philosophic understanding of the time, equality of the rational faculties God had given to men and women alike that they might achieve personal sanctity. As a matter of course, they seem to have accepted the idea of distinct masculine and feminine natures. Men and women differed physically, and since emotions were rooted in the body, it followed that the two sexes enjoyed different temperaments, different sensibilities, and different gifts. God had therefore alloted to each sex its proper sphere: as Mary Astell pointed out, men were made for public life, women for private life. In short, the sexes were equal in dignity and in moral responsibility, but different in their equivalence—and so in their appointed tasks.

Imbued as she was with the corporate view of society, believing firmly in the legitimacy of degree, priority, and place in the social order, enthralled with the rational design of the universe, Mary Astell could not recognize the antiauthoritarian and pluralistic impulses inherent in the Cartesian doctrine of the thinking self. She preached the authority of the thinking self only to free women from the tyranny of ignorance and social frivolity that they might realize in their traditional sphere their full potential as wives, mothers, and teachers of the young. That later generations of feminists would invoke that same authority against the established order was beyond the reach of her imagination. In the nineteenth century, feminists would spurn the notion of distinct natures and distinct spheres, as they claimed for women the right to participate fully in public life; by that time they would look upon domestic duties and virtues as marks of the subjugation of women. And in our time they have attacked “the feminine mystique” as an expression of male chauvinism, quite unaware that this mystique had been, to a large extent, the conscious creation of the early English feminists. Ironically, if inevitably, the later history of English feminism has done much to obscure the conservative origins of the movement, and thus to perpetuate in scholarship a liberal bias which has kept us from recognizing that, fully as much as Puritanism, secularism, and Lockean political theory, conservative Anglican thought also promoted the dignity of women, educational reform, and the ideal of companionate marriage.


  1. Hannah Woolley, The Gentlewoman's Companion (London, 1675), p. 2.

  2. A.H. Upham, “English Femmes Savantes at the End of the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XII (1913), 262. Upham provides an excellent bibliographical guide to literature in defense of the female sex by both male and female authors. For references to the woman's question in general, see Rae Blanchard, “Richard Steele and the Status of Women,” Studies in Philology, XXVI (1929), 325-55. For theoretical background of the controversy, see Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana, 1956). For studies of seventeenth-century women, see Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England 1650-1750 (1924; rpt. Gloucester, Mass., 1964) and Ada Wallas, Before the Bluestockings (London, 1929). The most useful general survey is Doris Mary Stenton, The English Woman in History (London, 1956), which covers the Anglo-Saxon era to the nineteenth century. See also Allison Adburgham, Women in Print: Writing Women and Women's Magazines from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria (London, 1972) and Margaret Phillips and William Tomkinson, English Women in Life and Letters (London, 1927), which covers the period 1650-1830. See also Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919; rpt. London, 1978), and Christina Hole, The English Housewife in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1953).

  3. Criticism of women's education had been growing since the sixteenth century. Others before Mary Astell claimed women's right to higher learning. Most notable were Anna Maria von Schurman, whose work appeared in English translation as The Learned Maid; or Whether a Maid May Be a Scholar (London, 1659) and Mrs. Bathsua Makin, author of An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues (London, 1673). Mary Astell alone proposed an institution of higher learning. Von Schurman spoke of private education and Mrs. Makin of boarding schools for “gentlewomen” of eight and nine years of age.

  4. George Ascoli, “Essai sur l'histoire des idées feministes en France, du XVI siècle à la Revolution,” Revue de Synthèse Historique, XII (1906), 168-169 as cited in Carolyn C. Lougee, Le Paradis des Femmes: Women, Salons, and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-Century France (Princeton, 1976). Lougee's study confirms Ascoli's view; she found that the seventeenth-century French “feminists” rejected custom, tradition, and religious authority.

  5. Jean E. Gagen, The New Woman: Her Emergence in English Drama 1600-1730 (New York, 1954); Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York, 1977), pp. 265, 340; Keith Thomas, “Women and the Civil War Sects,” in Crisis in Europe 1560-1660, Trevor Aston (ed.), (New York, 1968), pp. 317-40. Thomas discounts the view that Puritanism proper improved the status of women by attacking wife-beating, accepting divorce, and preaching the spiritual equality of the sexes. His argument is restricted to the later sects. For a more sociological explanation of the emergence of feminism in Restoration England, see Roger Thompson, Woman in Stuart England and America: A Comparative Study (London, 1974). He stresses imbalance in the sex ratio and economic dislocation as important causal factors.

  6. Mary Astell's works are, in chronological order:

    A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (hereafter, Serious Proposal), 4th ed.; London, 1701 [original ed.: Pt. I, 1694; Pt. II, 1697], rpt. New York, 1970). Part I of Serious Proposal went through four editions in 1694, 1695, 1696, and 1701. Part II appeared separately in 1697 and with Part I in a combined edition in 1701.

    Letters Concerning the Love of God Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris (hereafter, Letters) (London, 1695). The second and third editions appeared in 1705 and 1730.

    Some Reflections upon Marriage (hereafter, Some Reflections) (4th ed.; London, 1730 [original ed. 1700], rpt. New York, 1970). The four editions appeared in 1700, 1703, 1706, and 1730.

    Moderation Truly Stated: or a Review of a Late Pamphlet Entitul'd Moderation a Vertue with a Prefatory Discourse to Dr. D'Avenant Concerning His Late Essays on Peace and War (hereafter, Moderation) (London, 1704).

    A Fair Way with the Dissenters and Their Patrons (hereafter, Fair Way) (London, 1704).

    An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in This Kingdom (hereafter, Impartial Enquiry) (London, 1704).

    The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (hereafter, Christian Religion) (3rd. ed.; London, 1730 [original ed. 1705]). The second edition appeared in 1717.

    Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit … To My Lord * * *, By Mr. Wotton [pseudonym] (London, 1709). A second edition was published in 1722 under the title, An Enquiry after Wit.

    An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (London, 1696) is now generally attributed to Judith Drake rather than to Mary Astell. See Florence Smith, Mary Astell (1916; rpt. New York, 1966), Appendix II, pp. 173-82.

  7. George Ballard, Memoirs of British Ladies … (2nd ed.; London, 1775), p. 308.

  8. Smith, Astell, ch. 1. (For full citation see n. 6). I am indebted to this fine expository study of Mary Astell's life and work for biographical detail and for references to contemporary sources.

  9. Ballard, Memoirs, pp. 449-50. Contemporary sources refer to her as Mrs. Astell, a convention of address. For consistency, I have retained that usage.

  10. The first contemporary notice of Mary Astell appears in John Evelyn's Numismata (1697), p. 265, where she is included among the celebrated women of the age. An obituary notice in 1731 describes her as “a Gentlewoman very much admired for several ingenious Pieces … in the cause of Religion and Virtue” and praises her “elevated mind” and “Turn of Genius above what is usual in her own Sex, and not unworthy of the most distinguished Writers of the Other.” Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne, H.E. Salter (ed.), (Oxford, 1915), X, 426. For individual opinions see Smith, Astell, pp. 20, 119, 157-58, and passim.

  11. Ballard, Memoirs, p. 309.

  12. Ralph Thoresby, Diary, Rev. Joseph Hunter (ed.), (London, 1830), II, 161.

  13. Ballard, Memoirs, p. 312.

  14. Some Reflections, p. 7.

  15. Smith, Astell, pp. 31-32.

  16. Robert Halsband, The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Oxford, 1956), p. 118.

  17. Ballard, Memoirs, pp. 315, 317.

  18. Letters, pp. 1-2.

  19. Examples of “Learned Ladies” might include the Duchess of Newcastle, Anne Conway, Elizabeth Elstob; unconventional women—Lady Halkett, Celia Fiennes, Lady Ann Fanshawe; true feminists—Lady Mary Chudleigh, Judith Drake, Hannah Woolley, Aphra Behn, Damaris Masham.

  20. Letters, p. 49.

  21. Letter of Dean Atterbury to Dr. George Smalridge in Ballard, Memoirs, p. 312.

  22. Serious Proposal, pt. i, p. 6; pt. ii, p. 131; pt. i, p. 3.

  23. Letters, p. 78.

  24. Marjorie Nicolson, “The Early Stages of Cartesianism in England,” Studies in Philology, XXVI (1929), 356-74. See also Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, James Pellegrove (trans.), (Austin, 1953), Ch. 2, and Rosalie Colie, Light and Enlightenment: A Study of the Cambridge Platonists and the Dutch Arminiams (Cambridge, 1957), Ch. 4.

  25. She cited Francois Bayle who wrote The General System of Cartesian Philosophy (1670) and drew even more heavily on Arnauld's The Art of Thinking or the Port Royal Logic (1685). The latter work provided the Cartesian basis for Part II of A Serious Proposal. She also referred often to Malebranche but her knowledge of his modifications of Descartes apparently came through her correspondence with Norris, a great admirer of Malebranche. She confessed to Norris that she could not read Malebranche in French (Letters, p. 149). For Cartesian studies available in England, see Sterling P. Lamprecht, “The Role of Descartes in Seventeenth-Century England,” Studies in the History of Ideas, III (New York, 1935), 181-240.

  26. Serious Proposal, pt. ii, pp. 102, 119; pt. i, p. 144.

  27. For a striking example of the link between Cartesianism and feminism, see Michael A. Seidel, “Poulain De La Barre's The Woman as Good as the Man,Journal of the History of Ideas XXV (1974), 499-508. Poulain's work appeared in English translation in 1677, but there is no evidence that Mary Astell read it.

  28. Quoted in Gagen, New Woman, p. 56.

  29. Christian Religion, p. 296.

  30. [Lady Mary Chudleigh] The Ladies Defence: or the Bride-Woman's Counsellor Answer'd: A Poem in a Dialogue … Written by a Lady. (London, 1701).

  31. René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part I in A Discourse on Method and Selected Writings, John Veitch (trans. and ed.) (New York, 1951), p. 2.

  32. Serious Proposal, pt. i, p. 29.

  33. Letters, pp. 2-3.

  34. Serious Proposal, pt. ii, p. 98.

  35. Some Reflections, pp. 86, 60.

  36. Christian Religion, p. 206.

  37. Serious Proposal, pt. i, pp. 18, 20.

  38. Some Reflections, Appendix, p. 95.

  39. Serious Proposal, pt. ii, p. 85.

  40. Serious Proposal, pt. i, pp. 14, 16, 21-22.

  41. Serious Proposal, pt. ii, p. 157.

  42. Serious Proposal, pt. i, pp. 17-18.

  43. Serious Proposal, pt. ii, p. 159.

  44. Serious Proposal, pt. i, p. 17.

  45. Serious Proposal, pt. ii, p. 123.

  46. Ballard says that Bishop Burnet dissuaded “a certain great Lady,” perhaps Princess Anne, from endowing the academy because the proposal seemed to be “preparing a way for Popish Orders” (Memoirs, p. 307). Defoe, inspired by Mrs. Astell, planned a female academy that would correct the excesses in her proposal: See An Essay on Projects (1697). The only school Mrs. Astell actually founded was a charity school for the daughters of Chelsea pensioners.

  47. Some Reflections, p. 84.

  48. Quoted in Smith, Astell, pp. 15-16. “Madonella of the Tatler” is a reference to Swift's satire in Nos. 32 and 62 of The Tatler on a Female Academy of Platonists, presided over by Madonella. The high-minded ladies are easily seduced by rakes.

  49. The Tatler, Nos. 166 and 253.

  50. A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons (1704) was her answer to Defoe's satire, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702).

  51. Quoted in Ballard, Memoirs, p. 312.

  52. Regina Janes in “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary Or, Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft Compared,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Ronald C. Rosbotton (ed.), V (Madison, 1976), 121-39, rightly stressed Mrs. Astell's religious conservatism, but by ignoring her political writings is led to conclude that her work shows “no new ordering of thought consequent upon a new intellectual discovery,” and that her proposal resolved the conflict between ambitions and opportunities for women “by dropping out this world [sic].” (pp. 125, 127). Mrs. Astell always insisted that her “Female Monastery” was not “prejudicial to an Active Life; 'tis as far from that as a Ladys Practising at home is from being a hindrance to her dancing at Court, For an Active Life consists not barely in Being in the World, but in doing much Good in it.” (Serious Proposal, pt. ii, pp. 157-58).

  53. See Gagen, New Woman, esp. pp. 119 ff., 129 ff., 141 ff.

  54. Some Reflections, p. 16.

  55. Some Reflections, pp. 12, 23-24.

  56. See Lady Mary Chudleigh, The Ladies Defence, preface and p. 5. “Unhappy they, who by their Duty led / Are made the Partners of a hated Bed; / And by their Fathers Avarice or Pride / To Empty Fops, or Nauseous Clowns are ty'd;” and “Of Riches” in Essays upon Several Subjects (1710), p. 70. Hannah Woolley also attacked “the insufferable grief of a loathed bed” in The Gentlewoman's Companion, p. 89. These feminists, however, like Mary Astell, preached respect for parental will and submission to the authority of even a tyrannical husband. Mary Astell seems to have drawn her ideas on marriage and family life directly from Richard Allestree's The Ladies Calling (1673). The parallels are too many to be coincidental. She differs only in insisting on a serious education for women.

  57. Some Reflections, p. 7.

  58. For the striking rise in marriage costs for the aristocracy, see Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965), pp. 632-49.

  59. Some Reflections, p. 45.

  60. Serious Proposal, pt. i, pp. 35, 39.

  61. Some Reflections, p. 60.

  62. Some Reflections, Appendix, pp. 106-07; pp. 34-35.

  63. Impartial Enquiry, pp. 11, 29, 59. Mary Astell came of a strongly royalist family. The epitaph for her doughty grandfather, William Astell of Newcastle, is a curious and amusing political manifesto that recounts his sufferings for Charles I and his heavenly reward—union not with God but with his royal master—“Triumphant Charles he's gone to see” (Smith, Astell, p. 5).

  64. Mrs. Astell was steeped in Anglican writings on the Civil War. She praised most particularly Clarendon's “incomparable history.” The more bizarre notions of a Catholic conspiracy she took from the work of a now little known Anglican divine, John Foulis, whose History of the Wicked Plots and Conspiracies of our Pretended Saints showed how the sectaries “copy to the life after the Original that the Papists have set them.” She warmly recommended to her readers his “admirable Book,” History of Popish Treasons and Usurpations, which would convince them of “the Pernicious Practices of that Church” (Impartial Enquiry, pp. 37, 23). She may have been influenced, too, by “panic fears of Catholic Plots.” See Robert Clifton, “The Popular Fear of Catholics during the English Revolution,” Past and Present. No. LII, (August 1971), 23-55.

  65. Fair Way, p. 14.

  66. Impartial Enquiry, p. 23; Moderation, p. 46.

  67. Impartial Enquiry, p. 10.

  68. Moderation, p. 59.

  69. Impartial Enquiry, p. 35.

  70. Fair Way, pp. 16, 17, 22.

  71. Bart'lemy Fair, p. 55.

  72. Bart'lemy Fair, pp. 55, 109.

  73. Bart'lemy Fair, pp. 23, 54-55, 84.

  74. Moderation, p. 106.

  75. Mrs. Astell looked to antiquity for her models of reform. Her heroes were the ancient Greek statesmen—Phocion, Aristides, Themistocles, and Pericles—and those stalwart Roman patriots—Cincinnatus, Curius Dentatus, Fabricius, Decius, Fabius, and Regulus. Cincinnatus most captured her imagination: “A sorry Roman, who knew no better than to return to his Plough, from the head of a Triumphant Army, to dine upon Turneps, dress'd by his own victorious Hands.” Cincinnatus and his turnips appear in almost all of her moral exhortations to frugality, simplicity, and genuine patriotism (Moderation p. 1-9; Bart'lemy Fair, p. 9).

  76. Serious Proposal, pt. i, pp. 14, 34.

  77. Some Reflections, p. 105.

  78. Stone's thesis in The Family, Sex and Marriage is that “affective individualism” and “companionate marriage” slowly gained acceptance in England between 1500 and 1800.

  79. Some Reflections, pp. 46, 18; Serious Proposal, pt. i, p. 33.

  80. Some Reflections, p. 122.

  81. Serious Proposal, pt. i, p. 38.

  82. Ibid., pt. i, p. 38. For the reformers' views on nursing see Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage, pp. 426-32, and Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance, pp. 118 ff.

  83. Serious Proposal, pt. ii, pp. 129-30.

  84. It should be noted that with the exception of Aphra Behn the late seventeenth-century feminists were devout Anglicans.

  85. She favored “the total Destruction of Dissenters as a Party” and the suppression of their schools (Fair Way, pp. 3, 6).

  86. For the creativity of Anglican thought, see Gerald M. Straka, Anglican Reaction to the Revolution of 1688 (Madison, 1962), esp. Ch. 6. For the political crisis see Gareth Bennett, The Tory Crisis in Church and State, 1688-1730: the Career of Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester (Oxford, 1975) and John Flaningam, “The Occasional Conformity Controversy: Ideology and Party Politics, 1697-1711,” J.B.S., XVII (1977), 38-62. On the reformation of manners and morals, see Dudley Bahlman, The Moral Revolution of 1688 (New Haven, 1957).

Ruth Perry (essay date 1984)

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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 materialism of the new way of ideas. An extremely devout Anglican, she rigorously observed all the vigils, fasts, and feasts of the established church. Yet her notion of heaven was a rationalist's notion: a place where all knowledge was complete, all mysteries made clear. “Poor we that toil in Life's hard drudgerie,” she poeticized as a young woman, “Pick scraps of Knowledge here and there, / While the blest Souls above do all things know. …” To be in heaven must include being as learned as one wished to be, she thought, dwelling in a culture which increasingly valued knowledge as an instrumental means to power, but which steadfastly refused to educate its women. So she concluded that learning of an incomplete, partial sort was just one more of the imperfections of the earthly, mortal existence; but surely in the external afterlife that aspect of life was perfected too.

Astell was the daughter of a Newcastle coal merchant, educated in the way that women of her time were educated—the rudiments taught at home by her mother, and the rest picked up by solitary reading. In Mary Astell's case, there was also a bachelor uncle, a local clergyman named Ralph Astell, who is supposed to have had a hand in her education. Like all autodidacts, she was an insatiable reader in the particular areas she marked off as her own specialities. She preferred abstract theological and philosophical argument to polite literature; she wanted to understand her place in the cosmos more than she wanted to read romances or pastorals. She did not care one whit for love, it seems; and she valued the life of the mind more than the life of the body. All sensuousness was indulged at the expense of rationality, she felt; the two modes were mutually exclusive.

Mary Astell never married, but lived by herself in a little house in Chelsea, on the outskirts of London. There she carried on an active social involvement with her many friends and acquaintances, read widely, and wrote poems, letters, essays, and polemical high church pamphlets and Tory tracts. In the fifteen years from the ages of twenty-eight to forty-three, the celebrated Mrs. Astell (for she was always granted the honorific “Mrs.”) wrote six books and two rather long pamphlets: A Serious Proposal To the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, &c (1694); A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part the Second: Wherein a Method is offer'd for the Improvement of their Minds (1697); Letters Concerning the Love of God, with John Norris (1695); Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700); Moderation Truly Stated: or, A Review of a Late Pamphlet Entitul'd Moderation a Vertue (1704); An Impartial Enquiry Into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom (1704); A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons (1704); The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705); and in 1709, An Enquiry After Wit, a counterblast to Shaftesbury's A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm. She was considered remarkable—“ingenious” was the epithet most commonly used in those days—by all who knew her.

Her books are a curious mixture of the progressive and the reactionary. She read widely in the current works of philosophy, theology, and history—both Whig and Tory, high church and latitudinarian—and peppered her writing with scores of references to them. She was learned and argumentative, and extremely involved with contemporary thought and events. Thus far she seems very much an Enlightenment figure. But her positions were often less than enlightened and seemed anachronistically to come from the ideology of an earlier age. For example, she believed in the divine right of kings to rule absolutely, and urged that no one exceed a merely passive resistance even when confronted with out-and-out tyranny. On the other hand, in the private sphere, she believed in women's right to direct their own lives and wrote against men's tyranny over women in the marriage relation. She subscribed to the Enlightenment ideal of Universal Reason—that all people were endowed by their Creator with the capacity for thought. But this divinely granted Reason was to be directed first at understanding religious concepts and used in the service of straining to understand God, rather than set to work tabulating species of plants and animals, charting the movements of the planets, poring over the reports of world travelers, or any of the more practical uses to which the enthroned Reason of the Enlightenment was put.

Although it was the democratic temper of the times in which she lived that encouraged Astell, a woman, to take up cudgels in the great public pamphlet debates over Occasional Conformity, the stand she took on that issue was elitist, anti-democratic, exclusive. She opposed democratic processes as irrelevant to abstract justice, and consciously defended the class structure as it existed in the England of her day. In fact, it is fair to say that she derived her psychic strength from this class structure, and that standing upon its firm ground enabled her to tug at the well-constructed edifice of power relations between men and women. Although her family of origin no longer had wealth, they had a pedigree, and Mary Astell considered that she had been born a gentlewoman, even if her father had made his living from the revenues of the coal trade. She expected the world to honor her for her birth and was appalled to be dismissed as a mere woman. She had great intelligence and immense ambition, but there was nowhere to direct them except into an aggressive self-abnegation. It was her anger at this situation that made her militantly vocal on the subject of equality between the sexes.

What strikes one about her life and work as a whole, what marks her as a woman of the Enlightenment, is her unqualified belief in right Reason and the faith she reposed—both personally and ideologically—in the mind. She had a lonely and difficult life, and through it all seems to have found her most continuous and sustained source of pleasure in her own mind. Whatever high hopes she had when she came to London in her early twenties, she soon found herself friendless and destitute and forced to throw herself on the charity of strangers. In those early years she learned that her active mind was her only treasure and that intellectual discourse with others was the most satisfying mode of contact available to her, a single woman without family or connections.

An example of this reaching out with the mind is a letter she wrote in 1693 to John Norris, the best known Platonist philosopher of his day, a man known for having criticized Locke for relegating to God an insufficiently important role in his explorations of the way human sensations build into ideas. Mary Astell approached Norris boldly, as an intellectual equal. She had read his work and wanted to point out an inconsistency she had discovered in the third volume of his Discourses. He had argued there, she said, that people ought to love God as the efficient cause of all their pleasure. Astell, who had been living on her own in London for six years by that time, and suffering privations of the spirit as well as of the body, remarked to Norris that it appeared to her that as God was the efficient cause of all sensation—pain as well as pleasure—one was forced to the unhappy conclusion that given His responsibility for it, pain may in fact do one good. Therefore, one could not love Him merely because He was the cause of all pleasure—as Norris had stated.1

She offered the correction with relish. It was her favorite form of discourse—philosophizing on religious subjects. Furthermore, questions about the place of suffering in mortal life or the love that all people owe to God were her favorite questions. Norris, who had no way of knowing this, was astonished by the clarity and force of her argument. He answered with wonder “to see such a Letter from a Woman,” adding, “I find you thoroughly comprehend the Argument of my Discourse in that you have pitch'd upon the only material Objection to which it is liable …”2 He then hastened to defend and clarify his line of argument, and, curious to find out what else this extraordinary woman had to say, asked her to elaborate for him the rest of her views on religion and the love of God, and the implications of these concepts for human life.

Astell's response was prompt and to the point. She believed in the power and responsibility of Reason to ascertain the moral essence of ordinary experience which proceeded from God, by logically thinking through to the abstract ideas of Justice, Goodness, Honor, etc., then trying to guide one's actions in these terms. The appetites and senses had a different purpose, she maintained; they were to preserve the body. They could not be trusted to assess the spiritual meaning of experience; steady Reason was the only proper instrument for determining Truth. To this way of thinking, the power of the mind was of the utmost importance. Since it alone could abstract moral truths from the material world, it alone could lay bare the innate ideas which lay behind one's experience; it alone could lead one to God. Nothing, for instance, could be judged properly or even understood about human life on the basis of bodily sensations alone. The true nature of experience could be ascertained only by considering its relation to the ultimate purpose of life—the contemplation of Good, Charity, Justice, etc., and the love of God. Therefore, everything was secondary to training and purifying the mind for these higher purposes: “the Mind being the Man, nothing is truly and properly his Good or Evil, but as it respects his Mind …” wrote Astell.3

This explains, in part, why Mary Astell defended so fiercely her own intellectual powers and those of all women against belittling criticism: in a universe governed by moral considerations, the ability to think clearly to the very center of things, to weigh ethical choice, was not merely an academic luxury, but crucial to one's spiritual salvation. One had to ascertain the moral Truth before one could follow it: “Clearness of Head … is necessary to th' obtaining Purity of Heart.”4 One's reason was one's only ladder to Heaven, and the improving and strengthening of it a religious act.

It is no wonder, then, that the first subject on which Mary Astell published was the need for women's education. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) was her most popular book; it went through four editions by 1697. In it she tried to persuade an audience of wealthy, unmarried women to join together and pool their dowries in order to finance collective ventures for mutual education—something like women's residential colleges. She imagined these places as little communities of women, as havens from the pressures of the marriage market, and so she stated her proposal in the form of a plea for an alternative society for unmarried women as well as an argument for women's intellectual equality.

In 1697 she published a second part to A Serious Proposal To The Ladies. Its starting premise was that since no one had followed her suggestion to institute schools in which women could train their minds, she thought it incumbent upon her to write a manual for thinking, a kind of “how-to-do-it” book to be used at home, for those who wanted to improve their natural reasoning capacities. For those eager but uneducated women, Mary Astell distilled books which had guided several generations of philosophers such as Les Principes de la Philosophie de M. Descartes and Antoine Arnauld's L'Art de Penser, laying out step-by-step the methods which these thinkers claimed were necessary to attain truth.

She warned that clearing the mind of distractions and misconceptions was no easy matter. “They who apply themselves to the Contemplation of Truth, will perhaps at first find a Contraction or Emptiness of Thought, and that their Mind offers nothing on the Subject they wou'd consider … and tho' not empty of all Thought, yet Thinks nothing clearly or to the purpose.”5 One had to begin with a meditative shedding of worldly attachments.

We can neither Observe the Errors of our Intellect, nor the Irregularity of our Morals whilst we are darkened by Fumes, agitated with unruly Passions, or carried away with eager Desires after Sensible things and vanities. We must therefore withdraw our Minds from the World, from adhering to the Senses, from the Love of Material Beings, of Pomps and Gaities; for 'tis these that usually Steal away the Heart, that seduce the Mind to such unaccountable Wanderings, and so fill up its Capacity that they leave no room for Truth …6

She felt that women, raised to be playthings or drudges, their lives filled with distraction and frivolity, were particularly susceptible to these “Fumes” and “eager Desires,” “Pomps and Gaities.” They stood in special need of disciplined thought as a kind of machete to hack through the underbursh of false ideas and corrupt values which always surrounded them. Ideas firmly rooted in sensation were, like weeds, hard to extirpate; as Locke had demonstrated, that was the common soil in which they grew. “For tho we are acquainted with the Sound of some certain words, e.g. God, Religion, Pleasure and Pain, Honor and Dishonour, and the like,” she wrote, “yet having no other Ideas but what are convey'd to us by these Trifles we converse with, we frame to ourselves strange and awkward notions of them, comfortable only to those Ideas sensation had furnish'd us with, which sometimes grew so strong and fixt, that 'tis scarce possible to introduce a new Scheme of Thoughts, and so to disabuse us, especially whilst these Objects are thick about us.”7 A woman without any other basis for understanding “who sees her self and others respected in proportion to that Pomp and Bustle they make in the world, will form her Idea of Honour accordingly,”8 she explained.

When a poor Young Lady is taught to value her self on nothing but her Cloaths, and to think she's very fine when well accoutred. When she hears say that 'tis Wisdom enough for her to know how to dress her self, that she may become amiable in his eyes, to whom it appertains to be knowing and learned; who can blame her if she lay out her Industry and money on such Accomplishments, and sometimes extends it farther than her misinformer desires she should? … What tho' she be sometimes told of another World, she has however a more lively perception of this, and may well think, that if her Instructors were in earnest when they tell her of hereafter, they would not be so busied and concerned about what happens here.9

One had to make a clearing, to begin as Descartes did in his warm Bavarian farmhouse, locked away from the temptations and distractions of the world in comfortable isolation. Astell herself spent many hours every day alone in silent thought and meditation. Everywhere in her writings there is an awareness of the preciousness of time and an injunction not to waste it in mere social bustle and activity.

Norris may have introduced Astell to Descartes, as he surely urged her to read Antoine Arnauld's L'Art de Penser (1662). Sometimes referred to as “The Port Royal Logic”, this book had gone through six French editions and three English editions by the time A Serious Proposal to The Ladies Part II was published, the earliest in 1674 at the urging of John Locke and with the “recommendation and approbation” of the Royal Society of London.10 In their published letters, Norris also recommends to Astell the works of a number of other systematizing French philosophers of the seventeenth century: Sylvain Régis' Systeme de Philosophie (1690) and Nicholas Malebranche's Recherche de la Vérité (1674).11 But M. Arnauld's L'Art de Penser was the book which most affected Astell's sense of what was involved in thinking clearly and systematically.

The second part of A Serious Proposal to The Ladies, then, demonstrates the influence that John Norris exercised over Astell at this point in her career. Indeed, her book might be read as a training manual for Norris' brand of Christian platonism. Certainly it incorporates the notions of those thinkers who had been seminal for Norris, whom he always recommended for beginners: Descartes, Malebranche, and, above all, Antoine Arnauld. But Astell prepared their ideas for an audience of uneducated women and presented the methods rather more schematically than one finds in the original. Much of A Serious Proposal to The Ladies Part II is a précis or paraphrase of what Arnauld had outlined, in textbook fashion, as the steps for rigorous thought. Arnauld had written L'Art de Penser quickly, on a dare, as a summary of everything an amateur philosopher might need to know for clear, logical, step-by-step thinking. It quickly became a method book, the handbook for every philosopher of that century. Its impulse was practical, pedagogical. It gave Astell the system she was looking for, and at the same time verified her earlier conviction that a trained mind, because it clarified human choice, was necessary to secular and religious welfare alike.

Arnauld had argued that ideas were not respresentative (Platonic) entities, but merely the perceptual or cognitive acts of limited and finite beings, and therefore they had to be tested and examined before they could be relied upon. In discussing this process of test and examination, in giving instruction for the cultivation of the mind, he anticipated many of the epistemological questions that were to come out of eighteenth-century empiricism: how ideas arise; what are the relations between these ideas and the “reality” which initiates them, the “reality” we think of as visible in the material world; and finally, what is the degree of certainty of our knowledge. Arnauld was not interested in these questions as epistemological paradoxes, as later philosophers have been. He deemed his enterprise useful for other reasons, most particularly because he thought that the mind could perceive truth, if only it was properly trained.

Nothing is more to be esteemed than aptness in discerning the true from the false. Other qualities of mind are of limited use, but precision of thought is essential to every aspect and walk of life. To distinguish truth from error is difficult not only in the sciences but also in the everyday affairs that men engage in and discuss. Men are everywhere confronted with alternative routes—some true and others false—and reason must choose between them. Who chooses well has a sound mind; who chooses ill, a defective one. Capacity for discerning the Truth is the most important measure of men's minds.

Our principal task is to train the judgment, rendering it as exact as we can. To this end the greatest part of our studies should be devoted.

We are accustomed to use reason as an instrument for acquiring the sciences, but we ought to use the sciences as an instrument for perfecting the reason: Accuracy of mind is infinitely more important than any speculative knowledge acquired from the truest and most established sciences.12

Astell followed this line closely, although she emphasized less the need for an acute mind to distinguish true from false in “every-day affairs” and public life (“Men are everywhere confronted with alternative routes”) and was more concerned with everyone's private responsibility for living a principled life—and struck with the impossibility of doing so without a good understanding of moral reasoning.

… everyone who pretends to Reason, who is a Voluntary Agent and therefore Worthy of Praise or Blame, Reward or Punishment, must Chuse his Actions and determine his Will to that Choice by some Reasonings or Principles either true or false, and in proportion to his Principles and the Consequences he deduces from them he is to be accounted, if they are Right and Conclusive a Wise Man, if Evil, Rash and Injudicious a Fool. If then it be the property of Rational Creatures, and Essential to their very Natures to Chuse their Actions, and to determine their Wills to that Choice by such Principles and Reasonings as their Understandings are furnish'd with, they who are desirous to be rank'd in that Order of Beings must conduct their Lives by these Measures, begin with their Intellectuals, inform themselves what are the plain and first Principles of Action and Act accordingly.13

To think properly about the “plain and first Principles of Action”, one had to learn to use language accurately and to clarify one's terms first, by separating and distinguishing the ideas annexed to each word. “Thus many times our Ideas are thought to be false when the fault is really in our Language, we make use of Words without joyning any, or only loose and indeterminate Ideas to them, Prating like Parrots who can Modify Sounds, and Pronounce Syllables …”14 She warned her women readers to pay particular attention to their use of “particles”—what we call conjunctions—the words which provide the connections among ideas. She advised them to read Locke's section on “particles” in Book III of the Essay on Human Understanding. She stressed accuracy in the use of this part of speech, because although she did not think women as illiterate as generally they were thought to be—and was convinced that they often pretended to spell worse than they knew how in order to avoid being called proud, pedantic, or unwomanly—still, she believed that the grammatical mistake women were most commonly prey to was the misuse of “particles” or conjunctions, which denoted the relationship between clauses and therefore between ideas.

She agreed with Arnauld that the mind followed a natural course in reasoning; this, of course, was another proof that human beings with minds were intended to think.15 Her method built upon this natural capacity, and its steps were an amalgam of Descartes' Rules for the Direction of the Mind and the Port Royal Logic reworked into five parts: 1) define the questions and the terms; 2) weed out all issues which are not directly connected to the matter under consideration; 3) proceed in an orderly fashion; 4) examine every aspect of the subject; subdivide the question into as many parts as is necessary for perfect understanding; 5) judge no farther than you perceive; take nothing for truth that has not been proved.

After setting out these rules with many qualifications and examples, Astell demonstrated the method practically, taking as her sample questions the old conundrums of whether or not there was a God or a Perfect Being, and whether or not a rich man was necessarily a happy man. The import of her discussion was, as usual, to show that the truth which could be arrived at by a series of logical steps was often counter-intuitive. That is, one could prove the existence of God even if He was not available to the senses; and wealth was not a necessary or sufficient condition for happiness although worldly wisdom deemed it so. In part this was a purely abstract position, derived ultimately from Plato, with a heavy dose of Cartesian rationalism. But in part it was psychological protection against a universe of thought which took women to be inferior to men in intellect, moral judgment, and perception. To reason from abstract principles rather than from “things as they are”, was to ignore the bias of the social world, to invest the solitary thinking mind with the capacity to arrive at truth regardless of education or experience, and, for a woman, to thus be elevated to equality with men in one swift movement.

This then, was the starting place for Astell's feminism: a belief in an immaterial intellect which had no gender but was an essential feature of all human nature, and whose purpose was to discover and articulate nature and moral principles abstracted from the imperfect world. Because she believed in a firm and immutable Truth, which all minds were capable of reaching given time and training, it followed that women were equal to men in the only respect that mattered. The miracle of reason itself seemed to bless her logic, for surely that marvelous faculty was a sign of something “too Divine, to have it once imagin'd that it was made for nothing else but to move a portion of Matter 70 or 80 Years”.16 Everything in the divinely ordered universe had an end or purpose for which it was fitted and predestined, and human beings with their extraordinary faculties were obviously meant to engage in philosophic pursuits, so that they might discover and disseminate Truth.

For, since GOD has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, why should they be forbidden to improve them? Since he has not denied us the faculty of Thinking, why Shou'd we not (at least in gratitude to Him) employ our Thoughts on Himself their noblest Object, and not unworthily bestow them on Trifles and Gaities and secular Affairs? Being the Soul was created for the contemplation of Truth, as well as for the fruition of Good, is it not as cruel and unjust to exclude Women from the knowledge of the one, as well as from the enjoyment of the other? Especially since the Will is blind, and cannot chuse but the direction of the Understanding; or to speak more properly, since the Soul always Wills according as she Understands, so that if she Understands amiss, she Wills amiss: And as Exercise enlarges and exalts any Faculty, so thro' want of using, it becomes crampt and lessened; if we make little or no use of our Understandings we shall shortly have none to use; and the more contracted, and unemploy'd the deliberating and directive Power is, the more liabile is the elective to unworthy and mischievious options.17

One of the unmistakable signs of this divine gift, to Mary Astell's mind, was her own uplifting ambition, a powerful yearning to work toward some worthwhile goal, to employ her thoughts on the noblest objects rather than to “unworthily bestow them on Trifles and Gaities and secular Affairs.” This idealistic urge—which in overly-protected and unworldly women is uncertain of how to find and devote itself to the “noblest object”—has been brilliantly described by George Eliot in the person of her thwarted heroine of Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke. The description of this woman, ardent and striving, puts one in mind of Mary Astell. George Eliot's depiction of the elder Miss Brooke's solitary reading, her religious bent, her scorn for the usual women's frivolities, is a picture whose essential outline delineates an important aspect of this intellectual woman of an earlier time. With an accurate intuition, Eliot has her heroine image herself born in the seventeenth century. “Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you,” she asks her pedantic husband-to-be, “as Milton's daughters did to their father, without understanding what they read?” Like Mary Astell, Dorothea fed her spiritual hunger on treatises, particularly those of fervent writers who described their struggles for faith in the face of the growing materialism of the seventeenth century. Like George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke, Mary Astell “knew many passages of Pascal's Pensees and of Jeremy Taylor's by heart; and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam.” Eliot continues: “She could not reconcile the anxieties of the spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in guimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception …”18 Like Dorothea Brooke, Mary Astell was driven by a powerful ambition to turn her idealism and youthful energy to account for mankind, all the while conscious of the anomaly of these sentiments in a woman's breast.

When she was eighteen, she wrote these self-conscious lines about her ambition, identifying it as that more-than-mortal aspect of herself which must have come from God or the “first mover.”

What's this that with such vigour fills my breast?
          Like the first mover finds no rest,
          And with it's force dos all things draw,
Makes all submit to its imperial Law!
Sure 'tis a spark 'bove what Prometheus stole,
          Kindled by a heav'nly coal,
          Their sophistry I can controul,
Who falsely say that women have no soul.

The poem goes on to say that she is not ambitious for the usual things, for land or titles, wealth or fame, things which a woman she had no way of attaining in any case. Her ambition is for a “Crown of Glory,” a figure of speech implying both heavenly reward and the martyrdom of the crown of thorns, the perfect combination of faith and humility. “I scorn to weep for Worlds” she wrote from her front parlour, never noting the ironies of the male military images,

… May I by reign
          And Empire o're my self obtain,
          In Caesars throne I'de not sit down
Nor wou'd I stoop for Alexanders Crown.

It was her standard paradox, the inverse relation of the worldly to the divine: the more substantial the material rewards, the less valuable the spiritual gains. The reason for teaching women how to think was so that they might be able to distinguish between the motives of this world and the next. The vision had to be retrained, so to speak, so that one could distinguish the true Good and make life choices accordingly. Reason was to be exercised in the service of spiritual improvement.

As I have suggested, Astell's insistence on sweeping away material considerations was in part motivated by a desire to put men and women on an equal footing before God. And indeed, when looked at closely, what Astell claimed about equal educational opportunities for women was very different from what others said who wrote about the subject.19 It was generally held that women's minds were inferior to men's minds—or at least different from them. The usual reasons for educating women did not include making great scholars or artists of them, but only making them fit company for men and capable of educating their children in rudimentary literacy. These claims often entailed an argument against the current prejudice that education rendered women unfit for marriage and domesticity, or that it weakened their morals, or both.

Astell never merely argued with the other “educationalists” that women had a right to an education. She also criticized the social institutions (schools, marriage) which thwarted women's intellectual ambition and thereby prevented their most important human function. She was convinced that women's intellectual shortcomings were entirely due to social prejudice and lack of training, rather than to anything innate. “So partial are Men as to expect Brick where they afford no straw,” she said.20 This was a very different message from that broadcast by other “educationalists” of the seventeenth century. She recognized that the attitude towards gender in her society was oppressive; she was not simply in favor of extending the opportunity for formal learning to more people. She thought the potential and capabilities of the female mind and spirit had to be completely reassessed.

This insistence on an extended vision of human rights and recognition of a wider equality is certainly consistent with the spreading democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. But Astell stopped with herself. As I mentioned earlier, she saw nothing wrong with a class-stratified society or with an inherited hierarchy in the state. Her women's colleges were intended for upper-class women—at most for “decayed gentlewomen”—and not for women from the lower ranks of the social order. To be fair, it must be noted that in 1709 she helped to set up a school at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea for the poor daughters of outpensioners, veterans of England's foreign wars. That is, she crusaded for literacy for women, even poor women. But her irritation at sex prejudice did not extend to class prejudice, and she never breathed a word to undermine privilege. The friend whom she appointed her executrix had been a slave-owner, a fact which they both probably took for granted without discomfort. Her associates and patrons were wealthy and pious women from the highest circles of the aristocracy, women who supported her financially; she was very respectful of their status. In various places in her writings one hears a note of smug, self-congratulatory class consciousness, as when she eulogizes the gentry and sneers at the “rabble”—hardly the tone of the democratic political rhetoric of the Enlightenment.

In terms of national politics, too, Astell's attitudes are more easily characterized as counter-Enlightenment. For one thing, she was an ardent monarchist, resisting every step of the way the progressive pull of the seventeenth century towards republican government. She thought the emphasis on individual liberty rather than on the prerogatives of the monarch was an extremely dangerous tendency. A king had to embody certain unwavering principles, she said; he could not be responsible to the passion and folly of each man in his kingdom. In a state which allowed authority to be questioned it was unavoidable that strong and cunning men would successively usurp the power of the state for their own ends, “under the specious Pretences of the People's Rights and Liberties.”21 This is what had happened, she felt, in the Civil War, and she could cite Clarendon chapter and verse on the details.22 Although she conceded Locke's genius, she disagreed with him on this as on everything else. In this famous Two Treatises of Government, written circa 1682 but published anonymously the year after the Glorious Revolution, he described government as a voluntary association among free men to better preserve their lives, liberties, and property. If the government did not answer these needs of its people, he asserted, the people had the right to seek another.23 Mary Astell countered: “The people have no Authority over their own Lives, consequently they don't invest such an Authority in their Governours.”24

Mary Astell held that the laws of God and man required unquestioning obedience to ordained authority at all times. Civil peace and prosperity in a kingdom depended upon this unshakeable rule, for otherwise subjects spent all their energies dealing with power—whether seizing it or protecting it—rather than in more constructive and productive pursuits. Rulers, Astell thought, had a duty to “vigorously exert that lawful Authority GOD had given them” and to prevent rebels from infecting the minds of their people “with evil Principles and Representations, with Speeches that have double Meanings and equivocal Expressions, Innuendo's, and secret Hints and Insinuations.”25 A free press and a free pulpit produced a factionalized, dissatisfied, rebellious population, she thought: no sensible government could afford to permit slander and subversion to go unchecked.

This insistence on intellectual coercion is an unexpected turn for a woman who placed so much emphasis on right Reason, who believed that the mind had a natural affinity for truth and that the Universe was governed by Intelligence. Yet Astell agreed with Swift's Brobdingnagian king who “knew no reason why those who entertain opinions prejudicial to the public be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. … For a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closets, but not to vend them about as cordials.”26 She thought that anonymous political pamphlets ought to be outlawed and that critics of the monarchy or of the established church ought to be forced to acknowledge the views they printed, in broad daylight as it were, and to be punished accordingly. As Bolingbroke stated it: the “good of society may require that no person be deprived of the protection of the government on account of his options in religious matters,” but it did not follow that “men ought to be trusted in any degree with the preservation of the establishment, who must, to be consistent with their principles, endeavor the subversion of what is established.”27

She believed that authority needed to be respected, right or wrong, and that even when rulers behaved contrarily to the dictates of sense or religion, a loyal subject was bound to accord them at least a “passive obedience.” This was the byword of the conservative Tory position in the reign of William and Mary, and it implied that even if James II had been an impossible monarch, the citizenry had no right to depose him. It was often accompanied by a belief in “passive resistance,” a kind of latter-day conscientious objection. One could refuse to obey intolerable commands—the way the Anglican clergy refused to read James' Declaration from the pulpit—but one could not rebel or actively oppose the divinely appointed sovereign. Those who held to this doctrine after the events of 1688 were distinctly High Tory, and some of them extended their principled resistance by refusing to endorse oaths of loyalty to William and Mary. These non-jurors, as they were called, believed that their oaths of loyalty to James II could not be retracted while he lived, nor superseded by oaths to a “usurper.” Many non-jurors lost their positions in the church or the universities because of their stands, much as American academics in the 1950s suffered consequences for openly refusing to sign loyalty oaths. Theirs was a non-violent refusal to comply with the government, a conservative alternative to the solution offered by Locke and other political thinkers, who claimed that the people had the right to overthrow the government when it did not answer their needs, and reinstate another that did.

Those who believed in passive obedience insisted that one could only resist the government in non-violent ways, because anything more was a crime against divinely ordained succession and so ultimately a crime against God. As such, the doctrine implied a total belief in the jurisdictional rights of one's governors, even though one ultimately had to consult one's own conscience on moral questions. It assumed no responsibility on the part of the government towards the governed, and implied that subjects ought never actively question or resist, let alone violently contest, the dictates of their rulers. Locke sneered at it as a political solution: “Who would not think it an admirable peace betwixt the mighty and the mean when the lamb without resistance yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf? … no doubt Ulysses, who was a prudent man, preached up passive obedience, and exhorted his company to a quiet submission by representing to them of what concernment peace was to mankind, and by showing the inconveniences which might happen if they should offer to resist Polyphemus, who had not the power over them.”28

Astell would have argued that Polyphemus was far from being a lawfully constituted authority.

Mary Astell was twenty-two at the time of the Glorious Revolution, and what it had meant to her was that violence and disorder were part and parcel of political change. For over a year her native city of Newcastle had been riven with riots, conspiracies, charges and countercharges. A few months after William and Mary were crowned, a rioting mob (infiltrated, they said, by rebellious covenanters from across the Scottish border) tore up the fine new bronze statue of James II from the center of town, and threw it into the Tyne. Astell's family had been outraged, as were all the families of the coal barons, for they remained steadfastly loyal as a group to the Stuarts. For the rest of her life, Mary Astell maintained that chaos and violence were the inevitable effects of tampering with monarchical succession. Factionalism always brought discontent and conspiracy.

She took the concomitant stand against religious toleration. Open dissent had dangerous political implications, as far as she was concerned. Because England had a national religion, the interests of the church and state could not be separated. It would start, she said, with objections to the forms of the religious service of the national church, but before long the objections would be directed at the form of government. The consequence of such disagreements was civil strife such as had threatened the country throughout the seventeenth century. These were matters too serious to be bandied about in a free marketplace of ideas.

Mary Astell's position on this question of religious toleration can be seen most clearly in her controversy with Shaftesbury over the handling of the French Huguenots in London, an issue to which he addressed himself in his A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708), the piece which later became the first treatise of Characteristics. A closer look at the details of Shaftesbury's essay and at Astell's refutation of the principles he enunciates there will illustrate her “counter-Enlightenment” position, and the reasoning which lay behind it.

Originally a private letter addressed to Lord Somers, Shaftesbury's A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm had been occasioned by the activity of a group of French Protestant enthusiasts, known to us as “the French prophets,” who had come to England seeking toleration in 1706, and had become increasingly, notoriously, public about the fits, seizures, and mystical visions which were to them the signs of their religious faith. The English, already in the throes of their own internal controversy about religious toleration—a bitter and widespread dispute over the terms of the Occasional Conformity Bill—were not receptive to such exotic religionists. No one welcomed the example of these inspirées with their seizures and mystical visions, who deserved sympathy for being hounded from papist France, but were more uncomfortably extreme in their religious fits than the most zealous nonconformists. Disapproving tracts, broadsides, and pamphlets against them began to appear. By 1708 they were considered so much a public nuisance by some that there was talk of silencing them legally.29

A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm was a generous-spirited bid for rational response to these enthusiasts. It was absurd, said Shaftesbury, to try to legislate in matters of religion any more than one would want to legislate the proper way to do mathematics, or the standards for wit. Religious fervor, he continued, was like a kind of temporary insanity, a “Pannick”—like being in love—and until it passed, the person seized by it was not likely to be able to hear any criticism. The best way to handle the distasteful excess and extravagance of the French prophets was not by withdrawing from them the rights of the famed English liberty of conscience, but by ridiculing them, exposing them to the laughter they deserved. Truth would always bear up under ridicule and the rest would simply drop away. Provided the investigation was mannerly, he said, religion could not be treated with “too much good Humor, or [examined] with too much Freedom & Familiarity.” To legislate against the French prophets would elevate them to the status of martyrs, give them more attention than they merited. Why, if the Jews had only had the idea to put on puppet shows about Jesus, he went on, “I am apt to think they wou'd have done our Religion more harm, than by all their other ways of Severity.”30

Mary Astell was appalled by Shaftesbury's attitudes when she read the piece, and after a little urging from her friends, with whom no doubt she had amply aired her opinion of these ideas, she wrote Bart' lemy Fair: or, An Enquiry After Wit (1709), which was her answer to this dangerous liberalism. The author was just the sort of deistical Enlightenment thinker whom Mary Astell detested. She considered his thought weak and sentimental, and dangerous to the social order. Moreover, this “letter” was catching on and having too powerful an effect among disputants in London's fashionable drawing rooms. Someone had to answer it. To begin with, she violently opposed his conception of religion. Where she believed in a personified God, an Authority to be reckoned with and treated with utmost respect, this author wrote about religion conceptually, as a set of propositions to be bought and sold in the free market-place of ideas. Furthermore, she had always considered the tenets of the established church to be logically consistent, and founded on a series of inductions, which began by assuming the centrality of human reason to the meaning of human life. And here was this writer saying that religion was a “Pannick,” an ill-founded, over-heated, superstitious feeling, and that even Christianity might have been blighted in the bud if it had been subjected to ridicule in its early days. She certainly did not approve of the French prophets, but she did not think religion a fit subject for ridicule in any circumstances:

For until this Blessed Age of Liberty! which has made us so much Wiser than our Fathers, and that Men of Wit, found it turn to their Account to be thought Men of Business; it was never thought a Service to the Public to expose the Establish'd Religion, no not when it was ever so false and ridiculous in it self, to the Contempt of the People.31

Astell did not know exactly who had written A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, although she knew it was someone of an aristocratic, educated, Whiggish stamp, someone bold and confident, in sympathy with the new way of ideas, scornful of the restraints of the past, hailing liberty, and optimistic about the natural order which would be laid bare when the encrustations of custom and superstition were cleared away. It is “a very Drawcansir of a Book” said Mary Astell, comparing it to a burlesque swashbuckling character in a play written by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, a character whose bombastic speeches and attitudinizing sword play satirized the idealized heroics of contemporary tragedies. “It cuts and slashes all that Men have hitherto accounted Sacred; is so fierce a hero, as to fright the Good Christian.32

Shaftesbury held that optimistic view of mankind subscribed to by forward-thinking natural philosophers of his day: that human beings left to their own devices would gradually find their way to the Good. The problem lay in repression, in external pressures which distorted the natural process. People were by nature sensible, rational beings, and if they were not manipulated sooner or later they would arrive at the Truth of any matter.

Mary Astell was disturbed by the lack of attention to any kind of self-discipline in such a formulation. “… in our Father's Days, excessive and unrestrain'd Liberty might perhaps be call'd Licentiousness”, she reproved. She was aware that her point of view was old-fashioned, dated, and that A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm had been very well received by urbane Londoners: “… it is cry'd up as a Non-Pariello for Language, Thought, and all that—'Tis industriously spread in the nation; put, by way of ABC, into the hands of every young Fellow, who begins to speak great swelling words … And sent, by way of Mission, into Foreign Parts. …” Nevertheless, these new-fangled notions held by the young Whig Lords, and the way they conducted themselves, were a betrayal of the ideas she has been brought up on.

Our Antient English Peerage were of another strain; they were not more remarkable for their Loyalty to their Prince, than their Piety to their GOD. They subdu'd themselves, as well as their Enemies. Their Health was not consum'd in Debauchery, nor were their Estates squander'd in Vanity, Gaming and Luxury; but Generously bestow'd in charity, Hospitality and Liberality. Real Merit only obtain'd their Friendship; and whatever a Man's Outward Circumstances might be, if his Mind was great enough to emulate and follow, much more if it was able to set a Pattern of the most Generous, Virtuous and Noble Actions, he was duly qualify'd for their Esteem and kindness … They despis'd a Man who wou'd forsake his own Reason, and blindly follow other Men's; who wou'd violate his Conscience to make his Fortune or save his Estate; and who had either no Principles, or such as wou'd conform to every Fashion.”33

This description of a mythologized English patriarchy shows Astell's basically feudal impulse when registering the changes she witnessed in her society. How could “men of wit” or “men of business” compare with such idealized integrity? Their modern “freedom” was really a kind of ignominious enslavement to the senses, to the material world, and to each other's opinions—whereas the dignified and self-regulated freedom of their forefathers had been a truer freedom of the spirit. She thought it a bad trade to exchange established institutions, faith, and stability for a Whig notion of “liberty.”

The heart of her critique lay in rejecting the “state of Nature” which Shaftesbury assumed. As she pointed out, no one ever had been or ever would be as free as his line of reasoning demanded that people be. Free and impartial criticism as an intellectual process was not possible so long as the power relations among people were unequal. Rank, property and titles would have to be abolished before all ideas could be approached by the generality of humankind with the utter neutrality which his theory posited. Market-place thinking could only work in the most benign circumstances, ideal circumstances which never obtained in the real world. “Were Matters ballanc'd, were no other Force us'd but that of Wit and Raillery, Reason wou'd have fair play, Mankind wou'd flourish. Wonderful wou'd be the Harmony and Temper arising from all these Contrarieties, they wou'd make up that right Humor, which the Letter contends for, as going more than half way toward Thinking rightly of Everything.” She thought his emphasis on “right Humor” absurd and naive, as if all the hatred and internecine fighting of English history during the seventeenth century could be attributed to the peevish petulance of men being out of humor. “And Men being mildly treated, and let alone,” she added sarcastically, “they wou'd never Rage to that degree as to occasion Blood-shed, Wars, Persecutions and Devastations in the World; which proceed from nothing else but their being put out of Humor, by not being permitted to do what they will.”34

Mary Astell's critique of Shaftesbury's liberal permissiveness was based on a profound distrust of any political solution which did not have the weight of custom, religious sanction, and absolute law behind it—such that it could withstand the vicissitudes of party politics, economic interest, and the other winds of change which blew from different directions with varying and unpredictable force, continually threatening the stability of the state. Her philosophical belief in idealized Platonic forms is consistent with her political belief in a stable ruling class which limited the political responsibility of all others in managing the affairs of the state. Reasoning from fallible, self-centered, individualized definitions of right and wrong meant sacrificing the possibility of perfection at the outset, whether one was trying to define absolute moral virtue as distinct from private good, or trying to enunciate a public policy for England which did not concern itself with the interests of separate, fragmented groups.

Her judgment was not simpleminded. She was well aware of the nature of the problem she was grappling with. She fully understood the point of those who felt that the citizenry had the right to make and unmake government as it answered the needs of the governed. She also responded to the pull of empiricism, the appeal of commonsensical and verifiable truths over the abstract and the idealized. But she braced herself to resist that pull because she saw that what these political and philosophical attitudes sacrificed to a freeing relativity was belief in absolute authority—a belief that was the cornerstone of an ethical system, to her mind, and the only means to lasting civil peace.

These conclusions can hardly be called paradigms of Enlightenment thought. Whenever she had a chance, Astell attacked what today we would call the central principles of the Enlightenment: the rights of individuals within the state, religious toleration, and class leveling. Instead of questioning authority, she strenuously defended it, both on historical and theoretical grounds. She thought of most objections to monarchical government as seditious.

Nor can she be considered a member of the other recognized intellectual camp of the English Enlightenment, the so-called Tory satirists, which included men like Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot and Bolingbroke. With the exception of a few points in her refutation of Shaftesbury, she was not interested in anatomizing the limitations of the sensibility which was destroying her beloved traditionalism. She did not lampoon the rising commercial interests or the materialism of the new empirical science. Although she felt called upon the defend the disembodied, spiritual nature of the soul from Locke's materialistic ontogeny,35 for the most part she valued the spirit of discovery abroad in the culture; and she bent her efforts to reconciling the areas of religion and science by showing that they were not mutually exclusive but explored different kinds of knowledge. Like all figures of the past, Mary Astell exhibited a mixture of those attitudes which we have come to think of as typifying her historical period, as well as some which seem out of joint with her time.

I would still argue, however, that in spite of some of her anachronistic attitudes, Mary Astell must be understood as a phenomenon of the Enlightenment. That she wrote and published—if not under her own name, at least without obscuring her authorship—and maintained her respectability through it all, was a sign of the times. Women's writing for an audience larger than immediate family and friends was not really in evidence until the end of the seventeenth century or even the beginning of the eighteenth century. Although women wrote in England from the time of the Restoration—Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn wrote imaginative literature (poems, plays, and novels)—they had not formerly trespassed on the more “serious” intellectual territory men had traditionally occupied (philosophy, theology, history, and political commentary). When women wrote for public consumption in that earlier period they forfeited their reputations: they were refused access to the best drawing rooms or were stigmatized as eccentric, sexually loose, or otherwise unseemly. The fact that Mary Astell gained a following among certain aristocratic women because she was an author—the fact that her published work elevated her to their level and gave her a prominence which neither her birth nor her financial status could confer—is a sign of the times in which they all lived.

Intellectual activity enjoyed a new prestige in secular culture in the early eighteenth century. London was a sophisticated urban center where controversies on all subjects raged in the many journals and pamphlets for which there was a remarkably wide readership. Astell came to hold her place in that society precisely because it valued individual accomplishment, departures from tradition, and literate intellectual polemic—no matter what her own views on these matters were. One could say that the Enlightenment atmosphere drew forth and encouraged certain aspects of Astell's human repertoire: her intellectuality, her argumentativeness, and her pride in self. These qualities resonated with the zeitgeist even though the particular content of her own ideas ran counter to it.

None of us is immune to the spirit of the times in which we live, and Astell was no exception; she absorbed much in spite of herself. One finds, for example, the rhetorical imprint of contemporary political theory on her prose. She describes herself as an honest English subject “with an English Spirit and Genius, set out upon the Forlorn Hope, meaning no hurt to any body, not desiring any thing but the Publick Good, and to retrieve, if possible, the Native Liberty, the Rights and Privileges of the Subject.”36 Such diction, ironically enough, sounds like Locke, whom Astell had read and admired but with whom, finally, she always had to disagree. She asks: “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?”37 These formulations were in the air, and even if her professed political sentiments ran counter to the meaning of these phrases, they seem to have affected her—as if their intellectual permissiveness encouraged her to speak out in behalf of herself and other women. Indeed, grappling with such political issues as the limits of personal liberty may have first led her to her feminist assumptions about the equality of men and women.

By seeing the realms of public and private as discontinuous, she managed to believe in both the freedom and independence of women and absolute authority in the state at the same time. The needs of one's society and their answering political institutions had ancient histories which long preceded one's own brief entrance into the world. These institutions had a prior claim to one's loyalty. One the other hand—and here is where modern feminists take exception to Astell—she assumed that a woman entered marriage with her eyes fully open, that she was a free adult and could do as she liked with her life. A woman, Astell claimed, voluntarily submitted herself to her husband's will—his was not an authority which pre-existed her. That is, one could choose one's domestic arrangements, whereas one was born into a civil state willy-nilly. In other words, marriage was like voluntarily taking out citizenship in an absolute monarchy and agreeing to comply with its laws for life. And once it was a fait accompli, given Astell's political ideas, there was no turning back. Still, she insisted on the irony of a double standard according to which those who were readiest to decry tyranny in the state entertained it well enough at home: “how much soever Arbitrary Power may be dislik'd on a Throne, not Milton himself wou'd cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves, or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny.”38

To sum up then, Mary Astell's place in the Enlightenment is a complicated one. On the face of it she ran against the current, and yet her very existence as an intellectual and a feminist is a testimony to the values of the age. Her position as a woman of leisure permitted her the speculative mode she valued above all others. Her Reason, and the philosophic implications of that attribute, permitted her to choose a life of celibacy and devotion to study and writing. As she expressed it in a poem of 1689, the terms of that chosen life were simplicity and liberty—the avoidance of stultifying convention, and the rational use of her own time.

                    O how uneasy shou'd I be,
If tied to Custom and formalitie,
Those necessary evils of the Great,
Which bind their hands, and manacle their feet
Nor Beauty, Parts, nor Portion me expose
My most beloved Liberty to lose.
And thanks to Heav'n my time is all my own
                    I when I please can be alone;
Nor Company, nor Courtship to steal away
                    That treasure they can ne'er repay.

These sentiments are reminiscent of the polite austerity and gentlemanly dedication to the muse of a poet like Abraham Cowley, an early favorite of Astell's. But the stamp of her times is to be found in the explanation of what she did with the solitude she writes about. Seventeenth-century England has many examples of religious, aristocratic women living in retirement on their estates, who praise—in letter, essay, and poem—the pleasures of religious meditation and prayer. It is the theme of numbers of poets who re-dedicate themselves to their art with periodic perorations about the pleasures of retirement. But Astell does not declare in these lines that she intends to use her time to write poetry like Cowley or even to retire in meditation and prayer like her seventeenth-century female counterparts. She emphasizes her “Liberty” in these lines, not her devotion to God or art. Nor do these activities of earlier women describe what she did do with her precious solitude. But we know that she read philosophical treatises on political rights, rationalist defenses of religion, histories of the Civil War and tracts on party politics, books of economics about the effects of trade on English culture and government, and philosophical investigations of the causes of the universe, the purposes of human life, the rational basis of knowledge, and the like. And we know that she wrote her own opinions on these subjects as well, documenting the sources of her ideas with exact and copious notes. She also exercised her lively curiosity about the world around her; she read the newspapers and discussed current events with her friends; she examined the latest Grub Street pamphlets and speculated about their authorship with the cognoscenti; she went into society and was visited—and generally followed the intellectual debates and discoveries of literate Londoners.

Such a phenomenon would have been unthinkable earlier, not only because these issues were not commonplace subjects of speculation among private citizens, but also because women were not expected to think about them (with the exception of royal women located in the public sphere from birth), and certainly not to write, much less publish, about them. Astell was very much a product of her times in the configurations of her intellectual life, the range of her acquaintance, and the autonomous independence of her urban life—whatever the conservative Anglican cast of her mind on specific issues. In short, she had the character of an eighteenth-century woman, although her particular attitudes look backwards to the seventeenth century in which she had been raised. Thus, in the very contradictions of her life and thought, she illustrates for us important cultural shifts of the era in which she lived.


  1. Mary Astell and John Norris, Letters Concerning the Love of God (London, 1695), pp. 1-2.

  2. Ibid., p. 8.

  3. Ibid., p. 26.

  4. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal To The Ladies Part II (London, 1697), pp. 32-33.

  5. Ibid, pp. 101-2.

  6. Ibid., pp. 106-7.

  7. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal To The Ladies (London, 1694), pp. 109-110.

  8. Ibid., p. 110.

  9. Ibid., pp. 49-51.

  10. Antoine Arnauld, The Art of Thinking, trans. with intro. by James Dickoff and Patricia James (Indianapolis, 1964), “Note on the Translation,” p. lx.

    In her excellent treatment of Astell's philosophical sources, Joan K. Kinnaird has stressed more the importance of the Cartesian influence. See “Mary Astell and the Conservative Contribution to English Feminism,” The Journal of British Studies, XIX, No. 1 (Fall, 1979), especially pp. 59-63.

  11. Régis was a minor Cartesian who, with Norris, argued that since God was the only true substance, He was the only true cause. Of the works of Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715), Norris specifically recommended to Astell the Amsterdam edition of Recherche de la Vérité (1674), the Cologne edition of Méditations Chrétiennes (1683) and Traité de Morale (Rotterdam, 1684). In the first two of these books, he directed her to the explanation of why people had not clearer notions of their own souls. Malebranche said that if they knew their own souls, people would be so ravished by the vision that they would be unable to think of anything else, not even their own bodily needs, and so would perish. Astell replied, “I am exceedingly pleas'd with M. Malbranch's Account of the Reasons why we have no Idea of our Souls, and wish I could read that ingenious Author in his own Language, or that he spake mine.” Letters Concerning the Love of God, p. 149. She subsequently taught herself French.

  12. Antoine Arnauld, The Art of Thinking, trans. with intro. by James Dickoff and Patricia James, p. 7.

  13. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal Part II, pp. 26-7.

  14. Ibid., p. 132.

  15. The Port Royal Grammar and the Port Royal Logic were the first theoretical statements about language and thought which fully and sensibly embodied what Noam Chomsky calls a “Cartesian” approach to linguistics, an understanding of language as reflective of some basic human cognitive structures. Chomsky, of course, sees the Port Royal movement as a forerunner of his own brand of linguistics, and stresses that aspect of the theory which assumes a universal, underlying structure to the human mind. He is also aware of the political implications of this theory: its recognition that all minds are created more or less equal, since language use and creative capability are “universal,” a “common human endowment.” This premise that every human being had the same basic intellectual equipment corroborated Mary Astell's instinct about the matter, and was as welcome to her as the rules formulated at Port Royal for rigorous thought. See Noam Chomsky, Cartesian Linguistics (New York and London, 1966), p. 29.

  16. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal Part II, p. 233.

  17. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal, pp. 79-81.

  18. George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Boston, 1956), pp. 6, 47.

  19. See Anna Van Schurman, The Learned Maid or, Whether a Maid may be a Scholar (1641; translated into English 1659) and Bathsua Makin, An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen, in Religion, Manners, Arts & Tongues, with an Answer to the Objections against this Way of Education (1673) and the anonymous A Dialogue Concerning Women (1691).

  20. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal, p. 26.

  21. Mary Astell, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of the Rebellion and Civil War in This Kingdom: In an Examination of Dr. Kennett's Sermon Jan. 31, 1703/4 (London, 1704), p. 42. Her position on individual liberty is much like that expoused warmly by Oliver Goldsmith's speaker, Dr. Primrose, in Chapter XIX of The Vicar of Wakefield:

    Now, Sir, for my own part, as I naturally hate the face of a tyrant, the farther off he is removed from me the better pleased am I. The generality of mankind also are of my way of thinking, and have unanimously created one king, whose election at once diminished the number of tyrants, and puts tyranny at the greatest distance from the greatest number of people. Now the great, who were tyrants themselves before the election of one tyrant, are naturally averse to a power raised over them, and whose weight must ever lean heaviest on the subordinate orders. It is the interest of the great, therefore, to diminish kingly power as much as possible; because, whatever they take from that is naturally restored to themselves; and all they have to do in the state is to undermine the single tyrant, by which they resume their primeval authority.

  22. Mary Astell, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War, etc., p. 42. In addition to Clarendon's History of the Rebellion, published during the reign of Queen Anne, Astell recommended the following texts to her readers, to supplement and reinforce her view of the real causes of the Civil War, and her admiring portrait of that pious king, Charles I: “Mr. Foulis's History of our pretended Saints, Sir William Dugdale's Short View, Dr. Nalson, or the Declaration and Papers that Pass'd on both sides; or even their own partial Writers, in some of which, even in Will. Lilly's Monarchy or No Monarchy, and in John Cook's Appeal, the same Cook that was their Solicitor against their Sovereign, he may find as great, or greater Character of this excellent Prince, than the Doctor i.e. White Kennett gives him.” Ibid., p. 37. The book by Henry Foulis (1638-1669), according to the DNB, was thought such a masterly and compelling case for the monarch's guiltlessness, that it was “chained to desks in public places and in some churches to be read by the vulgar.”

  23. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London, 1690). See especially the second treatise, “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government,” chapters IX, XL, XIX.

  24. Mary Astell, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War, etc., p. 33.

  25. Ibid., p. 8.

  26. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, Book II.

  27. “Letter to Sir William Windham” in Lord Bolingbroke's Works, 4 vols. (Philadelphia, 1841), I, 115.

  28. John Locke, chapter XIX of “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government”, in Works.

  29. Hillel Schwartz, Knaves, Fools, Madmen, and that Subtitle Effluvium (Gainsville, 1978), pp. 1-30.

  30. Anthony Ashley Cooper, A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm to My Lord***** (London, 1708), p. 46.

  31. Mary Astell, Bart'lemy Fair: or, An Enquiry After Wit (London, 1709), p. 23.

  32. Ibid., p. 26.

  33. Ibid., pp. 83-84.

  34. Ibid., p. 60.

  35. See Mary Astell, The Christian Religion As Profess'd By A Daughter of the Church (London, 1705), pp. 258-61.

  36. This rhetorical stance is most pronounced in the 1706 Preface to Some Reflection Upon Marriage, originally published in 1700.

  37. Ibid., 1706 preface, p. 11.

  38. Mary Astell, Some Reflections Upon Marriage (London, 1700), p. 29.

Bridget Hill (essay date 1986)

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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 of two of her works: A Serious Proposal, Part I and Reflections upon Marriage, her so-called ‘feminist’ writings.1 In these two works she outlined her deeply pessimistic views of marriage and the bleak prospects for happiness that it offered. In her analysis the most biting sarcasm is reserved for the enemy—men. Her solution, or rather the only palliative she could see for women in this situation, was more education. She argued fiercely against the natural inferiority of women, maintaining that it was not to nature but to women's exclusion from the education enjoyed by men, that any inferiority was due.

At her best Mary Astell is very quotable. Her meaning is conveyed by the force of her words. She wrote in a highly combative, not to say bold, style. Her readers are immediately aware of the anger and passion behind her words—a passion that is sometimes barely contained.

If she had written nothing else besides these two works, Mary Astell would deserve far greater study than she has received so far. On the basis of these two works alone the powerful and independent intelligence of a remarkable woman is revealed. That both works ran to several editions in her lifetime suggests something of their popularity among her contemporaries.

Her reputation today continues to rest almost exclusively on these ‘feminist’ writings. With modern feminism in the process of discovering its roots this is not surprising. The search provides a powerful motivation behind all study of women's history, and a valid one. But in the case of Mary Astell such an approach leaves too much unexplained. If she is seen as the author of these two works alone, the historian's problem is simplified: Mary Astell can be neatly labelled as an early feminist expressing enlightened views on the education of women and wittily satirising the submissive role of women in marriage. Unfortunately such a view of her is inadequate. It distorts the real Mary Astell by ignoring her complexity, and by failing to see her contradictions and the paradoxes in her thinking. Whether or not she was a feminist, she was so many other things besides—a sincerely devout woman of high Anglican and Tory sympathies, a woman with sufficient familiarity with the scriptures and current theological debate to be equal to taking on some of the leading religious thinkers of her time. She was a passionate believer in the divine right of kings at a time when few were prepared to expound such an ‘old-fashioned’ doctrine. She joined swords with Daniel Defoe by savagely attacking dissenters at the time of the Occasional Conformity debate.2 She was to attack Dr White Kennett's sermon on the fast of the martyrdom of Charles I because of its failure to analyse correctly the causes of the Civil War, and totally to absolve the King from any blame.3

Along with the great diversity of her writings and the seeming paradoxes they present, there is Mary Astell herself; one moment she addresses herself to ‘Persons of Quality’, and the next to the foundation of a charity school for the daughters of Chelsea pensioners. There is Mary Astell, the possessor of the sharpest of tongues, who could assassinate in words the characters of her enemies, and the writer of poetry on love and friendship. There is the malicious scorn she heaped on the heads of men and the unsparing admiration she expressed for her own sex.

It is this very complexity of her character, the conflicting and contradictory nature of her ideas, that makes her so intriguing and so worthy a subject of study.

In 1915 Florence Smith, a student at Columbia University, submitted a thesis for her Doctor of Philosophy degree. Its subject was Mary Astell. The thesis was approved and published by the University press in 1916,4 at which time little was known of Mary Astell, and indeed, very little interest was shown in either her or her work. Three articles on her had appeared in the 1890s—two of them, significantly, by women5—and later, in 1913, an article had portrayed her as one of a group of ‘English Femmes Savantes’ at the end of the seventeenth century.6 But, as far as we know, the publication of Florence Smith's thesis aroused little contemporary interest, and it seems to have lain dormant for some years until, in the 1960s, sufficient demand for access to the work prompted the publishers to reprint it.

Florence Smith's concern with Mary Astell's writings began with an interest in women's education in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century England. In the event, the research contained in her thesis went way beyond such initial and limited interest and probed not only Mary Astell's writings on education but those on marriage and the relations between the sexes. Its analysis of her political and religious writings revealed her very diverse interests and, indeed, the wide knowledge she brought to bear on the major religious and political controversies of her time. The thesis remains an essential starting-point for anyone concerned with Mary Astell's life and work.

Our knowledge of her life is still tantalisingly scant. There are long periods when we have no trace of her existence. Innumerable questions that might contribute to a greater understanding of her must remain unanswered. Most would-be biographers have gone back to the work of George Ballard for the bare facts.7 Unfortunately even these are often suspect, if not clearly in error. What is strange is that only 20 years after her death, although she was still read with interest and even enthusiasm, the facts about her life seem to have vanished nearly into obscurity. It was not that Ballard did not try. He wrote to all her surviving friends seeking information about her. Yet often he met with no success and, when this happened, he seems not to have been averse to relying on rumours. Since his writings, very little has been added to our knowledge of her. Other accounts of her life, particularly in the 50 or so years after Ballard, are nevertheless of interest for they do occasionally provide information about her not included by Ballard which suggests access to additional sources.8


Mary Astell was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 12 November 1666. Her parents, Peter and Mary Astell, had been married the previous year. The marriage united the families of the Astells and Erringtons, both of which had earlier played an important role in the history of the town. The Erringtons, like the Astells, were a merchant family associated with the Hostmen's Company.

Mary was one of three children. William had died in infancy; Peter was to become a lawyer, remain in Newcastle all his life, and die in 1711. Their father was enrolled as an apprentice in the Company of Hostmen in 1653 when he was described as the son of ‘William Astell of Newcastle gentleman’.9 This would seem to identify a former under-sheriff of Newcastle, who was a noted Royalist and who died in 1658.10 Probably also in 1653, Peter Astell senior was made a Clerk of the Company, and continued to hold this position until his death.11 In 1655 he was made responsible for the collection of duty on the export of all grindstones, whetstones, or rubstones—a privileged export right confined to members of the Hostmen. At the time, however, he was still serving his apprenticeship and was described as ‘servant unto Mr George Dawson, Alderman.’12 Clearly the Company had some difficulty collecting the fines imposed on its members, for the next mention of Peter Astell was in 1661 when he was named as one of those empowered to ‘distreine the Goods’ of those who had broken the Company's regulations.13 He was only to become a member of the Company of Hostmen in 1674, just over four years before his death.14 In the register of St John's Church, Newcastle, his burial is recorded on 21 March 1678-79 as ‘Peter Astell Gent’.15

The Hostmen had enjoyed a virtual monopoly of coal and grindstone shipments since early in the sixteenth century but, under Elizabeth I, the Company was incorporated and their exclusive privileges confirmed. Before the Civil War the Company had exercised a dominant role in Newcastle political and economic life. Indeed the hold of a small élite of the Company over the town increased as the century advanced. During the Civil War control of the Company passed to new hands, particularly those of the Dawsons, a leading Puritan family, one of whom—Henry Dawson—had been largely responsible for the creation in the late 1630's of an unofficial lectureship in his house. In fact little was changed in the Company as a result of the war, and after 1659 control passed from the radicals back to the moderates. On the whole members of the Company tended to share the political conservatism, and often the catholicism, of the gentry of the north.16

The Astell family, then, in the second half of the seventeenth century, would seem to have been people of some substance, of conservative, perhaps Royalist, sympathies. Yet in passing, it might be remarked that Peter Astell served his apprenticeship under George Dawson, one of the leading Puritan family mentioned earlier, whose members were purged from the Corporation in 1643 when the Earl of Newcastle occupied the town for the King, and that one of the same group of Puritans was Anthony Errington, a warden of the Merchant Adventurers who in 1633 had been of the Reform party opposed to the oligarchical hold of the inner ring of the Hostmen's Company.

The most interesting member of the Astell family, apart from Mary, is Ralph Astell. He was an MA and became curate of St Nicholas's church, Newcastle, in 1667. In 1660 he had demonstrated his loyalty to the Crown by publishing Vota Non Bella, an exceedingly bad poem expressing pro-monarchist principles. Of course it proves nothing. Many former Parliamentarians in the same circumstances had been all too anxious to establish their loyalty to the King. In this respect Ralph Astell is not remarkable. There is one brief reference to him in the Gateshead Church Records of 1675-76: ‘one pinte of sack when Mr. Astell preached, 1s.2d., six quarts of Wyne and sack for one Communion 6s.9d.’17 But it is to John Brand, the antiquarian, we owe the additional and significant piece of information, apparently drawn from Bishop Cosin's register, that in 1667 Ralph Astell was ‘suspended for bad behaviour’.18 He was to die two years later. Had his demonstration of pro-monarchical zeal been unconvincing? We do not know, but what makes him of interest is that, according to Ballard, he was ‘the uncle who was a clergyman’ responsible for giving Mary Astell a good education.19 Observing ‘her aptitude for learning’,20 he is said to have instructed her in ‘philosophy, mathematics and logic’.21 He is also said to have taught her Latin and French. Yet later, in her correspondence with Henry Dodwell, the scholar and theologian, about his A Case in View Considered, (1705) in which the future relationship between non-jurors and the Church was reviewed, it emerged that ‘she did not understand Latin, as Mr Dodwell, from her quoting ancient authors, thought she had, but she told him she read them in the French and other Translations’.22

Mary Pilkington emphasises her ‘acuteness of understanding’ as a child,23 and George Ballard remarks on her having a ‘piercing wit, a solid judgement, and tenacious memory’.24 Yet if Ralph Astell was in fact her teacher she must have been a remarkably precocious child as he died when she was only thirteen!

How her important teenage years were spent we do not know. It is possible that she continued her education under another tutor, or she may have been sent to school, or, for at least part of this time, she may have been employed in nursing her mother who was to die in October 1684. It was almost certainly her mother who is referred to in the Hostmen Company records as ‘old Mrs. Astell’ who was given a pension of £3 6s 8d per annum ‘during the Companies pleasure’ after the death of their clerk.25

Mary was now eighteen and an orphan. Two years later, it is suggested, she left Newcastle for London. For a girl of twenty to set off for the metropolis, turning her back on her home and family, her friends and relations, seems extraordinary. It was certainly unusual. Was she alone? In her letter to Archbishop Sancroft, the non-juror, that prefaces the collection of poems she sent to him in 1689, she mentions how the Archbishop was ‘pleased to receive a poor unknown, who hath no place to fly unto’.26 In her biographical sketch of Mary Astell, Mary Pilkington tells us that her move to London was ‘for the purpose of letting them [her own sex] benefit by the information she had gained’.27

In those early years in London, of which we know so little, Mary Hays was later to suggest that Mary Astell ‘prosecuted her studies with diligence and success’. From her subsequent writings it seems certain she must have read widely in philosophy, politics, theology and history. The same writer also insists that in the period immediately following her arrival in London she devoted herself to scientific studies.28

There is no evidence of the exact date of her arrival in London. If as has been suggested, she came to London in her twentieth year she would have arrived three years before her collection of poems was sent to Archbishop Sancroft in 1689. The prefatory letter to that collection implies she had been there a little time before she wrote. The evidence contained in the earlier letter of approach to Sancroft on her first arrival in London, when help and advice had been given her, poses some unanswerable questions. How had she come to know the Archbishop? Or, if she did not know him, and had no introduction to him, how very extraordinary it was for a young girl to decide to write to him! Even more extraordinary was her subsequently sending him two volumes of her poems! It is tantalising to speculate on the significance of the words she used to describe to him her departure from Newcastle and arrival in London ‘when even my kinsfolk had failed, and my familiar Friends had forgotten me’.29

We do not know where she lived on her first arrival in London. For a considerable period of her London life she lived in Chelsea. One writer has argued that she settled there ‘to be near her friend and correspondent Bishop Atterbury’.30 A nineteenth century account has her in a house ‘in Swan Walk, opposite the Physic Garden,’ from about 1715 to the time of her death in 1731.31 It seems probable, however, that she had lived in Chelsea ever since the 1690s. Her friendship with Lady Catherine Jones, the daughter of the Earl of Ranelagh, and her dedication to Lady Catherine of Letters Concerning the Love of God published in 1695, would suggest she was already a near neighbour to Ranelagh House where Lady Catherine lived at the time. A letter she wrote to Henry Dodwell in March 1706 was written from Chelsea.32 Ralph Thoresby went to visit a Chelsea friend in August, 1712, and on the way met ‘Mr. Croft, the minister who introduced me to the celebrated Mrs Astell’.33

It was in those early years of her residence in London, when in her late 20s and 30s, that her major works were written. The period in which all but the last of her works appeared was relatively short—1694 to 1705. After this there was a gap of four years before her final work appeared.


When she was 27, Mary Astell embarked on a series of exchanges with John Norris (1657-1711), Rector of Bemerton, near Salisbury. Norris has been described as ‘the last offshoot from the school of Cambridge Platonists’,34 a group that included Ralph Cudworth, father of Damaris Masham, Henry More, Benjamin Whichcote and John Smith. Norris had corresponded with Henry More in the early 1680s. By the time the correspondence between Norris and Mary Astell began, the school of Cambridge Platonists was already in decline. As a student of Malebranche, Norris adopted the French philosopher's belief that we ‘see all things in God’. God, he believed, should be the sole and not just the principal object of our love. ‘We should collect and concentrate’, he wrote, ‘all the rays of our love into this one point, and lean towards God with the whole weight of our soul.’35

How she came to know Norris or whether she knew him apart from his writings we do not know, but their exchange of letters began in 1693. She raised with him the question of how, according to his theory, pain and sin could be explained. If Norris was right in seeing God as the source of all our sensations, then was God not to be seen as the author of pain as well as pleasure? And as the author of pain could He remain the object of our love or would He not rather become that of our aversion? Norris expressed some surprise that it was a woman who saw flaws in his argument, and hastened to argue his way out of the difficulty. God, he argued, was indeed the author of all our sensations, and therefore of pain as well as of pleasure. But, he went on, she had failed to distinguish between two kinds of good, that which arises from the pleasure we feel and that which is done to us by God. So pain is given us by God as the punishment for sin. It may lead us to fear Him but not to hate Him. She responded by arguing that just as there were different kinds of good, so were there different kinds of pain: physical pain given us for our good by God, and intellectual pain, or what she identified as sin, which could not originate in God. Norris denied such a distinction and insisted that all pain is caused by God. Pain, he agreed, was evil but becomes a relative good as it is a way of avoiding greater evil. But, he went on, if all pain originates in God, sin does not. The exchange went on to a discussion of the nature of divine love—a subject on which they found themselves more in agreement.

Today, although the discussion between them is of little but historic interest, the letters do have another interest for us. Mary Astell had expressed some difficulty in accepting Norris's idea of God as the sole object of her love. Later they were to discuss together the distinction between the love of God and the love of friends, but in Letter III what had earlier been only a suspicion becomes a certainty.36 The whole tone of this letter is intensely personal. She desperately appeals for Norris's help to cure her ‘disorder’, a passionate friendship with another woman, confessing that she found it difficult ‘to love at all, without something of Desire’. She was convinced by Norris's teaching but ‘sensible Beauty does too often press upon my Heart, whilst Intelligible is disregarded’. Pathetically she attempts to depersonalise her dilemma by expressing her friendship for women in general but the pretence breaks down. She admits to ‘an agreeable Movement in my soul towards her I love’ and confesses to finding Norris's teaching ‘that we may seek Creatures for our good, but not love them as our good’ is ‘too nice for common Practice’.

If she had hoped for a remedy, or even advice, from Norris she must have been disappointed. His only suggestion was more meditation!37 Had he understood what she was trying to tell him? Might he have understood but decided to ignore it? In view of his later insistence on publishing the exchange it seems likely that he failed to appreciate her implicit confession of a passionate love for a woman.

If there was any doubt as to the object of her desire, it is soon dispelled when one looks at the letters exchanged between Norris and Mary Astell on the proposed publication of the correspondence. There was considerable reluctance on her part and it was only on Norris's insistence that she finally agreed. When she did it was on condition that her name should not be mentioned, and that the work should be dedicated to a lady she would name to him. The lady was Lady Catherine Jones, daughter of the Earl of Ranelagh, Paymaster General of the Navy. Lady Catherine was prominent in court circles and entertained George I at Ranelagh Gardens in 1715, when Handel's Water Music was played with the composer conducting an orchestra of 50 from one of the city barges.38 The friendship between the two women seems to have begun soon after Mary Astell's move to London. If, as seems possible, Mary Astell settled in Chelsea soon after her arrival in London, Lady Catherine Jones would have been her near neighbour. The friendship was close, even passionate, but not, it appears, always a happy one. ‘None ever loved more generously than I have done’, Mary Astell wrote, ‘yet perhaps never any met with more ungrateful Returns.’39 Earlier she had written of friendship that:

No loss nor sickness causeth such a smart,
No racks nor tortures so severely rend.
As the unkindness of a darling Friend.

It is tempting to see Lady Catherine as the subject of this poem. Although Mary had always ‘propos'd the noblest end’ of friendship, God had denied it to her.

Thrice blessed be thy jealousie,
Which would not part
With one small corner of my heart,
But has engross'd it all to thee.(40)

Isn't this much the same concern she attempted to communicate later to John Norris? If it is indeed a reference to Lady Catherine Jones it may date Mary Astell's residence in Chelsea from the 1680s.

When her father died in 1711 leaving large debts outstanding from the time he was Paymaster General, Lady Catherine and her two sisters petitioned Parliament for the right to sell their estate in order to settle the debt. Finally the petition was granted. Lady Catherine moved from the grandeur of Ranelagh Gardens to Jews Row—also in Chelsea.

According to Thomas Birch, writing to George Ballard in 1749, Mary Astell ‘lived many years at Chelsea with Lady Catherine’, but when exactly he does not say, and there is no confirmation of this suggestion.41 Nevertheless Jews Row was very close to Mary Astell's house.

The dedication to Lady Catherine in Letters Concerning the Love of God is fulsome. She was, we read, of ‘unfeigned goodness’, ‘eminent virtue’, ‘of so much sweetness and modesty’ and ‘a compleat and finished person’. She provided the author with ‘a lively idea of Apostolical Piety’. When they prayed together Mary Astell could fancy herself ‘in the neighbourhood of Seraphic Flames’. Finally, Mary Astell admits she loved her ‘with the greatest tenderness’.

If Lady Catherine was Mary Astell's most intimate friend, she was by no means her only woman friend. Of those others of whom we are aware it is noticeable how many were titled ladies. Apart from Lady Catherine there was Lady Anne Coventry, Lady Elizabeth Hastings and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The exceptions were Elizabeth Elstob, that remarkable scholar of Anglo-Saxon who was later to become George Ballard's correspondent when he was compiling his Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, and for a time was Mary Astell's neighbour in Chelsea, and Katherine Atterbury, wife of Francis, Bishop of Rochester, a leading spokesman of the new High Church party.

Lady Elizabeth Hastings was the fourth daughter of Theophilus, 7th Earl of Huntingdon of Ledstone Hall, Yorkshire. She was an ardent churchgoer and a very devout woman. When, in 1705, she inherited the family estate and became extremely rich, she was determined that ‘a wise and religious use was made of it’. She was to prove a generous benefactress. By all accounts she was a remarkably beautiful woman and much sought after by ‘several of the nobility’42 although she chose to remain unmarried. Her great fortune may have provided the reason, for she made clear that she regarded any marriage for money as a sure recipe for unhappiness. With Mary Astell she shared an interest in the expansion of education for women, and was one of those named as the would-be benefactress of Mary Astell's scheme for a ‘religious retirement’. Later, in 1709, with Lady Catherine Jones and other women, she was responsible for the founding of a charity school for the daughters of the pensioners at the Chelsea Royal Hospital, in the planning of which Mary Astell was closely involved.

Perhaps the most remarkable of her woman friends was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762). Twenty years the younger, she was very far from conforming to the model of pious devotion that characterised many of Mary Astell's other close friends. She was however, a highly intelligent and gifted woman, and Mary Astell ‘triumphed in Lady Mary's talents as proofs of … the mental equality of the sexes, if not the superiority of women to men’.43 She possessed one quality that Mary Astell particularly admired—a powerful independent spirit that rejected convention and custom—and also possessed the will to be her own person answerable to none. How the two women became acquainted we can only surmise. Possibly it was through their mutual friend and acquaintance, Lady Ranelagh, mother of Lady Catherine Jones, or through Lady Mary's aunt, Lady Cheyne who also lived in Chelsea. What is certain is that a copy of the first edition of A Serious Proposal was given to Lady Mary with an inscription in Mary Astell's hand (this copy is now in the British Library). This might suggest they were already friends in the 1690s when Lady Mary was still a child. Much later Lady Mary was to write to her daughter of how, at the age of 15, her desire had been ‘to found an English monastery for ladies’, and that had she then been ‘mistress of an independent fortune’, she would have carried out the project and ‘elected myself lady abbess’.44 This suggests that she took Mary Astell's proposal seriously.

In 1724 Lady Mary forwarded to Mary Astell the manuscript copy of her Embassy Letters. After reading them Mary Astell was enthusiastic for their publication but the author insisted that they were not to be published during her lifetime. Yet in the copy she returned to Lady Mary, Mary Astell had inscribed a Preface which reflects ‘that fond partiality which old people of ardent tempers sometime entertain for a rising genius in their own line’.45

It is through this friendship with Lady Mary that we have one of the most illuminating—and authentic—comments on Mary Astell. It comes from Lady Louisa Stuart, Lady Mary's grand-daughter, who included some introductory anecdotes when the Letters and Works of her grandmother were finally published. From her we learn that Mary Astell was ‘a very pious, exemplary woman, and a profound scholar’. But far from the ‘fair and elegant prefacer’ described by the first editor of the letters, she was ‘in outward form … rather ill-favoured and forbidding’ and, as her readers all too readily can believe, ‘of a humour to have repulsed the compliment roughly, had it been paid her while she lived’.46 Such a description of her appearance is borne out by Mary Astell's own view of herself as ‘one to whom Nature has not been over liberal’.47

In this humorous and gently teasing comment on Mary Astell, there is also a genuine admiration. ‘Whatever were her foibles and prejudices’, Lady Louisa writes, ‘her piety was genuine, fervent, and humble’.48

Since most of their lives were spent with those of their own sex it is not surprising that friendship between women assumed such importance. In many cases women saw far more of their female friends than they did of their husbands, or other men. Katherine Phillips, the ‘matchless Orinda’ had earlier remarked how ‘men exclude women from friendship's vast capacity’.49 For unmarried women friendship assumed an even greater importance, and this was certainly true for Mary Astell. ‘Having by Nature a strong Propensity to friendly Love’, she wrote, she was ‘loath to abandon all Thoughts of Friendship’.50 She considered that ‘one considerable cause of the degeneracy’ of her age was ‘the little true Friendship that is to be found in it’.51 She thought one of the main advantages of her ‘Religious Retirement’ was ‘the opportunity of contracting the purest and noblest friendship’.52

When presenting her Collection of Poems to Archbishop Sancroft in 1689 Mary Astell had written that it was ‘not without pain and reluctancy that I break from my beloved obscurity’.53 Many of her biographers have presented her as a woman of great modesty. Ballard, for example, insists she was ‘extremely fond of obscurity, which she courted and doted on beyond all earthly blessings; and was as ambitious to slide gently through the world, without so much as being seen or taken notice of, as others are to bustle and make a figure in it’.54 This apparent lack of ambition is supported by her resistance to Norris's attempts to persuade her to publish the Letters Concerning the Love of God, and her final agreement only on condition that Norris should ‘make no mention of my Name, no not so much as the initial Letters’.55 When the Letters were published they were described as ‘between the Author of The Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris’. In fact A Serious Proposal to the Ladies had appeared not under her name but as ‘By a Lover of her Sex’. Nevertheless, there never seemed much doubt about her authorship and many freely acknowledged her authorship even though her name was never revealed. Indeed, she was ascribed authorship of two pamphlets that are clearly not hers at all; the anonymous An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex of 1696 and The Case of Moderation and Occasional Communion of 1705.56

In all her writings, but most particularly in her poetry, ambition is a recurring theme. In the poem, ‘In Emulation of Mr Cowley’, written in her early 20s, she wrote:

What shall I do? not to be Rich or Great
Not to be courted and admir'd,
With Beauty blest, or Wit inspir'd,
Alas! these merit not my care and sweat,
These cannot my Ambition please.

If it was not for ‘Fame's trumpet having, so short a breath’ all would surely pursue ambition:

Who wou'd not then, with all their might
Study and strive to get themselves a name?(57)

Ambition then seems to have been something of a preoccupation with her. Yet the ambition she craved had nothing to do with personal fame or fortune. What she wanted was to make a mark in the world, and to make it as a woman. Her Reflections upon Marriage was first published anonymously in 1700, and only the third edition revealed, not her name, but her sex. So while she seemed reluctant to divulge her name as author, she was not so reluctant to reveal the author's sex. In her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies she called on women to ‘exalt and establish’ their ‘Fame’.58 But the ‘fame’ she wanted for them was the recognition of women's ability and achievement wherever they were revealed. It was this concern that led her to praise so wholeheartedly Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Letters—‘pleas'd that a Woman Triumphs!’.59

Mary Astell remained unmarried as did so many of the outstanding women of the period—Elizabeth Elstob, Jane Barker who admitted to ‘a secret disgust against matrimony’, Celia Fiennes, Anne Killigrew, Bathsua Makin among others. The attitude of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century society to such women reflected the absence of what had formerly been one of the two alternatives open to unmarried daughters—to marry or to go into a nunnery. Lawrence Stone has estimated that the percentage of recorded daughters of the gentry reaching the age of 50 who had never married rose from 10 per cent in the sixteenth century to nearly 25 per cent between 1675 and 1799.60 The problem for the propertied class of what to do with unmarried daughters became acute. Unequipped both socially and economically to earn their own living they were increasingly resented as a burden on their family or relatives.

Mary Astell's proposal for a ‘Religious Retirement’ recognised the particular problem facing spinsters in a society where ‘all women are understood either married or to be married’.61 If women were not to marry, the best alternative was something resembling a nunnery, a place of at least temporary withdrawal from the world. Given the powerful pressure on them to marry, few women could view spinsterhood as other than abject failure. ‘Taught to think Marriage her only Preferment’,62 Mary Astell wrote, a woman never considered ‘that she should have a higher Design than to get her a Husband.’63 Many ‘quite terrified with the dreadful Name of Old Maid’, sought refuge in ‘some dishonourable Match … to the disgrace of her Family and her own irreparable Ruin.’64

Given more education, Mary Astell believed that there were women who having considered ‘the Good and Evil of a Married State’65 would decide to reject it. Seeing the role wives were expected to play, some might well conclude it was ‘not good for a woman to marry.’66 Part of her intention in Reflections was to suggest spinsterhood as a real alternative to marriage, and one which might give women, or at least upper-class women, a degree of independence. Earlier in the century Thomas Middleton's Roaring Girl had observed that only by remaining chaste could she retain her independence. ‘I have no humour to marry;’ she said, ‘I love to lie a' both sides a' the bed myself: and again, a' the other side, a wife, you know, ought to be obedient, but I fear I am too headstrong to obey; therefore I'll ne'er go about it … I have the head now of myself, and I am man enough for a woman: marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head, and has a worse i' the place.’67

After talking of how the responsibility in the family for educating children, ‘a most necessary Employment, perhaps the chief of those who have any’, fell on the mother and therefore how important her education was, Mary Astell hastened to reassure those without children. Knowledge, she told them, ‘would not lie dead upon their hands’ for ‘the whole World is a single Lady's Family, her opportunities of doing good are not lessen'd but encreas'd by her being unconfin'd.’68 It was a generous phrase in keeping with the generosity of her sympathy with women who remained unmarried.

For women like herself, lacking beauty and fortune, Mary Astell saw spinsterhood as offering a unique liberty:

O how uneasy shou'd I be,
If tied to Custom and formalitie,
Those necessary evils of the Great,
Which bind their hands and manacle their feet,
Nor Beauty, Parts, nor Portion are expose
My most beloved Liberty to lose.(69)

It was a revolutionary idea. Not all women were capable of supporting themselves, and even fewer could earn a living through writing. But where they were financially independent, spinsterhood offered the possibility of self-fulfilment. Such women, with Mary Astell, could thank heaven that:

… my time is all my own,
I when I please can be alone;
Nor Company, Nor Courtship steal away
That treasure they can ne're repay.(70)

Those women who could view spinsterhood with equanimity were few. The same scorn with which spinsterhood was regarded was transferred to any woman aspiring to learning. ‘A Learned Woman’, as Bathsua Makin observed, ‘is thought to be a Comet that bodes Mischief whenever it appears’.71 Just as the spinster was seen as unnatural and a freak, so was the ‘learned lady’ regarded as betraying unwomanly and masculine characteristics. If you were a woman of learning it might be better to conceal the fact! Indeed this was precisely the advice Lady Mary Wortley Montagu gave her granddaughter, for as she put it ‘the parade of it can only serve to draw on her the envy, and consequently the most inveterate hatred’.72

Many women of intelligence, even the strongest and most confident, were inhibited from revealing their real abilities by the scorn for learning. Those women who wrote were reluctant to reveal their authorship of books. The first time that Susan Centlivre's play, The Platonic Lady, was performed in 1706, it ran for only four days. In the edition of the following year was a dedication ‘to the generous encouragers of female ingenuity’ of whom she hoped to find sufficient ‘to protect her against the carping malice of the vulgar world, who think it a proof of their sense to dislike everything that is writ by women.’73 Even Katherine Philips, the ‘matchless Orinda’, admitted that sometimes she thought the writing of poetry was ‘a diversion so unfit for the sex to which I belong that I am about to resolve against it for ever.’74 In the Epistle prefacing the Duchess of Newcastle's Philosophical and Physical Opinions in 1663, the Duke pinpointed the reasons for the doubt cast on her authorship since ‘no lady could understand so many hard words.’ ‘Here's the crime’, he wrote, ‘a Lady writes them, and to intrench so much on the male prerogative is not to be forgiven.’75

Mary Astell was very conscious of the way in which anything from a female author was regarded. In John Norris's preface, To the Reader, in Letters Concerning the Love of God, he acknowledged that after reading Mary Astell there might be ‘a diffidence in some who from the excellency of these writings may be tempted to question whether my correspondent be a woman or not’.76 In her first letter to Norris Mary Astell presumed ‘to beg his attention a little to the impertinencies of a Woman's pen’.77

‘Learned ladies’ were the subject of numerous satires and Mary Astell's notion of a ‘Religious Retirement’ did not escape attention. In The Tatler Swift referred to her as ‘a profess'd Platonne, the most unaccountable Creature of her Sex’. She was described as having ‘run over Norris, and Moor, and Milton, and the whole Set of Intellectual Triflers’. She was cast in the role of Madonella, the head of a Protestant nunnery where, in association with her friend Lady Elizabeth Hastings and others described as ‘this Order of Platonick Ladies’,78 she led a staff consisting of Elizabeth Elstob and Mary de la Rivière Manley—a wonderfully ill-assorted pair!79 Mary Astell's ‘Religious Retirement’ was described as a ‘College for Young Damsels; where instead of Scissors, Needles, and Samplers; Pens, Compasses, Quadrants, Books, Manuscripts, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew are to take up the whole Time’. Manley was to give the inmates ‘at least a superficial Tincture of the Ancient and Modern Amazonian Tacticks’!80

In the plays of the period the ‘learned lady’ was a stock subject for satire. Perhaps the most sympathetic of such learned ladies—and the one closest to Mary Astell—was Valeria in Susan Centlivre's The Bassett Table, first performed in 1705. Valeria, ‘that little She-Philosopher’ as she is called by Ensign Lovely, her doting admirer, is preoccupied with natural philosophy and is at present mad about dissecting insects. One of the other female characters refers to learning as ‘ridiculous indeed for Women; Philosophy suits our Sex, as Jack Boots would do’. ‘Custom’, replies Valeria, ‘would bring them as much in Fashion as Furbeloes, and Practice would make us as valiant as e'er a Hero of them all: the Resolution is in the Mind—Nothing can enslave that.’ What most suggests that Susan Centlivre was thinking of Mary Astell is the mocking suggestion that Valeria might found ‘a College for the Study of Philosophy, where none but Women should be admitted …’ The response from Valeria was worthy of Mary Astell. ‘What you make jest of’, she retorts, ‘I'd execute, were Fortune in my Power.’ When Ensign Lovely fears the advances a Captain Hearty is making to her, Valeria reassures him: ‘If he was a Whale, he might give you pain, for I should long to dissect him; but as he is a Man, you have no reason to fear him!’81

Whenever in history women had achieved anything remarkable, Mary Astell pointed out, men tended to dismiss it claiming ‘that women acted above their sex. By which we must suppose they wou'd have their Readers understand, that they were not Women who did those Great Actions, but that they were Men in Petticoats!’82

Of her later life we know little. Yet from the mere fragments of information that exist we learn something of the austerity and self-discipline of her character. According to one account ‘ascetic habits and physical suffering’ prevented her writing after 1710, ‘and she gave herself up to devotion.’83 Mary Pilkington related how although ‘mild and merciful’ to the faults of others, ‘to errors committed by herself she was much more severe; and when guilty of those slight imperfections to which the most virtuous are liable, she wou'd punish them with an abstinence scarcely to be endured’.84 ‘Abstinence’, she is said to have insisted, ‘was the best physic.’85 Every Sunday, regardless of the weather, she would walk from her home in Chelsea to St Martin's Church to hear her favourite preacher. Ultimately she was to die of cancer. For some years, we are told, she concealed the disease from her friends and when finally she sought the advice of a surgeon it was too late. Her breast was removed, an operation she endured ‘with a degree of fortitude which astonished the surgeon … and in spite of all arguments could not be persuaded to suffer her person to be held.’86 That few of her friends knew of her condition is confirmed by Lady Louisa Stuart who describes a meeting between her grandmother and Mary a few weeks before she died. After ‘a serious discussion of some religious subject, very eagerly pursued on Mrs. Astell's side’, there occurred a pause and she confided to Lady Mary that she was dying. Then to demonstrate her friendship with Lady Mary she went on: ‘if departed spirits be permitted to revisit those whom they have loved on earth, remember I make you a solemn promise that mine shall appear to you and confirm the truth of all I have been saying.’87

Of Mary's last few days we have the account sent in a letter from Lady Elizabeth Hastings to Bishop Wilson ten days after her death on 9th May 1731. She wrote how ‘she was five days actually a-dying, Lady Catherine Jones was with her two days before her death; she then begged to see no more of her old acquaintance and friends, having done with the world and made her peace with God’.88


The society at which Mary Astell directed her work on the education of women, the nature of the marriage contract and the submissive role women were expected to play as wives, was that of the 1690s and early 1700s. Looking back to the developments over the century exactly how, for better or worse, had the position of women changed? It is a complex question and one not easily answered.89

In a variety of ways the Civil War years and Interregnum had undermined traditional ideas of the family, marriage and women's role of obedience and submission to men. For women of both sides, and of all classes, the war had often meant the absence of husbands and the need for wives to take increased responsibilities in running the farm, the trade, or simply in coping with the day-to-day business of looking after the house, the children and servants, and tending the garden or smallholding that was the extent of their landed property. Such new responsibilities had led to an increased independence among many women. Some Royalist wives had even had experience of litigation in the attempt to get their husbands and their property released.

For many women the period had meant unprecedented involvement in political activity and, at least temporarily, the rejection of the notion that politics were men's business. In the petitioning of Parliament of the 1640s and 1650s women are now known to have played a significant role. Women petitioned for peace, against the evil effects of the decline of trade, against Bishops and the Laudian innovations, and for the release of their husbands from prison. They rioted against enclosures and took a leading role in political demonstrations of all kinds. There were many women Levellers—not least the wife of John Lilburne—and many petitioned Parliament for the release of the Leveller leaders in 1649. By their actions women seemed to be laying claim to the Leveller belief that men and women were born free and equal, and demonstrating their ability to speak and act for themselves—quite independently of their husbands.

The period of the Civil War and Interregnum had seen the breakdown of Church courts and the relaxation of supervision over the morals of men and women. Coupled with a greater social and physical mobility it resulted in much greater sexual freedom for women.

However, it was above all the contribution made by the sects—Baptists and, more particularly, Quakers and Ranters—which did most to undermine the patriarchal view of the family and the women's traditional role within it. Women apparently occupied a numerically dominant position within the sects. In many, the belief in self-government meant women played an increasing part in their organisation and management.

In the sects' insistence on individual conscience and the direct relationship between the believer and God, the role of the educated ministry and the authority of the Church was diminished. Above all it was the belief in the spiritual equality of men and women that contributed most to the part women played within the sects. The belief that women had equal souls with men had been emphasised earlier by Richard Bolton, but it was underlined by Samuel Torshell in 1645 when he wrote ‘The soul knows no difference of sex’. Some sects—the Baptists and, more particularly, the Quakers—taking such claims to their logical conclusion, allowed women to preach. As Fox was to ask: ‘May not the spirit of Christ speak in the female as well as in the male?’90 Even more than preach, women prophesied. The horror of the outcry against such preaching and prophesying women makes clear that some critics saw clearly the threat to the traditional role of women such activities represented.

If preaching and prophesying enabled women to achieve a self-expression hitherto denied them, new ideas (some of them expressed by women themselves) on marriage, the injustices of a commercial marriage market, and on divorce encouraged them in practices which weakened the marriage bond, tended to erode the role of the husband as spiritual and temporal head of the household, questioned the unequal education given to women and their whole role of submission and obedience to their husbands.

The idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes and the supreme importance of individual conscience freed women from spiritual dependence on their husbands. When it came to a question of loyalty to a husband or loyalty to religious conviction it was the latter that won out. Thus Mrs Chidley asked in 1641 ‘what authority [the] unbelieving husband hath over the conscience of his believing wife; it is true he hath authority over her in bodily and civil respects, but not to be a lord over her conscience.’91 From the claim to religious independence for women it was but a short step to that of political and social independence. It was not just the unity of the Church that was threatened but the unity of the family.

So the 1640s and 1650s might seem to represent a great step in the emancipation of women; a permanent break with the past. But such a view of the influences at work in this period overlooks the extent and strength of the opposition which derived not just from Anglicans and Presbyterians but from the sects, or rather the male sectaries, themselves. They were usually all too anxious to make and maintain the distinction between the liberty of women to believe and worship as their consciences dictated, and the traditional role of obedience that women owed their husbands and fathers. And there were many who were not at all sure just how far women's liberty of conscience should be taken. With the Restoration and the sects' move towards less political objectives developed the trend towards more clearly defined institutional frameworks and a more traditional and conservative approach.

Of course there were other long-term tendencies that worked in the same direction—towards a return in emphasis to the traditional role of women. In the first place, the seventeenth century sees the beginning of a development that was to accelerate in the next century—the gradual decline in the economic opportunities for women, and even, as in the case of midwifery, brewing and printing, the exclusion of women from fields where hitherto they had been prominent. In agriculture farmers' wives who had enjoyed a role that was admittedly not one of equality, but at least approached an economic partnership with their husbands, were for reasons of choice as well as of developments in agriculture withdrawing from labour.

Another factor which mitigated against women was the changing sex ratio. Evidence suggests that although the sex ratio was lowest in towns, particularly London, the problem created by a surplus of women extended to many rural as well as urban areas. As Moll Flanders was to comment: ‘The market is against our sex just now, the men play the game all into their own hands.’92

The advances in capitalist organisation in industry and agriculture seen in this century ensured the victory by its close of economic individualism over traditional and communal arrangements. So it was that the importance of the family and household declines with the increasing importance of the individual. At first sight this might seem to suggest the decline within the family of the authority of the father, the traditional head of the household. But the victory of individualism was a victory for property, and wives by their very legal definition were propertyless so that all the Puritan emphasis on the virtues of thrift, industry and discipline tended towards the reinforcement not the weakening of the authority of husband and father.

It was this that above all led to that ‘crisis in marriage which bore particularly hard upon the feminine part of the population’.93 It was not just that there seems to have been an increasing emphasis on mercenary motives for marriage but that, in conditions where it was becoming more difficult and far more expensive, to find a husband, the importance of marriage for women actually increased. This crisis existed long before the 1690s but, when in 1695 effective censorship ended, the pent-up frustrations of many women, not just Mary Astell, were released. In a way it was a defensive action. It was to fail and nearly a century was to pass before the effort was renewed.

After 1660 there was a concerted attempt to re-establish social order which involved efforts to reimpose the traditional role of women and children in relation to their husbands and fathers. It seems certain that at the Restoration, as Keith Thomas has suggested, ‘the more radical views on the family went underground’.94

Look, for instance, at The Ladies Calling which appeared in 1673. At one time it was thought to be the work of Lady Pakington, a Royalist, but it is now recognised to be the work of Richard Allestree, a Royalist clergyman and author of that other best seller, The Whole Duty of Man (1658). It ran to eight editions before 1700, indicative of its influence. In it Allestree, while recognising the equality of women's souls with those of men, makes clear ‘that in respect of their intellects they are below men’.95 He stresses the importance in women of a ‘will duly submissive to lawful Superiors’ for the contrary was ‘the spring and original of infinite confusions, a grand incendiary which sets Kingdoms, Churches, Families in combustion’.96 It was the duty of wives to obey their husbands not because of their vow to do so but ‘from an original of much older date, it being the mulct that was laid upon the Woman's disobedience to God, that she (and all deriv'd from her) should be subject to the Husband; so that the contending for superiority is an attempt to reverse the Fundamental Law, which is almost as ancient as the World’.97

He saw the leading feminine virtue as that of modesty which ‘restrains all excessive talkativeness’. Almost the worst sin in women was that of boldness. And lest any should recall the women preachers of the Interregnum, and seek to emulate them, he reminds his readers that St Paul ‘expressly enjoins women to keep silence in the church’.98

Two years later Hannah Woolley restated the role of women in marriage. ‘Undoubtedly the Husband’, she wrote, ‘hath power over the Wife and the Wife ought to be subject to the Husband in all things.’99

Yet attempts to put the clock back in family relations, as in politics, encountered serious obstacles. If some employment opportunities had now been denied women, others had emerged which provided women with new forms of self-expression. The advent of actresses, for example, opened the way into a new and important profession. Indeed, it is not too fanciful to see a continuity between the female preachers and prophetesses of the 1640s and 1650s and the post-Restoration actresses. Acting represented a similar break with the notion that women should be kept out of public life and that their place was in the privacy of the home. The arrival of women on the stage was an encouragement to the emergence of women playwrights. Together they contributed to the new focus on women and women's dilemma both in and out of marriage which is the subject of a great deal of Restoration theatre.

One of the things that distinguishes the post-Restoration period as far as women are concerned was the changed nature of the means by which articulate women expressed themselves. Women, admittedly mainly upper-class women, moved from a more private expression of their thoughts in spiritual diaries, letters and poetry, to a more public expression. Women playwrights opened the way for women novelists. Remarkably Aphra Behn combined both skills. But in other areas, where the existence of current debate ensured all contributions were in the public eye, women, if still only a few, now made their entry.

Religion was one area in which women had, for a long time, been more free to express themselves than in other fields, although one needs to acknowledge that there were still men who thought it was more important that women should keep to the religion in which they had been reared, or should adopt that of their husbands, than that they should be able to defend their faith. So Halifax, in his Advice to a Daughter, suggested the reason for a woman keeping to the faith in which she had been brought up ‘is somewhat stronger for your sex than it will perhaps be allowed to be for ours; in respect that the voluminous inquiries into the truth, by reading, are less expected from you’.100 Nevertheless religion and religious controversy had provided one area in which intelligent women could use their minds. Mary Astell was by no means alone among educated upper-class women in her knowledge of the Bible and her grasp of contemporary theological debate. Women of the sects had demonstrated their ability to play a major part in religious life and thought, and while the debt was seldom acknowledged, many upper-class women must have been aware of the precedents set.

It was not new to the post-Restoration period for women to express their views on education, particularly education for their own sex, but now far more women entered into the debate. Here again, Mary Astell in her A Serious Proposal, Part I, was not alone in expressing views on the inadequacy of educational provision for women and ideas for some solution to the problem. The same is true of works on such diverse subjects as cookery and midwifery.

Women artists that emerge in the period, with the notable exception of Mary Beale, are usually amateurs. They had no training. But, as Myra Reynolds suggests, the real incentive behind their painting—and there were many such amateur painters among women—was the ‘inner demand for some form of self-expression’. It was this that made them welcome any ‘opportunity for the free play of their own individuality’.101

Accompanying the venturing into print of many women play-wrights, novelists and poets, there would seem to have been a marked increase in women readers. Of course female literacy everywhere lagged far behind that of men, but over the century as a whole there is evidence that, at least among the middle ranks of women, increased leisure led to a greater interest in literature. This tendency was greatest in towns, and above all in London. If the ability of women to read was related to their ability to sign their names, it would appear that the former increased sharply in London towards the end of the century and particularly in the 1690s, constituting ‘an educational revolution … among late Stuart and early Hanoverian women’.102 One writer has talked of an ‘advancing army of women readers’ in this period.103 Certainly the rise of a feminine readership would seem to be supported by the emergence of periodicals and newspapers specifically directed at a female audience. So, for example, the Athenian Gazette, later the Athenian Mercury, was started in 1690, with an eye on the woman reader.

The England of the post-Restoration period was very different from that of the 1640s but if the position of women had changed it was not solely on the debit side. One thing is certain. The memory of that earlier period was still fresh in men's and women's minds. Even for those like Mary Astell, who thoroughly disapproved of much of what had been done, said or written earlier, the awareness of the developments at that time remained and, whether consciously or not, influenced her thinking and that of other female contemporaries.


The first of Mary Astell's published works was A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest which appeared in 1694.104 By 1701 it had run to four editions, which suggests something of its reception. Indeed, it was read even if its ideas were unacceptable. Three years after its appearance a second part followed. There seems no evidence that this was contemplated at the time of the publication of Part I which stands on its own. Part I contains all the details of her ‘proposal’ and the reasons which prompted her to make it.

Her scheme was a simple one—the creation of a ‘Religious Retirement’ (p. 150) where women could, temporarily, withdraw from the world. But it was to be not only a place of retreat but one where women could be equipped to re-enter society and become useful members of it. She constantly emphasised this ‘double aspect’ of her female ‘monastery’ and, as she explains to women, the employment of its inmates was to be not only ‘to magnify God, to love one another’, but ‘to communicate that useful knowledge, which by due improvement of your time in Study and Contemplation you will obtain’ (p. 151).

Her use of the word ‘Monastery’ was unfortunate for it immediately conjured up those Catholic institutions which, in her own words, ‘tho' innocent in themselves, have been abused by superstitious practices’ (p. 150) and it did little to recommend her proposal. In fact she made clear the distinction between her ‘Religious Retirement’ and a nunnery. In her scheme ‘piety shall not be roughly impos'd, but wisely insinuated’, nor were there to be ‘Vows or irrevocable Obligations, not so much as the fear of Reproach to keep our Ladies here any longer than they desire’ (p. 158). In answer to those who saw her proposal as a rejection of this world, she stressed that it was to be but ‘a convenient and blissful recess from the noise and hurry of the world’ (p. 150). There was no inherent contradiction, in her view, between a contemplative and active life. The temporary removal from the world would not hinder women ‘from bettering and improving it’ when they returned. Indeed, she saw her ‘Retirement’ as ‘a Seminary to stock the kingdom with pious and prudent Ladies’ (p. 152) who would be an example to the rest of their sex.

If religion was seen as ‘its … main design’ with the performance of daily devotions and the regular observance of Sundays, holy days and fasts, ‘one great end of this Institution,’ she wrote, ‘shall be to expel that cloud of Ignorance which Custom has involv'd us in, to furnish our minds with a stock of solid and useful Knowledge’ (p. 152). Of what exactly that knowledge should consist we are left uncertain, but the importance of discussion and the exchange of ideas is suggested by her mention of ‘instructive discourses’ and ‘ingenious conversation’. The emphasis was to be on the need to train minds rather than on the acquisition of knowledge. Languages were of value—not in themselves—but because they gave access to ‘useful Authors’ (p. 153). The aim of the education women received must be, in a phrase reminiscent of Bacon, not ‘in learning words but things’ (p. 152). It was better to read and thoroughly understand a few well-chosen and good books than to thumb through a vast number and the understanding of French which so many ladies included among their accomplishments could be put to good use by discovering the French philosophers, Descartes and Malebranche, and the works of Madame Dacier and Scudéry, rather than reading those ‘idle Novels and Romances’ (p. 155). Among the ‘harmless and ingenious Diversions’ (p. 157) positively encouraged for the inmates of her seminary, music was particularly emphasised.

Women in her ‘Religious Retirement’ when not engaged in religious devotions were to be ‘employ'd in innocent, charitable, and useful Business: either in study in learning themselves or instructing others’ for, as Mary Astell stresses, ‘it is design'd that part of their Employment be the Education of those of their own Sex’ (p. 156). It is true that, at least in this work, she confined her concern about education to the upper classes. She envisaged her seminary sending back into the world a body of women trained to take over responsibility for the education of the children of ‘Persons of Quality’ (p. 165), and, when their finances permitted, to extend their responsibility to the education of daughters of gentlemen ‘who are fallen into decay’ so that they might be ‘put in a comfortable way of subsisting’ (p. 166) and, she adds significantly, despite their lack of dowry, made more marriageable.

Her proposed institution was to be run under a strict discipline but one imposed by ‘friendly Admonitions, not magisterial Reproofs’ (p. 158). The standards of accommodation, dress and diet were to be determined by those who subscribed to the scheme, but its author was in no doubt that their choice would be guided by ‘what Nature not Luxury requires’ (p. 157). There were to be no ‘superfluities’: the time to be spent by the inmates on their toilet, on sleeping and eating was to be ‘no more than necessity requires’ (p. 157). Tuition would be undertaken by ‘persons of irreproachable Lives, of a consummate Prudence, sincere Piety and unaffected Gravity’ (p. 158). The suggested annual fee was £500 to £600, a sum few but ‘Persons of Quality’ would have been able to afford.

According to George Ballard, a bishop intervened to prevent a prominent lady giving £10,000 towards the realisation of Mary Astell's scheme.105 The lady concerned is thought to have been Princess Anne of Denmark which might help to explain why the second part of A Serious Proposal published in 1697 was dedicated to her and not, as was the first part, to ladies in general! The name of Lady Elizabeth Hastings was also put forward as the possible unknown benefactress, but there is some doubt whether the two were yet acquainted at this time. A letter dated 13 July 1738 from Elizabeth Elstob, the Anglo-Saxon scholar, to George Ballard after he had requested information about the name of the lady concerned produced no further evidence. Elizabeth Elstob had never ‘heard Mrs. Astell mention the Good Lady's name’, but the bishop who intervened to discourage the lady from donating such a sum was revealed by Mary Astell to be Bishop Burnet106 who disliked what he saw as the Catholic overtones of her proposal. However, in view of this attitude, it seems curious that he was later to write in favour of ‘something like Monasteries without Vows’ where young women could acquire ‘a due Measure of Knowledge and a serious Sense of Religion.’107

The idea of a place of ‘Religious Retirement’ to which women could withdraw and where they could continue their education was not new and can be traced from the time of Henry VIII's suppression of nunneries up to the second half of the eighteenth century. It is now generally agreed that nunneries had provided a solution to the gentry's problem of disposing of their unmarriageable daughters, and Milton was not alone in seeing them as ‘a convenient stowage for their withered daughters’. But nunneries were more than that. Possibly under financial pressure in the years immediately before the Reformation, they appear increasingly to have opened their doors to paying pupils not merely of the well-to-do but from tradesmen and even yeomen. Given the state of girls' boarding schools at the time, it seems likely that the education they provided was quite as good as if not better than that they would have received either at home or at such schools. Certainly from the 1530s onwards there are cases of Protestants lamenting the passing of nunneries as useful places of education for women. In the mid-sixteenth century, for example, Thomas Becon begged that there be ‘some consideration of this matter had among the rulers of the Christian Commonweal that the young maids might be Godly brought up.’108 Later, John Aubrey, Thomas Fuller and Richard Allestree among others were to express the same regret.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, Lettice, Lady Falkland, harboured the notion of a ‘place for the education of young gentlewomen and for the retirement of widows … in several parts of the kingdom’ but she had been discouraged from pursuing the idea by ‘those evil times’.109 The community at Little Gidding formed by Nicholas Ferrar and his nieces, had been a practical—and private—example of something similar to what later Mary Astell had in mind. As A Serious Proposal was being written, Mary and Anne Kemys at Naish Court in Glamorganshire were at the centre of a kind of Anglican sisterhood.

Perhaps the most interesting of the proposals that precede Mary Astell's was that put forward by Clement Barksdale—an intriguing character who consistently demonstrated his unfashionable interest in women's education. In 1659 he was responsible both for the translation and publication of Anna Maria Schurman's The Learned Maid, or Whether a Maid may be a Scholar which had already aroused considerable interest on the Continent. In 1675 he wrote A Letter Touching a Colledge of Maids, or a Virgin Society in which he proposed the formation of a girl's college ‘somewhat like the Halls of Commoners at Oxford’, combining both religious and secular objects and with the declared purpose of improving ‘ingenuous Maids in such qualities as best become their Sex, and may fit them both for a happy Life in this, and much more in the next world’. Unlike Anna Maria Schurman, Barksdale's proposal was not confined to daughters of the upper-class although his college acknowledged class differences. The daughters of the rich would be served and waited on by ‘Maids of meaner birth and estate’ but both would be guided by governesses in ‘a method of private Reading and Devotion’. The entrance fee would be £5 ‘more or less, according to the quality of the persons’ and, although his broadly based curriculum included training in the traditional accomplishments of music, dancing, needlework and drawing, the library was to include ‘choice Authors of History, Poetry, and especially of Practical Divinity and Devotion’. There were to be not only examples of English writers but of works of ‘Learned, as well as Modern Language’.110 The most able were to study both natural and moral philosophy. The girls could be taken away from the college by their fathers at any time, either for a few days or ‘to dispose of them in marriage’.111 While there was no suggestion of provision for wives, Barksdale's ‘Virgin Society’ resembles in design that put forward nearly twenty years later by Mary Astell.

After 1694, her idea of a ‘Protestant nunnery’ won support from, among others, John Evelyn, George Wheler, Robert Nelson and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The idea did not die. In the works of Thomas Amory, in Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, and in the novels of Sarah Fielding and Sarah Scott among others, one can trace the recurrent theme of a ‘Religious Retirement’ for women.112 Not all these authors were agreed on the details of what was required but all saw the desirability of a place of retirement from the world where women could go both for religious and secular education.

Three years after Mary Astell made her proposal, Daniel Defoe published his An Essay upon Projects in which he put forward his scheme for ‘An Academy for Women’. While expressing his ‘very great esteem’ for ‘what is proposed by that ingenious lady’, he was at some pains to distinguish his proposals from her's. The ‘Religious Retirement’, he insisted, ‘would be found impracticable’ not only for the reason that ‘nothing but the height of bigotry can keep up a nunnery’, but because ‘the levity’ of the opposite sex would ‘not bear the restraint’.113 The difficulty in discerning important differences between the two proposals might lead one to conclude that Defoe was jealous of Mary Astell for having published her proposal first.

In his Essay there is a suggestion of just how much single women were the prey of those whom Mary Astell described as ‘bold importunate and rapacious vultures’. To protect his Academy against infiltrators he demanded an Act of Parliament to ‘make it felony without Clergy for any man to enter by Force or Fraud into the House, or to solicit any Woman though it were to marry, while she was in the House.’114 It is a sinister comment on the nature of society at that time and makes clear why Mary Astell saw the need for a place of retreat for women.

What is new in Mary Astell's proposal is that it represents ‘the first considered attempt to interest Englishwomen in the higher education of their sex’115—a notion that had not previously been made the subject of a general appeal to women nor been made so powerfully. What is interesting is that the idea re-emerges in the late seventeenth century—and not merely in the work of Mary Astell.

Roger Thompson saw Mary Astell's proposal as part of what he called ‘a desperate rearguard action against a shocking decline of standards’.116 His view is supported by evidence that the quality of education for women had not improved. Certainly there had been mounting criticism of existing boarding schools for girls as the century progressed. After the Restoration there seems to have been a further sharp decline in standards—possibly a reflection of the more general decline in public manners of these years.

Although A Serious Proposal was the first of Mary Astell's published works, in many ways it anticipates the conclusions she reached about the lives of women, whether single or married, that later found fuller expression particularly in her Reflections upon Marriage published in 1700. (In the texts that follow I have reversed the chronological order and made Reflections upon Marriage precede A Serious Proposal117 for the latter presents the only solution she offered given the state of marriage as it was.) She saw more education as the only answer available to women in their existing circumstances, but would have been the first to acknowledge that it was by no means a complete answer. ‘My earnest desire’, she wrote, ‘is that you Ladies would be as perfect and happy as 'tis possible to be in this imperfect state’ (p. 142). That more education was her only answer suggests perhaps just how ‘imperfect’ she saw this state as being.

Her argument starts from the basic premise that in so far as women are inferior to men it is the result not of nature but of education. She challenges those who ‘deny us the improvement of our Intellectuals’ either to take their stand on the old argument that women have no souls, which, she adds ‘at this time a day when they are allow'd to Brutes, would be as unphilosophical as it is unmannerly, or else let them permit us to cultivate and improve them’ (p. 154).

She does not spare her audience. Far too often women were ‘content to be Cyphers in the World, useless at the best, and in a little time a burden and nuisance to all about them’ (p. 143). Angrily she asks of women: ‘Why are you so preposterously humble?’ (p. 141) The ‘ill conduct of too many’ had led them to ‘pass for those little useless and impertinent Animals’ (p. 152). What, she demands of them ‘stops your flight’ and ‘keeps you groveling here below, like Domitian catching Flies when you should be busied in obtaining Empires?’ (p. 143) Perhaps conscious of the severity of her censure she hastens to reassure her audience. Her aim, she insists, ‘is not to expose, but to rectifie’ (p. 142) their failures.

One such failure was their wastage of time in slavishly following fashion, in endeavouring to excel in ‘trifles’, in seeking distinction in mere ornamental accomplishments—and to what purpose but that of winning ‘Fustian Compliments and Fulsome Flatteries’ (p. 140) and ‘to attract the Eyes of Men … vain, insignificant men’ (p. 141)? Women had become slaves to ‘that Tyrant Custom’ (p. 147) intent ‘on doing as their neighbours do’ lest they attract to themselves ‘all the Scofs and Noises of the world’ (p. 162). She appeals to women to ‘dare to break the enchanted Circle that custom has plac'd us in’ (p. 141).

Her scorn for how little men have to show for all the lavish care and time bestowed on their education is unbounded. She would offer them advice but ‘they think themselves too wise to receive Instruction from a Woman's Pen’. Men, ‘often guilty of greater faults’ yet ‘divert themselves with our Miscarriages’ (p. 142). Denying women the benefit of a liberal education, they then complain of the consequences when women are ‘taught to be Proud and Petulant, Delicate and Fantastick, Humorous and Inconstant’ (p. 144). It is against men, the ‘Enemy from without’ (p. 145), that her religious retirement offers a refuge: for ‘Heiresses and Persons of Fortune’ it offered a haven from ‘the rude attempts of designing Men’ (p. 165). She expressed contempt for money and what money will buy, whether a marriage, ‘a sounding Title or a great Estate’ (p. 139). Her ‘retirement’ represented for women who had ‘more Money than Discretion’ an escape from predatory men.


Six years after A Serious Proposal was published there appeared Some Reflections upon Marriage Occasion'd by the Duke and Dutchess of Mazarine's Case which is also considered.118 It ran through four editions by 1730 (1700, 1703, 1706, 1730). To the third edition of 1706—(the one reproduced here) was added a Preface ‘in answer to some Objections’.

The Duchess of Mazarine, a near-neighbour of Mary Astell's, had been forced into an unhappy marriage, one of the consequences of which was a scandal that reverberated around Europe. The case of the duchess served, Mary Astell wrote, ‘as an unhappy shipwrack to point out the dangers of an ill Education and unequal Marriage’ (p. 90). Neither side escaped her censure but her sympathy was reserved for the duchess ‘who being capable of everything must therefore suffer more’.

For such unhappy marriages entered into on ill-considered motives, there was no solution. The wives had to bear the consequences and Mary Astell did not underestimate them. ‘To be yok'd for Life to a disagreeable Person and Temper; to have Folly and Ignorance tyrannise over Wit and Sense; to be contradicted in everything one does or says, and bore down not by Reason but Authority; to be denied ones most innocent desires, for no other cause but the Will and Pleasure of an absolute Lord and Master, whose Follies a Woman with all her Prudence cannot hide, and whose Commands she cannot but despise at the same time she obeys them; is a misery none can have a just idea of, but those who have felt it’ (p. 90). These words sum up Mary Astell's whole condemnation of so many upper class marriages.

Nevertheless, she saw marriage as ‘too sacred to be treated with Disrespect’. Being the ‘Institution of Heaven’, it was not just ‘the only Honourable way of continuing Mankind’ (p. 93), but provided ‘the best that may be for Domestic Quiet and Content, and for the Education of Children’ (pp. 93-4). Happy marriages, she insisted, were possible but they required care—above all a choice based on reason with the chief inducement that of friendship. But if marriage was ‘such a blessed State’, why were there so few happy marriages? In large part the blame lay with men in their motives for entering into marriage and their ill-conduct within it. More often than not such motives were mercenary; ‘What will she bring is the first enquiry? How many acres? Or how much ready Coin?’ Such considerations were not unimportant, she acknowledged, for ‘Marriage without a Competency’ was ‘no very comfortable Condition’ (p. 94) but it was not the main, and certainly not the only, consideration. Mercenary marriages were doomed. For the very best of women, as Mary Astell ironically suggested, they could become ‘a very great Blessing’ by giving her the ‘opportunity to exercise her Virtue’. For, she continued ‘Affliction’ was ‘the only useful school that Women were ever put to’ for it ‘rouses her understanding, opens her Eyes, fixes her Attention’ (p. 96). Such a wife ‘was never truly a Happy Woman till she came in the Eye of the World to be reckon'd Miserable’ (p. 97). By no means all injured wives would react like this! Many, and who could blame them, would follow the example set by their husbands.

Marriages for love, if rarer, were no different. Equally irrational, men were ‘govern'd by irregular Appetites’ (p. 97) or a man might think himself in love with a woman's wit but ‘cannot hope to find a Woman whose Wit is of a size with his’ (p. 98), and when the occasion arises for a woman to turn her wit on him he might find it less agreeable! When you add those who ‘Marry without any Thought at all, further than that it is the Custom of the World’ (p. 99) to those who marry for money, love or wit, there are very few marriages remaining.

Mary Astell would be the first to admit that it is not just men who are in the wrong, but as ‘a Woman … can't properly be said to Choose’, as ‘all that is allow'd her, is to Refuse or Accept what is offer'd’ (p. 99), women are more to be pitied than censured. If a man can anticipate no happiness from marriages for money, wit or beauty, how much less can a woman expect of them? Hers is by far ‘the harder bargain’ for ‘if the Matrimonial Yoke be grievous, neither Law nor Custom afford her that redress which a Man obtains’ (p. 101). If she has the bad fortune to marry a man with a ‘disagreeable Temper’, she will be ‘as unhappy as anything in this World can make her’. She cannot, like her husband, ‘find entertainments abroad’, she has not ‘a hundred ways of relieving’ herself, all she can do is stay at home and ‘make her best on't’ (p. 103).

For women, then, the right marriage partner was of far greater importance than for men. No ‘Woman of any tolerable Sense’ should trust herself to a man who ‘doats on a Face’, who ‘makes Money his Idol’ or ‘who is Charm'd with vain and empty Wit’. How could she love or honour such a ‘trifle of a Man’ and if she cannot either love or honour him she should never promise to obey him, for such obedience ‘as is paid only to Authority, and not out of Love and a Sense of the Justice and Reasonableness of the Command, will be of uncertain Tenure’. If nevertheless a woman obeys, she must be ‘endow'd with a Wisdom and Goodness much above what we suppose the Sex capable of, I fear much greater than e're a Man can pretend to’ (pp. 104-5)!

If this is what a woman who marries ‘prudently’ can expect, what of those who marry beneath them, who ‘purchase a Lord and Master’ and ‘at the price of her Discretion’? Even more will he assert his authority and tend to overlook any obligations entered into before marriage. For every man expects a wife ‘whom he can intirely Govern … who must be his for Life, and therefore cannot quit his Service let him treat her how he will’. Even those who marry their social equals have ‘no security but the Man's Honour and Good nature’ (p. 106). And what are those worth?

So what remains as the best guarantees of a happy marriage? ‘A good understanding’ and ‘a Virtuous Mind’ are the principal considerations in the choice of a marriage partner, and Mary Astell adds ‘as much equality as may be’ (p. 108). But a wise choice of a partner was not sufficient to guarantee married happiness. The role of subjection that women were assigned was ‘a bitter Cup’ (p. 109) and it would be easier for them to bear if it was not claimed ‘oftner and more Imperiously than either Discretion or Good Manners will justifie’. The vows of marriage which involved a mutual agreement and a ‘certain Civility and Respect’ are quite ‘as much the Woman's due as Love, Honour and Obedience are the Man's’ (p. 108). If, despite all a woman forfeits by marriage, there is not only no acknowledgement of a husband's obligations to her but even disrespect, a woman must be a saint if she continues to pay him the obedience he demands. But if men continue to regard women with contempt and women continue to suffer it, they cannot but become aware of ‘their own real superiority’ (p. 112).

There is little here to suggest that marriage could be a ‘blessing’ for women. The most that is hoped for is that it should prove ‘tolerable’ (p. 114). Of those who entertained great hopes of marriage, many would be disappointed, their only consolation being their reward in heaven. Marriage was their ‘time of Tryal’ (p. 115).

Finally, and seemingly conclusively, Mary Astell argues that ‘she then who Marrys ought to lay it down for an indisputable Maxim that her Husband must govern absolutely and intirely, and that she has nothing else to do but to Please and Obey’. If incapable of exercising ‘Humility and Self-denial, Patience and Resignation’ (p. 116) then the role of wife is not for her.

However, Mary Astell cannot leave it there and she goes on to qualify the statement. No-one will convince a woman of the wisdom and goodness of her husband against all evidence to the contrary so, although she may submit, it will be from necessity not from reason. This is why, she argues, it is in men's interests for women to be good Christians. A Christian woman ‘will freely leave him the quiet Dominion of this World whose Thoughts and Expectations are plac'd on the next’, and by directing all their ambition heavenwards women will be sufficiently compensated ‘for all the neglect and contempt the ill-grounded Customs of the World throw on her’. Thus the duty of obedience would be paid ‘for God's sake’ (p. 128), and obedience to her husband was a woman's religious duty.

To survive the trials of marriage, women, Mary Astell argued, needed ‘a strong Reason … a truly Christian and well-temper'd Spirit’ and ‘all the Assistance the best Education can give her’. Little wonder that women married so hastily for if they stopped to consider ‘they seldom would Marry at all’ (p. 131). More education would ensure that women ‘marry more discreetly’ or that they ‘never consent to be a wife’ (p. 127).

The Preface which was added to the third edition of 1706 represents the best of her writing.119 It appears to have been written at great speed and in passionate anger. If there is ambiguity—even apparent contradiction—in Reflections, the added Preface poses even greater problems for reaching any conclusions as to what exactly Mary Astell thought. Did she really believe, for example, that wives must obey their husbands and in all cases believe them ‘Wise and Good and in all respects the best’ (p. 116)? Must a woman obey for no other reason than that there must be one seat of authority ‘for Order's sake’ (p. 104) however lacking her husband might be in the qualities demanded in those that exert authority? In the Preface to the first edition she insists “Tis a very great Fault … to submit to Authority, when we should only yield to Reason' (p. 69). Was a man's right to govern forfeited when he abused his power as husband? Again the Preface suggests so when it argues that ‘if Arbitrary Power is evil in itself, and an improper Method of govening Rational and Free Agents, it ought not to be Practis'd any where’. If marriage was a divinely ordained institution how was it that it ignored any idea of women's happiness? It is a curious choice of text that Mary Astell takes to head her preface to the third edition of Reflections: ‘If a Virgin marry, she hath not sinned, nevertheless such shall have trouble.’ Was marriage divinely ordained for men only? Must women be content with marriage as ‘an excellent preparation for heaven’ as it was their ‘Duty to suffer everything without Complaint’? Yet in the Preface such an idea of women's role in marriage provoked that passionate response: ‘If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?’ (p. 76). Women, she argued, were as yet ‘too weak to dispute men's authority’ and were ‘not so well united as to form an Insurrection’ (p. 86)—but had they the right to challenge men's authority, and, when stronger and more united, to overthrow it? ‘Far be it from her,’ she insists, ‘to stir up Sedition of any sort’ (p. 70), and yet she can ask ‘can it be thought that an ignorant weak Woman shou'd have patience to bear a continual Outrage and Insolence all the days of her Life?’ (p. 117)

Although it is tempting to try and resolve these questions, it would be a mistake. George Ballard, unable to accept the strong words in which she expressed her scorn for men, invented an unhappy love affair as explanation.120 If we are to understand her we have to accept the ambiguities and contradictions of her writing. They were a part of her make-up and help to explain the tensions that inevitably developed in a woman of intelligence holding such diverse beliefs.

The year before Reflections was published, a sermon was preached by John Sprint at a wedding in Sherborne in Dorset. As his text he took ‘But she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her Husband’. On the grounds of being misrepresented by his female critics, ‘my waspish accusers’, Sprint decided to publish the sermon. He did so under the title The Bride-Woman's Counsellor. The duty of a wife in pleasing and comforting her husband was God's punishment for her role in the Fall as ‘the Tempter's Agent’. To refuse that duty ‘doth wickedly pervert the end of her Creation’. A good wife would never ‘will or desire what she herself liked, but only what her Husband should approve and allow’. She must be like ‘a mirror which hath no Image of its own, but receives its Stamp and Image from the Face that looks into it’. A wife should not address her husband by his Christian name—‘a Custom more Common than comely’—but as ‘Lord and Master’, a fitting address for ‘one whom God hath appointed and ordained to be her Superior and Head’.121

Whether Mary Astell read the sermon we do not know, but it seems likely. Two works published in 1700 demonstrate the angry response it provoked among women. One was the poem, The Ladies Defence: Or the Bride-Woman's Counsellor Answer'd, by Lady Elizabeth Chudleigh, and the other The Female Advocate; or, a Plea for the just liberty of the Tender Sex, and particularly of Married Women that appeared under the pseudonym ‘Eugenia’. The very response to the sermon might suggest that the views expressed in it were exceptional and not wholly representative of attitudes to the role of the wife in marriage. It is more difficult, however, to dismiss Lord Halifax's The Lady's New Year Gift; Or, Advice to a Daughter (1688)122 written for his daughter Elizabeth—then twelve years old—to whom he was devoted. Significantly it was by far his most popular work, and over the following century ran to 25 editions. He admitted that at times he shrank ‘as if struck at the prospect of danger to which a young woman must be exposed’. The institution of marriage was, he thought, ‘too sacred to admit a liberty of objecting to it’ (p. 278). He explained to his daughter that one of the disadvantages of her sex is that ‘young women are seldom permitted to make their own choice’ of a husband. More often they are called on to accept the recommendations of their parents even if this goes against their inclinations. All they can do is to make the best of it and ‘by a wise use of everything they may dislike in a husband turn that by degrees to be very supportable which, if neglected might in time beget an aversion’. The inequality between the sexes, the existence of which Halifax did not doubt, makes women ‘better prepared for the compliance that is necessary’ (p. 277). In order to help his daughter prepare herself for marriage he reviewed the type of husband with whom she might be forced into marriage. First was the adulterer or persistently unfaithful husband (and here Halifax acknowledged the double standard of a society which made ‘that in the utmost degree criminal in the woman’ which ‘in a man passeth under a much gentler censure’ (p. 279)). Second was the drunkard ‘and there is by too frequent examples evidence enough that such a thing may happen, and yet a wife may live too without being miserable’ (p. 280). Third was the choleric or ill-humoured man and ‘there is a great deal of nice care requisite to deal with a man of this complexion’ (p. 282). A covetous husband is the fourth possibility, and although even he could be endured, ‘a close-handed wretch’, significantly, was the worst fate that Halifax could envisage for his daughter. Finally there was the feeble-minded husband—for whom there was a great deal to be said in Halifax's view, for ‘if you will be more ashamed in some cases of such a husband, you will be less afraid than you would perhaps be of a wise one’! To have an idiot as a husband was the next best thing to having him dead ‘in which case the wife hath right to administer’ (p. 285) so all the more important, warned Halifax, ‘when your husband shall resolve to be an ass … take care he may be your ass’ (p. 286).

Given such possibilities, Halifax suggested his daughter should ‘pray for a wise husband, one that by knowing how to be a master for that very reason will not let you feel the weight of it’ (p. 286).

Earlier Hannah Woolley in The Gentlewoman's Guide to the Female Sex (1675) had emphasised a wife's duty ‘to give honour, respect and reverence’ to her ‘lawful (though lording) husband’ and stressed how she should endeavour ‘to hide his faults and infirmities, and not detect them yourself, or suffer them to be discovered’.123 As did Mary Astell, she warned of the consequences of marrying ‘one you have either abhorrence or loathing to; for it is neither affluence of estate, potency of friends, nor highness of descent can alloy the insufferable grief of a loathed bed.’124 Later in The Queen-like Closet, she issued a warning to all women who if they ‘would consider the Policy of Men … might be generally happy; whereas now very few are so’. She had seen enough of them, she adds ‘as it hath given me a sufficient Caution to beware of them.’125 Yet here spoke a woman who, unlike Mary Astell was married twice, and happily, to ‘two Worthy, Eminent, and brave Persons’.126 Nevertheless, in the language she reserves for men in general she rivals Mary Astell.

Evidence suggests that Mary Astell was far from exaggerating the frequency of mercenary marriages among the upper class. It was, said Hannah Woolley, ‘an ordinary thing, in these Late Times, for Gentlemen, when they hear of a Fortune, presently to make their Addresses to that Lady, a Gentlewoman, let her be as deformed or unhandsome a Creature as is imaginable’.127 Although he believed ‘Gentlemen in their Marriages ought to consider a great many things more than Fortune’, Gilbert Burnet added, ‘tho' generally speaking, that is the only thing sought for’.128 Later Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was to make the same point when she commented bitterly that ‘people in my way are sold like slaves; and I cannot tell what price my masters will put on me’.129

John Norris, in the course of his duties as adviser to the publishers of The Athenian Mercury, was asked whether friendship was possible between a man and his wife. After consideration he replied that Yes, there could be ‘strict friendship between Man and Wife’. A husband, he wrote like ‘the greatest Monarch in the World may find Opportunities to descend from the Throne of Majesty to the familiar Caresses of a dear Favourite: and unking himself a while for the more glorious Title of Friend.’130 Norris, who appears to have been attractive to women, was married and had a large family. His answer serves not merely to remind us of just what women like Mary Astell were up against in even the most sympathetic of men, but of how deeply rooted was the particular analogy which he uses.



Many of those who have written about Mary Astell, and even those referring to her in passing, have attempted to label her. She has been variously described as a Platonist, a Cartesian rationalist, a Lockean feminist, an English Femme Savante, and ‘the first major English feminist’.131 If some of these labels are more relevant to her than others, there is not one that, by itself, adequately describes her ideas.

Not for nothing has John Norris been called ‘the last of the Cambridge Platonists’.132 By the end of the century the school was in decline and the ideas of Locke had taken over. It is true that Mary Astell was caricatured by Swift as ‘a profess'd Platonne’ but when his caricature proceeds to have her ‘run over Norris’ it is making an important point.133 The reason she entered into correspondence with Norris was her disagreement with some of his arguments. On occasion, as we have seen, she found difficulty in accepting Norris's insistence that God was the only proper object of her love. She ‘found it more easie to recognise his Right than to secure the Possession’.134 In her last letters to Norris she was at some pains to reconcile his views with those of Locke, and particularly Locke's argument in An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). But Norris, in his reply to her, firmly rejected Locke's argument. What finally persuaded her that the two were irreconcilable was Locke's publication of The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) which she saw as threatening to undermine the authority of the Anglican Church. By the time she wrote The Christian Religion in 1705 she had taken sides, if reluctantly, against Locke.

After Letters Concerning the Love of God she appears not to have pursued the debate. One who did was Damaris Masham (1658-1708), daughter of Ralph Cudworth, one of the most notable of the Cambridge Platonists, who was to become a close friend and disciple of Locke's. The object of Norris's Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life in a Letter to my Lady Masham (1690), she pursued the debate begun by Mary Astell in A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) which revealed how profoundly Locke had influenced her thinking, and just how far she had moved away from Norris's platonism.

That Mary Astell respected Locke ‘that Great Master of good Sense’135 there can be no doubt. She would have welcomed his notion that ‘Reason must be our last judge and guide in all things’136 although Locke had no monopoly of the idea. What she could not accept was the complete break with traditional authority that Locke's Two Treatises of Civil Government represented. She still clung to the idea of the sanctity of kingship which Locke was at such pains to discard, and was as far from accepting the idea of a contractual theory of government between king and subjects as she was from the idea of a voluntary compact in domestic relations. She rejected the idea that ‘by the Miscarriage of those in Authority, it [Supreme Power] is forfeited.’137 At the conclusion of her Reflections upon Marriage she makes it clear that she cannot go along with those who argue that ‘if a Man has not these Qualifications [to govern] where is his Right? That if he misemploys it, he abuses it. And if he abuses, according to modern Deduction, he forfeits it.’138

Surprisingly she seems to have been unaware of Locke's Thoughts on Education (1693) which owed so much to the views of Fénelon, and to which Damaris Masham was deeply indebted. Indeed, if anyone fits the title of ‘Lockean feminist’ Damaris Masham might seem the best qualified.

If Locke's political ideas were not to Mary Astell's liking, neither was his theology. She was all in favour of women applying reason to their religious faith, and she would have accepted Locke's insistence that the scriptures were the only source of religious truth, but Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) went too far for her in its rejection of the mysteries of Christianity and in its insistence that all could interpret the Gospels for themselves. It threatened to displace the clergy from their authoritative role within the Church. It is true that however, at the end of her exchange of letters with John Norris, she had attempted to reconcile their views. But Locke's work was only the beginning of a powerful movement within the Church in favour of a more reasonable Christianity. Archbishop Tillotson was to revolutionise preaching when he adopted a coolly reasoned and unemotional approach in his sermons. But, above all, it was John Toland, the Deist, who shocked High Anglicans with his Christianity not Mysterious (1696) and the host of pamphleteers that were released when the Licensing Act expired in 1695. They were seen as representing a dangerous trend towards scepticism and irreligion. When Mary Astell's Christian Religion was published in 1705, it set out to attack Locke and Tillotson—but always in highly respectful language.

In A Serious Proposal Mary Astell had stressed the importance of women who had acquired a knowledge of the French language, using it to read not romances but for ‘the study of Philosophy (as I hear the French Ladies do) Descartes, Malebranche and others’.139 English women, she suggested, should emulate Madame Dacier, the classical scholar, and Madeleine de Scudéry. Curiously, although she admitted to a great admiration for Descartes and a commitment to his ideas, she does not appear to have ever read him in the original. All her references are to translations of popularisations of Descartes's work such as Francois Bayle's The General System of Cartesian Philosophy (1670) and Arnauld's The Art of Thinking or the Port Royal Logic (1685). It was the latter work that she used as the basis for the second part of A Serious Proposal—in which the influence of Descartes's method is clear. The confirmation that she is unlikely to have read Descartes in the original is found in one of her letters to John Norris, who had urged her to read Malebranche, where she admitted she was unable to read ‘that ingenious Author in his own Language’.140

There is also no evidence that she read the work of the most influential of the French reformers, Poulain de la Barre, a radical Cartesian, translated from the French as The Woman as good as the Man: or the Equality of both Sexes in 1677. Nor does she make reference to other French writers who were concerned with women's education—with the exception of Madeleine de Scudéry. In her emphasis on the close relationship between the contempt in which women were held and their inadequate education as compared with men, Mary Astell seems to have followed Madeleine de Scudéry closely. But in the objects with which such education were to be pursued she differed fundamentally from that author. If Mlle de Scudéry believed in an expansion of educational provision for women it was not to be at the expense of any sacrifice of the ornamental accomplishments. Her aim was not to give women self-respect and intellectual independence but rather ‘to produce women who could function agreeably in social situations’.141 Of Madame de Maintenon, François Fénelon or Charles Perrault Mary Astell makes no mention, just as—even more surprising—she seems not to have read Anna Maria von Schurman's A Learned Maid (1641) which Clement Barksdale had translated into English in 1659.

Nevertheless French ideas, and more particularly the ideas of Descartes, greatly influenced Mary Astell as they did all English rational thought. The satires on ‘learned ladies’ in Restoration drama owed much to Molière's Les Femmes Savantes. It was to Aphra Behn that we owe the first translation of Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds in 1686. The habit of compiling long lists of illustrious women from history or the Bible to make the point that men had no monopoly of glory, a habit Mary Astell shared with many others of both sexes writing on women at the end of the seventeenth and in the early eighteenth century, is also found in French writers on women. But Mary Astell was selective in what she absorbed of any influence. It seems that it was not so much the details of Cartesianism but the general principles that she adopted in her thinking. She remained very independent, taking only what she wanted from any writer. So the influence of Platonism, like the influence of Locke and Descartes was not allowed to exclude other, and often, contradictory influences.142

She read widely. In Moderation Truly Stated (1704) there are over 60 works published during the Interregnum and covering a remarkable range of opinion, to which she makes detailed reference, as well as a host of sermons.143 In seeking to explain the sudden upsurge in interest in women's education and women's role in marriage of the 1690s, historians have perhaps underestimated the lasting effects of the period of the Civil War on women's consciousness. However opposed to the ideas of that period, Mary Astell was very familiar with its writings and must have been aware of its ideas about women and marriage.

The description of Mary Astell as ‘the first major English feminist’ is only one of several such labels: ‘the founder of the feminist movement’, ‘undoubtedly a blue-stocking and a feminist’, ‘the first systematic feminist in England’.144 Of course, much depends on what is meant by ‘feminist’. Almost certainly there will be many modern feminists who will find it difficult to recognise Mary Astell as a forebear. Joan Kinnaird's concern to make what she sees as her very ‘tame’ feminism compatible with High Anglican Tory views has led her to suggest that ‘our tendency to assume that there is necessarily a contradiction between feminism and conservatism’ has led us astray.145 On the contrary, she argues, Mary Astell's conservative views on marriage and women's education were fully in accord with her conservative views on religion and politics. Feminism, in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, it is concluded, was as much of conservative as radical origins. Yet surely this is to see Mary Astell as totally divorced from her historical context and to attempt to fit her into some preconceived idea of what late seventeenth and early eighteenth century feminism ought to have been. We need to remember that ‘a feminist movement at that stage would have been inconceivable.’146

Mary Astell was not a freak in her religious and political views which bind her closely to the general intellectual atmosphere of her period and her class. She was by no means exceptional in combining traditional views on religion and politics with views on women's education and marriage, which, for her time, were remarkably enlightened. Aphra Behn and Mary de la Rivière Manley were both passionate Tory advocates despite their more liberated views on women. Lady Mary Chudleigh, the poetess who wrote The Ladies Defence: Or The Bride-Woman's Counsellor Answer'd (1700), shared Mary Astell's religious devotion and high Tory views. In the disputes and debates of the years following the Glorious Revolution there was, as Geoffrey Holmes has said ‘no genuine ‘radical’ element’.147 ‘Feminism’ or the kind of enlightened views on women that Mary Astell displayed are not conditional on the existence of a radical movement any more than they are dependent on ‘conservative Anglican thought’.148

In another effort to explain Mary Astell, she is labelled as ‘sexually odd’ and ‘a man-hating recluse’.149 There is in her feminism, another writer claims, ‘a rejection of physiological womanhood’.150 Is there a hint here of precisely the same sort of contemporary accusations levelled at ‘learned ladies’, of being desexed, or of ‘acting above their sex’?

In her writings it is true that her scorn for men is expressed with powerful directness. ‘Their Vast Minds’, she wrote, ‘lay Kingdoms waste.’151 The young men of her time were ‘bold importunate and rapacious vultures’!152 Such comments led Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, to suggest she was vulgar and lacked breeding! ‘She has not the most decent manner of insinuating what she means’, he wrote, ‘but is now and then a little offensive and shocking in her expressions.’153 A more recent writer has found such expressions ‘an unattractive feature of Mrs. Astell's personality’.154 If her language is more powerful, is her scorn for men all that different from that expressed by other women at the time, and more particularly those who shared her idea that where women were found inferior to men it was the result of their exclusion from the educational opportunities enjoyed by men, and owed nothing to nature? Not surprisingly, having arrived at such a conclusion, women went on to analyse the causes of such exclusion. Who was to blame? The growing consciousness of the deprivation inflicted on them by men, of men's contemptuous attitude to them, of the humiliation of their assigned role, all led to the same answer. The expression of anti-male feeling should not surprise us. It is indeed a step in the direction of a demand for equality, and as such, a move towards ‘feminist’ expression.

‘Her sympathy with the lives of women’, wrote Ada Wallas, ‘was broader than her social theories lead one to expect.’155 It is a perceptive comment. If Mary Astell never flattered women and was not afraid to tell them their weaknesses in as direct a language as she employed for men's failings, her admiration and love for women is extended to those with whom she had little or nothing in common, and whose ideas often must have been alien to her. So she condemned novels and novel-reading but this did not prevent her reading, with admiration, Madeleine de Scudéry's novel concerned with women's education.156 She was a sincere and devout Christian but this did nothing to prevent her close friendship with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘the free-thinking Mary’ as Lady Louisa Stuart called her. She thought the notorious Madame Mazarine's behaviour imprudent, childish and inexcusable, but this did not prevent her feeling real sympathy for her. It was that sympathy that led her to greet any achievement women made with unsparing admiration.

In her Reflections Mary Astell argued that the scriptures should not be used to prove the natural subjection of women to men. Relations between the sexes ‘ought to be decided by natural Reason only.’157 But if men were to play the game of using scriptures against women in proof of their inferiority, she was prepared to list carefully woman after woman from the Bible to prove the contrary. Glory was no monopoly of the opposite sex. ‘The Bible is for, not against us’, she bravely insisted, ‘and cannot without great violence done to it, be urg'd to our Prejudice.’158

‘To plead for the Oppress'd and to defend the Weak’, she wrote, ‘seem'd to me a generous undertaking.’159 It was—even if her idea of the ‘Oppress'd’ and ‘Weak’ was mainly confined to the upper classes. In the interest of such pleading and defence she was prepared to forget her own, sometimes passionately held, beliefs.

After her publications of 1704-05, four works in all, Mary Astell was to produce one more work in 1709. Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit was an answer to a pamphlet, Letter concerning Enthusiasm (1708) written by Lord Shaftesbury, but which Mary Astell wrongly attributed to a member of the Whig Kit-Kat club—and almost certainly Swift. Shaftesbury had argued for a moderate religion free from enthusiasm and based firmly on reason. Such a true religion need have no fear of ridicule or raillery. A rational religion could only emerge strengthened. He argued strongly against any attempt to straightjacket the beliefs of those within the Church. Riled by the recent satires on her and her ‘protestant nunnery’ in The Tatler Mary Astell was all too ready to assume the author was the same and she launched out in an attack on the Whig Kit-Kat club. Disillusioned by the failures of the High Church cause in 1705 the pamphlet is a bitter attack on the influence of Deism and what she saw as the increasing irreligion of her day.

Apart from her preface to the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, she was to write no more. Contemporary accounts suggest that, disappointed by the failures of the causes into which she had put all her energies, she occupied herself in her religious devotions and good works. She became more of an eccentric and adopted a very simple, not to say frugal, way of life.

After 1705 she must have experienced a great sense of defeat as one after another of the causes she had fought for failed. The High Anglican party, although enjoying a temporary recovery, was in decline and the particular brand of Toryism with which it was associated was to be overtaken by the Whig ascendancy. Her beloved Church was torn by dissension and she was to find herself on the losing side. Cambridge Platonism was virtually dead. What remained was her faith—in religion and in women and to these she devoted the remainder of her life.

No-one, I think, would have resisted sympathy so much as Mary Astell yet she presents a not untragic figure. The fight over the particular issues of her time to which she had devoted so much of her energy had found her on the losing side. Those issues are now of no more than historical interest yet they were fought with all the passion involved when traditional ideas and values are under attack. Perhaps we have underestimated the tension of those years between 1689 and 1714, which for Mary Astell must have been acute. As has been suggested, it was precisely because in all but her ideas on women's education and the nature of marriage she was such a traditionalist, that she was so remarkable. It made her call to women to reject ‘that Tyrant Custom’ all the more courageous. And if, as she told women ‘there is a sort of Bravery and Greatness of Soul, which … consists in living up to the dignity of our Natures’,160 who could have demonstrated it better?


  1. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies For the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of her Sex. London, 1694. (Hereafter A Serious Proposal I); and Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage Occasion'd by the Duke and Dutchess of Mazarine's Case which is also consider'd. London, 1700. (Hereafter Reflections)

  2. Mary Astell, A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons London, 1704.

  3. Mary Astell, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of the Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom, 1704.

  4. Florence M. Smith, Mary Astell, Columbia University Press, New York, 1916.

  5. Karl D. Bulbring, ‘Mary Astell an Advocate of Women's Rights Two Hundred Years Ago’, Journal of Education, April 1891

    Katherine S. Pattinson, ‘Mary Astell’, The Pall Mall Magazine, June 1893.

    Harriet M'Ilquham, ‘Mary Astell: A Seventeenth Century Women's Advocate’, The Westminster Review, vol. 149, no. 4, April 1898.

  6. A.H. Upham, ‘English Femmes Savantes at the end of the Seventeenth Century’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XII (1913).

  7. George Ballard (1706-55), a learned antiquarian with a sympathetic appreciation of women's abilities, was the author of Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, who have been Celebrated for their Writings or Skill in the Learned Arts and Sciences, 1752.

  8. For example, Mary Hays, Female Biography, 1803. See below p. 6

  9. Extracts from the Records of the Company of Hostmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Publications of the Surtees Society, vol. CV, 1901, p. 286.

  10. Part of his epitaph read:

    … whose heart bled
    When rebel feet cut off his head.
    And great good Shepherd humbly lay
    To his mad flock a bleeding prey.

    Quoted Richard Welford, Men of Mark 'Twixt Tyne and Tweed, 1895, p. 122

  11. Records of the Company of Hostmen, p. 248, but on the same page there is a reference to a ‘Mr. Austell, Clearke’ in January 1647 which may well indicate Peter Astell.

  12. Ibid, pp. 105-6, 249.

  13. Ibid, p. 121

  14. Ibid, p. 271

  15. Welford, op. cit., p. 122.

  16. Roger Howell, Newcastle upon Tyne and the Puritan Revolution, 1967, particularly Chapters I, II and V.

  17. Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Ambrose Barnes, Publications of the Surtees Society, vol. L, 1867, p. 414.

  18. John Brand, History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Newcastle on Tyne, 2 vols., vol. I., 1789, p. 317 footnote.

  19. Ballard, op.cit., p. 445.

  20. Welford, op.cit., p. 123.

  21. Ballard, op.cit., p. 445.

  22. Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne, Ed. Rev. H.E. Salter, 1915, vol. X, p. 426. (On her knowledge of French see p. 51 suggesting any knowledge she had of French was acquired much later in her life.) See also Mary Astell, The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England, 1705, p. 139.

  23. Mrs Mary Pilkington, Memoirs of Celebrated Female Characters, (1804), 1811, p. 33.

  24. Ballard, op.cit., p. 445.

  25. Records of the Company of Hostmen, p. 251.

  26. A Collection of Poems humbly presented and Dedicated to the most Reverend Father in God William by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, 1689, Rawlinson MSS poet. 154:50.

  27. Mrs Mary Pilkington, op. cit., pp. 33-4.

  28. Mary Hays, Female Biography, vol.I, 1803, pp. 213, 216. This suggestion could explain her interest in science and her belief that women were as capable of scientific speculation as men (see below p. 201). Such an interest would seem to be confirmed by her letter to Sir Hans Sloane, the physician, of 25 April, 1724 (see Sloane MS. 4047:163) expressing a wish to call on him in order to see his ‘noble Repository’. It also suggests that Susan Centlivre's character of Valeria in The Bassett Table was inspired by Mary Astell.

  29. A Collection of Poems, 1689, prefatory letter.

  30. George Paston, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her Times, 1907, note pp. 12-13.

  31. Reginald Blunt, Paradise Row, 1906, pp. 65, 67.

  32. Rawlinson MSS. D198:91-99.

  33. Diary of Ralph Thoresby, ed. Rev. Joseph Hunter, vol. II, 1830, p. 161.

  34. James Sutherland, English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century, 1969, p. 348

  35. John Norris, A Collection of Miscellanies, 1717, p. 228.

  36. Letters Concerning the Love of God, between the Author of The Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris, 1695, Letter III from Mary Astell to John Norris.

  37. In his reply to her he wrote ‘I must needs acknowledge that this (as all our other Duties) is more intelligible than practicable, though to render it so I know of no other Way than by long and constant Meditation …’.

  38. Reginald Blunt, The Wonderful Village, 1918, p. 86.

  39. Letters Concerning the Love of God, 1695, See below p. 195.

  40. A Collection of Poems, 1689, from Stanza III of an untitled poem; see below p. 189.

  41. Ms Ballard 37:49.

  42. Thomas Barnard, An Historical Character relating to the Holy and Exemplary Life of the Rt. Honourable the Lady Elizabeth Hastings, 1742, p. 13.

  43. Lady Louisa Stuart, granddaughter of Lady Mary, in her introductory anecdotes to: Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Lord Wharncliffe, vol. I, 1893, p. 85.

  44. From a Letter to the Countess of Bute dated 20 October 1752, in: The Works of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, vol. IV, 1817, p. 184.

  45. Lady Louisa Stuart, op. cit., p. 85.

  46. Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, vol. I, p. 84.

  47. Letters Concerning the Love of God, Preface.

  48. Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, vol. I, p. 86.

  49. Quoted Fidelis Morgan, The Female Wits, 1981, p. 6.

  50. Letters Concerning the Love of God; see below p. 195.

  51. A Serious Proposal I; see below p. 163.

  52. Ibid.

  53. A Collection of Poems, 1689, preface.

  54. Ballard, op. cit. p. 447.

  55. Letters Concerning the Love of God, preface.

  56. For a discussion of the authorship of the former work see Florence Smith, Mary Astell, 1916, Appendix II. The Bodleian Catalogue includes the latter work under Mary Astell's name. Dr George Hickes would seem to suggest her as the author in a letter to the Master of University College, dated 9 December 1704. See Ballard MSS 62:85.

  57. A Collection of Poems, 1689; see below p. 185.

  58. A Serious Proposal I; see below p. 140.

  59. Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—-y W—-y M—-e, Preface; see below p. 235.

  60. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, 1977, p. 44.

  61. The Lawes Resolutions of Women's Rights, 1632, p. 6.

  62. Reflections; see below p. 114.

  63. Ibid. p. 119.

  64. A Serious Proposal I; see below p. 169.

  65. Reflections; see below p. 127.

  66. Ibid. p. 130.

  67. Thomas Middleton, The Roaring Girl, II.ii, 1611.

  68. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II, 1697; see below p. 178.

  69. A Collection of Poems, 1689; see below pp. 188-9.

  70. Ibid.

  71. Bathsua Makin, An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Arts and Tongues, 1673, p. 26.

  72. Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, vol. II, p. 225.

  73. See Fidelis Morgan, The Female Wits, 1981, p. 54.

  74. Ibid. p. 9.

  75. Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England 1650-1760, 1920, pp. 49, 50.

  76. Letters Concerning the Love of God; see below p. 191.

  77. Ibid. p. 193.

  78. The Tatler, no.32, from Tuesday 21 June to Thursday 23 June, 1709.

  79. Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), the Anglo-Saxon scholar, believed women had an equal right to learning as men. Mary de la Rivière Manley (1663?-1724), playwright and novelist, after being deceived into a bigamous marriage with her cousin, was deserted by him and supported herself by writing. The most well known of her works is Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of both Sexes. From the New Atlantis, 1709, in which she sought to discredit the Whigs by relating the more scandalous adventures of many prominent figures. She wrote as one very aware of most women's economic dependence and its consequences for their oppression.

  80. The Tatler, no.63, from Thursday 1 September to Saturday 3 September 1709.

  81. The Works of the Celebrated Mrs Centlivre, 3 vols. 1761, pp. 210, 217, 218, 228.

  82. Mary Astell, The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England, 1705; see below p. 201.

  83. Welford, op. cit., p. 126.

  84. Mrs Mary Pilkington, op. cit., p. 34.

  85. Mary Hays, op. cit., p. 220.

  86. Mrs Mary Pilkington, op. cit., p. 34.

  87. Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 86.

  88. C.E. Medhurst, Life and Work of Lady Elizabeth Hastings, 1914, pp. 230-1.

  89. Throughout the section that follows I am indebted to the following: Alice Clark, The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, 1919; Roger Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America, 1974; K.V. Thomas, ‘Women and the Civil War Sects’, Past and Present, no. 13, April 1958; Patricia Higgins, ‘The Reactions of Women, with special reference to women petitioners’, from Politics, Religion and the English Civil War, ed. Brian Manning, 1973; Phyllis Mack, ‘Women as Prophets during the English Civil War’, from The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, ed. M. Jacob and J. Jacob, 1984, pp. 214-230; Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 1975, particularly Chapter 15.

  90. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin Books, 1975, p. 311.

  91. Quoted from Keith Thomas, op. cit. p. 52.

  92. Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, (1721), 1924, p. 12.

  93. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, 1957, p. 154.

  94. Keith Thomas, op. cit., p. 55.

  95. The Ladies Calling, 1673, The Preface.

  96. Ibid. p. 16.

  97. Ibid., p. 70.

  98. Ibid., pp. 3-4.

  99. Hannah Woolley, The Gentlewoman's Companion: or a Guide to the Female Sex, 1675, p. 104.

  100. George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, The Lady's New Year Gift; or, Advice to a Daughter, (1688), in Complete Works, Penguin, 1969, p. 276.

  101. Myra Reynolds, op. cit. p. 88.

  102. David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order, 1980, p. 147.

  103. J.E. Gagen, The New Woman, 1954, p. 100.

  104. A Serious Proposal I. Numbers in brackets following quotes from this work refer to pages in this book.

  105. Ballard, op. cit. p. 446.

  106. Ballard MSS 43:29 (Bodleian Library).

  107. Gilbert Burnet, History of His Own Time, vol. II, 1734, p. 653.

  108. The Catechism of Thomas Becon, ed. for the Parker Society, 1844, p. 377.

  109. John Duncan, Lady Lettice, Vi-Countess Falkland, ed. M.F. Howard, 1968, p. 92.

  110. Clement Barksdale, A Letter Touching a College of Maids, or a Virgin Society, written 12 August 1675, Sig Av, A2, A2v.

  111. Ibid. Sig A2v.

  112. John Evelyn, Numismata, 1697, p. 265; George Wheler, A Protestant Monastery, 1698 Chapter IV; Robert Nelson, An Address to Persons of Quality and Estate, 1715, p. 213; Robert Halsband, The Life of Mary Wortley Montagu, 1956, p. 7; Thomas Amory, Memoirs Containing the Lives of Several Ladies of Great Britain, 1755; Thomas Amory, The Life of John Buncle, Esq., vol. I, 1756, vol. II, 1766; Samuel Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, in 7 volumes, vol. VI, letter IV, 1811; Sarah Fielding, History of the Countess of Dellwyn, 1759; Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall, 1762.

  113. Daniel Defoe, An Essay on Projects, (1697) from The Earlier Life and the Chief Earlier Works of Daniel Defoe, ed. Henry Morley, 1889, pp. 145-6.

  114. Ibid., p. 148.

  115. Ada Wallas, Before the Bluestockings, 1929, p. 111.

  116. Roger Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America, 1974, p. 201.

  117. A Serious Proposal I, Numbers in brackets following quotes refer to pages in this book.

  118. Reflections, Numbers in brackets following quotes refer to pages in this book.

  119. Reflections, Numbers in brackets after quotes refer to pages in this book.

  120. See Ballard, op. cit. p. 450, footnote.

  121. John Sprint, The Bride-Woman's Counsellor. Being a Sermon preach'd at a Wedding May the 11th, 1699, at Sherborne in Dorset, pp. 2, 6, 7, 12-13.

  122. Halifax, op. cit. All references included in brackets.

  123. Hannah Woolley, The Gentlewoman's Companion, 1675, pp. 2, 106, 107.

  124. Ibid., p. 89.

  125. Hannah Woolley, The Queen-like Closet, Supplement, 1684, p. 127.

  126. Ibid. p. 99.

  127. Ibid. p. 126.

  128. Gilbert Burnet, History of His Own Time, vol. II, 1734, p. 652.

  129. The Works of the Rt. Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, vol. I, 1817, p. 217.

  130. John Norris, A Collection of Miscellanies, 1717, pp. 311-14.

  131. Kinnaird, op. cit., p. 55.

  132. Sutherland, op. cit. p. 348.

  133. The Tatler, no. 32, 1709.

  134. Letters Concerning the Love of God; see below p. 195.

  135. Mary Astell, Christian Religion, p. 256.

  136. John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690, Bk IV from The Works of John Locke, in 9 vols., vol. II, 1824, p. 280.

  137. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett, Second Treatise, 1967, p. 243.

  138. Reflections, see below p. 132.

  139. A Serious Proposal I, See below p. 155.

  140. Letters Concerning the Love of God, 1695, p. 149.

  141. Carolyn C. Lougée, Le Paradis des Femmes: Women, Salons and Social Stratification in 17th century France, 1976, p. 29.

  142. So while, like John Norris, she was a discipline of Nicolas Malebranche in his belief that we ‘see all things in God’, she must also have been familiar with Malebranche's theory that women's inferiority was the result of their possessing more sensitive brain fibres (La Recherche de la Vérité, 1674, which was frequently translated into English).

  143. Among the 60 works were: John Goodwin's Theomachia (1644); John Milton's Eikonoklastes (1649); Peter Sterry's England's Deliverance from the Northern Presbytery (1651); Thomas Edwards's Gangraena I, II & III (1646); John Lilburne's England's Birthright Justified, (1645); Henry Burton's Conformity's Deformity (1646); John Saltmarsh's The End of one Controversy (1646); Sir Edward Coke's Institutes II (1643); Samuel Rutherford's Free Disputation against Pretended liberty of Conscience (1648); John Bastwick's Independency not God's Ordinance (1645); and Richard Baxter's Christian Concord (1653). In addition, she makes reference to Clarendon's History of the Great Rebellion and Calamy's Abridgement of Baxter's Life.

  144. Kinnaird, op. cit., p. 55; Robert Halsband, The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 1956, p. 117; Beatrice Scott, ‘Lady Elizabeth Hastings’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. 55, 1983, p. 99; Katharine M. Rogers, Feminism in Eighteenth Century England, 1982, p. 71.

  145. Kinnaird, op. cit. p. 66.

  146. Sheila Rowbottom, Women, Resistance and Revolution, 1972, p. 31.

  147. Britain after the Glorious Revolution, 1689-1714, ed. Geoffrey Holmes, 1969, p. 13.

  148. Kinnaird, op. cit., p. 75.

  149. Roger Thompson, op. cit., p. 12.

  150. Ruth Perry, ‘The Veil of Chastity: Mary Astell's Feminism’, Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, vol. 9, 1979, p. 25.

  151. Reflections, See below p. 115.

  152. A Serious Proposal I, See below p. 165.

  153. Folkestone Williams, Memoirs and Correspondence of Francis Atterbury, D.D., Bishop of Rochester, 1869, vol. I, p. 170.

  154. Kinnaird, op. cit., p. 67.

  155. Ada Wallas, op. cit., p. 128

  156. Madeleine de Scudéry, Artamène ou Le Grand Cyrus, Paris, 1649-53.

  157. Astell, Reflections, See below p. 74.

  158. Ibid. p. 84

  159. Ibid. p. 131

  160. A Serious Proposal I, See below p. 171.

Hilda L. Smith (essay date 1988)

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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 institutions based on these works were predicated upon the developmental stages of young males. Contemporary feminists, such as the Duchess of Newcastle, Bathsua Makin, and especially Mary Astell, when criticizing these writings and institutions for the exclusion of women, noted their broader implications for justifying and perpetuating educational inequality between the sexes. To understand the basis for these feminists' criticisms, it is necessary to examine their response to educational theory directed towards men which defined in major ways male and female characteristics generally.

I propose to deal first with general education treatises and then with the response of women writers, as exemplified in the thought of Mary Astell. I will argue that these women, who may be regarded as the first feminists, were the earliest to understand clearly that attitudes towards male education were at the root of the exclusion of females from equal institutions and opportunities. Seventeenth-century educational theory and individual textbooks for the young directed to male teachers and students pursuing a classical education advance a scheme for universal human behavior in male terms. This was, of course, no universality at all.

The assumption existed, both linguistically and experientally, that “children” and “boys” were synonymous terms. Educational writers spoke consistently of a boy's education as preparing him to acquire mature habits in language which implied that male experience comprised the whole of human experience. Such was not the case for educational writings about girls. The terms “children” and “girls” were not used interchangeably, nor was it assumed that girls' lives as adult women reflected universal experience. Thus, the developmental continuum from boyhood to manhood and from childhood to adulthood were wholly overlapping, and what boys did determined the universal behavior for childhood. Girls' and women's experience, on the other hand, was seen as particularistic, having relevance for that sex only.1

Hoole's Children's Talk, for example, was intended to teach schoolboys to speak Latin with as great a facility as they did English. In a dedication to two London citizens, a Mr. Joseph and a Mr. Humphrey, Hoole, a grammar school teacher, made clear how “boys” and “children,” “parents” and “men,” were interchangeable terms:

Your desires are (worthy Sirs) to have your Sons gain a faculty of speaking Latin, as well as English; … but the many difficulties that attend the work …, and with Children not thoroughly grounded, many of whose Parents being illiterate or … do not care … to have their Sons brought up in a Scholar-like Way hath made most of our Profession … not at all … undertake the Task.2

These “sons” or “children” possessed difficulty because they had not reached the age of “discretion,” a condition presumably applicable to both sexes. One result of this terminology was the assumption that all children grew up to be men. When speaking about age differences, educational writers contrasted the terms “children” and “men,” but only “girls” with “women.”

Hezekiah Woodward's Childe's Patrimony was a solemnly religious program for educating boys to follow God and to respect the will of their heavenly as well as earthly father. The bulk of the book dealt with boys' education and followed the pattern of assuming children were boys. Woodward wanted to ensure a properly religious development from infancy to old age which erects “faire Edifices to the Lord, which are the Children of Men.” Woodward devoted a single chapter to girls' education, and here the term “child” was dropped and the word “girl” employed. The goal of this work was to provide parents and teachers with a text preparing the child as he “goeth along from infancy to Childhood, thence to youth, and so on till he brings his childe to a growne, yea an old man, full of dayes.”3

This continual exchange between male experience and the universal is evident as well in works that argued education should be extended beyond the ranks of the gentry. Christopher Wase's Considerations Concerning Free Schools as Settled in England argued the need for bringing learning to the boy destined for the plow. By necessity, his work addressed the class limitations inherent in the English educational system but ignored limitations based on sex. Here, as elsewhere, the term “scholar” was restricted to males, whether young or mature. Wase contended that “the right bred scholar sees reason not to magnify himself against the industry of other honest laborers and Artists, since God hath charg'd his support in good measure on part of their labors.” He invested women's efforts in education with typically feminine characteristics describing Queen Elizabeth's endowment of grammar schools and colleges as the acts of “a tender Mother” in her efforts to establish educational institutions for “the Children of her Country,” though only males were involved. Here was a striking example of the particularity imposed on women's behavior, while universality was tied to men: the national policy of a queen was described in terms of motherhood, while males attending grammar schools and colleges became the children of the country.4

The writings of more prominent figures also fit this pattern. John Milton's education writings reveal its contours well. Milton's most important essay focusing solely on the issue of education was the “Tractate of Education,” published during 1644. Milton, who believed reforming education was “one of the greatest and noblest designs that can be thought on, and for the want whereof this nation perishes,” proposed a national educational program involving schools that housed approximately 150 students in towns throughout the country. These schools, which combined grammar school and university studies, were to include traditional training in classical languages, the study of ancient Near Eastern languages, and courses in philosophy, theology, history, and rhetoric, etc., as well as a strong component of military training. It was a rigorous program, seemingly little suited to large numbers of the English population.5

Critical of current preparation in the classical languages, Milton wanted his students to learn a language thoroughly before they were asked to write or speak difficult passages. He had little use for language training for its own sake and stated that, if someone knew “all the tongues” of the earth, but not their solid teaching, he should no more “be esteemed a learned man as any yeoman or tradesman competently wise in his mother-dialect only.”6 Milton's educational plan was built upon a progression of learning languages well, then studying history, geography, and the Bible, and finally tackling rhetoric, theology, and philosophy.

His educational system, although a national program, gave no consideration to girls. Its goal was to produce “brave men and worthy patriots,” to teach students “to delight in manly and liberal exercises,” and to “scorn all their childish and ill-taught qualities.”7 Such an elaborate plan, which served the needs of only one sex, reiterates the general identification of scholarship with men and their duties in life. It demonstrates why Mary Astell felt compelled to demand a rigorous general education for women and why she thought it obtainable only in a separate institution.

John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education also focused on the education of boys but revealed a greater sensitivity to the fact that he was doing so. In his first chapter, which has the charming title of “Health, Tenderness, Warmth, Feet,” Locke includes the following:

I have said He here, because the principal Aim of My Discourse is, how a young Gentleman should be brought up from Infancy, which, in all things will not so perfectly suit the Education of Daughters; though where the difference of Sex requires different Treatment, 'twill be no hard Matter to distinguish.8

Locke was at least more cognizant of the sexual boundaries implicit in his educational proposals than were his contemporaries. Seemingly, he also favored more similar treatment for boys and girls. In a letter to the mother of children he tutored, he stated the principles of female education, “wherein there will be some though no great difference, for making a little allowance for beauty and some few other considerations of the sex, the manner of breeding of boys and girls, especially in their younger years, I imagine should be the same.” There is here, as there is in his First Treatise, an understanding of the importance of sex division in organizing society.9 It is to be regretted that Locke did not write more systematically on the topic of female education, for he may have undercut the seventeenth-century link between “standard” behavior and male education.

Why did educational theorists and practitioners generally express such a link in their writings? Was it merely a question of oversight—of course they weren't writing about girls or women, so why should they come to mind when making educational generalizations? Did it represent common usage, so that authors gave little thought about generalizing boys to children or speaking of boys but not girls as scholars? Or, did it represent a much more fundamental and systematic way of categorizing human beings and human behavior generally?

The Athenian Mercury, a late seventeenth-century periodical whose editors were especially interested in the education of women, included the phrase “all men and both sexes.” Such a phrase sounds strange to our ears until we realize that “all” was a word which referred to condition and not sex. Further, when one reviews the literacy statistics gathered by David Cressy, on ecclesiastical court witnesses, one notes that the men were divided by all kinds of conditions, but women from servants through duchesses were combined. This does not reflect a society where women were all of one class, but one in which sex was a separate category of human division. In some ways these distinctions are still with us, if less systematically and overtly than during the 1600s. It is no accident that Chartists during the 1840s spoke of universal suffrage when they were speaking of extending political rights to additional males. “Universal” was a term connected to condition or class, not sex. And today, when speaking of youthful understanding, we are apt to speak of a “schoolboy vision” of the world, for age divisions are still readily connected to male experience.10

Christopher Wase included a representative listing of these divisions which indicated their self-exclusive nature: “All ages, sexes, ranks, relations in every condition, all capacities, ly [sic] under some duty towards God and man.” They echoed a 1596 division of prospective students into “burgesses, artisans, labourers, women or girls.” Occupations or sex denoted a person's status, but not both. To understand why women were so easily excluded from the best of education in the seventeenth century, we must realize how the relationships among sex, age, and condition established male development (including education), leading to maturity and wisdom. Women's education, segregated from this progression, trained women for their limited function within English society. Authors, in dividing human behavior, used three distinct ways to categorize people: age, condition, and sex. When authors were engaged in defining the first two, they ignored the third; condition and age were divisions allotted to males. It is not that people in the seventeenth century, or any other up to the most recent year, failed to note that women aged or that there were poor as well as rich women, but when writing about condition they did not focus on sex.11

A small group of seventeenth-century feminists, writing from 1650 through 1710, took issue with the English education system. Among them, the Duchess of Newcastle resented identification of serious scholarship with the university, while Bathsua Makin proposed advanced secondary training for girls, comparable to the best grammar schools. Elizabeth Elstob pursued her Anglo-Saxon studies outside the university but was angered that women were denied access to linguistic training. On the continent, Anna van Schurman was pursuing a scholarly career and corresponding with Makin concerning the need for women to have a serious education. All of these women understood the connection between dominance within society and male monopoly of educational institutions. Mary Astell, building upon the earlier educational writings of Newcastle, Makin, and Hannah Woolley, continued this demand for advanced education and carried the effort a step further through the practical proposal of a women's college.

Astell realized that denying women the best of scholarship was based on degrading their God-given talents, defining them as something other than scholars, and denying them the possibility of developing toward independence of mind and station. It was not just that a few women were denied the right to join the philosophic and scientific ranks during the 1600s, but that all women were omitted from a universal continuum of age and condition where education and public responsibility led to enhanced status and rewards.

Astell saw women's advancement dependent on their access to a quality education. Convinced that none of the institutions currently available to women provided adequate training, she proposed a college for females who wanted to immerse themselves in the best philosophic, theological, and historical works. Astell deplored what customarily passed for a woman's education: the socially correct training of boarding school or tutor, emphasizing dance, a little polite French, music, and fancy needlework tied to elementary reading; or the more religious and solemn education of the Puritans which stressed domestic competence, religious piety, and familial duty; and even the more liberal education of a Fénelon that would include science and philosophy but simplified for the ladies. Mary Astell desired women to employ their minds in the same ways and with the same texts as the most learned men.12

Her college did emphasize Christian belief and good works, but this did not prevent her from allying Christian values with the best education. In fact, her Christianity was at the heart of her reasoning. God had created both men and women with rational souls, and it was both sacrilegious and foolish to subvert God's will by denying women the ability to employ their reason to the fullest. Further, Christianity demanded that each person be responsible for her or his salvation, and women could not rely on the wisdom or goodness of husband or minister to guarantee their faith. Only through a thorough understanding of religious texts could they resist the temptations by which those who possess simple piety are endangered. She realized these views diverged from the typical religious advice for women. Women might be, Astell granted, “taught the Principle and Duties of Religion, but not acquainted with the Reasons and Ground of them; being told 'tis enough for her to believe, to examine why, and wherefore belongs not to her.”13 Astell's views clearly ally her with the intellectual values of her century, both the scientific revolution and rationalism expressed by philosopher and popular writer alike. Francis Bacon had stated, “The Inquiry, Knowledge, and Belief of Truth is the Sovereign Good of Human Nature,” a view central to Astell's thought. Astell's contribution was to remind scholars that the pursuit of truth was as central and important for females as for males. Her principal intellectual mentor was Descartes. She agreed wholeheartedly with his assertion of the primacy of the individual mind, his distinctions between faith and reason, his assurance of God's existence and benevolence, and his methods of systematic thought. In her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part Two, she outlined in detail the process by which an individual should proceed from clear and concise ideas, to the conclusions formulated through continual testing of first principles, and ultimately to truth. In her school, women were not encouraged to memorize, nor to repeat lessons by rote, but to grapple with ideas and develop their minds in order to think clearly and rationally about any new subject they might encounter. This open-ended approach to training women to deal systematically with the range of human experience set her work off from standard religious and educational tracts directed towards women.14

Mary Astell argued that pursuit of scholarship was a means to alter women's lives, their images of themselves, and society's views of them. Astell never tolerated a smattering of learning or culture for her sex. She complained, “there is a sort of Learning indeed which is worse than the greatest Ignorance: A Woman may study Plays and Romances all her days, and be a great deal more knowing but never a jot the wiser.” Unlike many religious writers, Astell was not centrally concerned with the immoral nature of romances. Rather, she wanted women to stretch their minds by reading the most challenging works: those works “writ with Order and Connexion, the Strength of whose Arguments can't be sufficiently felt unless we remember and compare the whole System.”15

In arguing for the pursuit of scholarly excellence among women and in establishing a challenging and heavily Cartesian program of study in her college, Astell had few counterparts. She argued that no restraints should be placed on the female mind in studying philosophy, theology, history, or government, and that great harm had been done to the quest for excellence by associating its attainment with a single sex. Traditionally, genius has been intertwined with masculinity, leaving women some claim to creativity and much to a kind of untutored “intuition,” but little to abstract and systematic intelligence built upon a unique or original view of the universe, of human behavior, or of mechanical or mathematical operations. This stereotype has held over time whether or not women were admitted to institutions of higher education, were taught math and science, or had access to machinery or technology, and whether or not common wisdom held that philosophy and theology were beyond their capacities. Mary Astell understood the power of this view; it had reverberations for women's lives and education generally, channeling women's training into the concrete, the simplified, and the pietistic. She stated that a woman was drawn away from serious education not only by lack of opportunity but by being taught “to think marriage her only preferment, the sum total of her endeavours, the completion of all her hopes, that which must settle and make her happy in this world.” This vision of marriage as the completion of women's lives contrasted with men's development through successive stages leading to greater independence and responsibility.16

In her integrated understanding of women's education, frivolous lifestyles and marriage, Astell viewed men as beneficiaries. Not by accident were women poorly trained and placed in an inferior position within marriage. In concluding a general plea for women to improve their lives through education, she assumed that women would appreciate her proposal but believed men would “resent it to have their enclosure broke down, and Women taste of that Tree of knowledge they have so long unjustly Monopolized.” Excusing her partiality to women, she noted the partiality of men to their own sex and insisted that “Women [are] as capable of learning as men are, and that it becomes them as well.”17

Mary Astell has been interpreted as a conservative feminist by Joan Kinnaird in an article on Astell's political and religious thought and in an essay by Regina Janes. However, I think there needs to be a reassessment of the strength and fundamental quality of her feminism, taking what she said about women in isolation from her general political and religious values. We are much less apt to question the breadth or depth of a writer's feminism if she holds Marxist (or even Freudian) values that limit viewing the world wholly from a women's perspective, than if her constraints are due to orthodox religious or political beliefs. One can hold conservative views—be a royalist and Tory as was Astell—and maintain quite radical views vis-à-vis the relationships between men and women.18

Still further, historians of women generally have questioned the legitimacy of feminist theory when it is concerned only with the interests of the elite, of middle and upper-class women. Certainly the pursuit of wisdom is an effort of elites, one requiring sufficient leisure and income to make the attempt feasible. Plainly, it was middle- and upper-class men who were able to develop intellectual talents and attain positions of independence and responsibility. Dale Spender, in her introduction to Women of Ideas, has argued convincingly that education is essential to establishing equality between the sexes. It is important that women formulate theories about the relative positions of men and women for the benefit of their sex as a whole. As Spender expresses it, “‘Theory’ has been used to construct a division between those who know and those who do not, and, like most divisions in our hierarchical society, it is not a division of equal parts.”19 It seems incontrovertible that education, thought, and the written word are powerful instruments in defining worth within a society, and that fair access to equal education is essential for any group seeking to establish its own identity.

Yet, did Mary Astell's devotion to the issue of high-level scholarship represent her personal scholarly interests or was it tied to an understanding that denying the right to excel to the few was denying the right to social and intellectual development for all women? How, in other words, did men and women's education reflect their differing roles within society and a distinct process through which each must pass to become an adult? Astell's arguments for advanced training for women were not limited simply to a question of justice: that women should be able to employ their minds as were men. It was linked, as well, to her view that a man's education evolved from society's acceptance of his position as an independent male, who would become the religious and political head of his family. To deny women the same education as men was to prevent them from maturing to an independent and responsible position, to keep them perpetually childlike, and to deny them a direct relationship to God. Educational progression enabled men to achieve public recognition of their theological, political, and intellectual competence. It is thus essential to understand the theories which outlined educational process in ways that excluded women and which were tied to the functions of manhood. It was against the established attitudes, principles, and institutions that early feminists struggled. Women in seventeenth-century England, most notably Mary Astell, saw with astonishing clarity the implications of male-centered educational theory and institutions and took the first steps towards denouncing them and offering an alternative.


  1. A survey of texts dealing with boys' education during the second half of the seventeenth century provides copious evidence for this assertion. For example, Hezekiah Woodward, A Childes Patrimony Laid Out Upon the Good Culture of Tilling over his whole Man (London: J. Legatt, 1640); William Walker, Some Improvements to the Art of Teaching (London: Printed by J.M. and are to be sold by Tho. Sawbridge, 1676); Christopher Wase, Considerations concerning free schools as settled in England (Oxford, 1678); Obadiah Walder, Of Education. Especially of Young Gentlemen. In Two Parts. Fourth Impression (Oxford, 1683); Charles Hoole, Childrens Talk, English and Latin (London, Printed for the Company of Stationers, 1697). Although there are numerous late seventeenth-century educational tracts, these were selected from a listing of rare educational works held by the National Institute of Education.

  2. Hoole, Epistle Dedicatory, n.p.

  3. Woodward, Preface, n.p.

  4. Wase, p. 12; 42-43.

  5. John Milton, Milton on Education. The Tractate of Education, Ed. and with an Intro. and Notes by Oliver Morley Ainsworth (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1928).

  6. Milton, Tractate, pp. 51-54.

  7. Tractate, pp. 57-62.

  8. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1705), in The Educational Writtings of John Locke, Intro. and Notes by James L. Axtell (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968.)

  9. Locke, p. 117. The letter to Mrs. Clarke is included in an appendix to this edition of Locke's educational writings. It combines in an interesting, if not always clear, manner his chivalric concerns for the “softer sex” with an understanding of the essential equality of the sexes in areas relevant to education. Locke states: “I acknowledge no difference of sex in your mind relating … to truth, virtue, and obedience” and thus would have “no thing altered in it from what is writ of sin” (p. 344). He continues, though, with the need for girls to have dancing masters; the greater hazards from exposing them too much to sun, wet, or cold; and the impropriety of employing corporal punishment against them. The latter he would preclude fathers administering: “Only I think the father ought to strike very seldom if at all to chide his daughters. Their governing and correcting, I think, properly belongs to the mother” (p. 346).

  10. For this phrase and a discussion of the views of the editors of The Athenian Mercury concerning women's education, see Hilda L. Smith, Reason's Disciples (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1982), pp. 192-201.

  11. Wase, Considerations, p. 5.

  12. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, Parts I and II. (New York: Source Book Press, 1970). This reprint includes the fourth edition of Part I of the Serious Proposal appearing originally in 1701 and the 1697 edition of Part II. The best general coverage of women's education during the seventeenth century appears in Josephine Kamm's Hope Deferred: Girls' Education in English History (London: Methuen, 1965), and Dorothy Gardiner's older work, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women's Education through Twelve Centuries (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), continues to be useful. There is no thorough study, however, of girls' education during the 1600s because of the lack of institutional records.

  13. Serious Proposal, Part I, p. 12.

  14. Serious Proposal, Part II, pp. 78-131. Francis Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall. (London: Printed by John Haviland for Hanna Barret and Richard Whitaker, 1625), p. 3.

  15. Serious Proposal, Part I, p. 19.

  16. Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage, 4th ed. (London, 1730), pp. 78-79.

  17. Serious Proposal, Part I, p. 20.

  18. Joan K. Kinnaird, “Mary Astell and the Conservative Contribution to English Feminism,” Journal of British Studies 19 (Fall 1979), 53-75; Regina James, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary; or, Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft Compared,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 5 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976), 121-40; Reason's Disciples, pp. 117-39. For a contrasting view, which places Astell's work into a strong feminist ideology of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, see Jerome Nadelhaft's “The Englishwoman's Sexual Civil War: Feminist Attitudes Towards Men, Women, and Marriage, 1650-1740,” Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (1982), 555-78.

  19. Dale Spender, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them from Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 18.

Ruth Perry (essay date 1990)

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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 among those who are considered equal. Our culture's stories about women's participation in the revolutions of the eighteenth century—Betsy Ross and her friends stitching the new flag or the fierce Frenchwomen in the streets of Paris calling for the blood of aristocrats—reinforce this impression. Yet by the time Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, it was clear that the political inequality of the sexes was not ameliorated by a belief in democratic process.

Engels theorized that it was their unequal participation in the productive labor force that kept women subordinate. When women participated equally in waged labor, he predicted, political discrimination would wither away. Yet we have seen that equal participation in productive labor has simply lengthened women's work day without changing the political reality that government is largely of men, by men, and in the interests of men. We also know by now that a belief in enfranchising the underclass does not necessarily entail a belief in women's rights. It is a notorious fact that the present women's movement emerged from the new left movement of the 60s—a movement which insisted on the more equitable distribution of society's resources and power—and that women's liberation began as a protest on the part of women activists to their devaluation, as women, within the movement.

Contemporary feminists theorize that a chronic cultural misunderstanding of the relationship between production and reproduction causes political and economic sexual inequality.1 The point of this article is to demonstrate that some of these formulations were anticipated by early feminist reactions to liberal political theory as it was emerging in seventeenth-century England, and that from the beginning, women were suspicious of the modern democratic state and their place within it. Certain class biases are to be expected, of course, in women literate enough and with class position privileged enough to permit observation of contemporary political process, yet it is instructive to examine their insights.

How, then, did politically-minded women understand their relation—as women—to those men who were trying to dismantle, or at least shift around, ruling-class power? How did women who recognized gender prejudice in their own societies react to democratic movements in the early stages of democratization, and what did those revolutions with their accompanying ideological justifications have to say about the rights of women? We know that in England, Mary Wollstonecraft was deeply engaged with the French Revolution and in her own country was virtually identified with it. But an earlier feminist, a high church Tory, had a more skeptical relation to the democratic revolution of her day—the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution as it is sometimes called.

Mary Astell, the earliest Englishwoman whose writings on the subject of gender inequality were widely distributed, took issue, as a woman, with the democratic theorists of her day, most notably Locke. Living at the time of the Glorious Revolution and committed to bettering the lot of “others of her sex,” she speaks as a woman in relation to the philosophy behind the revolutionary settlement. Indeed, the events of 1688-9, as the final act of a 40-year drama transforming England's traditional hereditary monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, have always functioned as a litmus test for attitudes about democracy. To this day, many historians hail the Glorious Revolution as a major victory in the battle against feudal hierarchy, the consequence—and guarantor—of British liberty. But Mary Astell, and many Tories of her time, read petty opportunism in the ousting of James II and the invitation to William and Mary of Orange—and the substitution of the unstable tyranny of a party of unscrupulous men for the time-honored authority of an established king.

Mary Astell waited to publish her political views on the events of 1688-9 until a Stuart monarch had returned to the throne. And when she printed her views she did so anonymously; as a woman she was excluded from public affairs. She recognized that her status as a woman was not improved one whit for all the rhetoric of the republicans. Indeed, it could be argued that the political position of women worsened in the years following the Glorious Revolution, and that the reassertion of gender difference and hierarchy was one form of backlash to the cultural destabilization of the revolutionary settlement.

Astell's earliest known reaction to the Glorious Revolution appears in a minor pamphlet skirmish of 1703/4. Dr. White Kennett, then rector of St. Botolph's in Aldgate and a leading Whig theoretician, had preached a sermon interpreting the extenuating circumstances leading to the Civil War and by extension the Glorious Revolution. It all began, he said, when Charles I took a Catholic consort, making the court hospitable to papists and alarming sincere Protestants with “terrible Apprehension of the Romans coming to take away their Place and Nation, that this strength of Fear too much began the Civil War.”2 The occasion of Dr. Kennett's sermon, the annual fast day commemorating the Royal Martyr, had already been made ambiguous in 1689, by being designated a day of thanksgiving for the nation's deliverance from the tyranny of James II. It was clear to all that Dr. Kennett was in fact celebrating this latter precedent despite rhetorical references to the tragic fate of Charles I. “Popular Insurrections have been hardly subdu'd, without casting too strong a Bias upon the Power that Subdu'd 'em. … and leaving a Wound upon Monarchy it self” he said.3 “We of yesterday remember, that when an Arbitrary Executive Power was much more effectually set up in a later Reign, it broke short that Reign: And for the future it shall never be attempted, without bringing down Ruin and Confusion upon those who shall attempt it.”4

Kennett's sermon implicitly blamed Charles for his own beheading, applauded the steps taken against “Arbitrary Executive Power” in a “later Reign,” and by implication warned the present monarch of her vulnerability to popular opinion. It caused great indignation in Tory circles and elicited a number of answering pamphlets. Someone reprinted and circulated Kennett's 1686 panegyric to James II under the new title of White against Kennet.

Among those who responded in print to Dr. Kennett's salvo was Mary Astell, who took a very different view of the parallel he drew between the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution in her An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom (1704). Both, to her mind, had been national disasters. She reminded her readers that an Act of Parliament had enjoined the nation to mourn the Royal Martyr, a directive Dr. Kennett was hardly obeying when he used the occasion to praise the Revolution of 1688. “If … 48 is so like 88, and that what the Forefathers acted, proceeded from much the same Causes, by which their Off-spring were influenced; what can plain Men think, but that … there can be no great harm in the Actions of our Forefathers, which might well enough be forgot, or remember'd to other Purposes than the Act of Parliament enjoins.”5 Is it not an inconsistency to deplore the fate of Charles I but at the same time to approve and justify the treatment of James II, she asked? “If we think [James'] Fall to be Just, and [Charles'] to be Unjust and Deplorable, we may in time come to abhor those Principles that brought him to the Block, and the Practices that flow from them, as being equally destructive of the Best, as well as of the worst Princes; and then what will become of the Peoples Right to shake off an Oppressor?”6 Violence could be visited upon the guilty and the innocent alike with terrible indeterminacy. To condemn Charles' beheading in 1649 was to call into question at least the premises of the Glorious Revolution. Notwithstanding this logic, and contrary to the spirit of the Act of Parliament commemorating the Royal Martyr, Astell charged that the Whigs continued to operate by principles that had justified both rebellions in the first place. “There is still a Party, and that a restless and busie one, who act by those very Principles that brought the Royal Martyr to the Block; and there are yet too many … who, instead of deploring that Crying and National Sin, justifie and rejoice in it.”7

Mary Astell distrusted the rhetoric about individual freedom and the rights of the governed that justified the Glorious Revolution. It was empty cant, she believed, in the service of party politics. No one could claim that the reign of William and Mary had been without its signs of monarchical tyranny. Why did no one complain about “Illegal Acts and Arbitrary Power, of Oppression and Persecution, in a Reign that tugg'd hard for a Standing Army in times of Peace; that had Interest to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act several times, tho' it be the great security of the English Liberties; that ousted 7 or 8 Reverend Prelates … besides several of the inferior Clergy, and members of the Universities, and that only for Conscience sake, and because they cou'd not swallow such new Oaths, as they believ'd to be contrary to the old ones …”?8 Astell believed that the Glorious Revolution, like the Civil War, had been fomented for reasons of ambition and revenge, “to piece together broken Fortunes,” and to install certain men in the posts they coveted.9 Despite their reflexive defenses of liberty, she did not believe that those responsible for the revolutionary settlement had the interests of the nation or the church at heart.

The Glorious Revolution, to Astell's mind, served the interests of Whigs, of Dissenters, and of men. For what is significant about Mary Astell's reaction to the dispensation of 1689 is that it contains elements of an early feminist critique of liberal political theory. She recognized from the beginning that the rhetoric of “government for the people” was never intended to include women; her alienation from the liberal political philosophy of her day calls our attention to the androcentricism of that philosophy. With a contemporary woman's voice she commented on the meaning of political thought in the Enlightenment for her sex. As she wrote in 1700: “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?”10

Elsewhere I have examined the biographical configuration that in part accounts for Astell's identification with Tory ideology, the party of her friends and patrons.11 But here I want to explore Astell's intellectual reasons for distrusting the settlement of 1689. I argue that Mary Astell's resistance to Whig ideology was partly based on gender loyalty, not only on party politics. While it would be foolish to claim that Mary Astell had a late twentieth-century feminist perspective that permitted her to see the difficulties implicit in applying theories of individual rights or contracts about property to people with bodies that have an asymmetrical relation to reproduction—nevertheless, I will argue that she thought the doctrine of individualism selfish and asocial and was suspicious of the way genetic theories of citizenship beginning with a “state of nature” erased the social and political meaning of maternity. She also recognized that women lost their political rights when they married—along with their property rights—and she advised women not to marry.

The relationship between Astell's feminism and her conservatism is a complicated one, for these ideological elements harmonized in her character though they seem inconsistent to a modern feminist consciousness. For one thing, Whig and Tory, liberal and conservative, had different social implications than they do today—in relation to class, to commerce, to charity, to political power. Then it was not so clear as it would seem to be now from the vantage of the capitalism-inspired democracy that survived the political struggles of Astell's period, that the republican position was progressive and the monarchist position retrograde. Moreover, in some profound sense, these terms were irrelevant to a class of persons who were not considered citizens. As noted by the heroine of Mary Wollstonecraft's novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Women, a man could rob his wife with impunity and “the laws of her country—if women have a country—afford her no protection or redress from the oppressor.”12 Maria Venables learned to her horror that her national state constructed women as property, not as citizens. Astell's slavery metaphor was very much to the point.

From her vantage point as a non-participant, Astell believed that monarchy was the best means for keeping the general peace. To her mind, republicanism licensed ever-changing groups of men to compete and fight with one another for political power, with inevitable bloodshed and suffering for all. Her conservatism was based on the belief that one authority was better than many, because less volatile. It was a notion of monarchy like that of Oliver Goldsmith's Dr. Primrose, a man of liberal proclivities, as little interested in his own power, whether in the family or the polity, as any man in Western literature. Dr. Primrose declares that since “I naturally hate the face of a tyrant, the farther off he is removed from me the better pleased am I. The generality of mankind also are of my way of thinking, and have unanimously created one king, whose election at once diminishes the number of tyrants, and puts tyranny at the greatest distance from the greatest number of people.”13

I am also arguing that what Astell intuited about the “liberal” attitudes towards women's rights was true. While the Glorious Revolution may have justified the actions of male citizens on their own behalf, it simultaneously reaffirmed the subservience of women to men.14 As Rachel Weil has brilliantly demonstrated, even the literal, physiological fact of the queen's maternity was denied in the scramble for power: her own authority on the subject of her reproductive labor was discounted and her attending women's repeated testimony about the truth of her lying-in was branded as a political lie.15 James' daughters, Mary and Anne, were scrutinized and criticized for their deficiencies in filial piety, while their husbands were glorified as defenders of liberty and foes of tyranny.16 Theatrical productions of King Lear with its vulnerable father and powerful daughters were banned in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, and Purcell's 1689 Dido and Aeneas, with its message about the glorious political imperatives of men and the interference of women, was staged for the first time.17

The period following the Glorious Revolution was a time for reasserting male authority and for reinventing all the reasons for women's subservience to men. Much was made of Mary's obedience as a wife and of her signing over to William her legal right to rule England. Although the throne was hers by lineal right, no one thought it odd that she considered her duty to William a more compelling obligation than her duty to the nation. Gilbert Burnet, who took credit for showing Princess Mary this virtuous path, described with much self-congratulation the scene in which she announced to William her intention of wifely obedience in this matter of ruling England.18

Nor did the Glorious Revolution do anything to extend the political entitlements of women as a class in a formal way. Although it established men's right to resist tyranny and to insist on a Protestant succession, in theory as well as practice it tightened the reins on women and reaffirmed men's power over them. John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, which provided the theoretical justification for the revolutionary settlement, in separating the rights of citizens from the obligations of families, announced a paradigm shift from a political world populated by men and women involved in a web of familial and sexual interconnections to an all-male world based solely on contractual obligation.19 Some historians have seen Locke's statement as evidence of the real decline in this period of the significance of kin relations in political life. Such theorists as Linda Nicholson argue that the emergence of a public sphere unstructured by kinship and the concurrent restriction of these kin connections to domestic life, excluded aristocratic women from power dynamics at court and increasingly from local decisions on their estates.20

At the very least, the Second Treatise set the philosophical terms for theorizing power in the state and in the family—and for disconnecting the two—until well into this century. Just as the warming-pan scandal undermined the political significance of Mary of Modena's maternal agency in a practical way, Locke's doctrine excluded women from the new ideological scripts that men took to be the basis of government. Only qualified men were theorized as individuals, free to pursue their own courses and free from the domination of all other men. In modeling government as a contractual business rather than as a family relationship, Locke relocated politics outside the household in exclusively male space. Locke's statement, then, simultaneously legitimated two related forms of political practice: a limited monarchy responsible to an all-male citizenry in which each member was theorized as an absolute authority within his own family and as independent of any other citizen or household.

According to Peter Laslett, The Second Treatise on Government was written as early as 1679 at the behest of the first Earl of Shaftesbury, who was looking for a justification for excluding Catholic James from the royal succession. It was later recast, Laslett claims, to authorize the events of 1688, and to refute the premises of Sir Robert Filmer, who defended monarchical privilege by identifying it with fathers' parental power. The seventeenth-century patriarchalists, in arguing that a king is as unalterably the father of his people as a biological father, literally defended the kingly power of the English sovereigns by tracing their lineal descent directly from Adam, Noah, or one of the “seventy-two father-kings who were raised up at Babel.”21

But incorporated within the terms of patriarchal power, as Carole Pateman has pointed out, assumed but not remembered, is a man's sexual access to a reproductive female. Patriarchal right has to be preceded by a sexual contract. “A man's power as father,” she writes, “comes after he has exercised the patriarchal right of a man (husband) over a woman (a wife).” Thus, patriarchal political right “originates in sex-right or conjugal right.” Seventeenth-century contract theorists, according to Pateman, never wished to question this original gender-based conjugal right in challenging the patriarchalists. “Instead, they incorporated conjugal right into their theories and, in so doing, transformed the law of male sex-right into its modern contractual form.”22 In discrediting the principle that paternal, procreative power was the moral and legal basis for monarchy, Locke excluded from theoretical consideration any political rights that women might have had by virtue of their kinship relations. But there was never any question of reinstating for them the rights of common citizens derived from the public world of contracts.

As everyone knows, Locke begins the Second Treatise not with families but with property, which is for him the most fundamental form of equality among individuals: their inherent equality in property. In a state of nature the world and all its goods belonged to all men in common, to use to their best advantage. Furthermore, everyone could be said to have property in this own person, in the labor of his body and the work of his hands. When a man mixed his labor with the soil or the trees that belonged to all in common, he took them out of the common store, and the land he tilled or the fruit he picked became his own personal property because they partook of that which was undeniably his—that is, his labor.

Locke posits from the outset, in the case of these self-owning individuals, that each of them has the right—and the propensity—to strive for the unlimited accumulation of property. Indeed, the point of political power, as Locke then develops it, is to regulate contractual relations and to protect such unequal distribution of property as will inevitably arise. Property owners who accept the protection of the state against theft or invasion tacitly consent to the government that so protects them. Thus citizenship, for Locke, is established by owning property and by requiring the service of the state to protect it. C. B. Macpherson's gloss on Locke goes even further; he states that for Locke, individuality can only be fully realized in accumulating property. Hence his term: possessive individualism.23

Yet if this is the definition of an individual—a property-owning being independent of all other property-owning beings—it is a definition which, in seventeenth-century England, deliberately excluded adult women. Nor am I simply referring to women's loss of property rights at marriage. The requirement that a citizen own property in his own person is the crucial move in Locke, I believe, by which women were excluded from their place in the policy.24 When Richardson's Pamela hides her writings about her person, under her clothes, she is acting on the mistaken assumption that although she has no other place to call her own, she might be said to have property in her own person. When Mr. B. threatens to strip her to get at these papers that illusion is dispelled. Women have rarely been proprietors of their own persons in the sense of having the absolute right to dispose of their time, energy, or sexual urges—whether we speak of their reproductive or sexual services or their productive labors. Their persons have invariably been understood to be the property of their fathers, husbands, or masters; their labor has been understood to be at the disposal of their families.25

Mary Astell ridiculed this common understanding when she asked sarcastically in 1706: “To whom [do] we poor fatherless Maids, and Widows who have lost their Masters, owe Subjection? It can't be to all Men in general, unless all Men were agreed to give the same Commands; do we then fall as Strays to the first who finds us?” Significantly, Locke nowhere in his scheme considers the anomalous political status of single adult women. Astell's construction of herself as a free British citizen, subject to no one but her monarch, was a radical reconception of women's place in the polity. In bypassing the political contract made by men, Astell at once invoked the earlier doctrine of the divine right of monarchs over all subjects alike and at the same time denied the power of all men over all women.

Because they never posited parity for women in a state of nature, neither Hobbes nor Locke assumed that women participated in the struggle for control over others. Women's tacit obedience to their male relatives was taken for granted; male domination within the family was assumed. Locke does not even notice when he proclaims that “he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him,”26 that he is describing the everyday situation of courtship. In Some Reflections Upon Marriage, Mary Astell asserted that a woman makes a man the greatest compliment in the world when she agrees to take him for better or worse, that is, to place herself and her goods in his power.27 The formulation that men invest their equal individual claims in a protective and regulatory sovereign was never thought to apply to women, who were never assumed in any case to have independent rights, mobility, or choice.

The place of women in Locke's theory of property and the polity is illuminated in his discussion of children, a discussion crucial to his examination of Filmer. Surely in Locke's own terms a mother must own her child. She has certainly produced it with her own labor, has done what no one else can do for her, and has brought forth a new human being where no human being existed before. Hobbes, in fact, recognized this natural right of mothers to dominion over their children. “For in the condition of meer Nature,” he says in the Leviathan, “where there are no Matrimonial lawes, it cannot be known who is the Father unless it be declared by the Mother: and therefore the right of Dominion over the Child dependeth on her will, and is consequently hers. Again, seeing the Infant is first in the power of the Mother, so as she may either nourish, or expose it; if she nourish it, it oweth its life to the Mother; and is therefore obliged to obey her. …”28

Locke, however, is less straightforward about the matter of children. On the one hand he was forever reminding Filmer's followers that the Fifth Commandment ordered children to obey both parents, not just the father.29 On the other hand, he was at some pains to separate public from private in order to defeat Filmer's argument that a king was the father of his people. Locke thus distinguished the artificially constructed power of a magistrate over a subject, which is voluntarily submitted to, from the “natural” forms of power: “that of a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave.”30 True, he admits, government may have originated with the father's power as “he was the fittest to be trusted; paternal affection secured [his children's] property and interest under his care; and the custom of obeying him, in their childhood, made it easier to submit to him rather than to any other.”31 But it is the absurdity of translating maternal power into magisterial power that Locke uses to deliver the coup de grace to Filmer's parental analogy. He instances a monarch on the throne who, he says, owes his mother the honor that is always due parents. He points out that “this lessens not his authority nor subjects him to her government.”32 He invites us to scoff at the unreasonableness of projecting a mother's natural right to obedience into public demands: “and will any one say, that the mother's natural right hath legislative power over her children? that she can make standing rules, which shall be of perpetual obligation, by which they ought to regulate all the concerns of their property, and bound their liberty all the course of their lives?”33 Of course not. These are the prerogatives not of parental power but of magisterial power, Locke's crucial distinction.34

The model of political life developed by Hobbes and Locke also excludes women insofar as human beings in a state of nature are imagined without mothers. In theorizing individuals as ontologically prior to society, their model of an abstract individual leaves the mother out of the process and ignores the essential interdependence which is a sociological and psychological fact of life for women. In supposing that individuals exist separately before they come together in society, these theorists ignore the work that women do in bearing and tending the young and in caring for the bodily needs of their families. The world of possessive individualism projected from such skewed conceptions about human society is a world in which the only players who matter are adult white men, competing with one another and adjudicating their disputes with contracts. Love, trust, friendship, art, invention—all are irrelevant to instrumental agreements about the distribution of property.

Mary Astell thought it absurd to think of the production of people abstractly, as if children came from nowhere like so many mushrooms; and she wrote in one of her pamphlets: “I had hitherto thought that a State of Nature was a meer figment of Hobb's Brain … till you were pleas'd to inform me ‘of that Equality wherein the Race of Men were place'd in the free State of Nature.’ How I lament my stars,” she continued, “that it was not my good fortune to Live in those Happy Days when Men sprung up like so many Mushrooms or Terrae Filii, without Father or Mother or any sort of dependency!”35 Such formulation erased women's reproductive agency, Mary Astell recognized, for the sake of a theory that proclaimed all men equal and all women irrelevant.

Even taking into account historical differences in the social construction of motherhood, women's relation to their child-bearing bodies in the seventeenth century, when examined from the point of view of a political theory of possessive individualism, did not fit Locke's model of the autonomous individual creating property. Mother-child relations do not assimilate to a story about autonomy, competition, and profit. To begin with, adult heterosexual women are never simply individuals, but are, in posse, more than one person. Nor do the obligations they feel to the children they produce resemble the political obligations of the social contract. The property relation women have to their bodies and to their children is neither patriarchal nor contractual when examined from the perspective of seventeenth-century political philosophy. The procreative body as well as women's work in tending the bodily needs of the weak and infirm were simply ignored in the stories told by Hobbes, Locke, and other contract theorists when describing the “state of nature.” Where women were taken into account as parents, the social significance of this function was subsumed to the brotherhood of men.

On these issues—property and reproduction—Astell left no record of her thought. But she was deeply suspicious of the separation of public from private politics, and pressed for a single consistent standard for government in the family and in the polity. In what could be construed as another version of patriarchalism, Astell insisted that the forms of social relations thought to be “natural” and “just” in the family were “natural” and “just” in the state, and vice versa. When Locke separated these two spheres, treated them as if different rules applied in them, the effect on women of this move, she was quick to point out, was to exclude them from the public and tyrannize over them in private. The contract among male citizens seemed to entail a silent clause about the subjugation of women. Even the queens in the drama of 1689 played curiously muted parts. Mary of Modena's political role as the producer of a Stuart heir was openly denied and mocked, and Queen Mary transferred her public political power to William in deference to her private status as an obedient wife.

Perhaps Astell was suspicious of high-sounding sentiments about freedom and government for the sake of the governed because she knew that most men behaved tyrannically at home. Absolutist doctrine openly defied in the state what passed without protest in the family. In that domain, women had not the rights of a common citizen. “Let the business be carried on as Prudently as it can be on the Woman's side, a reasonable Man can't deny that she has by much the harder bargain. Because she puts her self entirely into her Husband's Power, and if the Matrimonial Yoke be grievous, neither Law nor Custom afford her that redress which a Man obtains.”36

Many women were stuck for life in precisely the kind of situation Locke decried as intolerable in the state. Women in these situations had always had to practice non-violent obedience—the attitude advocated by Tory monarchists. As Astell described a married woman's lot: “A Woman that is not Mistress of her Passions, that cannot patiently submit even when Reason suffers with her, who does not practice Passive Obedience to the utmost, will never be acceptable to such an absolute Sovereign as a Husband.”37 This long-suffering endurance on the part of many women was one reason why Astell had so little patience with Locke's restless citizen, ready to shout “tyranny” at every possible affront. “For whatever may be said against Passive-Obedience in another case, I suppose there's no Man but likes it very well in this; how much soever Arbitrary Power may be dislik'd on a Throne, not Milton himself wou'd cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves, or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny.”38

From her vantage as a woman, she questioned the wisdom of Locke's confidence in diffusing control among many. Anxious to preserve the independent integrity of every single man in his hypothetical commonwealth against the incursions of every other man, Locke had claimed that 100,000 tyrants were better than one. A man, he said, was in a “much worse condition, who is exposed to the arbitrary power of one man, who has command of 100,000, than he that is exposed to the arbitrary power of 100,000 single men.”39

But what the arbitrary power of 100,000 men conjured up for Astell was that many husbands. In declaiming against tyranny at home, she echoed Locke's words while reversing his meaning. “For if Arbitrary Power is evil in it self, and an improper Method of Governing Rational and Free Agents, it ought not to be Practis'd anywhere; Nor is it less, but rather more mischievous in Families than in Kingdoms, by how much 100,000 Tyrants are worse than one.”40

Why set different standards for the private domain and the public? she demanded. Why one rule for women at home and another for men abroad? “If Absolute Sovereignty be not necessary in a State, how comes it to be so in a Family? or if in a Family why not in a State; since no Reason can be alledg'd for that one that will not hold more strongly for the other?” To all republicans she asked: “If the Authority of the Husbands so far as it extends, is sacred and inalienable, why not of the Prince? The Domestic Sovereign is without Dispute Elected, and the Stipulations and Contract are mutual [. I]s it not then partial in Men to the last degree, to contend for, and practise that Arbitrary Dominion in the Families, which they abhor and exclaim against in the State?”41

Astell concurred with contemporary political theorists that the family provided the original prototype for the politics of social relations. That was where one first learned to negotiate power, and where one first experienced oneself in relation to a social group. But because she was a woman, the existing family structures appeared differently to her than they did to Locke or Hobbes. She saw intuitively that there was a relation between public and private systems in the state, and that the position of women was pivotal. As she put it: “Is there e're a Cobler that is not absolute in his Garret, and thinks that in this he does not go beyond his Last? Do not all Degrees of Men Act as Arbitrarily as their Strength will suffer them, in their Families, their Lordships, Jurisdictions and Offices, and is it not then very natural for the Prince to think that he may be as Absolute in his … ? Thus the Corruptions of the Feet Fume up to the Head, and Men grow sensible of the mischiefs of Arbitrary Power when exercis'd upon them, but take no notice of the Evil … which they exercise themselves.”42 She saw that women were treated as property within the family, or, as she put it, as “upper servants”—and that this was at odds with the much vaunted English ideal of liberty. She refused to bracket any part of life from political examination and insisted that political theorists use a single standard for personal autonomy in the family and in the state.

Astell believed that monarchy and a strong national church were the only feasible protection against faction and civil war, and that it behooved one to try one's citizenly best to support the existing hierarchy in the interests of peace. Class and hierarchy were, for her, a weapon to be turned against gender prejudice. If by claiming the natural superiority of men, she said, her critics meant “that every Man is by Nature superior to every Woman … it wou'd be a Sin in any Woman to have Dominion over any Man, and the greatest Queen ought not to command but to obey her Footman.”43 If class difference permitted some women to rule some men, it proved that gender inequality was not a law of nature. Queen Anne's reign broke the political contract among men both because she was a woman and because she was the first hereditary Stuart monarch on the throne since the revolutionary settlement.

Consistently on the side of women and of a stable monarchy, Astell was critical of Hobbes and Locke for disregarding women's maternal agency and for refusing to consider the political status of single adult women. I have been arguing that her gender and class allegiances positioned her to see the asocial and androcentric aspects of liberal political ideology as it was emerging. In many different contexts Astell emphasized the collective obligation to one's fellows, and admonished her readers to submerge their selfish individual claims for the common good. This was the essence of her monarchist doctrine. She was aware of the complicated interdependence among people. This is why she found the construct of a “state of nature” absurd, because she insisted that social obligation came before individual rights. Closely examined, her analysis proves surprisingly shrewd today, as we find ourselves in a culture created in part by these political theorists—a culture of possessive individuals.


  1. Groundbreaking explorations of this topic can be found in the collection of essays, The Sexism of Social and Political Theory: Women and Reproduction from Plato to Neitzsche, eds. Lorenne M. G. Clark and Lynda Lange (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1979). See also Janet Farrell Smith, “Parenting and Property,” in Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. Joyce Treblicot (Rowman & Allanheld, 1983), 199-213; Susan Okin, “Women and the Making of the Sentimental Family,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, II.1 (Winter 1982): 65-88; Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford Univ. Press, 1988), and Ann Ferguson, Blood at the Root: Motherhood, Sexuality and Male Dominance (Pandora Press, 1989).

  2. White Kennett, D.D., A Compassionate Enquiry into the Causes of the Civil War in a Sermon Preached In the Church of St. Botolph Aldgate, On January XXXI, 1703/4, the Day of the Fast for the Martyrdom of King Charles the First (London, 1704), p. 14.

  3. Kennett, p. 17.

  4. Kennett, p. 21.

  5. Mary Astell, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom (London, 1704), p. 53.

  6. Astell, pp. 17-18.

  7. Astell, p. 58.

  8. Astell, pp. 59-60.

  9. Astell, p. 16.

  10. Mary Astell, Some Reflections Upon Marriage, 3rd ed. (London, 1706), Preface, p. 11.

  11. See my The Celebrated Mary Astell (1986), especially chapter 8.

  12. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Women, with an introduction by Moira Ferguson (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1975), p. 108.

  13. The Vicar of Wakefield, Chapter XIX.

  14. Joan Landes's recent book, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Cornell Univ. Press, 1989), shows how in France too the revolutionaries were quick to exclude women from the new dispensation. Within a very short time, the reaffirmation of male domination was linked to the rhetoric of the revolution.

  15. Rachael Weil, “The Politics of Legitimacy: Women and the Warming-Pan Scandal,” forthcoming in Perspectives on the Glorious Revolution, Lois Schwoerer, ed., Cambridge Univ. Press.

  16. See Howard Nenner's essay in Perspectives on the Glorious Revolution, ed. Lois Schwoerer, and also his “Traces of Shame in England's Glorious Revolution,” History 73 (June 1988): 238-47.

  17. For the banning of King Lear see Lois G. Schwoerer, “Concept and Image of Queenship in the Reign of Queen Mary II, 1689-1694,” unpublished paper, p. 15.

  18. Bishop Gilbert Burnet, History of His Own Time, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1832), iii: 137-39.

  19. As late as 1961, all-male or predominately male juries were permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court by virtue of a law that made men apply for exemptions but granted automatic exemptions to women unless they volunteered for jury duty. Frances Olsen, “Statutory Rape: A Feminist Critique of Rights Analysis,” Texas Law Review 63 (November 1984): 392.

  20. See Linda J. Nicholson, Gender and History: The Limits of Social Theory in the Age of the Family (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), passim, and particularly p. 106. Joan B. Landes makes a similar argument about the implications for women of the French Revolution: that the movement from Versailles to the revolutionary assemblies signalled the democratization of power among men of different classes and the simultaneous exclusion of ruling class women from the political process. Sarah Maza states the case this way for France in the late eighteenth century in “The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited (1785-1786),” forthcoming in Lynn Hunt, ed., Eroticism and the Body Politic: “The 1780s and '90s in France, and later periods throughout Europe, witnessed the gradual demise of royal and aristocratic courts modeled on households, in which female rulers, relatives, and mistresses played a recognized (if often limited) role, and the ascendancy of entirely masculine representative bodies.”

  21. Gordon J. Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975), p. 143.

  22. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, California: Stanford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 3.

  23. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 255-56. Although Macpherson's analysis has been criticized as pertaining only to simple argarian capitalism, his gloss on Locke's theory is still relevant to a modern analysis of gender and property-in-the-self.

  24. Three hundred years after Locke articulated every citizen's right to property in his person, the Supreme Court is divided on whether or not to permit adult women to do as they choose with their own reproductive bodies.

  25. Gerda Lerner, in The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), asserts that contrary to Engels' formulation that the servitude of women results from the division of labor and development of private property in a capitalist economy, the appropriation of women's sexual and reproductive services occurred prior to the formation of other forms of property. The exchange of women both to avoid war and to produce more children—this appropriation of women's bodies as guarantors of political alliances and for human reproduction—argues Lerner, is the very foundation of private property, its first instance and most visible sign.

  26. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980), p. 14.

  27. Some Reflections Upon Marriage, p. 44.

  28. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1950), Part II, chapter xx, “Of Dominion Paternall, and Despoticall”, p. 169. But dominion, according to Hobbes, could be established by conquest (law) as well as by generation. Civil law generally ruled that as the mother was subject to the father, the child, too, came within the father's power. Thus, the father's title to obedience from the child came from his control of the mother. For Hobbes, the reason that civil law favored the father over the mother was obvious: “It is because for the most part Common-wealths have been erected by the Fathers, not by the Mothers of families.”

  29. Schochet, Patriarchalism, pp. 248-9.

  30. Locke, Second Treatise, p. 7.

  31. Locke, p. 56.

  32. Locke, p. 37.

  33. Locke, p. 36.

  34. Mary Astell, it must be noted, reversed Locke's claim that family relationships were absolute and given (though you grew out of them if you were a man), while the relationship in a state between the governor and the governed was voluntary. She argued that on the contrary, one's duties to the pre-existing state were absolute and pre-determined—as to one's family of origin. A person was born into those relationships of dependence and obedience and was stuck with them. But to submit to the private authority of a husband was a voluntary matter, she argued, and a wise woman would think twice before marrying.

  35. Mary Astell, “A Prefatory Discourse to Dr. D'Avenant” in Moderation Truly Stated (London: 1704), p. xxxv.

  36. Some Reflections Upon Marriage, p. 27.

  37. Some Reflections, p. 54.

  38. Some Reflections, p. 27.

  39. Some Reflections, p. 72.

  40. Some Reflections, pp. 10-11.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid., p. xxxvi. Gerda Lerner's claim that arbitrary authority in the state is “continuously reconstituted in the family through sexual dominance” is not far from Astell's point. She writes: “Regardless of the political or economic system, the kind of personality which can function in a hierarchical system is created and nurtured within the patriarchal family.” Creation of Patriarchy, p. 216.

  43. Some Reflections Upon Marriage, p. 3.

Kathleen M. Squadrito (essay date 1991)

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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 Great Britain (1752).1 The only major biography was written by Florence Smith in 1916.2 According to Smith, the material presented by Ballard is often based on rumor. Many of the conclusions which Smith draws in contradiction to Ballard are based solely upon single ambiguous statements made by Astell. The accuracy of information about Mary Astell's early education is therefore questionable.

Astell's family was prominent in commercial affairs. Her father, Peter Astell, was hostman of Newcastle and was assigned the duty of entertaining merchants and supervising their sales. Her uncle, Ralph Astell, curate of St. Nicholas in 1667, is credited with her early education. Since he died when Mary Astell was thirteen, it is assumed that a good deal of her education can be attributed to a wide range of reading. The Astell family maintained a strong tradition of loyalty to both the church and the King. They also upheld a tradition of loyalty to educational ideals.

Astell's father died in 1678 and her mother, Mary Errington, in 1684. After the breakup of her home Mary Astell left for London. According to a letter from Thomas Birch to Ballard, she settled with Lady Catherine Jones in Chelsea. Lady Catherine was prominent in court circles and introduced Mary Astell to a number of influential and well-educated women who shared an interest in changing the status of women. The traditional view that Mary Astell was a recluse was probably based on her later ill health. She took an intimate part in the life of Chelsea. As her reputation grew, her home took on the character of a salon. Discussions usually concerned philosophy, religious controversies and education for women. As Smith reports, the

‘great Mr. Locke’ she knew and respected, however much she might refuse to accept his opinions. She had dared to oppose Swift, Steele, Defoe, but she commented only on their political writings and activities.3

Among Astell's circle of friends was Elizabeth Elstob, the Anglo-Saxon scholar, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. A first edition of the Serious Proposal To The Ladies was autographed and presented to Lady Mary by Astell. Lady Anne Coventry of Smithfield, author of Meditations and Reflections Moral and Divine, was interested in Astell's plans for a woman's college.


Mary Astell's first published work, A Serious Proposal To The Ladies For the Advancement of their True and greatest Interest (1694), was followed by part two in 1697. The work was well-received and went through several editions. In 1695, at the request of John Norris, Astell's correspondence with Norris was published as a text entitled Letters Concerning the Love of God. In 1700 she published Some Reflections Upon Marriage. From 1704 to 1705 several of Astell's pamphlets dealing with political and religious controversy appeared in print. In 1705 she published a summary of her religious and educational theories in The Christian Religion As Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England. In 1729 her health began to decline. Shortly before her death she refused to see friends and spent her days in religious meditation. Mary Astell died from cancer on May 11, 1731. She was buried in the churchyard at Chelsea on May 14.

The authorship of An Essay In Defence of the Female Sex (1696), a work generally attributed to Mary Astell until 1913, is still a subject of controversy. In 1913 Professor A.H. Upham contended that the subject matter of the essay was inconsistent with ideas expressed in Astell's other works. The essay appeared to be more consistent with a group of French pamphlets that were popular in England at the time. In the 1738 edition of Bayle's Dictionary, three pamphlets are listed as among Astell's “other works”; the Essay is not mentioned. According to Smith, even though the publication of one edition in Newcastle would tend toward the ascription to Mary Astell, a copy mentioned in a list of publications of E. Curll, a bookseller, ascribes the work to Mrs. Drake. The ascription is confirmed by a note in the British Museum copy “By Mrs. Drake.” However, since no relation between the Essay and any of the French pamphlets has been established, the work is still to be found listed among the writings of Mary Astell.

Given the disrespect with which women were held in the seventeenth century, Astell preferred to remain obscure. Her works were published anonymously. Ballard notes that “Notwithstanding her great care to conceal herself, her name was soon discovered and made known to several learned persons.”4 Her work was generally respected by most scholars. In his preface to the Letters, Norris comments:

… so great and noble is the subject, and so admirable both your thoughts and expressions upon it; such choiceness of matter, such weight of sense, such art and order of contrivance, such clearness and strength of reasoning, such beauty of language, such address of stile.

Norris shared the opinion of many other theologians and philosophers that

… the learned authoress hath with great dexterity and success retorted Mr. Locke's metaphysical artillery against himself, confuted his Whimsical Idea of Thinking matter, and given him a genteel foil.5

Astell was usually referred to as the “Philosophical Lady.” But in spite of her philosophical reputation, her suggestion for a woman's college made her the subject of the leading satirists of the day.

Astell's reputation in philosophy did not survive the particular metaphysical and religious controversies of the seventeenth century. Historically, she has been recognized for her educational and feminist theory. The first reference to her work is found in John Evelyn's Numismata, 1697. A subsequent biographical reference appears in one of the supplemental volumes to Bayle's Historical Dictionary. The 1738 reference appears in a note to a discussion of John Norris. Given Ballard's difficulty in obtaining material for his biography of 1752, it is reasonable to conclude that Astell's reputation had died out. Although Ballard found a widespread lack of interest in his Memoirs, his text did revive some interest in the writings of women. By 1766 Mary Astell's name appeared regularly in biographies that were devoted to the works of women. Her reputation continued to grow as the feminist movement developed in the nineteenth century.



According to Smith, “it may not be entirely unfair to lay claim to Mary Astell, with Ballard, as the first defender of ‘the rights and privileges of her sex.’”6 Although she fully supported the New Testament and defended the Christian religion, she argued for the conn of Ciaitical and educational rights of women. In the Christian Religion she complains,

… the sphere alloted to us women, who are subjects, allows us no room to serve our country either with our Council or our lives. We have no authority to Preach vertue or to Punish vice, as we have not the guilt of Establishing Iniquity by Law, neither can we execute Judgment and Justice.7

Astell attributes this oppressive condition to male arrogance and pride. In order to combat oppression and to be true Christians, women need to be educated and instructed in proper methods of reasoning. A Christian woman, she says,

… must not be a Child in Understanding; she must serve GOD with Understanding as well as with Affection.8

Contrary to the popular opinion that women should not question religious propositions, Astell asserts:

If God had not intended that Women shou'd use their Reason, He wou'd not have given them any, for He does nothing in vain.9

She points out that she is a Christian and member of the Church of England not because of custom or conformity to her parents' ideology, but because she has examined the doctrines of Christianity. Astell urges women to avoid being overly concerned with matters relating to the body. The good of the mind, she contends, is

infinitly preferable to the good of the body; Spiritual Advantages to Temporal; and Temporal are to be valued among themselves in proportion as they contribute to Spiritual and Eternal.10

Astell shared Lady Mary's opinion that in no part of the world were women treated with so much contempt as in England. In the seventeenth century schools for women were limited in number and the curriculum confined to music, dancing, embroidery and singing. Women were encouraged to exhibit obedience to authority, to keep silent in church and to study only the art of household management. The tradition of denying educational opportunities to women and of stifling their intelligence prompted Mary Astell to write A Serious Proposal To The Ladies. In the first part of this work Astell argues that women are just as capable of education as men. Her proposal was to erect a monastery, a religious retirement for women. “For here,” says Astell, “those who are sick of the vanity of the world and its impertinencies, may find more substantial and satisfying entertainments and need not be confin'd to what they justly loath.” Astell's proposed school would have given women a curriculum similar to that offered to men, viz., the study of science, philosophy, religion and languages. She points out that one great end of this institution would be “to influence the rest of the Sex, that Women may no longer pass for those little useless and impertinent animals,” to

expel that cloud of ignorance which custom has involv'd us in, to furnish our minds with a stock of solid and useful knowledge.11

Astell complains that most women quit the substance for the shadow, reality for appearance, and embrace those things which if understood they should hate. They become less than human simply because they desire to be admired by men. According to Astell, women should seek virtue and seek the admiration of God rather than that of humans.


The second part of the Serious Proposal addresses the philosophical methodology necessary for achieving intellectual goals. Astell employs Platonic and Cartesian theory in addition to Locke's view of simple ideas and judgment. She contends that the most noble pleasure is the search for truth. The method of seeking truth is Cartesian:

not to judge of anything which we don't Apprehend; to suspend our assent till we see just Cause to gie it, and to determine nothing till the Strength and Clearness of the Evidence oblige us to it. To withdraw our selves as much as may be from Corporeal things, that pure Reason may be heard the better; to make use of our Senses for which they are designed and fitted, the preservation of the body, but not to depend on their Testimony in our Enquiries after Truth.12

According to Astell, all truth is “Antient, as being from Eternity in the Divine Ideas” and is only new with respect to our discoveries.13 Athough she was greatly influenced by Locke, she nonetheless argued for the existence of innate ideas as well as the equal capacity of men and women to understand such ideas. Like Descartes and Locke, she argues that intuition is the best source of her knowledge. She finds that the difference in reasoning ability between one person and another lies in the accumulation or the number of simple ideas and the disposition of such ideas in terms of order. Among the rules Astell suggests that women follow in the search for knowledge is to begin with simple ideas and simple objects and to ascend by degrees to knowledge of more complex things. Like Locke, she also insists that we judge no further than we perceive and not accept anything as true which is not evidently known to be so.14 In some cases it is proper to be content with probability rather than certainty. She contends that ideas may be considered wrong or false when they have no conformity to the real nature of things. Properly speaking, it is not the idea but the judgment that is false. Astell does not bother to address arguments concerning the epistemological or ontological status of ideas. She tells us simply that by the term ‘idea’ “we sometimes understand in general all that which is the immediate Object of the Mind, whatever it Perceives; and in this large Sense it may take in all thought, all that we are any ways capable of Discerning.”15 She holds a representative theory of knowledge in which the term ‘idea’ is “more strictly taken for that which represents to the Mind some Object distinct from it, whether Clearly or Confusedly.”16

Astell cautions women to regulate the will and govern the passions. She contends that the true and proper pleasure of human nature consists in exercising dominion over the body and governing passion according to right reason. The principal cause of error is judgement prior to obtaining clear and distinct ideas: “The First and Principal thing therefore to be observed in all Operations of the Mind is, That we determine nothing about those things of which we have not a Clear Idea, and as Distinct as the Nature of the Subject will permit, for we cannot properly be said to Know any thing which does not Clearly and Evidently appear to us.”17 Astell accepts Descartes' definition of clarity and distinctness.18 Given this definition she argues that we have a clear, but not a distinct, idea of God and of our own souls. She agrees with Locke that not all truths are equally evident because of the limitations of the human mind.


Astell's proposal was intended to provide women with a viable option to marriage. In Some Reflections Upon Marriage she contends that if better care were taken than usual in women's education,

… marriage might recover the Dignity and Felicity of its original Institution; and Men be very happy in a married State.19

Marriage fails because most men do not seek the proper qualifications in a spouse. She points out that it makes no difference if a man marries for money or for the love of beauty. In either case, the man does not act according to reason, but is governed by irregular appetites. Women should not marry because they think that it is their duty, nor should they marry to please friends or to escape the hardships of life. A woman must distinguish between truth and appearance, between solid and apparent good. If she does so she

… has found out the Instability of all earthly Things, and won't any more be deceived by relying on them; can discern who are the Flatterers of her Fortune, and who the Admirers and Encouragers of her Vertue; accounting it no little Blessing to be rid of those Leeches, who hung upon her only for their own Advantage.20

Men must choose qualities in a woman that relate to the soul and spiritual values. Astell appeals for as much equality in marriage as possible. She finds subjection to have no end or purpose other than to enhance the pride and vanity of those who have power. If all men are born free, how is it, she says,

… that all Women are born Slaves? As they must be, if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, arbitrary Will of Men, be the perfect Condition of Slavery?

According to Astell, men practice the type of arbitrary dominion in their families which they abhor and exclaim against in the state. If arbitrary power is an improper method of governing people it “ought not to be practis'd any where.”21

Astell construes the biblical curse on women as a prediction rather than a command from God. With regard to Paul's argument for women's subjection from the reason of things (1 Tim. 2:13), Astell retorts:

… it must be confess'd, that this (according to the vulgar Interpretation) is a very obscure Place, and I should be glad to see a Natural, and not a Forc'd Interpretation given of it by those who take it Literally: Whereas if it be taken allegorically, with respect to the Mystical Union between Christ and his Church … the Difficulties vanish. For the Earthly Adam's being form'd before Eve, seems as little to prove her Natural Subjection to him, as the living Creatures, Fishes, Birds, Beasts being form'd before them both, proves that Mankind must be subject to these Animals.22

She goes on to point out that female prophets and strong women are often mentioned and admired in scripture.



In The Christian Religion, Astell presents versions of the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God. She argues that since God is the most perfect being it would be contradictory to assume that He does not exist. Self-existence, she contends, “is such a Perfection as necessarily includes all other Perfections.”23 She goes on to address questions concerning the mysteries of Christianity. Astell agrees with those who claim that the Bible contains many mysteries, but concludes that the Christian religion is very “far from being Dark and affectedly Mysterious; its revelations are as clear and as plain as the sublimity of the matter will admit.”24 She points out that no one would suggest that mathematics is an obscure and mysterious science, yet some of its theorems appear as abstruse and mysterious as some doctrines in the Gospel. According to Astell, the reasonableness of Christianity consists in two “great truths,” (1) that there is not anything so reasonable as to believe all that God has revealed and to practice his commandments, (2) that God has given such proofs and evidences as are sufficient to satisfy any reasonable person that the Christian religion is a divine revelation.25


Although Astell seems to think that Locke aligned himself with the Socinians, she prefers not to accuse him of this, but rather, to refute his claims that appear to support Socinianism. She criticizes his lack of interest in supporting the doctrine of the Trinity, a truth, she says, “which is absolutely requir'd to be believed to make any one a Christian.”26 Locke's claim that God could give matter the power of thinking was subject to ridicule by many seventeenth-century theologians and philosophers. A good deal of the Christian Religion is devoted to showing that Locke's claim involves logical inconsistencies.

Astell claims that given the incongruity between thought and extension, it is evident that body cannot think. The ideas of thought and extension, she argues, are two completely different ideas and have different properties and affections. They may be considered without any relation to, or dependence, on each other. To be distinct from a thing, she says,

… is all one as not to be this Thing, so that since Thought and Extension are Distinct and Different in their own Natures, as we have seen, 'tis evident that a Thinking Being can't be Extended, and that an Extended Being does not, cannot Think any more than a Circle can have the Properties of a Triangle, or a Triangle those of a Circle.27

According to Astell, there cannot be anything in a being that is not contained in the idea of this being. Since thought is not contained in the idea of body, she concludes that matter cannot think.

Astell cites certain passages from Locke's Essay and his letters to Bishop Stillingfleet as being inconsistent with his contention that it is not impossible for God to give parcels of matter the power of thinking. “This Judicious Writer,” she says, “tells us ‘That in some of our Ideas there are certain Relations, Habitudes, and Connexions so visibly included in the nature of the Ideas themselves, that we cannot conceive them separable from them, by any power whatsoever.” She takes Locke's example of a triangle as analogous to the case of thinking matter. According to Locke, the idea of a triangle necessarily includes an equality of its angles to two right ones. Astell asserts:

But now shou'd I with weak Reason and Strong Imagination affirm, That God may give to this Triangle the Property of including no Space, or of being equal to a Square; say, that He may according to the good Pleasure of His Omnipotency, give it a speaking, a walking, or a dancing Faculty, and make it able to Eat and Drink; shou'd I tell our Ingenious Author That to deny God's Power in this case, only because he can't Conceive the manner how, is no less than an Insolent Absurdity; and a limiting the Power of the Omnipotent Creator.28

She concludes that to say that a square is a triangle, or that an extended Substance is a Thinking substance, is as contradictory as to say that motion is rest.

If Locke had considered the essence of body to be extension and the essence of mind to be thought, Astell's criticisms would have been valid. However, Locke regards thinking and extension as modes of substance and not their defining properties. Given Locke's view, matter and thought are not incompatible. Astell apparently holds a Cartesian view of thought and extension as defining properties or the essence of substance. On that view, which Astell does not question, the two are incompatible.


Astell tends to be critical of any philosophy such as Locke's that does not recognize the Ideal. Although she praises Norris, her Letters are primarily critical and address the specific issue of efficient causality. Astell agrees with Norris that God is the only efficient cause of all our sensations and that God is the sole object of our love. However, she contends that unacceptable conclusions follow from his principles. If God is the object of love because He is the only efficient cause of our pleasure, as Norris contends, it will follow, she says,

… either that the being the Cause of our Pleasure is not the true and proper Reason why that Cause should be the Object of our Love, (for the Author of our Pain has as good a Title to our Love as the Author of our Pleasure;) or else, if nothing be the Object of our Love but what does us Good, then something else does us Good, besides what causes Pleasure.29

Norris replies that pain is an effect of God, “yet it is not after the same manner the Effect of God as Pleasure is. Pleasure is the natural, genuine and direct Effect of God, but Pain comes from him only indirectly and by Accident.” According to Norris, God wills our pleasure as we are “Creatures, and our Pain only as we are Sinners.”30 Astell considers this reply a resolution to the difficulty. She goes on to explain her philosophy of sensation to Norris. When the understanding and will deviates from the order and perfection of their nature and are “destitute of their proper good,” mental pain results.

According to Astell, mental pain is the only proper evil of a person,

… both because the Mind being the Man, nothing is truly and properly his Good or Evil, but as it respects his Mind; as also because so long as he is under it, ‘tis impossible for him to enjoy any degree of real Happiness.’

God is not regarded as the author of this pain. It is due to human folly. Astell goes on to distinguish the inferior part of the soul from the superior part, explaining that disagreeable modifications (pain) exist in the inferior part, “that which is exercis'd about objects of sense” and not in the superior part, “the Understanding and Will.”31 Given this distinction, pain is not considered to be a real evil to that which is properly the person.


Since Astell was unable to arouse a wide enough interest in her proposal for a woman's college, she attempted to establish a charity school for girls in Chelsea. The school was established in 1729 by Lady Catherine Jones and other friends. Astell's ultimate educational goal was to train women to have logical grounds for religious belief and practice. She was critical of custom only insofar as it stood in the way of this goal.

As Smith points out, it is difficult to determine Astell's influence on the next generation, since the influence was not exactly that of one individual, but of the developing ideology of an age. Astell most certainly contributed to the goal of women's intellectual and economic independence. Her philosophical works are an important part of seventeenth-century debate.


  1. George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (printed by W. Jackson), 1752.

  2. Florence M. Smith, Mary Astell (New York: Columbia University Press), 1916.

  3. Smith, p. 164.

  4. Ballard, p. 447.

  5. Ibid., p. 456

  6. Smith, p. 164.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Mary Astell, The Christian Religion As Profess'd by a Daughter Of The Church of England (London), 1705, p. 6.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid., p. 100.

  11. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (London: Fourth Edition), 1694, p. 17.

  12. Ibid., p. 95.

  13. Ibid., p. 71.

  14. Ibid., p. 107.

  15. Ibid., p. 18.

  16. Ibid., p. 98.

  17. Ibid., p. 102.

  18. That may be said to be “Clear which is Present and Manifest to an attentive Mind; so as we say we see Objects Clearly, when being present to our Eyes they sufficiently Act on 'em, and our Eyes are dispos'd to regard 'em. And that Distinct, which is so Clear, Particular, and Different from all other things, that it contains not any thing in it self which appears not manifestly to him who considers it as ought” (Part I, par. 45).

  19. Mary Astell, Some Reflections Upon Marriage (London: Fourth Edition), 1700, p. 15.

  20. Ibid., p. 24.

  21. Ibid., p. 107.

  22. Ibid., pp. 110-111.

  23. Astell, The Christian Religion, p. 8.

  24. Ibid., p. 49.

  25. Ibid., p. 65.

  26. Ibid., p. 75.

  27. Ibid., p. 250.

  28. Ibid., pp. 253-255.

  29. Mary Astell, Letters Concerning the Love of God (London: Norris), 1695, p. 4.

  30. Ibid., p. 12.

  31. Ibid., p. 30.

Margaret Olofson Thickstun (essay date 1991)

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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 authority as interpreters of Scripture. It seems to me that contemporary scholarship, operating as it does in a secular culture, is not sufficiently aware of the revolutionary nature of a woman's claim to religious authority. I would like to correct this misapprehension by discussing two women writers of the late seventeenth century who attempted a feminist critique of Scripture, Margaret Fell, in Womens Speaking Justified (1667), and Mary Astell, in the preface to the third edition of Some Reflections on Marriage (1706).1 But I would also like to distinguish between their arguments in order to identify why Astell's work, which ultimately retreats from claiming women's equality in the Spirit, figures so prominently in recent discussions of early feminism, while Fell's pamphlet defending women's religious authority receives only passing reference.

A brief survey of recent scholarship reveals the intellectual bias that blinds contemporary scholars to the importance of these writers' feminist critique of Scripture. Hilda Smith's Reason's Disciples: Seventeenth-Century English Feminists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982) posits Enlightenment ideas as the efficient cause for a burst of feminist writing at the close of the century: “In rationalism they found the ideology that best answered their desire to assert equality and to develop a framework for questioning the status quo” (60). Ruth Perry, in an essay on Astell in Women and the Enlightenment (New York: Haworth Press, 1984) comments that “what strikes one about her life and work as a whole, what marks her as a woman of the Enlightenment, is her unqualified belief in Right Reason and the faith she reposed—both personally and ideologically—in the mind” (15). Katharine Rogers titles one chapter in her book, Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), “The Liberating Effect of Rationalism.” Astell's secular arguments appeal to contemporary scholars because she values what they value, education and the exercise of reason, while both her Scriptural criticism and Fell's impassioned claims of inspiration disconcert readers trained to equate religious enthusiasm with either irrationality or fundamentalism.

In their discussions of both writers, scholars reveal their assumption that religious faith and feminist convictions are necessarily antithetical: Smith, for example, says of Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies that “the strong religious orientation of her curriculum would not, of course, allow for a genuinely liberating education” (126). Similarly, she dismisses the feminist implications of Fell's pamphlet because Fell does not raise “the issue of women's role in the household or in society in general” (95), asserting that she “asked merely that a Christian woman be allowed to practice her religion as fully and variously as a man” (96). But Margaret Fell's claiming the right to preach is in itself a defiantly and expansively feminist act that transcends any need to pursue an argument about the details of social change that must necessarily follow. Simply by undertaking the task of interpreting Scripture independently of the male clergy, these women threaten the very basis of patriarchy's social control. The continued resistance to women clergy among the more conservative religious bodies today—even though women members of those religions are college professors, corporate presidents, and congresswomen—illustrates the profound connection between religious authority and patriarchal power.

Both Fell and Astell develop hermeneutic practices that allow them to challenge received interpretation of Scripture by establishing an extra-biblical access to divine truth. Fell derives her authority as an interpreter of Scripture from her belief in God's continuing self-revelation in history, an idea that destabilizes the authority of Scriptural texts. Addressing the problem that twentieth-century feminist theologians describe as distinguishing “script from Scripture,”2 Fell privileges charismatic speaking of God's word over silence: “those that speak against the Power of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking in a woman, simply, by reason of her Sex, or because she is a Woman …, such speak against Christ, and his Church, and are of the Seed of the Serpent” (116). Passages that exhort silence and order, then, must be interpreted in terms of the overriding command to witness to God's love and power. In the light of this principle, Fell believes she can determine “how God himself hath manifested his Will and Mind concerning women, and unto women” (115).

Mary Astell's hermeneutic practice confronts priestly authority by privileging reason, or common sense, over erudition, “for Sense is a Portion that GOD Himself has been pleas'd to distribute to both Sexes with an Impartial Hand, but Learning is what Men have engrossed to themselves” (78). Common sense leads her to conclude that “One Text for us, is more to be regarded than many against us. Because that One being different from what Custom has establish'd, ought to be taken with Philosophical Strictness” (79). She distinguishes between passages that present divine revelation about women and passages that conform to human practice, arguing that “Scripture is not always on their side who make parade of it, and thro' their skill in Languages and the Tricks of the Schools, wrest it from its genuine sense to their own Inventions” (74). Her subsequent critique of traditional interpretations of Scriptural passages about women asserts her own ability to get at “its genuine sense.”

Both writers, then, approach Scripture through what twentieth-century feminist biblical theologians term “a hermeneutics of suspicion.” They recognize both the text itself and conventional principles of interpretation as political tools and criticize clergy who use Scriptural authority as an ideological weapon against women. Astell underscores men's power as translators and interpreters when she observes that “women, without their own Fault, are kept in Ignorance of the Original, wanting Languages and other helps to Criticise on the Sacred Text, of which they know no more than Men are pleas'd to impart in their Translations” (74). Without knowledge of the original languages, she asserts, women read not the actual Scripture, but a translation that is necessarily an interpretation of it. The concern which the clergy demonstrates in restricting who can read the original text and how the text can be interpreted “shew[s] their desire to maintain their Hypotheses, but by no means their Reverence to the Sacred Oracles” (74-75). Astell's concern that women be able to test the accuracy of the translation suggests that her religious conviction, at least as much as her reading in philosophy, informs her arguments for women's education. She remarks wryly that “when an Adversary is drove to a Nonplus and Reason declares against him, he flies to Authority, especially to Divine, which is infallible, and therefore ought not to be disputed” (74). As her subsequent Scriptural exegesis demonstrates, an educated female laity would possess the ability to dispute the interpretation of “infallible” Authority.

Fell establishes women's inspired witness as grounds for disputing priestly authority. She not only exposes the hypocrisy of priests who “take Texts, and Preach Sermons upon Womens words, and still cry out, Women must not speak, Women must be silent” (124), but calls into question the completeness of Scripture. Of Jesus's explicit self-revelation to the Woman of Samaria, she comments, “this is more than ever he said in plain words to Man or Woman (that we read of) before he suffered” (117). That parenthetical remark indicates that Fell questions the accuracy of the biblical record itself, not simply its vernacular manifestions. She contests the privileged status of Scripture because she recognizes that the received history of Jesus's ministry is not a full account of the truth, but a telling of the story that serves the political purposes of the priesthood. By claiming an authority derived from a personal experience of the Spirit, Fell is able to ground the legitimacy of her speaking and her message outside received tradition and conventional authority, while at the same time appealing to the ultimate truth it claims to contain.

Both Fell and Astell demonstrate an acute awareness of the historicity of biblical texts, particularly the Pauline epistles. They insist that the Pauline letters be read in their historical, pastoral context. In Fell's discussion of 1 Cor. 14:34—“Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak”—she argues that Paul's exhortation to silence applies to a particular episode in church history, not to the conduct of Christian women throughout all time. Applying her hermeneutic principle that speaking the Gospel takes precedence over social propriety, Fell interprets Paul's subsequent qualification, “as also saith the Law,” as further evidence that this command does not apply to women's inspired speaking: “for he speaks of women that were under the Law, and in that Transgression as Eve was” (119). These women who, Fell proposes, had not yet entered the community of grace could not participate as full speaking members in communal worship. Paul's command then does not apply to believing women “that have the Everlasting Gospel to preach, and upon whom the Promise of the Lord is fulfilled” (120). She defends this interpretation by pointing to 1 Cor. 11, which outlines proper behavior for women who are prophesying—such as covering their heads and leaving their hair braided—and Philippians 4.3, where Paul entreats Philemon “to help those Women who laboured with him in the Gospel.”

Astell also emphasizes the pastoral context of this injunction. She argues “that tho' he forbids Women to teach in the Church, … he did not found this Prohibition on any suppos'd want of Understanding in Woman, or of ability to Teach; neither does he confine them at all times to learn in silence” (77). She points to Priscilla's teaching Apollos, and to Paul's placing her name before her husband's and “giving to her as well as to him, the Noble Title of his Helper in Christ Jesus” (78), as evidence that Paul cannot mean this statement to be a universal proclamation. She suggests that he forbade women to teach in the Corinthian church “for several Prudential reasons, like those he introduces with an I give my Opinion, and now I speak not the Lord, and not because of any Law of Nature, or Positive Divine Precept” (77). Astell demonstrates through her analysis of this passage not only her sense of the epistles as historical documents, but a careful attention to the uses of language, both by Paul and by his translators, adding “that the words they are Commanded (1 Cor. 14.24.) are not in the Original, [as] appears from the Italic character” (77). Here, she suggests, ideology determines not only interpretation, but translation.

In the light of this awareness, both writers refute traditional readings of the Genesis story, as well as its manifestations in the Pauline texts on women. Fell privileges the first Creation story in Genesis 1:27—“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female he created them”—arguing that “God the Father made no such difference in the first Creation, nor never since between the Male and the Female” (116). She reads the punishment and prophecy in Genesis 3 as an allegorical discussion of the enmity between Satan and the Church, an approach which she uses to discredit sexist applications of Ephesians, chapter 5, and 1 Timothy, chapter 2. Astell also reads 1 Timothy, chapter 2, allegorically, remarking that it is “a very obscure place,” but that “if it be taken Allegorically, with respect to the Mystical Union between Christ and his Church, to which St. Paul frequently accomodates the Matrimonial Relation, the difficulties vanish” (78). She mocks arguments for the subjection of women because of the Genesis story, commenting, that “the Earthly Adam's being Form'd before Eve, seems as little to prove her Natural Subjection to him, as the Living Creatures, Fishes, Birds and Beasts being Form'd before them both, proves that Mankind must be subject to these Animals” (78).

Along with this “hermeneutics of suspicion,” both Fell and Astell deploy a “hermeneutics of remembrance,” recovering women in Scripture as positive role models for contemporary women. Fell's discussion of Hebrew women stresses their spiritual authority; she includes examples of women teaching and prophesying, followed by the positive response of authoritative figures—patriarchs, elders, and prophets—to their speech. Astell emphasizes Hebrew women's political prominence as leaders of their people. She points to examples where God revealed himself to women rather than to their husbands because of their wisdom, prudence, or superior piety. Like Fell, she emphasizes the positive response of men in authority to women, although her choice of stories singles out pious rather than prophetic women. She also hesitates to use these exceptional women to establish precedents for other women's subverting the social order, commenting of one biblical passage, “I wou'd not infer from hence that Women generally speaking, ought to govern in their Families when they have a Husband” (82).

Both Fell and Astell emphasize the superior devotion of Jesus's female followers, as well as his special attention toward them. Astell lists Mary, Martha, Elizabeth, Magdalen, the Syrophoenecian, and Anna as exemplary women; she points out that “when our Lord escap'd from the Jews, he trusted Himself in the hands of Martha and Mary” (84), rather than with his male followers. Fell identifies a pattern of special revelation to women in which Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah and in which the women disciples—the woman of Samaria, Martha, and the woman with the alabaster box of ointment—confidently declare their belief. In discussing each story, she emphasizes the intimacy of the conversation, the unusualness of Jesus's blunt speaking, and the confidence expressed in the women's response. Of Martha's ready affirmation of Jesus's divinity—“Yea Lord, I believe thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (117)—Fell comments that “here she manifested her true and saving Faith, which few at that day believed so on him.” Both women praise the women at the tomb, who were “so united and knit into him in love, that they could not depart as the men did, but sat watching, and waiting, and weeping about the Sepulchre” (Fell, 119). Both Fell and Astell identify these women's being the first to receive news of the Resurrection as a reward for their superior devotion.

But in her discussion, Fell presses women's prophetic authority more aggressively than Astell does. Astell admits that “GOD Himself who is no Respecter of Persons, with whom there is neither Bond nor Free, Male nor Female, but they are all one in Christ Jesus [Gal. 3.28], did not deny Women that Divine Gift the Spirit of Prophecy, neither under the Jewish nor the Christian Dispensation” (83). She identifies Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and the four daughters of Philip as examples of inspired women and points to Paul's equal treatment of Priscilla as evidence that women did teach with authority. But she refrains from using these models or the events at the tomb as a means to encourage women's preaching, retreating toward more conventional definitions of female spirituality: “And if it is a greater Blessing to hear the Word of GOD and keep it, who are more considerable for their Assiduity in this than the Female Disciples of the Lord?” (83). Fell, on the other hand, exploits the revelation at the tomb to clinch her point that Christian witness requires women's active participation: as she asks triumphantly, “what had become of the Redemption of the whole Body of Man-kind, if they had not believed the Message that the Lord Jesus sent by these women [?]” (118). She argues that human redemption requires accepting the authority of women's witness.

Fell's entire discussion insists on a reevaluation of the role of Jesus's women followers as active disciples so that she can reclaim Christian discipleship and religious authority for women. In a striking anticipation of twentieth-century feminist biblical criticism, Fell asserts the prophetic claim of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment who anoints Jesus's head, declaring, “this Woman knew more of the secret Power and Wisdom of God, then his Disciples did, that were filled with indignation against her” (117). This episode has become a central symbol of feminist biblical historical reconstruction of the Christian movement, providing the title for Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her. Fiorenza explains that this woman's anointing Jesus's head not only witnesses to his kingship and messianic status but also asserts the woman's own prophetic power. In the Mark/Matthew telling that Fell quotes, the woman receives from Jesus praise and the promise of continued recognition from the Christian community, which will honor her as a superior disciple: Jesus declares that her action shall be repeated wherever the Gospel is proclaimed “for a memorial of her.” In the Lukan source, she is presented as a model of discipleship against Simon, who has not “loved much.” Fell uses both versions of the story to underscore her opposition between women's faith and that of the disciples; the disciples become a negative model for priests, who continue to judge the world in terms of the Law, who cannot see beyond physical categories.

Despite the similarities in their arguments, Fell and Astell differ about implications of their biblical criticism on present day life. While Astell claims that “the Bible is for, and not against us, and cannot without great violence done to it, be urg'd to our Prejudice” (84), she does not entirely believe herself, expressing a wish to dismiss the role of Scripture in any discussion of women's equality, to argue instead from the order of Reason: “Our Reflector is of Opinion that Disputes of this kind, extending to Human Nature in general, and not peculiar to those to whom the Word of GOD has been reveal'd, ought to be decided by natural Reason only” (74). But it turns out to be natural reason that defeats the practical application of her feminism. Astell may refute the inferiority of woman in the order of Creation, asserting that she “was made for the Service of GOD, and that this is her End. Because GOD made all things for Himself, and a Rational Mind is too noble a Being to be Made for the Sake and Service of any Creature” (72). But reason tells her that human beings do not behave like rational creatures. She concludes that social hierarchy is a necessary response to fallen human nature: “If Mankind had never sinn'd, Reason wou'd always have been obey'd, there wou'd have been no struggle for Dominion, and Brutal Power wou'd not have prevail'd. But in the laps'd State of Mankind …, the Will and Pleasure of the Governor is to be the Reason of those who will not be guided by their own, and must take place for Order's sake, altho' it should not be conformable to right Reason” (75). Believing that there can not “be any Society great or little, from Empires down to private Families, without a last Resort, to determine the Affairs of that Society by an irresistible Sentence” (75), Astell affirms the necessity of hierarchy in general and sexual hierarchy within marriage. A woman may choose not to marry, but once she enters into this social contract, she must honor her voluntarily chosen subordination.

Astell's argument suggests that, while she may believe in women's spiritual and intellectual equality before God, she does not perceive that the realm of the Spirit impinges on temporal reality; she even recommends Christianity as the insurer of domestic tranquility, for “she will freely leave him the quiet Dominion of this World, whose Thoughts and Expectations are plac'd on the next” (128). Her advice to married women offers moral, but not political support. Most tellingly, Astell refrains from claiming for women the religious authority that would validate their interpretations of the Bible. She limits her argument for women's access to Scripture to their need for personal improvement, assuring readers of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1696) that “We pretend not that Women shou'd teach in the Church, or usurp Authority where it is not allow'd them; permit us only to understand our own duty, and not be forc'd to take it upon trust from others” (154). Such a claim concedes authority to men in order to negotiate for women a space in which to pursue their intellectual and spiritual development undisturbed. But this strategy weakens the political effectiveness of Astell's feminist critique of Scripture, because it acknowledges a higher authority to which women have no access, an authority that may at any point contradict their assertions, however reasonable they may appear, and label them as sacriligeous and evil. Fell, on the other hand, uses the authority she derives from her interpretation of Scripture to challenge patriarchal control.

Fell insists on the importance of Scripture not only in defining human nature but in determining social practice. Believing that sexual equality exists both in the Spirit and in the order of Creation, she locates sexual hierarchy in human misunderstanding, misreading, and weakness, for “God the Father made no such difference in the first Creation, nor never since between the Male and the Female” (116). Fell does not recognize sexual hierarchy as a punishment for sin, but as sin itself, for men who oppose women's equal authority are trying to “limit the Power and Spirit of the Lord Jesus, whose Spirit is poured upon all flesh, both Sons and Daughters, now in his Resurrection” (121). Such men revere human custom more than they do God's will for humanity. Fell's argument identifies the suppression of women's voices as an ungodly, anti-Christian activity. Considered in its historical context, Fell's pamphlet does not ask, as Smith contends, “merely that a Christian woman be allowed to practice her religion as fully and variously as a man” (Smith, p. 96, emphasis mine); it asserts women's right to speak authoritatively even about religion. Fell can take for granted that the acceptance of this fundamental principle will lead to profound changes in the relationships between men and women in everyday life; precisely such changes did occur within the egalitarian religious community that came to be known as Quakers. Fell does not address details of social change because she does not have to.

In privileging the voice of reason over revelation, contemporary feminist scholars unjustly and, I think, unwisely dismiss Fell's contribution to the feminist critique of Scripture because they underestimate the power of religious authority not only in her day, but also in modern life. The task of recovering Scripture and Christian tradition for women's affirmation is enormously important even today in a far more secular culture than the one Fell and Astell inhabited. Traditional religion provides the myths and stories that shape the way our society imagines gender and the way we imagine ourselves; these myths and stories cannot simply be ignored as rubbish, because they remain to poison our environment until we neutralize their effectiveness. In looking at the arguments of earlier feminists, we need to determine which strategies have the most potential for effecting positive social change. Because Astell tries to avoid a confrontation between her personal convictions and the teachings of the established church in which she worships, she allows male interpretations of Scripture and of women to remain authoritative. Fell, on the other hand, confronts sexist interpretations of God's will and activity in human history directly. She is thus able to begin, at least, to wrest the interpretation of Scripture, and therefore of women, from patriarchal control.


  1. Astell in The First English Feminist, ed. Bridget Hill (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986); Fell in First Feminists: British Women Writers 1578-1799 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

  2. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1983), 16.

Catherine Sharrock (essay date 1992)

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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 de-ciphering moves towards a revision of the ‘cyphered’ female identity, by disrupting the patriarchal discourse through which it is articulated. As the language that defines a woman's containment is destabilized, the female is less bound by masculine author-ity (the interplay between textual and socio-political constructions) and is potentially subject, instead, only to her own prescription. In this way, Astell's writings suggest that a woman may inscribe herself beyond, rather than be inscribed (or de-scribed) by, the dominant discourse—the ‘Cypher’ acquires her own authorizing signature. However, such a manoeuvre becomes highly problematic and raises the questions of whether it is possible to write one's way out of ideology.

The act of writing is a projection of the person who writes into the public domain of discourse. This translates the person, as subject of ideology, into a text that, by necessity, expresses the writer's relation to the ideological framework within which she/he writes. Discourse both defines and is defined by ideology. One can never write from a position outside ideology, but only negotiate with it from within its confines. However, as a symbolic activity, the entrance into print may signify a transgression of ideological codes. During Astell's time, a woman's writing assumed precisely this status. It betokened a textual revision of her politically prescribed role as silent subject of the language of patriarchy. What happened when a woman writer addressed the ideological implications of her symbolic position? Anne Finch writes:

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptious Creature, is esteem'd,
The fault, can by no vertue be redeem'd.(2)

By invoking her critical reception, Finch undercuts a male evaluation of her writing as being, by its very existence, ‘unladylike’. Yet one might ask whether that invocation also discloses, in part, her ambivalent attitude to the ‘intrusion’. The implicit dialogue with an absent party might be read as an expression of her continuing dialogue with the dominant ideology, even whilst she apparently defies it.3 The phrase ‘attempts the pen’, perhaps suggestive of a desire to seduce the masculine ‘pen’, also betrays her lack of confidence in wielding that ‘masculine’ implement and hints at her internalized sense of female inadequacy.

Such internalized notions of gender difference seem to occur again in Aphra Behn's description of her writing self as ‘my Masculine Part, the Poet in me …’4 However, Behn's splitting of her gendered identity, through which she implies that her ‘feminine part’ is cut off from the practice of writing, reads more like a conscious manipulation of social codes than an unconscious inability to escape them. In her plays, women are not the passive puppets of male direction, but active agents of their own plots. The dramatist locates herself within the perimeters of propriety and then exploits that positioning by mocking those very terms of politeness. Androgyny may serve as a convenient evasion of a woman's transgression of gender boundaries, by presenting the writer as one operating in accordance with the pregiven concepts of masculinity and femininity. Simultaneously, the idea of an androgynous writer also renders the sexual identity of writing more flexible. It does so by allowing a dual gender to infiltrate the unisex and ‘masculine’ nature of writing. As a consequence, the partial conformity of textual (female) androgyny may query the equation of masculinity and textuality.

Bathsua Makin perhaps works against this equation when she adopts a masculine persona. She proclaims in An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673), ‘I am a Man my self’: a literal, strategic dissociation from her female self.5 In assuming a male guise, she is able to put forward her argument with an air of disinterested authority that would be unavailable to her if she were to confess to her gender. By being able to present herself as an educated man, her text symbolically foreshadows its own objective: the lessening of the educational gulf between men and women. Here androgyny articulates its own sexual challenge.

Yet, we may ask, how can the androgynous (female) text question the male monopoly over words and knowledge when it wraps both its words and its knowledge in ‘masculine’ clothing? How can a woman validate her right to be an author when the only author-ity to which she lays claim is masculine: an author-ity which excludes her? So the androgynous (female) text has to be reread here as one which undermines its own attempt to alter the status quo, by conceding to the male author-ity by which that status quo is supported. There is, then, hardly any hope of change. But one should note that Makin, at least, is not asking for radical change. She does not demand equality, but only a discreet reupholstering of inequality: ‘My intention is not to equalize Women to Men, much less to make them superior. They are the weaker Sex, yet capable of impressions of great things, something like to the best of Men’ (p. 29). Her manipulation of androgyny, I would argue, echoes the continued allegiance to patriarchal values that she expresses here. Just as she writes as a woman only from within the protective covering of ‘masculinity’, so she requests only a female education that could be contained by the systems of patriarchy. For the ‘impressions of great things’ that a woman might receive are the imprints of the male mind. The woman remains a cipher to the signifying author-ity of the man.

Astell, on the other hand, is acutely aware of some of the problems inherent in a female writer's engagement with author-ity. Early in her career this manifests itself in the form of bashfulness, which seems at once to be sincere and yet somewhat disingenuous. For example, in her dedication of a collection of poems to Archbishop William Sancroft in 1689, she denigrates her poetry as ‘but a few trifles, which even themselves stand in need of an excuse’. Then, plumbing the depths of ‘Humility’, she asks that he might ‘pass a favourable censure upon the failures of a Womans pen, who would very thankfully be informed of her errours and amend them. …’6 The pliant pupil succumbs to the preachings of the pedagogue. His authority, as a man, erases her authority as a poet. Yet one should not overlook the fact that she both wrote these poems and then presumed to dedicate them to him: acts which, in themselves, suggest a more confident attitude to her writing than she was prepared to own. She may bow her head, abashed, but, curiously, the pen keeps moving.

By 1694 a marked change in attitude has taken place. In A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, [hereafter abbreviated as SP] Part I (1694), she is prepared to banish any male reader who would not humble himself to her: ‘But I will not pretend to correct [those men's] Errors, who either are, or at least think themselves too wise to receive Instruction from a Womans pen’ (SP, I, p. 12). A year later, as she opens an epistolary debate with John Norris, Astell is happy to dismiss stereotypical views of femininity in order to defend her right to be heard: ‘Though some morose Gentlemen wou'd perhaps remit me to the Distaff or the Kitchin, or at least to the Glass and the Needle, the proper Employments as they fancy of a Womans Life’, she expects ‘better things’ of her would-be correspondent. When she then requests that he might attend to ‘the Impertinences of a Womans Pen’, she does so from the position of having textually discredited the codes of propriety that could have silenced her.7 The pedagogical roles have been reversed. She is now dictating the terms on which she wishes to write.

I am not suggesting that her work should be read as a gauge of her increasing personal confidence or, indeed, that her writings easily trace the path of such a liberating evolution. Such readings would overlook the complexities inherent in her positioning amidst a patriarchal society and the language within which its values are encoded. When, in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Astell offers a trenchant critique of many aspects of patriarchy, her boldness may, in part, be accounted for by the prescribed gender of her readership. Whilst she does not assume that the ‘Ladies'’ sympathy can be relied upon, she is not always having to negotiate directly with the degree of hostility that she considers inevitable from men, whose interests are being thwarted. Of course, the very fact that she demotes men to a secondary level both as textual subjects and as readers suggests that she is continuing to shift ideological ground. Still, here, as in her later Reflections upon Marriage (1706), where her frequent use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ indicates that her assumed readership is again female, Astell's occasional catering for a male audience is not insignificant. The idea—implicit within the optimistic trajectory of a development or evolutionary reading—that she might gradually be able to free herself from the restrictions of the dominant ideology is deeply qualified, even as she offers her most incisive alternative to masculine author-ity.

In trying to circumvent masculine author-ity, Astell has not also been contending for its feminization. The distinction, though fine, is crucial. It is in Reflections Upon Marriage [hereafter abbreviated as R] that its significance emerges. Here she introduces herself as a writer who specifically rejects the title of ‘Author’ on the following grounds:

We are all of us sufficiently Vain, and without doubt the Celebrated Name of Author, which most are so fond of, had not been avoided, but for very good Reasons: To name but one; Who will care to pull upon themselves an Hornet's Nest? 'Tis a very great Fault to regard rather who it is that Speaks, than what is Spoken; and either to submit to Authority, when we should only yield to Reason; or if Reason press too hard, to think to ward it off by Personal Objections and Reflections. Bold Truths may pass while the Speaker is Incognito, but are not endur'd when he is known; few Minds being strong enough to bear what Contradicts their Principles and Practises without Recriminating when they can.8

The anonymity for which she opts thus acts as a protective shield against an antagonistic readership. Anonymity ensures a double autonomy for the text. By being released from its ‘Author’, the text is, simultaneously, freed from the prejudiced perceptions of a reader who responds only to the imagined personality of the writer. The depersonalized script produces a depersonalized reading. Here the idea of an objective reader aspires to the ideal of a discourse that is sexually and politically non-partisan. As I shall later explore more fully, this ideal is philosophically mirrored by Astell's Cartesianism. Now I wish to focus upon the interlinking of her philosophical and political goals, as she develops the model of an impersonal text to liberate herself, as well as her female subjects, from a pregiven political framework.

We must look again at the erasure of herself as an ‘Author’. The previously quoted passage obliquely links the being an ‘Author’ with the concept of ‘Authority’. If the reader were to refer to the ‘Author’, then ‘he’ would also be found to ‘submit to Authority, when he should only yield to Reason …’ Both the intrusion of an ‘Author’ and the now complementary ‘Authority’ deflect the reader's gaze away from what ‘Reason’ might endorse. Furthermore, that ‘Reason’ is to offer a new, because challenging, alternative to the findings of ‘Authority’, which are sanctioned only through reference to what is already established—the ‘Principles and Practises’. If Astell had claimed to be an ‘Author’ she would, therefore, have implicated herself within the partisan perception of ‘Authority’. As it is, her disavowal of the label may be read as her dissociation from the ‘Authority’ that clings stubbornly to an old regime.9

In the light of this, Astell's delineation of her literary project becomes particularly suggestive. Her ‘Reflections’, she writes, ‘have no other Design than to Correct some Abuses, which are not the less because Power and Prescription seem to Authorize them’ (R ‘Preface’, not paginated). Yet again she distances herself from ‘Authority’ by being about to write against what is ‘Authorize[d]’. And when she later selects the title of ‘Reflector’, in preference to that of ‘Author’, she pursues her apparent disengagement from the notions of ‘Power and Prescription’ now seen to legitimize ‘Authority’ (R Preface, not paginated). Without such pregiven ‘Authority’, the Astell who only ‘reflects’, like the Astell of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies who only ‘proposes’, cuts herself off from author-ity and its dual significance. It is at this point that the dynamic exchange between an author who authorizes and an authority that commands, linguistically bonded in the text and context of authority, most evidently admit to their guilty partnership. Rather than feminizing author-ity, Astell presents the concept of author-ity as being detrimental to the interests of women.

The ‘Power and Prescription’ that legitimize ‘Authority’ become interchangeable with the ‘Custom’ that depicts as normal, and so supposedly ‘Natural’, the subjugation of women to men. What Astell is dealing with here are the workings of patriarchal ideology. By planning to ‘Correct some Abuses’ within the ‘Authorize[d]’ system, she thus implicitly identifies her text as one which is to counter parts of that ideology. When, as so often throughout her writings, she insists that women's inferiority is not the effect of ‘Nature’ but ‘nurture’, she leads us to a critique of what, in Althusser's terms, constitutes the ‘illusory’ fabric of ideology.10 Most pertinent to this essay, however, is her illustration of the way in which men act as agents of production within that ideology, by taking to themselves the ‘Authority’ that is bolstered and perpetuated by ‘Custom’.

Into her critique of this masculine framework she inserts the findings of ‘Reason’, the antagonist of ‘Authority’. For her writing defines as irrational the premises upon which female identity is constructed within patriarchal society. In this way, she interprets a derogatory notion of ‘femininity’ as a contrivance of patriarchy and of the discourse through which it is articulated:

Women are from their very Infancy debar'd those Advantages, with the want of which they are afterwards reproached, and nursed up in those Vices which will hereafter be upbraided to them. So partial are Men as to expect Brick where they afford no Straw; and so abundantly civil as to take care we [women] shou'd make good that obliging Epithet of Ignorant, which out of an excess of good Manners, they are pleas'd to bestow on us [women]!

(SP, I, pp. 16-17)

Masculine speech ‘author-izes’ women's inferiority, by defining as ‘Ignorant’ the intellectual level to which women have been reduced. The end echoes and is generated by the means. But Astell's own ironic speech uses that very irrational author-ity against men. For, as the subjects of her discourse, men become the disappointed victims of their own unreasonable expectations: ‘So partial are Men as to expect Brick where they afford no Straw …’ Ideological deviousness is ridiculed as the quaint stupidity of male ‘Ignorance’.

In Reflections Upon Marriage, Astell's dissection of male duplicity uncovers how the would-be wife is the abused subject, created and confined by the male tongue:

‘We who make the Idols, are the greater Deities; and as we set you up, so it is in our power to reduce you to your first obscurity, or to somewhat worse, to Contempt; you are therefore only on your good behaviour, and are like to be no more than what we please to make you.’ This is the Flatterer's Language aside, this is the true sense of his heart, whatever his Grimace may be before the Company.

(R, p. 24)

The woman, inscribed within patriarchal discourse, is susceptible to its dictates to the degree that she has already internalized its values. It is important to stress that Astell does not see women as being totally innocent puppets of patriarchy, as she regularly chastises them for behaving in a manner that befits the low esteem in which they are held. Only occasionally does she admit to her own complicity with them in behaving in this way herself. As I shall argue later in this essay, her attitude towards other women often teeters on the edge of the patronizing contempt that she identifies as a masculine trait.

At present, I wish to draw attention to her implicit assumption that she can extricate herself from the intellectual constraints of the dominant ideology. When Astell disrupts patriarchal discourse by decoding the ‘Flatterer's Language’, she also presumes that she can dismantle that discourse by exploiting its own vocabulary:

'Tis true, thro' Want of Learning, and of that Superior Genius which Men as Men lay claim to, she was ignorant of the Natural Inferiority of our Sex, which our Masters lay down as a Self-Evident and Fundamental Truth.

(R Preface, not paginated)

Here the very ‘ignorance’ that is supposed to epitomize the female is claimed by Astell, only then to have its customary application inverted. Rather than confirming her ‘Natural Inferiority’, her ‘ignorance’ conveniently explains why she has not recognized her apparent inadequacy. Such intellectual pirouetting in itself challenges the idea of a woman's mental deficiency. As she thus wipes out the trace of her weakness, she also robs the masculine ‘Truth’ of the referential evidence that it actually requires for its verification. Astell, it would seem, has won her case.

But has she? In parodying the terms used in patriarchal discourse—‘Ignorant’, ‘Natural Inferiority’—she may have created an ironic disjunction between their conventional usage and her own interpretation of them, but parody can never acquire its own semantic autonomy. Margaret Rose, in her study of parody and fiction, defines parody itself as a meta-language.11 Because it has to mimic the language upon which it comments, parody/meta-language can exist only in relation to that very language. When, as by Astell, it is the language of ideology that is being parodied, her words must, therefore, be seen to be functioning in conjunction with that semantic framework. Although she may try to revise the signification of that language, she can never fully erase it. Her parodic writing palimpsestically redisplays the very words that it had tried to efface, by allowing them to rewrite themselves over her own rewriting of them.

Moreover, irony, itself such a recurrent feature of Astell's polemical writing, destabilizes any meaning that she might hope to infer. Just as one can never wrest any positive statement from irony, neither can one determine the exact position of the speaker within the ironic discourse. As a consequence, Astell not only situates herself in an ironic relation to the dominant ideology, but she also exists at an ironic distance from her own words. One could argue that, by disengaging herself from her text in this way, she furthers her exposé of the politics of authoring. The destabilization of meaning through irony complements Astell's goal of resisting the ‘Power and Prescription’ embedded within author-ity. If language can be seen merely to dally with the idea of reference, then patriarchal discourse may be deprived of its power to define its textual/political subjects. However, emerging from this is an understanding of irony as merely a play between words. Barthes's perception of irony as ‘nothing other than the question which language puts to language’ becomes particularly apposite.12 In Astell's writings, the question that remains in play is whether patriarchal ‘Authority’ can be revised simply by discrediting it as an intellectual concept. Can the subject of ideology escape its frame of reference?

Astell's response to the poverty of women's socio-political circumstances is to try to change women's terms of reference. This assumes, almost exclusively, a theoretical stance. For she does not propose that maltreated wives should leave their husbands or that women should try to wrestle their way into positions of political power. In fact, she very pointedly argues against any such ideas. Even the retreat that she devises for the more privileged women of her society rechannels its inhabitants back into some of the stereotypical roles allocated to them by the patriarchal society.13 Her main aim is to try to change women's ways of perceiving what is available to them and, in this conceptual manner, to lift them beyond the confines of their present existence. By insisting upon the primacy of the intellect and its non-gendered nature, Astell philosophically opens the way for this particular transformation (SP, I, pp. 47-8).

Thinking’, she contends, ‘is a Stock that no Rational Creature can want’ (L, [Letters Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris,] p. 2), by which she means that women, as well as men, have all the mental apparatus that they require. This intellectual capacity is to direct women away from the patterns of behaviour by which they are bound within the patriarchal structure. Astell asks her female readers to examine where their real interests lie:

This is a Matter infinitely more worthy your Debates, than what Colours are most agreeable, or what's the Dress becomes you best. Your Glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own Minds, which will discover Irregularities more worthy your Correction, and keep you from being either too much elated or depress'd by the Representations of the other.

(SP, I, p. 6)

The ‘Representations of the other’, now such a tantalizing phrase for any feminist critic, offers both a literal and a symbolic reading here. The mirror that reflects the woman's image deflects her attention away from the more substantial musings of introspection. And the ‘other’ thus refers to the ‘Glass’ that depicts her appearance as it is received by her own eyes. But as the ‘Glass’ outlines only the woman's appearance, so it also frames her in the stereotypical pose of vacuity. As already noted, the ciphered female identity relies, for its significance, upon the imprints of the man. A woman's expression of ‘femininity’ betokens her conformity to the figure of the woman sculpted by masculine desire. In this way, the phrase ‘the Representations of the other’ evokes the male imaging of women, with the ‘Glass’ then reflecting her image only as it is formed by the gaze that fashions her the ‘other’—the gaze of the man. When she urges women to move away from the mirror and into themselves Astell, therefore, turns self-reflexivity into a symbolic release from the trappings of patriarchy.

It is by ‘paying too great a deference to other Peoples Judgments, and too little to [their] own’ that women remain mere pawns of patriarchal power.14 Self-reflexivity, with the aid of reason, thus facilitates an individually undertaken reassessment of the terms governing a woman's life. By denying herself an ideologically prescriptive agency as an ‘Author’, Astell has opened up a potentially egalitarian space in which female writer and female reader might together explore the issues of patriarchy. Just as Astell only ‘reflects’ (or ‘proposes’), the female reader is invited to ‘reflect’ inwardly upon her own circumstances. (Barthes's identification of the death of the author with the birth of the reader is graphically illustrated here).15 Into this posited intellectual autonomy Astell introduces the concept of self-worth. Again she seeks to undercut any dependence upon men: ‘We value [men] too much, and our selves too little, if we place any part of our desert in their Opinion, and don't think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of a worthless heart’ (SP, I, p. 10). Here we have the matrix of Astell's idealist vision. She does not court an actual revolution, but she does aspire towards a notion of difference, which predicates itself upon a woman's intellectual and spiritual aloofness from the evaluative schemes and behavioural codes of the dominant ideology.

The mental autonomy sought through the non-gendered intellect is complemented by the non-gendered soul's disengagement from temporal affairs (SP, I, pp. 47-8). This Cartesian partnership is supposed to generate for women the alternative terms of reference mentioned earlier, by privileging the spiritual above the material. Astell, in fact, fully inverts a secular mode of perception by proposing that women should have ‘a true Notion of the Nothingness of Material things and of the reality and substantialness of immaterial …’ (SP, II. p. 22). However, it is at this point that one begins to encounter the problems inherent in Astell's idealism, as the very words she uses to define a woman's alterity query the extent to which she has herself moved beyond the existent ideology. So, when addressing her female reader, ‘We will therefore enquire what it is that stops your flight, that keeps you groveling here below, like Domitian catching Flies, when you should be busied in obtaining Empires’ (SP, I, p. 14). Her contempt for women's earthly existence is unmistakable, but it is debatable whether the transcendence of this, which she advocates, can be achieved. The imperialist terminology evokes the ‘Masculine Empire’ in which women are colonized subjects, ‘Slaves’ to both the despotic authority of the state and the ‘Private Tyranny’ of the husband (R, Preface, not paginated, p. 27). Of course, one could read her appropriation of ‘Empires’ as the feminization of imperialism. In this way, the enslaved female breaks free of her ‘Yoke’ by dismantling the linguistic ties that bind her to an oppressive regime (R, p. 27).16 Yet, immediately, such an idea becomes at best precarious, given the association of the concept of an ‘Empire’ with the abuse of power so fundamental to colonialism. In order for a female ‘Empire’ to avoid aping its masculine counterpart it is not enough to assume the innocence of the term once the gender of its user has been changed. As she tries to render ‘Empires’ female, Astell bequeaths both to herself and to women the problem of neutralizing the issue of power whilst still retaining its political rhetoric.

However, she seems to be unaware of such a problem, for her transference of ‘Empires’ from a temporal to a spiritual setting would suggest that, for her, the secular implications of imperialism can, in this way, become obsolete. In her poem ‘Ambition’, the empires courted by those who value earthly ‘Fame’ are denigrated in order to privilege the ‘higher Mansion’ of ‘Immortality’ that is supposed to put one outside of the temporal schema. She aspires towards a heavenly ‘Crown of Glory’ which fashions the ‘imperial Law’ of ambition (about which she is at first uneasy) serviceable to her becoming ‘Great in Humilitie’. So the empowered subject of ‘imperial Law’ is metamorphosed into the humble subject of God.17 By casting ambition as spiritual, she sublimates its goal and disowns its temporal significance. Similarly, in Reflections Upon Marriage, she tries to turn ambition into a positive female characteristic by refocusing its activity. Of spiritual women she writes:

She will freely leave [men] the quiet Dominion of this World, whose Thoughts and Expectations are plac'd on the next. A Prospect of Heaven, and that only, will cure that Ambition which all Generous Minds are fill'd with; not by taking it away, but by placing it on a right Object.

(R, p. 84)

Ambition's ‘cure’ renders it immune to the ‘infectious’ breath of earthly ambition, from which she recoils in her poem.

In both cases her relation to ambition and to the imperialist framework within which it is expressed remains ambiguous. She sets up a scenario in which earthly and heavenly ambition may still be seen to be complementary by dint of their both pursuing some mode of transcendence. Thus she informs women: ‘You may be as ambitious as you please, so you aspire to the best things, and contend with your Neighbours as much as you can, that they may not out do you in any commendable Quality’ (SP, I, p. 7). It is an excess of virtue that enables a woman to shine amidst her neighbours. Although ambition then becomes ethereal as a concept, its competitive nature realigns it with its jostling earthly counterpart. Perhaps the most important aspect of this latest shift is Astell's seeming obliviousness to its having taken place. For the ‘Empire o'er my self’, which she seeks in her poem (and through which the inner and spiritual sublimation becomes operative), would seem to exclude any colonized subjects from its imperial sway. Catherine Gallagher reads this self-monarchy as a positive emblem of a woman's inner freedom, with female subjectivity tracing a figurative path towards women's political equality with men, but she does not take into account the role of ambition within imperialist rhetoric, which has now turned the once potentially liberating concept of self-reflexivity (as a movement away from the ‘other’-reflecting ‘Glass’) into a covert imitation of imperialist patriarchy.18 Rather than being neutralized, the politics of imperialism are merely displaced into a hierarchical play of virtue. In this way, Astell's ‘Empire’ doubly overlooks her subjugated colony of less virtuous women.

Furthermore, this hierarchy of virtue assumes a specifically political significance by being woven into the fabric of class differences. As Regina Janes observes, Astell only refers to the lower classes (the precapitalist working class) in order to emphasize the advantages of the upper classes.19 Astell does not then go on to lament the inequalities, but endorses their conformity to a God-given plan. The questioning of class differences becomes an act of impiety: ‘For unless we have very strange Notions of the Divine Wisdom we must needs allow that every one is placed in such a Station as they are fitted for’ (SP, II, p. 206). It is, she implies, also people's religious duty both to accept their positioning and to make use of whatever opportunities this affords them:

For since GOD has plac'd Different Ranks in the World, put some in a higher and some in a lower Station, for Order and Beauty's sake, and for many good Reasons, tho' it is both our Wisdom and Duty not only to submit with Patience, but to be Thankful and well-satisfied when by his Providence we are brought low; yet there is no manner of Reason for us to Degrade our selves; on the contrary, much why we ought not. The better our Lot in this World and the more we have of it, the greater is our leisure to prepare for the next; we have the more opportunity to exercise that God-like Quality, to tast that Divine Pleasure, Doing Good to the Bodies and Souls of those beneath us.

(R, pp. 38-9)

Most revealing here is Astell's translation of a ‘Providential’ social ranking into a system of benefactors and beneficiaries. In part this is a pragmatic response to the actual differences in circumstances, with only those women with ‘leisure’ having the scope to ‘exercise that God-like Quality’, while, by necessity, lower-class women are not able to participate actively within this charitable scheme. The more privileged woman's beneficence might then compensate for the poverty of those ‘beneath’ her and, in this way, pay homage to the harmonious ‘Order and Beauty’ of the divine structure. Social inequality becomes subservient to the pleasing aesthetics of asymmetry.

Such a manipulation of the facts of class differences is heightened by Astell's inserting into beneficence the ‘God-like Quality’ that elevates it as an activity. By ‘Doing Good’ the upper classes are then able to place themselves in a position of greater proximity to the Godhead than their social inferiors. Instead of minimizing the effects of inequality, charity thus reproduces temporal disparity in a spiritual context, by moulding into the external trappings of class the internal hierarchy of virtue. In recommending charity, Astell writes: ‘Ladies of Quality wou'd be able to distinguish themselves from their Inferiors, by the blessings they communicated and the good they did’ (SP, I, p. 89). The social construction of ‘Ladies of Quality’ is here reinforced by Astell's insistence upon their essential superiority.

This qualitative difference is also marked out in an intellectual framework, for Astell prescribes that the ‘Children of Persons of Quality’ be ‘instructed in lesser Matters by meaner Persons deputed to that Office, but the forming of their minds shall be the particular care of those of their own Rank …’ (SP, I, p. 91). Again this is a realistic reaction, in part, given the lack of a formal education then available to the lower classes; nevertheless her use of the term ‘meaner Persons’ in conjunction with ‘Rank’ betrays more than a practical insight. She superimposes upon a social reality the evaluative assessment that had fashioned the lower classes unfit for education in the first place. In essence, the education of ‘Ladies’, for which she so forcefully contends, acts as a means of reaffirming the boundaries of class, for it would ‘Raise [them] above the Vulgar by something more truly illustrious, than a sounding Title or a great Estate’ (SP, I, p. 4). And here we return again to the sublimated ambition explored earlier in her poem, where the ‘Titles’ and ‘Land’ denoting temporal success are dismissed in deference to their other-worldly echoes.

Therefore, when touching upon class issues, Astell not only accepts the epithets and demarcations of the dominant ideology, but actually reiterates them. This would seem, at first, to be particularly ironic given that her reading of gender stereotyping entails a critique of the artificially produced limitations of ‘femininity’. Recognizing as ideology the social figuration of the woman within the terms of sexual difference, she still fails to detect the link, encoded within her own writing, between this and the political marginalization of the lower classes.20 Because she assumes class distinction to be God-given, it is construed by her as being natural and so supposedly free from the taints of ideology. Yet, by dividing women into ethical and intellectual categories, she in fact participates in its construction.

Bathsua Makin's writing exactly echoes this shifting away from and back into the dominant ideology. With Astell she rejects, as the distorting effects of ‘custom’, the idea that women are by ‘Nature’ incapable of benefiting from education. Similarly, she then goes on to use the fact of upper-class women's ‘leasure’ to exacerbate social division, by sectioning off the privileged as those most able to devote their time to education. She also, though more explicitly than Astell, argues that knowledge should be restricted to those whom God ‘hath blessed with the things of this World, that hath competent natural Parts …’ She charts this out:

Women are of two sorts [RICH,/POOR,] [Of good natural Parts./Of low Parts.]

(An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen, pp. 3, 22, 31)

Economic inequality and its concomitant social ranking are justified, as if by natural selection. Not even graced with the title of ‘natural’, the ‘low Parts’ of the poor are made to generate an unnatural aberration, crippled by poverty.

We are not facing here what some critics have interpreted as either the problematic or complementary exchange between Astell's Tory and proto-feminist positions, but rather the interplay between conservative values and the delimitation of a proto-feminist agenda.21 Even so, I would contend that, in Astell's writings, the movement between these two becomes most revealing not within an easily classifiable political domain, but in the more amorphous area seen by her as being beyond ideology—the internal and spiritual. It is within these spheres that her apparently contradictory attitudes towards class and gender coalesce. For she does conceive of there being a more flexible movement between the classes, even whilst still clinging to the political structure that polarizes them.

However, this fluidity is to be realized only through her disavowal of the importance of temporal life. In this way, the social hierarchy can apparently be questioned and, she assumes, invalidated by an alternative spiritual order of the conscience:

… when a Superior does a Mean and unjust Thing … and yet this does not provoke his Inferiors to refuse that Observance which their Stations in the World require, they cannot but have an inward Sense of their real Superiority, the other having no pretence to it, at the same time that they pay him an outward Respect and Deference, which is such a flagrant Testimony of their sincerest Love of Order as proves their Souls to be of the highest and noblest Rank.

(R, pp. 49-50)

The ‘inward Sense of their real Superiority’ thus distinguishes, as being more ‘real’, the ‘Rank’ of virtuous souls above the differentiations of social ‘Stations’. Temporal hierarchies may then be conceptually inverted, by allowing the social ‘Inferiors’ to usurp the place of their now falsely conceived ‘Superiors’. Catherine Belsey's reading of this reversal as an exposé of the contradictions inherent in society's evaluative system is pertinent only up to a point.22 Astell's writing does not support its own revolutionary insights. The spiritual ‘otherness’, upon which this theoretical transformation relies, is, ironically, denied by God's authority. It is only by showing an ‘outward Respect’ for the social demarcations of superiority and inferiority that lower-class people can prove their souls to be of ‘the highest and noblest Rank’, by thus demonstrating their ‘Love of Order’. And that ‘Order’ is the God-given, ‘natural’ selection of class. As a foreshadowing of heavenly humility, this may be plausible and point towards an other-worldly reassessment of human differences. However, within the temporal scheme, the spiritual sublimation, which was supposed to soar beyond ideology, may again be found to fall back within the guidelines of a conservative political terrain.

It is this conflict between ideal aspirations and material manifestations that links Astell's handling of class and gender issues. In relation to both class and gender she only credits the idea of suffering when it impinges upon a person's spiritual experience. The privileged classes, she contends, are racked by inner torment because of the exacting demands of their duties. On the other hand, those ‘in Subjection’ are actually basking in the delights of temporal ease, as they do not have any duties to fulfil (R, p. 46). Human life thus becomes burdened only for those in a position of responsibility, and that responsibility entails ‘Doing Good’. So we are back again within the displaced social hierarchy, for even as Astell insists that a person be esteemed, not according to where he or she stands in the world, ‘but as he is more Wise and Good’, she reinvokes the politically divisive orders of intellect and beneficence (R, p. 49). And the temporal disadvantaging of women succumbs to the same contradictory treatment.

With respect to the abuse suffered by women in marriage, Astell tries to transform earthly pain into a spiritual bonus:

… never truly a Happy Woman till she came in the Eye of the World to be reckon'd Miserable.

Thus the Husband's Vices may become an occasion of the Wife's Vertues, and his Neglect do her a more real Good than his Kindness could.

(R, p. 17)

We have encountered this sublimated notion of what is ‘real’ before. Here a stoical acceptance of ‘misery’ places the wife, with the lower classes, in a humble submission to divine authority. For marriage itself is construed in heavenly terms—‘Sacred’, an ‘Institution of Heaven’, a ‘blessed State’—and its mode of operation reflects the providential order (R, pp. 8, 11). However, it does not then follow that God should be blamed for a bad marriage, as Astell attributes the latter only to the corruptions of human practice. Instead, divine inscription is to be traced within the authority that the husband commands—the ‘Law of the Father’ is bequeathed to his ‘Sons’. Yet it is because the husband's authority is not innate, but bestowed on him by God, that Astell then suggests that a wife's obedience be reinterpreted in terms of her submission only for ‘GOD's sake’ (R, p. 83). ‘Obedience’, she argues, can only be lastingly exacted and respected in accordance with ‘the Reasonableness of the Command’ and ‘the Conscience of Duty’ (R, p. 83). In this way, although a woman can never choose to disobey, she can at least salvage her self-respect by exercising her right to reflect upon the propriety (or impropriety) of her husband's commands. Exactly what this might lead to in the end is unclear. However, the inner satisfaction of awaiting her reward in heaven and the righteous awareness of her own piety are deemed sufficient compensations for whatever injustice a woman might meet at the hands of her husband. Yet even the very rational and ethical codes, to which the wife refers for her eventual salvation, actually legitimize her oppression. In material terms, the escape route afforded through a deference to God becomes a blind alley. The ‘Passive-Obedience’ that Astell has sought to transform within the marital sphere becomes, after all, a wife's only fate (R, p. 27). Once more Astell comes up against her own boundaries, as her unquestioning submission to God's authority impedes her revision of patriarchal politics.

Astell's writings suggest a utopian vision of difference that is an echo of the dystopic reality. This vision culminates in the following sublimation, as she muses upon the deferred gratification that women are to receive: ‘She will discern a time when her Sex shall be no Bar to the best Employments, the highest Honour; a Time when that distinction, now so much us'd to her Prejudice, shall be no more …’ (R, pp. 84-5). The disadvantaging of a woman because of her gender will be rectified only when her gender—her ‘distinction’—is erased in heaven.

In the end, the revolutionary potentials of the non-gendered intellect and soul collapse, even for the socially privileged woman. For Astell unwittingly affirms that women are unable to inscribe themselves, as women, within either a temporal or spiritual system. In tracing the textual path that moves Astell from an aspiration beyond the existent ideology to a reinscription within it, we find that her writing author-izes more than she is prepared, or able, to claim. Conditioned by her own internalized values, Astell's texts write themselves out of her conscious control and into the hands of patriarchy.


  1. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, 2 parts, London, 1697, part i, p. 15 (part i was first published in 1694 and part ii in 1697). All subsequent references to this work will appear in the text with the abbreviation SP, part and page numbers.

  2. Anne Finch, ‘The Introduction’, in Myra Reynolds, ed., The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea, University of Chicago, 1903, pp. 4-5.

  3. Mary Poovey also analyses the differences between writing as an act of ideological defiance and the inhibitions expressed within eighteenth-century texts by women. Her primary concern, however, is to explore the ‘strategies of indirection’ adopted by these women in order to negotiate the ideological restrictions within which they were operating. See Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen, University of Chicago, 1984, pp. 41-2. As Mary Poovey indicates, a similar ideological ambivalence within two nineteenth-century women poets is discussed in Cora Kaplan, ‘The Indefinite Disclosed: Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson’, in Mary Jacobus, ed., Women Writing and Writing about Women, Croom Helm, 1979, p. 64.

  4. Aphra Behn, The Lucky Chance, or an Alderman's Bargain, London, 1687, Preface, not paginated.

  5. Bathsua Makin, An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen, in Religion, Manners, Arts & Tongues, London, 1673, p. 5. It should be noted that the gendered identity of the writer is a subject of uncertainty. Given the loss of the manuscript, it has not been possible to ascertain whether it was written by Makin's hand or whether she commisioned a man to ghost-write it for her. Any attempts to attribute it directly to Makin have had to rely on the rather precarious evidence of the woman-orientated nature of her arguments. See Elaine Hobby, Virtue of Necessity. English Women's Writing 1649-88, Virago, 1988, pp. 200-201.

  6. Mary Astell, dedicatory letter, in A Collection of Poems humbly presented and Dedicated to the most Reverend Father in God William By Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, 1689, printed from manuscript in Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell. An Early English Feminist, University of Chicago, 1986, pp. 400, 401.

  7. Mary Astell, Letters Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris, London, 1695, pp. 1-2. All subsequent references to this work will appear in the text with the abbreviation L and page numbers. (As I will mention later, Astell was to decline referring to herself as an ‘Author’. The use of the term here may well be a consequence of the text having been published by Norris only with Astell's rather reluctant consent. See Perry, p. 82).

  8. Mary Astell, Reflections Upon Marriage, 3rd edition, London, 1706, ‘Preface’, not paginated. All subsequent references to this work will appear in the text with the abbreviation R and page numbers. (The text was first published in 1700 with the title Some Reflections Upon Marriage. I use the 3rd edition, as it is here that the ‘Preface’ is added in which she specifically identifies herself as a woman. The gender of the writer is not disclosed in the body of the text.)

  9. Her disavowal of ‘Authority’ here indicates her sympathy with the new natural philosophy, as expounded by, amongst others, Descartes and Bacon. Although she does not concur with Descartes's mechanistic view of the universe, she sides with the empiricist approach in her dismissal of ‘Antient and Modern Authors’ and her de-gendering of the soul and intellect (R, ‘Preface’, not paginated). For a detailed discussion of Astell's philosophical position, see Perry, pp. 71-82.

  10. Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, in Essays on Ideology, Verso, 1984, p. 36.

  11. Margaret E. Rose, Parody/Meta-Fiction. An Analysis of Parody as a Critical Mirror to the Writing and Reception of Fiction, Croom Helm, 1979, p. 61.

  12. Roland Barthes, Criticism and Truth, trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman, University of Minnesota, 1987, p. 89.

  13. Astell's goal for the ‘Religious Retirement’, as she calls it, is that it might serve as ‘a Seminary to stock the Kingdom with pious and prudent Ladies …’ (SP, i, pp. 36, 43). Although the women are also to act as educators, the recurring emphasis on their virtue and discretion plays into the stereotypical view of femininity as the expression of polite, religious restraint. For example, the anonymous author of the popular work The Ladies Calling (1668) expounds upon the reasons why women, unlike men, are innately equipped to act as exemplars of piety. See Anon., The Ladies Calling, Oxford, 1668, part i, pp. 79-82.

  14. Mary Astell, The Christian Religion, As Profess'd by a Daughter of The Church of England, London, 1705, p. 36.

  15. See Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath, Fontana, 1984, pp. 142-8 (pp. 147-8).

  16. Mary, Lady Chudleigh similarly adapted imperialist terminology in order to argue for the self-governing of a woman's intellectual self: ‘The Tyrant Man may still possess the Throne; / 'Tis in our Minds that we wou'd Rule alone; / Those unseen Empires give us leave to sway, / And to our Reason private Homage pay’. See Mary, Lady Chudleigh, The Ladies Defence: or, The Bride-Woman's Counsellor Answer'd: A Poem, London, 1701, p. 18. Alice Browne insists that, although a modest demand, this should not be dismissed as a ‘sermon ideal’. See Alice Browne, The Eighteenth Century Feminist Mind, Harvester, 1987, p. 91. However, the reliance upon men to sanction Chudleigh's request severely impinges upon the inner freedom and the respect that a woman might receive, and this partial submission to the masculine world is already encoded within the imperialist vocabulary that she employs. In this way, her text offers a useful parallel to the problematic dependence upon male ‘author-ity’ within Astell's writings, to which I shall be drawing attention.

  17. Mary Astell, ‘Ambition’, 1684, repr. from manuscript in Perry, p. 405.

  18. See Catherine Gallagher, ‘Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England’, Genders, no. 1, Spring 1988, pp. 33-8.

  19. See Regina Janes, ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, or Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft Compared’, in Ronald C. Rosbottom, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 5, 1976, p. 126.

  20. In Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft also overlooks both the interests of working-class women and her own exclusion of them. By rendering the middle classes ‘natural’, she devises a supposedly egalitarian system in which the ‘needy’ and the servant classes are still considered indispensable and, one can assume, ‘natural’ appendages. See Miriam Brody Krammick, ‘Introduction’ to Vindication of the Rights of Women, ed. Miriam Brody Krammick, Penguin, 1978, pp. 41-4; and Timothy J. Reiss, ‘Revolution in Bounds: Wollstonecraft, Women, and Reason’, in Linda Kauffman, ed., Gender and Theory. Dialogues on Feminist Criticism, Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 15.

  21. Regina Janes attributes Astell's abandonment of her temporal aspirations for women to ‘the other-worldly bent of her thought’. By sublimating both women and her demands for them, Astell then does not have to negotiate for change in this world. See Janes, p. 130. Joan Kinnaird, on the other hand, seeks to resolve the paradoxical conjunction of Astell's proto-feminism and conservatism by arguing that she ‘preached not women's rights but women's duties …’. See Joan K. Kinnaird, ‘Mary Astell: Inspired by Ideas’, in Dale Spender, ed., Feminist Theorists. Three Centuries of Women's Intellectual Traditions, Women's Press, 1983, p. 37.

  22. See Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy. Identity and difference in Renaissance drama, Methuen, 1985, p. 218.

D. N. Deluna (essay date 1993)

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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 anticipated by Joan Kinnaird, Hilda Smith, and Katherine Rogers, Perry (in an impressive article in Eighteenth-Century Studies and in her book The Celebrated Mary Astell) has now succeeded in establishing Astell's credentials as England's first major feminist.

By “Astell's feminism,” what Perry and others are essentially referring to is the powerful presence of two arguments in her early corpus of writings—most notably in her Serious Proposal To the Ladies, for the Advancement of their true and greatest Interest of 1694, where the establishment of an all-female college is proposed. First, there is Astell's repeated claim that intellectual exertion should be compassed by women no less than by men. And there is her insistence that such exertion has the power to dignify women as the pursuit of physical beauty or of social amusement does not. These arguments are, of course, more accurately described as protofeminist, since they appear in retrospect to have anticipated distinctly modern notions about a woman's right to enter institutions of higher learning and about the significance of questioning the personal and political value of traditional female social roles.1

As a result of this recent discovery of a protofeminist Astell, gender study in the field of English literature has changed. Along with investigation of the liberating aspects of Restoration drama (for instance, its positive appraisal of strong-willed heroines and its tolerant sponsorship of a prolific female play wright in Aphra Behn), late seventeenth-century specialists have now also given much attention to the phenomenon of Astell, a highly religious woman who despised the theater and its libertine ethos, and who entreated women to devote themselves to chaste ideals and to the anhedonist rigors of the new philosophy. Astell has also been a subject of much interest to literary critics working in the eighteenth-century, who have often approached her as a remarkable early Enlightenment figure whose work can be set in instructive dialogue with that movement's later female liberators.2 The considerable impact these scholars have had on how we define English literary studies is signalled by the inclusion of a sample of Astell's feminist writing in the latest—1986—edition of the first volume of The Norton Anthology; and herein Astell is profiled as a thinker who initiated important progressive discussion of women's social roles, discussion said to be continued by such wellknown eighteenth-century authors as Defoe, Johnson, and Wollstonecraft (1937-38).

The purpose of my essay is to enrich our recent view of Astell's ideas on the condition of women. Her Serious Proposal To the Ladies was her first published work, and it catapulted her to celebrity status as a woman's advocate in her day. This pamphlet—which proposes the founding of an academy of religious retreat, where women could improve their minds through philosophical self-reflection—can, I show, be freshly illuminated when located against the background of contemporary debate on female nature. I refer to a debate carried on in England in the 1680s and early 90s by poets, hacks, and homiletic writers. During these years a host of ladies' conduct-book writers challenged accusations made by a group of flamboyant misogynist satirists. While posing this challenge, however, they solicited female audiences to whom they stressed the value of such traditional ideas of woman's excellence as good housekeeping and wifely subservience.

Astell in her Serious Proposal follows the conduct writers in refuting claims of the misogynist satirists. But as I shall be demonstrating, she targets the conduct writers as well. When in her pamphlet she repeatedly enjoins women to reject frivolous pursuits in favor of the pleasures of philosophy, her language and stance is especially directed at a female readership influenced by the day's conduct literature. As we will see, Astell is throughout her pamphlet reacting against what she finds to be oppressive female ideals purveyed in such literature. If we keep in mind that one of the time-honored practices of the literary critic is that of producing arresting commentary on aspects of the contemporary book scene, then Astell is, arguably, England's first major feminist literary critic.

Perry, Kinnaird, Smith, and Rogers have all focused much of their work on the Serious Proposal, and a salient feature of their commentary is their pointing up ways in which the new philosophy may have enabled the pamphlet's feminist arguments. Perry has stressed that Decartes, Malebranche, and the Cambridge Platonists provided an accessible means of intellectual stimulation for Astell and other women: because their works were usually composed in the vernacular, and because here was a new way of doing philosophy which required no university training, only an alert learner willing to reflect on his or her own thought processes (“Radical” 473, 491-93; Celebrated 70). Each of the commentators just mentioned has suggested that the period's new focus on the importance of the workings of the mind must have reinforced Astell's conviction that the greatest source of human fulfillment resided with committing oneself to an intellectual life (Perry, “Radical” 475-76, 491-92; Smith 6, 119; Kinnaird 59-64; Rogers 53, 74). (“Cartesian rationalism,” writes Perry, “was the very cornerstone of her feminism” [“Radical” 491].) In this article I add to these suggestions, for as we will see later on, what gives force and coherence to Astell's protest against the day's conduct books is the strategic use she makes of certain well-known tenets of the Cambridge Platonists.

In 1706 Astell reflected bitterly on “those wise Jests and scoffs put upon a woman of Sense and Learning, a Philosophical Lady as she is call'd by way of Ridicule” (Reflections 85). Whatever jests and scoffs she may have had in mind, no reader would have failed to register that Astell could speak to the situation from personal experience. For instance, the publishing impressario John Dunton, in his Athenian Spy (1704) posted a facetious “singles ad” announcing Astell's availability and thus reading sexual passion into her self-cultivated image of platonic lady (18). A year later, Susanna Centlivre in her play The Bassett Table lampooned Astell by depicting her as the hilariously eccentric Valeria whose egotism has motivated her desire to found a women's college of like-minded airy intellectuals. Some few years later Swift would draw on Centlivre's sketch in a contribution to The Tatler for 1709 (June 21-23). Here, in a zany spoof of A Serious Proposal, Astell is caricatured as the ludicrous “Madonella,” zealous mistress of a female academy of dizzy philosophical speculation.

These squibs attest to Astell's contemporary renown as author of A Serious Proposal; as do the pamphlet's sales figures: five editions from 1695-1701. Further, the tract generated a fair number of documented sympathetic reactions. At least a few tributes written by admiring authors have survived, notably, verse panegyrics by Lady Mary Chudleigh and Elizabeth Thomas.3 And perhaps the most significant accolade Astell received was from her mentor, the Cambridge Platonist John Norris of Bemerton, who in 1695 published their private correspondence.4 The work, entitled Letter Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies And Mr. John Norris, contains prefatory remarks by Norris that lavish praise on Astell's capacity as a philosophical and religious writer. “Madam,” he writes, “what obligations I am under to you for the Privilege of your excellent … Letters … I have particular reason to thank you for them, having received great spiritual Comfort and Advantage by them, not only Heat but Light, intellectual as well as moral Improvement” (A6r-v).

Thus A Serious Proposal created a sensation and brought Astell fast fame. But while this fact is borne out by all that we can register about the tract's immediate reception history, neither the squibs, the publication numbers, nor the accolades give us much of a sense of how deeply responsive Astell was to questions about female worth which were being debated by scores of contemporary poets and conduct-book writers.

A Serious Proposal has an immediate historical background in what we might refer to as the scurrilous verge gender war of the 1680s—a paper war which has been recently detailed for us by Felicity Nussbaum (Brink 20-42; Satires ii-vii). In 1682 Robert Gould, a minor Restoration versifier touched off the hostilities with the publication of his Love Given O'er: Or, A Satyr Against the Pride, Lust, and Inconstancy, &c. of Woman, a verse satire that rehearsed stock misogynist themes of female lust and pride. At least a dozen imitations and rejoinders followed, many of which saw multiple editions. Clearly this verse was intended to provide its audience with lively, bawdy entertainment. Titles suggest so much: The Lost Maiden-head, The Restor'd Maiden-head, Female Fire-ships. And indeed, the satirists typically wrote in roughshod rhyme, employed much billingsgate, and dealt in such salacious material as scenes of rape and bestiality, disclosures of the boudoir, and wild permutations of the creation story (in one case, a pregnant Eve who gobbles the apple without scruple, and in another, an Eve who is a wily interloper in a male separatist paradise where men conceive and deliver through their anal canals).5

This corpus of verse might seem to have no historical ties at all with the pious work of Astell; but in fact it does, and in ways that should become apparent in a moment. We can begin by noting that the misogynist satirists stimulated the establishment of a women's conduct-book market.6 The years immediately following Robert Gould's misogynist onslaught saw a steep increase in the publication of beauty manuals, guides for the Christian woman, histories of famous women of exemplary virtue, books of social etiquette, and housewives' manuals.7 In stark contrast to the anti-misogynist verse rejoinders, this literature was positive and inspirational, and for the most part free of colorful language and salacious material. Thus while on the one hand, the misogynist satirists met with protest from poetic anti-misogynist opponents who brawled with them in answerable style, on the other they encountered resistance from a host of writers and publishers who defended women within the more decorous generic conventions of the conduct book. In the latter case, what the misogynist poets helped to sponsor was not only a refutation of their position but also a newly popular literary market for and about women.

One favored item in this conduct literature seems to have been the history book of great exemplary females. Unlike the self-help guides, some of which were reprints of works written earlier in the century, these history books were all written in the 1680s. In 1682 a trio of them appeared.8 These histories emphasized the wondrous in female nature, the prodigies of piety, chastity, and moral fortitude. Typical, yet also one of the more nicely packaged of these works, is Female Excellency, or the Ladies Glory (1688), which delivers nine mini-narratives celebrating the lives of such “Worthies” as “Deborah the Prophetess,” “Valiant Judith,” “Virtuous Susanna,” and “Chast Lucretia.” Each history is prefaced by a graphic illustration of the famous female and a moralistic poem emblazoning her life in brief.

That the authors of these histories were indeed determined to rally in response to the misogynist aggression is suggested both by the content and the publication date of their works. And we have a further indication of their polemical intent when we consider that in one of these histories, Haec et Hic, the narratives about great women begin only after the anonymous author takes explicit aim at the misogynists satirists. “He” complains (albeit mock-seriously) in his preface:

envious Men seek to envenom the Names of Women, and inveigh against them in such terms as you have heard, with many other as groundless, as bitter Sarcasms … so scandalous, that I cannot forbear crying out with the Poet Horresco referens; I blush at and abhor the farther Repetition of them, and scorn to sully my paper in such black scandals, or teach my Pen such undutiful Language.


The writers and publishers of the histories and the ladies' skills and devotional guides were able to avoid the anti-misogynist rhymers' awkward posture of denying woman's wretchedness and obscene nature in wretched and obscene verse. And the perspective of this more polite literature was what we might call “profeminine,” that is, a perspective which contested misogynist accusations as it reified traditional conceptions of women's social roles. It is true that this conduct literature held up a great variety of recommended models of virtuous female behavior, some even contradictory. But it is also the case that it promoted what were highly conventional roles for women.

The Whole Duty of a Woman is a case in point. Its title page reads:

The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or, a Guide to the Female Sex, From the Age of Sixteen to Sixty, &c. Being Directions, How Women of all Qualities and Conditions ought to Behave themselves in the various Circumstances of this Life, for their obtaining the Divine and Moral Vertues of Piety, Meekness, Modesty, Charity, Humility, Compassion, Temperance, and Affability, with their Advantages; and how to avoid opposite Vices … the whole Art of Love … The whole Duty of a Widow, &c. With the whole Art of Cookery, Preserving, Candying, Beautifying, &c. Written by a Lady.

This work is at once advertising guidance for the Christian woman, cupid's secrets for the ingenue, cooking lessons for the homemaker, and beauty tips for the coquette. Yet clearly, to read this title page is to recognize that women are being primed for the tradition-bound duties of wife, mother, and source of comfort and pleasure to men.

To a degree, these conduct books simply recorded information that was available to females through boarding school curricula or more private tutorial programs, such as servants' learning sessions in great households or instructions passed on from mother to daughter. At the same time, though, the wide dissemination of these books would have made such information accessible to the general reading public, with the result that this literature would have “sold” traditional female roles on an unprecedented scale. Now enter Mary Astell's Serious Proposal. Significantly, it appears in 1694, at a time when the misogynists were still active and when the market in profeminine conduct books had been grandly thriving for just over a dozen years. A Serious Proposal “answers” both the satirists and the conduct writers. Remarkably, it was a ladies' conduct book to end all such conduct books.

One of A Serious Proposal's easily discernible ingredients is Astell's practice of joining with the conduct writers in repudiating various familiar charges of the misogynist satirists. Although Astell is primarily concerned to address women, a fair amount of her rhetorical energies are expended in backhanded jabs at the misogynists, whom she imagines will object to her educational scheme on the grounds that women, in their estimation, are irredeemably vain, proud, and ignorant. Astell throughout her Serious Proposal takes the surprising tack of acknowledging the general truth of these charges, rejecting, however, the charge that women cannot alter their condition. For example, she repeatedly opposes the satirists' claim that women are naturally ignorant. To believe this claim, she states at one point, is to argue that women lack the souls which would allow them to develop intellectual agility; and to deny women souls, she concludes, “wou'd be as unphilosophical as it is unmannerly” (154).10 At another point Astell reflects on the difficulty of women escaping the predictable consequences of having been “nurs'd up” and “taught to be Proud and Petulant, Delicate and Fantastick, Humorous and Inconstant (144). What is remarkable, she declares, is not that “all Women are not wise and good” but that “there are any so” (142).

A number of exclamatory statements similar to these seem aimed simultaneously at an audience of women and the misogynists. Consider, just to take one example, the following:

can Ignorance be a fit preparative for Heaven? Is't likely that she whose Understanding has been busied about nothing but froth and trifles, shou'd be capable of delighting her self in noble and sublime Truths?


Here Astell is once again countering the misogynists' contention that women are naturally stupid, but this passage can also be seen to address women, in which case Astell must also be seen tactfully upbraiding them for having preoccupied themselves with frivolity instead of great truths and religious duties. Indeed, A Serious Proposal continually engages women—somewhat covertly in passages like the above, but patently in the greater portion of the text. To be sure, as any reader of the pamphlet knows, Astell hardly misleads her audience in having advertised her work as a proposal “To the Ladies,” and in having organized it in the form of a friendly epistle that opens with “LADIES” and closes with Astell stating, “she desires your Improvement, who is Ladies, Your very humble Servant.

A Serious Proposal is, I submit, especially calculated to engage a female audience which has been exposed to and influenced by the day's conduct literature. Astell's title-page makes a show of imitating conduct-book conventions. Her work's full title announces, A Serious Proposal To the Ladies, For the Advancement of their true and greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her SEX,11 a display that appropriates such characteristic features of ladies' conduct literature as the solicitation of an exclusively female readership and the advertisement of a text designed for women's self-improvement. Astell, though, seems to be reproducing these features while also suggesting an upcoming revisionary, or even revolutionary, approach to the genre. Contemporaries would have been struck by the fact that there was none of the usual title-page cataloguing of the feminine qualities or practical skills which the book's purchaser might acquire. Moreover, this tract, proposing as it does a “truer” and “greater” guide to female advancement, appears to be highlighting its disapproval of, or at least departure from, typical ladies' conduct fare.

Astell's title-page is clearly intended to decoy would-be conduct book purchasers even as it provides them with more than a hint of the author's self-conscious distance from that literature. Early on in the tract this hint becomes pure fact, because it soon becomes apparent that in addition to the title-page's disingenuous reproduction of the conduct book's generic signposts, the work is thoroughly saturated with the language and themes of the ladies' beauty guide; but in Astell's hands, this material is made to operate metaphorically. To put it simply, A Serious Proposal is a woman's beauty guide figuratively speaking.

To wit, these passages, selected almost at random from the pamphlet's early pages:

[I] only design … to improve your Charms and heighten your Value … [I] aim … to fix that Beauty, to make it lasting and permanent, which Nature with all the helps of Art cannot secure.


Your Glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own Mind … Vertue [which] has certainly the most attractive Air, and Wisdom the most graceful and becoming Mien: Let these attend you, and your Carriage will be always well compos'd, and ev'ry thing you do will carry its Charm with it.


the Beauty of the Mind is necessary to secure those Conquests which your Eyes have gain'd; and Time that mortal Enemy to handsome Faces, has no influence on a lovely Soul, but to better and improve it. For shame let's abandon that Old, and therefore one wou'd think, unfashionable employment of pursuing Butter flies and Trifles!


Through such acts of verbal displacement, which recur everywhere in the tract, Astell devalues notions of female excellence found in the day's beauty manuals and replaces them with putatively superior ideals—namely, women's spiritual edification through the study of the new philosophy. Appropriately enough, Astell's verbal strategies seem to conjure and exploit a (once) compelling, platonic bias of mind over body.

While, then, A Serious Proposal represents an effort to encourage women to lead a life of the mind, it can also be accurately characterized as a dissuasive from ideals of physical beauty which were being promoted in so much of the contemporary conduct literature. There is, however, one sense in which Astell's pamphlet is a ladies' conduct book—that is, of a particular kind: the Christian woman's guide.12 Indeed, the predominantly religious orientation of A Serious Proposal can hardly be ignored. What, though, is wholly different about Astell's work is the accent she places on “Christian” rather than on “woman.” Whereas the typical Christian woman's guide of the time linked religious piety to such domestic virtues as wifely subservience and good housekeeping, Astell—borrowing from the Cambridge Platonists—insists on a crucial connection between holy living and philosophic mediatation.

For instance, at one point in A Serious Proposal, she summarizes her vision for women thus—in words that carry no gender-specific considerations: “joyn[ing] the sweetness of Humanity to the strictness of Philosophy, that both together being improv'd and heighten'd by grace, may make up an accomplish'd Christian.13 In effect, Astell is arguing that the central tenet of the Cambridge Platonists (that philosophic enquiry can enhance Christian ways) should not be understood as a directive to men only; and in making this case, she repudiates familiar prescriptions registered in the ladies' Christian manuals.

Having spelled out what I consider to be Astell's clever feminist critique of representations of ideal womanhood found in the day's conduct literature—most specifically, in the beauty manuals and the guides for the Christian woman—one of the more intriguing aspects of the pamphlet's critical effort remains to be noted: the encouragement Astell was giving her contemporary female readers to venture beyond the confines of the fledgling woman's literary marketplace. As Perry has remarked, the new philosophy was, in a practical way, accessible to many Englishwomen since it only required an interested learner and books which were available in the vernacular (“Radical” 473).

Of course Astell herself is an excellent case in point. At a time when the scurrilous verse gender war was raging, and when ladies' conduct literature became enormously popular as never before, she was eagerly familiarizing herself with the new philosophy, particularly the work of Descartes, Malebranche, and Norris. In the early 90s she wrote to Norris after having read the third volume of his Practical Discourses on several Divine Subjects (1693). In this first of what would be many other letters she would write to him, she called attention to what she felt to be a troublesome implication of one of his arguments. The opening words of her letter are revealing because here she shows just how self-conscious she was about the untraditional path she had cleared for herself in having undertaken a home educational programme in philosophy. She begins by informing Norris that she expects more from him than to be relegated “to the Distaff or Kitchin, or at least to the Glass and the Needle.” Then she goes on to say that he is partly responsible for her intellectual habits: “you have increased my Natural Thirst for Truth, and set me up for a Virtuoso. [For] though I can't pretend to a Multitude of Books, a Variety of Languages … Academical Education, or any Helps but what my own Curiosity afford” (1-3). A few years later, Astell again revealed just how acutely aware she was of her breakway self-educative endeavor. At this time, (in her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II [1696]), while defending such female “virtuosos” as herself from the real or imagined taunts of other women, she remarked, “She who makes the most Grimace at a Woman of Sense … is yet very desirous to be thought Knowing in a Dress, in the Management of an Intreague, in Coquetry or good Houswifry.”

As I have been suggesting, in A Serious Proposal (Part I) we find Astell pointing to a feasible literary solution to what she believed to be women's narrow education. There was her emphatic, if somewhat cryptic, advice:

For shame let's abandon that Old … unfashonable employment of pursuing Butter flies and Trifles!


since the French Tongue is understood by most Ladies, methinks they may much better improve it by the study of Philosophy … Des Cartes, Malebranche, and others



  1. For more detailed discussion of the applicability of the term “feminism” to Astell's essays on women, see Perry, Celebrated 13-19; Smith 4-5; Kinnaird 58.

  2. Scholarship on Astell that I have not yet mentioned includes the work of Fraser (329-31), Clinton, Janes, Nadelhaft, Adburgham (40-45), and Hill (1-62). Work done earlier in this century includes that of Florence Smith, Benson (28-32), and Utter and Needham (229-34).

  3. These are Chudleigh's “To Almystrea” and Thomas' “Almystrea.” Both of these works are reprinted in full in Perry, Celebrated 493-94.

  4. On Norris' relationship with Astell, see Perry, Celebrated 73-82.

  5. The satire featuring a pregnant and voracious Eve is Misogynus; and the satire set in a male separatist paradise is The Great Birth of Man. Works rallying in support of Gould's cause include (in addition to Misogynus and The Great Birth): A Consolatory Epistle to a Friend Made Unhappy by Marriage, The Folly of Love, Female Fire-ships, The Restor'd Maiden-head, and Mundus Muliebris. Rejoinders to Love Given O'er and its satellites include: The Female Advocate, The Pleasures of Love and Marriage, The Lost Maiden-head, Sylvia's Complaint, and Mundus Foppensis. Love Given O'er, The Female Advocate, and The Folly of Love are conveniently reproduced in Nussbaum's Satires.

  6. On the late seventeenth-century explosion of ladies' conduct literature, see Crawford 265-81, Mason 208, Upham 264-70.

  7. In characterizing this assortment of early modern texts as ladies' conduct literature, I am loosely following Nancy Armstrong's definition of the genre as women's education literature that 1) had the “objective of ensuring a happy household” (63), and 2) proferred a “feminine ethos” (89), which might be aptly described as a valuing of passive moral virtues as well as domestic skills in a woman (66-67). Titles of this suddenly very saleable literature include: The Queens Closett Opened (1683), Directorium Cosmeticum (1684), The Good Housewife Made a Doctor (1684), De Morbis Feminis (1685), The Accomplisht Ladies Closset (1686), The Wonders of the Female World (1683, 2nd ed. 1684), The Accomplished Lady (1683), Haec et Hic (1683), The Illustrious History of Women (1686), and Female Excellency (1688).

  8. These were Haec et Hic, Female Excellency, and The Wonders of the Female World.

  9. The subtitle of Haec et Hic reads: “The Female Gender more worthy than the Masculine. Being a Vindication of that ingenious and innocent Sex from the biting Sarcasms, bitter Satyrs, and opprobrious Calumnies, wherewith they are daily, though underservedly, aspersed by the virulent tongues and Pens of malevolent Men.”

  10. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from the Serious Proposal (Part I) are from Hill's modern edition (which follows the original third edition); however, taking the 1694 edition as my text, I have replaced some of Hill's omitted words and phrases.

  11. I quote from the title-page of the 1694 edition.

  12. Examples of this conduct literature include such works as The Excellent Woman described by her true characters and their opposites (London, 1692) and The Character of a Good Woman (London, 1694).

  13. I quote from pages 103-4 of the 1694 edition.

Works Cited

The Accomplished Lady. London, 1683,

The Accomplisht Ladies Closset. London, 1686.

Adburgham, Alison. Women In Print. London, 1972.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction. New York: Oxford U.P., 1987.

Astell, Mary. Reflections upon Marriage. The Third Edition. To which is added A Preface, in Answer to some Objections. London, 1706.

———. A Serious Proposal To the Ladies. London, 1694.

Benson, Mary. Women in Eighteenth-Century America. New York, Columbia U.P., 1935.

Centlivre, Susanna. The Basset Table. London, 1705.

The Character of a Good Woman. London, 1694.

Chudleigh, Lady Mary. “To Almystrea.” Reprinted from manuscript by Ruth Perry. In The Celebrated Mary Astell. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986. 491-92.

Clinton, Katherine. “Femme et Philosophe: Enlightenment Origins of Feminism.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 8 (1975): 283-99.

A Consolatory Epistle to a Friend Male Unhappy by Marriage. London, 1688.

Crawford, Patricia. “Women's Published Writings 1600-1700.” Women in English Society. Ed. Mary Prior. London: Methuen, 1985. 211-81.

De Morbis Feminis, The Woman's Counceller. London, 1685.

Directorium Cosmeticum. London, 1684.

Dunton, John. The Athenian Spy. London, 1704.

The Excellent Woman described by her true characters and their opposites. London, 1692.

The Female Advocate. London, 1686.

Female Excellency, or the Ladies Glory. London, 1688.

Female Fire-ships, A Satyr Against Whoring. London, 1691.

The Folly of Love. London, 1691.

Gould, Robert. Love Given O'er: Or, A Satyr Against the Pride, Lust, and Inconstancy, etc. of Woman. London, 1682.

The Great Birth of Man. London, 1686.

Haec et Hic, or The Feminine Gender more worthy than the Masculine. London, 1683.

Hill, Bridget, ed. and intro. The First Englist Feminist. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

The Illustrious History of Women. London, 1686.

Janes, Regina. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Or, Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft Compared.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century. 7. Ed. Ronald Rosbottom. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Kinnaird, Joan. “Mary Astell and the Conservative Contribution to English Feminism.” Journal of British Studies 19 (1979): 53-75.

The Lost Maiden-head. London, 1691.

Mason, John. Gentlefolk in the Making. Philadelphia: Univ. of Philadelphia Press, 1935.

Misogynus. London, 1682.

Mundus Foppensis. London, 1691.

Mundus Muliebris. London, 1690.

Nadelhaft, Jerome. “The Englishwoman's Sexual Civil War.” Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (1982): 555-79.

Norris, John. Letter Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr John Norris. London, 1695.

———. Practical Discourses on several Divine Subjects. Vol. 3. London, 1693.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Meyer Abrams et al. Fifth Ed. New York: Norton & Co., 1986.

Nussbaum, Felicity. The Brink of All We Hate. Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1983.

———. Satires on Women. Augustan Reprint No. 180. Los Angeles: Clark Library, 1976.

The Pleasures of Love and Marriage. London, 1691.

The Queen Closset Opened. London, 1683.

The Restor'd Maiden-head. London, 1691.

Rogers, Katherine. Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1982.

Smith, Florence. Mary Astell. New York: Columbia U.P., 1916.

Smith, Hilda. Reason's Disciples. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1982.

Swift, Jonathan. The Tatler. No. 32. June 21-23. London, 1709.

Sylvia's Complaint. London, 1692.

Thomas, Elizabeth. “To Almystrea.” In Poems on Several Occasions. London, 1722. 218.

Upham, A. H. “English Femmes Savantes at the End of the Seventeenth Century.” JEGP 12 (1913): 262-76.

Utter, Robert, and Gwendolyn Needham. Pamela's Daughters. New York: Columbia U.P., 1936.

The Whole Duty of a Woman. London, 1695.

Wonders of the Female World. London, 1683.

Christine Mason Sutherland (essay date 1995)

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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 mark upon their own times, she was almost completely forgotten after her death. George Ballard, it is true, published a short account of her life in Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated for Their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts and Sciences (1752), but thereafter little was written about her until this century, when first Florence Smith and then, much later, Ruth Perry brought her to the attention of feminist scholars.

In recent years, and especially since the publication of Ruth Perry's biography of her (1986), the importance of Mary Astell to the development of the struggle for women's education has been increasingly recognized; but from a rhetorician's point of view, the most interesting aspect of her work is her mastery of the art of eloquence, and her bold invasion of the masculine stronghold of traditional rhetoric. Both as a practitioner and as a defender of the ability of women to participate in rhetorical activities, Mary Astell may be said to have “reclaimed Rhetorica” in her own day. I begin this paper with a brief survey of Astell's life and works; this is necessary because she is still not as well known as she ought to be. I then argue her claim to be recognized as contributing to the rhetorical tradition.

Mary Astell was born in 1666 in Newcastle. The Astells were gentry: minor gentry, perhaps, but they were armigerous. Although a cousin of Mary Astell's owned an estate, the family based its fortunes not in the land but in the professions. Astell's ancestors were lawyers and preachers, even soldiers. Originally the family came to prominence as a result of military success in the Hundred Years War (Perry 29).

Astell's father was an official in the coal industry. If this suggests the contamination of trade, later so deplored by the English middle classes, we must bear in mind that the coal industry in Newcastle at this time was dignified by its association with an ancient medieval trade guild, the Hostmen, who were, to quote Ruth Perry, “the official hosts of feudal Newcastle” (29). The Astells were in no way representative of new money, often considered at the time to be “vulgar.” In their own way, they were part of a privileged class, with rights and traditions going far back into English history. Certainly they prided themselves on belonging to the gentry. Mary Astell's father and grandfather were firm supporters of the Stuarts, conservative in their political and religious affiliation, Anglicans in the tradition of Laud, and unafraid of the sympathy the later Stuart kings showed toward Roman Catholics.

Mary Astell, then, was brought up as a gentlewoman. She had one brother, Peter, whose education was assumed by their uncle, Ralph Astell, an Anglican priest at the church of St. Nicholas nearby. In spite of his alcoholic tendencies, Ralph Astell seems to have been an admirable man. It may have been from him that Astell derived her unusual degree of piety. Certainly she received much of her education from him, for Ralph Astell educated her along with her brother. Unfortunately, Ralph Astell died when Mary was only thirteen, and her formal education was cut short at this point. During his few years as her teacher, her uncle seems to have taught her not only to read and write but also, more unusually, to value the life of the mind and take an interest in the political, religious, and intellectual issues of the day.

Mary Astell's early years were probably happy. Her parents, though not particularly rich, were reasonably well-to-do, and she grew up with the advantage of a comfortable home. All this changed within a relatively short time. First, her father died. It then became apparent that his financial position was insecure. Newer interests were challenging the supremacy of the Hostmen, and Peter Astell did not leave his family well provided for. Any money that there was had to be set aside for the education of young Peter, Mary's brother. There was nothing left over to provide an adequate dowry for her. Soon after the death of her father, her formal education came to an end with the death of her uncle. She continued to live with her mother and her aunt—two other Mary Astells—until their deaths. But as time went by, and the financial position of the Astells did not improve, it became more and more apparent that the world had no place for young Mary. A young girl of her class was, of course, expected to marry—provided she had a dowry. Mary Astell had none. Some few dowerless girls might make a good marriage if they were exceptionally attractive; the evidence suggests that Mary Astell was not, though admittedly the only extant account of her appearance is derived from someone who did not know her when she was young. It comes from the granddaughter of her friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Mary did not meet Astell until Astell herself was in middle age. She found her “rather ill-favoured and forbidding, and as far from ‘fair and elegant’ as any old schoolmaster of her time” (Perry 23). This description might, of course, refer rather to her typical manner and expression than to her features; nonetheless, it seems that even in girlhood Astell would not have been pretty enough to attract a husband in her dowerless condition, certainly not one from her own class. She might possibly have married beneath her, though it is clear that such a course would have been repugnant to her; and it is unlikely that any man below her own class would have wished to marry so dauntingly intelligent a woman as Mary Astell.

If she could not marry, what could she do? Had she not been a gentlewoman, she might have found some kind of menial work, however disagreeable; but her class precluded any such solution to her problem. Had she been a man, she could have turned her intelligence and her learning to good account. These, combined with her piety, would have made a career in the Church a real possibility. But this solution was not open to her because of her sex. It is true that during the Interregnum there had been numerous women preachers, but they had certainly not been Anglicans, and they had been firmly repressed by the Restoration government.

It is not surprising that for some time after the death of her mother, Mary Astell was in a state of extreme depression: the world seemed to have no use for her. The only advantages she had—her extraordinary intelligence and her capacity for strenuous intellectual activity—were ones that her society would not let her use.

Nevertheless, she decided to try. In 1688, she moved to London to seek her fortune in the emerging world of letters of the late seventeenth century. Predictably, she had no success. She appears to have counted on help from distant relations and friends of the family, but if they helped her at all, their assistance had dried up by the end of her first year. In desperation, she approached William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury, who was known for his generosity. She compares herself to the steward in the gospel: “Worke I cannot, and to beg I am ashamed” (Perry 66). It is characteristic of Astell's wit that she compares herself with the unjust steward: no doubt Sancroft appreciated the joke. Certainly he helped her. As an expression of gratitude, she sent him some of her own poems, stitched into a book. She describes it as “but of Goats' hair and Badger skins” (Perry 401) but explains that it is all that she has to give—another little theological joke, for it was of goats' hair and badgers' skins that the Holy Tabernacle of the Israelites was partly made.

Eventually, with the help of Sancroft, Mary Astell established herself: she was introduced to a bookseller, Rich Wilkin, who greatly admired her work and strenuously promoted it. She also found friends among the intellectual women of London—friends who were able not only to appreciate and encourage her but also to help her financially. Like many another writer, she found a patron, Lady Elizabeth Hastings. Among her other friends were Lady Catherine Jones, with whom she lived for some time, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

From the early 1690s until 1709, Mary Astell published a number of books and pamphlets, and became celebrated as a woman of eloquence and learning. She published no new works after 1709, though she revised some of her early works. Most of her time seems to have been spent promoting the education of girls—a cause very close to her heart. She was involved in the foundation of a charity school for girls in Chelsea, where she lived. For the last twenty years of her life, Mary Astell lived more privately. But it was a life of great usefulness and piety, and it seems she was happy among her circle of friends. Nevertheless, death, when it came, was not unwelcome to her. She contracted breast cancer, and the tumor eventually had to be removed—too late, as it turned out. She died less than two months later. She faced her end with great courage—even with eagerness. She had her coffin brought into her bedroom, and for the last two days refused food, drink, and company. She died on May 9, 1731.

What kind of person was Mary Astell? The answer must be: a very unusual person. There can be little doubt that she was in many ways a formidable personality, a woman who could, and did, daunt her acquaintances with her wit and honesty. But beneath this forthright manner, there was a deep concern for her friends, and a real commitment to what she saw as their prosperity. She did not hesitate to scold them when she thought it necessary, but she did so because she loved them. Her forthrightness and honesty were tempered by her good humor and her dry, understated wit. Above all, she was a pious woman. Her love for God was deep and genuine. Her life was founded upon it. Almost immediately after her death, Mary Astell was forgotten, except by her circle of friends. She had, of course, lived a private life for the last twenty years, and the novelty of her earlier works had worn off. Fortunately, when George Ballard was collecting materials for his book, some of her friends and acquaintances were still alive. But his fellow researchers had never heard of her, so quickly had she been forgotten.

Mary Astell's output was not large: six books, two pamphlets, and a record of her correspondence with John Norris of Bemerton on the subject of the love of God. I give here a list of her works in chronological order:

1694: A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of her Sex.

1695: Letters Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris.

1697: A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II Wherein A Method Is Offer'd for the Improvement of their Minds.

1700: Some Reflections Upon Marriage, Occasion'd by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine's Case; Which Is Also Consider'd.

1704: Moderation Truly Stated: Or, A Review of a Late Pamphlet Entitul'd Moderation a Vertue. With a Prefatory Discourse to Dr. D'Avenant, Concerning His Late Essays of Peace and War.

1704: 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.

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.

1705: The Christian Religion. As Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England.

1709: 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.

It would be possible to claim a place for Mary Astell in the history of rhetoric solely on the grounds of her magnificent practice of it. In her own day, she was renowned for her eloquence: John Evelyn refers to her writing as “sublime” (Perry 99); Lady Schomberg wishes that she had “but the least part of Mrs. Astell's eloquence” (487); John Norris speaks of her “moving Strains of the most natural and powerful Oratory” (79); John Dunton refers to her as “sublime” (487). As the passage from Norris indicates, those who had been trained in the rhetorical tradition—that is, the men—could recognize in her achievement an illustration of the principles with which they were familiar. A rhetorician studying her works cannot fail to be impressed by their fidelity to rhetorical principles. I propose to look at three of the more accessible of her works to demonstrate her mastery of the art of rhetoric.

A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), her first book, was an immediate success, and it made her reputation. Further editions of the book appeared in 1695, 1696, 1697, and 1701. So rapidly did the fame of the book spread that when, in the year after its publication, she and John Norris published a volume of their correspondence, she was identified as the author of the Proposal (Letters Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris).

The book is the fruit of her bitter experience when she first came to London, and of all her years of desperation when she was destitute, redundant, without work, without money, without friends. When with the help of Archbishop Sancroft Mary Astell emerged from this desolate time and began to find not only the means of subsistence but also an outlet for her gifts, she was determined, if she could, to do something for other women in the desperate position she had herself known. It was not only women in urgent need of employment with whom she was concerned: even more serious than the economic plight of some women was the moral and spiritual destitution of many more, particularly among the rich. As Astell began to move in relatively high society, she was deeply shocked by the superficiality of the lives of most women. Morally, they were as impoverished as she, until recently, had been materially. A Serious Proposal records her distress: she is horrified by the waste—of time, of intelligence, of talents given by God. Something had to be done. Her proposal is addressed to the ladies, but she has half an eye on the men too, and many of her arguments seem directed at them as much as at the women.

The proposal is to establish what she calls a “Protestant Nunnery” where women who could not, would not, or at least did not marry could take refuge in a life of holiness and service. Those who continued celibate could thus spend their lives usefully and happily, educating children and doing good among the poor. Life in a religious community would provide them with much-needed companionship, and help them in the attainment of the most important goal in this life—preparation for the life to come. Those who eventually did marry would have spent their time of waiting profitably, and would be prepared by their education for the nurture of their own children. Such an institution could do nothing but good, from every point of view.

But Mary Astell's proposal for a Protestant nunnery for women was not new. During the earlier part of the seventeenth century, this solution to the problem of unmarried women had been not only recommended but actually tried by Anglicans of her own—that is, the Laudian—persuasion. In the 1630s, Nicholas Ferrar had formed such a community of women for his mother, sisters, and nieces at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. It had lasted thirty years. A similar community was organized by Lady Lettice, Viscountess of Falkland, at Great Tew, and another by Mary and Anne Kemys at Naish in Glamorganshire (Smith 64-70). Such communities always aroused suspicion in the authorities for political reasons: they were suspected of being in sympathy with the Roman Catholics. The attempt of the Spanish in 1588 to conquer England and reimpose the authority of the pope had not been forgotten. Nor had the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. For these and other reasons, the communities had not survived; but the idea was not new.

If her proposal to establish a community for women was not a new idea, why was it so well received? I believe we can attribute its success directly to its eloquence. Although it appears to be spontaneous, it is in fact a most carefully crafted work, as a little study of it will show. Her care and skill are apparent in her selection of arguments, her arrangement of them, and her style: to use rhetorical terminology, in her inventio, dispositio, and elocutio. In selecting her arguments, she is careful to take into consideration what will most probably appeal to the various interests represented among her readers: obviously she has made a study of her audience. She explicitly addresses the ladies. That is, she considers herself to be speaking to women of the upper classes. Such ladies at the time Astell was writing were notorious for their preoccupation with their appearance. She therefore begins by declaring that her only design is “to improve your Charms and heighten your Value.” Her aim is “to fix that Beauty, to make it lasting and permanent, which Nature with all the helps of Art cannot secure” (4). Astell is sure that a trained mind and an understanding heart are far more attractive than any mere physical attributes, and since the ladies in her audience are above all concerned with attracting favorable attention, she appeals to them on those grounds. But the frivolous ladies in high society are not the only ones who will read the proposal, even though it is to them that it is specifically addressed: Astell is astute enough to be aware that if her proposal is to receive support, it must interest the men too. They, after all, control most of the money. Her appeal must obviously be as wide as possible. She therefore takes into account not only ladies in high society but also prudent parents, pointing out that the cost of sending their unmarried daughters to such an institution is much lower than the dowry that would be required to find them acceptable husbands. On the other hand, for those whose daughters are so richly endowed as to attract inconvenient and unscrupulous suitors, she recommends the girls' temporary retirement to her academy, where they can be kept out of harm's way. For the intelligentsia, she uses cogent arguments based upon her understanding of faculty psychology: the soul, she says, “always Wills according as she understands, so that if she understands amiss, she Wills amiss” (64). Finally, to the public-spirited and the socially concerned, she shows the advantages of training competent teachers to promote the manners and morals of the upcoming generation. If the women marry, they will have been excellently prepared for their responsibilities as mothers; if they do not, they may function as salaried teachers and thus contribute usefully to the community as well as providing for themselves.

If Astell shows great skill in the selection of her arguments, she shows just as much in her arrangement of them. She does not actually make her proposal until about one-third of the way through. (We might compare this to Swift's similar postponement of his recommendation in A Modest Proposal.) The first fifty pages are devoted to preparing the ground—to outlining the problems and whetting her readers' appetites for a solution. She then makes her proposal with great clarity and brevity: it is “to erect a Monastery … or Religious Retirement, and such as shall have a double aspect, being not only a Retreat from the World for those who desire that advantage, but likewise an Institution and previous discipline to fit us to do the greatest good in it” (48). The ladies are to meditate, to attend worship services, to study, and to perform works of mercy. She elaborates to some degree, setting forth the requirements for tutors. On the whole, however, she gives very little detailed description of the curriculum or the timetable; she merely outlines the general principles, leaving the details to be worked out later by those chiefly concerned. The rest of the Proposal consists of a further analysis of the benefits to be derived from the institution (confirmatio) and answers to some of the objections that might be raised (refutatio, in its proper place according to the canons of traditional rhetoric). It is, in fact, a standard proposal, but one so smoothly put together that its effectiveness as persuasion is almost inevitable.

Added to the artistry of her selection of arguments and her arrangement of them is the eloquence of her style. In this work, we are most particularly aware of her speaking voice—the accents of persuasion. It is above all the rhythmic balance of her sentences that underlines the persuasiveness of her arguments. The reasonableness that she advocates is echoed in the measured balance of her clauses, the considered structure of her sentences, which suggest control without sacrificing liveliness. Hers is the voice of reason. By its very sound, it engenders trust. It is the Moderate style—not dull or sparse, but not richly decorated either, and making little use of startling metaphors or emotional exclamations. Its passions are well under the control of reason—and this too is persuasive.

Such was the success of A Serious Proposal that for a while it appeared that the institution it recommended might be endowed. Some great lady, possibly Lady Elizabeth Hastings but more probably Princess Anne, seriously considered contributing ten thousand pounds to its foundation. Ultimately, she was persuaded by Bishop Burnet to change her mind: he, like others in authority before him, was suspicious of anything that sounded so “Popish” (Perry 134). However, for some time, it looked as if the proposal might succeed.

It was possibly with a view to encouraging Princess Anne to proceed with her plans for endowment that Mary Astell dedicated Part 2 of A Serious Proposal (1697) to her. In the introduction to Part 2, Astell expresses her disappointment that, so far, no one had acted upon her suggestion. She says that she would be happier “to find her Project condemn'd as foolish and impertinent, than to find it receiv'd with some Approbation, and yet no body endeavouring to put it in Practice” (3). What can it be that hinders them? Is it “singularity”? “Are you afraid of being out of the ordinary way and therefore admir'd and gaz'd at?” (5). Or is it that the project seems too strenuous? “Is it the difficulty of attaining the Bravery of the Mind, the Labour and the Cost that keeps you from making a purchase of it?” (7). More probably, she decides, simple ignorance of study habits has discouraged women from attempting the life of the mind. They are afraid to embark upon something they so little understand. Their parents and guardians have “taught them perhaps to repeat their catechism and a few good sentences, to read a chapter and say their prayers, tho perhaps with as little understanding as a Parrot” (16). And for the parents, that was enough. What they chiefly lack is method. Admitting that in Part 1 she gave only a general outline, she offers now, in Part 2, to go into detail. She sees the instruction she is about to give as only a temporary measure, till the seminary can be erected. She hopes both to provide interim instruction and to whet her readers' appetites for more.

Apart from the introduction, which is a splendid example of the use of the exordium to establish ethos, particularly goodwill, Part 2 is not a work of persuasion but of instruction: Astell is supplying a method. In most respects, then, Part 2 is very different from Part 1. It is much longer: Part 1 has just under 150 pages, Part 2 nearly 300. Its arrangement is more formal: it is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the relationship between knowledge and virtue (something she referred to only briefly in Part 1). Chapter 2 discusses the preliminaries—the avoidance of sloth, selfishness, and pride, and the elimination of prejudices arising from authority, education, and custom. Chapter 3, by far the longest, gives directions for the improvement of the understanding; and Chapter 4 for the regulation of the will and the “government of the Passions.”

Astell's eloquence is as apparent in Part 2 as in Part 1. Once again, she shows her skill in understanding and accommodating her audience. As an example of this rhetorical wisdom, we may consider the title of the first chapter: “Of the Mutual Relation Between Ignorance and Vice, and Knowledge and Purity.” She is careful to begin her work with something that is sure to appeal to anyone serious-minded enough to take up her book. Most responsible people, both men and women, were far more concerned to promote women's morality than to encourage their education. And as Kathleen Jamieson has demonstrated, there was in the minds of the people of the time a direct, if to us illogical, connection between facility in speech and impurity of life (Jamieson 70). The chaste woman was thought to be identical to the silent woman: indeed, silence was said to be a woman's rhetoric (Maclean 54). As a writer herself, and as a promoter of other women's writing, Mary Astell shows herself well aware of the possible prejudices of her audience. She must refute their conviction that verbal facility leads to adultery. In fact, she does more: she reverses the argument, demonstrating that the training of the mind (which necessarily includes training in the arts of discourse) actually promotes morality. It does so by developing the understanding, which, according to seventeenth-century faculty psychology, should control the passions and direct the will. It therefore follows that, unless women have no rational souls, everything should be done to develop that rationality which alone can promote moral behavior.

As in Part 1, Astell's word choice and sentence structure serve her purpose. In Part 2, as we have noted, her primary purpose is to clarify, to teach, rather than to persuade her audience to adopt a particular course of action. In this work, it is above all the pace of the style that contributes to the work's force and clarity—this, and the superb control of the syntax. Here we particularly notice how she demonstrates relationships between ideas by the use of long sentences that hold those ideas in suspension. Doing so allows her to keep them in balance and to avoid overstatement. We sense that we are in the hands of an excellent navigator. She keeps the ship of her argument on course by constant adjustments, qualifications, and compensations. Here is one example:

God does nothing in vain, he gives no power or Faculty which he has not allotted to some proportionate use, if therefore he has given to Mankind a Rational Mind, every individual Understanding ought to be employ'd in somewhat worthy of it. The Meanest Person shou'd think as Justly, tho' not as Capaciously, as the greatest Philosopher. And if the Understanding be made for the contemplation of Truth, and I know not what else it can be made for, either there are many Understandings who are never able to attain what they were design'd for, which is contrary to the Supposition that GOD made nothing in Vain, or else the very meanest must be put in the way of attaining it.


If Part 1 of A Serious Proposal demonstrates Astell's powers of persuasion and Part 2 those of argumentation and explication, Some Reflections Upon Marriage reveals her skill in satire. In this work, Astell, though herself unmarried, speaks for the women of her time who were oppressed by a tyranny worse, because less escapable, than any political tyranny. She brings to bear upon her argument many of the current issues of her day, especially including contemporary discussions of the philosophy of government and of human nature. She successfully turns the opposition's own weapons against them, showing the logical implications of the arguments they use.

The occasion for this work was the death of the notorious Duchess of Mazarin, who had been a neighbor of Astell's in Chelsea. Married while still a young teenager to the fanatical, indeed insane, Duke of Meilleraye and Mayenne, and thereupon taking the name of her uncle the famous cardinal, the duchess had endured psychological and physical agonies before eventually escaping to England. There, living at the court of her friend Charles II, she had led a life typical of the decadence of the courtiers of the Restoration. What made her unusual was not her sexual immorality but her defiance of her husband and her escape from him. The story was old in 1700, when Astell wrote her book, but the scandal had been aired again when the duchess died in 1699. Astell immediately saw how she could take advantage of current interest in the affair to make a defense of and a plea for the abused women of her day. She sees the scandalous history of the duchess as one more demonstration of the absolute necessity of giving women a proper education. Devout Anglican that she is, she does not ask for improved divorce laws; but she does plead for a more sympathetic understanding of the married woman's plight and a recognition that marriage, far from being a necessary condition for a woman's happiness, is more likely than not a means of destroying it.

In this work Astell demonstrates with particular clarity the rhetorical astuteness of her argumentation. She takes advantage of the recent political situation—the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II was forced to abdicate—and the current interest in the rights of man, to plead the cause of women. Married women, she believes, are no better than slaves, though, she comments bitterly, they are “for the most part Wise enough to Love their Chains, and to discern how very becomingly they set” (Preface 23). Astell explicitly compares the condition of married women to that of “a poor People, who groan under Tyranny, unless they are Strong enough to break the Yoke, to Depose and abdicate” (27). In public matters, her readers were all for the liberty of the citizen. Not so in private matters: “Whatever may be said against a passive obedience in another case, I suppose there's no Man but likes it very well in this; how much soever Arbitrary Power may be disliked on a Throne, not Milton himself wou'd cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves, or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny” (27). Drawing again upon the language of politics, she continues: “He who would say the People were made for the Prince who is set over them would be thought to be out of his Senses as well as his Politics” (47).

Astell does not advocate revolt; instead, she recommends extreme caution. A woman should be educated to understand the risks involved in marriage, and to choose her “sovereign” rationally. At a time when all a woman's money became her husband's upon her marriage, she had to be particularly on her guard against the fortune hunter, lest she later be obliged to “make court to him for a little sorry alimony out of her own estate” (14). But a woman should equally beware of suitors who fall in love with her wit or beauty: “He who doats on a Face, he who makes Money his Idol, he who is charm'd with vain and empty Wit, gives no such Evidence, either of Wisdom or Goodness, that a Woman of any tolerable Sense wou'd care to venture her self to his Conduct” (31).

Some Reflections Upon Marriage not only demonstrates Astell's skill in argumentation, but also provides some of the best examples of her mastery of style. In her discussion of the dangers of courtship, she reverses the triumphant metaphors of conquest so often used in love poetry, taking the position of the pursued rather than the pursuer. Hers are metaphors not of conquest but of capture, and they are sinister, representing marriage as at best only a reluctant capitulation: “It were endless to reckon up the divers stratagems Men use to catch their Prey, their different ways of insinuating which vary with the Circumstances and the Ladies Temper. But how unfairly, how basely soever they proceed, when the Prey is once caught it passes for lawful Prize” (70). Astell's command of the satirical style embraces everything from straight invective to sarcasm to the most subtle and understated irony, from the coarse to the delicate. Surprisingly, she can at times approach the scatological, as when she refers to the tyrants' “Impiety and Immorality which dare … to devour Souls … leaving a stench behind them” (Preface 25). As an example of sheer invective, it is hard to match the following: A proud and peevish man has “Learning and Sense enough to make him a Fop in Perfection; for a Man can never be a complete Coxcomb, unless he has a considerable share of these to value himself upon” (28). Occasionally we find a little touch of sarcasm, as when she refers to “his great Wisdom so conspicuous on all occasions” (43), or to the “manly, mannerly” jests that men make not only against women but also against religion (50). But best of all are those passages of understated irony where, for example, she refers to men's “courage … in breaking through all the Tyes Sacred and Civil” in order to achieve success in the “great Actions and considerable Business of this World” (87); or where she praises them for their achievements: “All famous Arts have their Original from Men, even from the Invention of Guns to the Mystery of good Eating, and to shew that nothing is beneath their Care, any more than above their Reach, they have brought Gaming to an Art and Science, and a more Profitable and Honourable one too, than any that us'd to be call'd Liberal” (88).

Mary Astell, then, has some claim to be considered as belonging to the rhetorical tradition by virtue of her eloquence. In her selection of arguments, in her arrangement of them, in the stylistic choices she makes, she unerringly accommodates her audience and carries her point. Whether she was herself taught to write by her uncle, whether she taught herself by reading such books as L'art de penser and L'art de parler, or whether she simply internalized models of good writing, we do not know. Possibly there was a combination of all three.

But Mary Astell's right to be accorded a place in the history of rhetoric does not depend only upon her successful practice of it. Perhaps even more important than her eloquence is her insistence upon the ability and the right of women to participate in a rhetorical tradition from which they had hitherto normally been excluded by their ignorance of classical culture, particularly the Latin language. According to Father Walter Ong, Latin was “a sex-linked language written and spoken only by males, learned outside the home in a tribal setting which was in effect a male puberty rite setting, complete with physical punishment and other kinds of deliberately imposed hardships” (Ong 113). As long as rhetoric was based upon a working knowledge of Latin, which enabled a thorough grounding in classical history, philosophy, and literature, women were effectively excluded from it.

When Descartes not only called into question the usefulness of the whole apparatus of ancient and medieval learning but also used the vernacular as the language of scholarship, he unwittingly began a process that would enable women to participate in the intellectual life of their times. It was Poulain de la Barre who first saw the implications of this scholarly revolution for women (Perry 71). Mary Astell was undoubtedly familiar with his work, which was influential in England during the 1690s. As far as rhetoric is concerned, she was also influenced by the Port Royalists, and by the Oratorian Bernard Lamy, whose works she quotes in Part 2 of A Serious Proposal. Encouraged by these and other French thinkers, Astell follows up on the implications of these new ideas for women. “And since Truth is so near at hand, since we are not oblig'd to tumble over many Authors, to hunt after every celebrated Genius, but may have it for enquiring after in our own Breasts, are we not inexcusable if we don't obtain it?” (Serious Proposal Part 2, 122). Later in the same passage she specifically denies the importance of the learned languages in developing the powers of reasoning: “All have not leisure to Learn Languages and pore on Books, nor Opportunity to Converse with the Learned; but all may Think, may use their own Faculties rightly, and consult the Master who is within them” (124).

It is this principle of the naturalness of human reason and human speech that informs Mary Astell's rhetorical theory. Basing herself on the ideas of the scholars of Port Royal and the Oratory (themselves Cartesians), she is nonetheless original in the ways she applies her ideas to women. It is not enough to follow Descartes and the French rhetoricians in asserting that the ability to think and to write is natural; if she is to claim a place for women in logic and rhetoric, she must show that they are natural to women. At the time, this was by no means obvious to everybody. Astell argues this point in two ways. She asserts that women, as human beings, are of course endowed with reason; and she shows in detail how they can become fully competent as writers by using the knowledge they already have.

Astell's most sustained defense of women's rationality comes in the lengthy preface she added to the third edition of Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1706). An attack had been made upon this work, originally published in 1700, on the grounds of women's natural inferiority. This attack Astell refutes at length in the new preface. Much of her argument consists of the well-worn traditional citations by famous women, a standard defense that had been used for centuries. But some of it is more unusual. Her choice of the analogy of pig-keeping, for example, not only clarifies the point she is making but also adds some subtle innuendo: she claims that Woman was made primarily to serve God, not Man. “The Service she at any time becomes oblig'd to pay to a Man, is only a Business by the Bye. Just as it may be any Man's Business and Duty to keep Hogs; he was not made for this, but if he hires himself out to such an Employment, he ought conscientiously to perform it” (Preface 5). Still on the theme of domestic animals, she argues tellingly and bitterly that if indeed women have no powers of reason, they should, like these creatures, be kept restrained. It is neither fair nor wise to demand reasonable moral behavior from those who have no natural capacity for it (Preface 23). But she quickly dismisses this as nonsense. Associating reason with the power of speech, she points out that men have always complained that women speak too much rather than too little. It follows that one cannot seriously question the fact that they are endowed with reason. If their reasoning powers are in any way inferior to men's, that is because of a lack of exercise. The remedy is to provide the exercise and thus strengthen the faculty.

It is the exercise of the power of reason and of speech that Astell attempts to promote in Part 2 of A Serious Proposal. Although she never mentions Petrus Ramus, she is obviously working within a tradition influenced by him: She takes it for granted that thinking (including rhetorical inventio) belongs to logic rather than to rhetoric. Much of the sixty pages she devotes to a discussion of the method of thinking is heavily indebted, directly or indirectly, to Descartes. The Port Royalists who wrote L'art de penser, Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, were strongly influenced by Descartes. It is therefore not always easy to tell where Astell is influenced directly by Descartes, and where she is receiving his ideas mediated through Arnauld and Nicole. In her passage on logic, Astell quotes directly from Descartes's Principes de la philosophie:

That (to use the Words of a Celebrated Author) may be said to be “Clear which is present and Manifest to an attentive Mind; so as we say we see Objects Clearly, when being present to our Eyes they sufficiently Act on 'em, and our Eyes are dispos'd to regard 'em. And that Distinct, which is so Clear, Particular, and Different from all other things, that it contains not any thing in it self which appears not manifestly to him who considers it as he ought.”


A little later on, she gives six rules for clear thinking, which are obviously derived in part from the four rules put forward by Descartes in Discourse 2 of Discourse on Method (41). Here she acknowledges that she is drawing on the work of others, though she does not specify which. The rules are as follows:

1. We should in the first place Acquaint our selves thoroughly with the State of the Question, have a Distinct Notion of our Subject, whatever it be, and of the Termes we make use of, knowing precisely what it is we drive at: that so we may in the second

2. Cut off all needless Ideas and whatever has not a necessary Connexion to the matter under Consideration.

3. To conduct our Thought by Order, beginning with the most Simple and Easie Objects, and ascending as by Degrees to the Knowledge of the more Compos'd.

4. Not to leave any part of our Subject unexamin'd. … To this rule belongs that of Dividing the Subject of our Meditations into as many Parts as we can, and as shall be requisite to Understand it perfectly.

5. We must Always keep our Subject Directly in our Eye, and Closely pursue it through our Progress.

6. To judge no further than we Perceive, and not to take any thing for Truth which we do not evidently know to be so.


Like Arnauld and Nicole, Bernard Lamy, author of L'art de parler, was strongly influenced by Descartes. Here too, it is not easy to tell which ideas Astell derives immediately from Descartes and which from Descartes through Lamy. Her advice on the importance of attention is obviously Cartesian; according to Thomas M. Carr in Descartes and the Resilience of Rhetoric, attention is central to the Cartesian program (41). For Descartes, an important attention-getting device is admiration (in its seventeenth-century sense of wonder). The following passage in Astell is, then, obviously influenced by him: “Now attention is usually fixt by Admiration, which is excited by somewhat uncommon either in the Thought or way of Expression” (Serious Proposal Part 2, 194). Again, the importance she places upon clarity, exactness, and method in her advice on rhetoric is obviously to be attributed to the direct or indirect influence of Descartes: “Scarce anything conduces more to Clearness, the great Beauty of Writing, than Exactness of Method” (179). Strongest of all, however, is the Cartesian idea of the naturalness of thought and expression.

The question of the sources of Astell's rhetorical theory is complicated, and I have discussed it in more detail elsewhere (“Outside the Rhetorical Tradition”). What is most interesting about her theory is how she applies it directly to the situation of the women she addresses. She even challenges the rhetorical tradition itself, as I shall show later.

In Astell's view, women are fully competent to engage in rhetorical activity, with one exception: public speaking. She gives no reason for thus excluding women from such an important part of rhetoric—she merely assumes that it is inappropriate for them. But apart from this exception, she believes that women can and should participate fully. Traditionally, if women wrote at all, they usually confined themselves to producing handbooks of devotion or composing elegant letters to their friends. They also wrote fiction, plays, and poems—Aphra Behn is a case in point. But in Astell's time some few women were beginning to join in political and philosophical debate; she did so herself, as did her opponent Damaris Masham. Astell strongly defended women's ability thus to engage in intellectual discussion at the highest level. Guided to the same degree by the natural light of reason, women were fully competent to join men in the pamphleteering that was such a feature of the day.

Astell begins her discussion of rhetoric by asserting once again the naturalness of intellectual activity, whether in thinking or writing: “As Nature teaches us logic, so does it instruct us in Rhetoric much better than Rules of Art, which if they are good ones are nothing else but those Judicious Observations which Men of Sense have drawn from Nature, and which all who reflect on the Operations of their own Minds will find out 'emselves. The common Precepts of Rhetoric may teach us how to reduce Ingenious ways of speaking to a certain Rule, but they do not teach us how to Invent them, this is Nature's work and she does it best” (175).

She then goes into detail, covering in turn each of the parts of rhetoric except invention—which she has already discussed in her passage on logic—and memory. Again and again she shows that women have nothing to fear, that they already know all they need to know, and that all they have to do is recognize that they know it and put it into practice: “The Method of Thinking has been already shewn, and the same is to be observed in Writing, which if it be what it ought, is nothing else but the communicating to others the result of our frequent and deep Meditations, in such a manner as we judge most effectual to convince them of those Truths which we believe, Always remembering that the most natural Order is ever the best” (180).

As with arrangement, so with style: the guiding principle is to follow Nature:

In short, as Thinking conformably to the Nature of Things is True Knowledge, so th'expressing our Thoughts in such a way, as most readily, and with the greatest Clearness and Life, excites in others the very same idea that was in us, is the best Eloquence. For if our Idea be conformable to the Nature of the thing it represents, and its Relations duly stated, this is the most effectual Way both to Inform and Persuade. … If therefore we thoroughly understand our Subject and are Zealously affected with it, we shall neither want suitable words to explain, nor persuasive Methods to recommend it.


In matters of grammar and spelling the same principle holds. Spelling is not the mystery to women that it is commonly proclaimed to be. The trouble is that women have been told that correct spelling is both difficult and unladylike: “As to spelling, which they're said to be defective in, if they don't believe as they're usually told, that its fit for 'em to be so, and that to write exactly is too Pedantic, they may soon correct that fault, by Pronouncing their words aright and Spelling 'em accordingly.” True, phonetic spelling will not always answer, because of “an Imperfection in our Language,” but “in this case a little Observation or recourse to Books will assist us; and if at any time we happen to mistake by Spelling as we Pronounce, the fault will be very Venial, and Custom rather to blame than we” (193). Astell obviously thinks the fuss made about women's spelling is disproportionate. The same goes for grammar. Once again, Astell denies that women are as deficient in it as they are reputed to be—and comments that they are not the only transgressors. A little extra care will solve this problem: women should avoid hastiness and take the trouble to proofread. The only guide they need is their natural good sense of language: “Those who speak true grammar, unless they're very careless cannot write false, since they need only peruse what they've writ and consider whether they wou'd express themselves thus in Conversation” (194).

Astell not only answers men's objections, and women's fears, that writing according to a masculine standard is beyond them; she also asserts that in some ways women are not men's equals but their superiors in rhetoric. They have certain natural advantages. She declines to give any advice about delivery (which she calls “Pronunciation”) on the grounds that it is unnecessary: women will not engage in public speaking, and “Nature does for the most part furnish 'em with such a Musical Tone, Perswasive Air and Winning Address as renders their Discourse sufficiently agreeable in Private Conversation” (192). The art of conversation—which she believes comes naturally to women—is extremely important in Astell's theory of rhetoric. Not only is it a sure guide in matters of correctness, but it is also essential in the formation of a good writing style: “I have made no distinction in what has been said between Speaking and Writing, because tho they are talents which do not always meet, yet there is no material difference between 'em. They Write best perhaps who do't with the gentile and easy air of Conversation; and they Talk best who mingle Solidity of Thought with th'agreeableness of a ready Wit” (192). This is, as we know, the position of Quintilian and Cicero. There is no direct evidence that Astell was familiar with the work of either, but their ideas had of course passed into the rhetorical tradition. There is no suggestion that Astell considers the art of conversation at all inferior to the art of public speaking. It is not second-best eloquence, something with which women may comfort themselves for being denied the glories of the public platform. Not only in her theory but also in her experience, conversation was of the first importance: it was the foundation of those friendships with other women that provided the basic satisfactions of her life.

Another advantage possessed by women, according to Astell, is a good ethos. Like Augustine, Astell considers ethos of the highest importance. The lack of it will surely undermine the best-informed discourse. It is, she says, “to little purpose to Think well and speak well, unless we live well” (201). The advantage that women enjoy in this respect is implied in the rather sour comment she makes in discussing the teaching of children: The education of the young, “at least the foundation of it, on which in a great measure the success of all depends, shou'd be laid by the Mother, for Fathers find other Business, they will not be confin'd to such laborious work, they have not such opportunities for observing a Child's Temper, nor are the greatest part of 'em like to do much good, since Precepts contradicted by Example seldom prove effectual” (210).

The high value that Astell thus places upon moral considerations is typical of her rhetorical theory throughout. If Nature is one sure guide for women attempting to learn the arts of discourse, Christian morality is the other. “The way to be good Orators is to be good Christians” (189), she tells her audience of women—useful advice, for whatever the deficiencies of their education, they are unlikely to be entirely ignorant about morality. All they have to do is apply Christian principles to the practice of communication. Again, she is making the point that they already know how to proceed. They have nothing to fear.

Like the Cartesian principle of the sufficiency of natural gifts to develop and direct the arts of discourse, this belief in the efficacy of Christian precepts to produce good writing is derived from Astell's French sources. But she goes beyond her sources in extending such principles to include the discourse of women. She challenges women's exclusion from the rhetorical tradition, and thus contributes to that tradition.

But Astell's contribution to rhetoric does not end here, for she attempts, on behalf of women, not only to join the rhetorical tradition but also to question it. Throughout the history of rhetoric there has been a recurrent tendency to think of it in terms of a metaphor of warfare: the opposition (and in practice, this frequently means the audience) is the enemy, who is to be vanquished. No doubt the very strong forensic element in classical rhetoric, particularly in Roman times, contributed largely to this tendency; but it did not end with the Romans. It is this tradition of confrontation that Astell finds repugnant; it is this she disallows in women's practice of the arts of discourse:

To be able to hold an argument Right or Wrong may pass with some perhaps for the Character of a Good Disputant, which yet I think it is not, but must by no means be allow'd to be that of a Rational Person. … For indeed Truth not Victory is what we should contend for in all Disputes, it being more glorious to be Overcome by her than to Triumph under the Banner of Error. And therefore we pervert Reason when we make it the Instrument of an Endless Contention.

(Serious Proposal Part 2, 162)


It is in her strong objection to the patriarchal tendency to reduce all discussions to a win/lose conflict that Mary Astell is at her most feminine. Recent research has shown that feminine epistemology is often distinguished from masculine by a distaste for confrontation, and by a concern for the protection of both sides against needless humiliation:

In general, few of the women we interviewed … found argument … a congenial form of conversation among friends. The classic dormitory bull session with students assailing their opponents' logic and attacking their evidence, seems to occur rarely among women. … Women find it hard to see doubting as a game; they tend to take it personally. Teachers and fathers and boyfriends assure them that arguments are not between persons but between positions, but the women continue to fear that someone may get hurt.

(Belenky 105)

This quality of caring, identified by Nel Noddings as typical of women's approach to ethics, is seen by Belenky and her colleagues as informing their ways of knowing generally: “We posit two contrasting epistemological orientations: a separate epistemology, based upon impersonal procedures for establishing truth, and a connected epistemology in which truth emerges through care” (102).

The principle of caring is observable throughout Astell's discussion of rhetoric. It is, in fact, one of its most important distinguishing features. In particular, it helps to differentiate Astell's particular contribution from that of her most important source, Bernard Lamy. Her use of Christian morality as a guide to the practice of rhetoric is especially well suited to her audience of women, but it is not original. Most of the Christian principles she identifies as helpful guides to rhetorical practice had already been suggested by Lamy. But there is often a great difference in tone and emphasis between Astell and Lamy, and more often than not it has to do with the principle of caring. For example, in his discussion of goodwill in ethos, Lamy allows that it may be genuine, yet seems far from convinced that it usually is: “One may put on the face of an Honest man, only to delude those who have a reverence for the least appearance of truth; yet it follows not but we may profess love to our Auditors, and insinuate into their affections, when our love is sincere, and we have no design but the interest and propagation of truth” (359). Astell's version of the same point transforms it: “By being True Christians we have Really that Love for others which all who desire to perswade must pretend to” (Serious Proposal Part 2, 190). Similarly, both Lamy and Astell recommend the avoidance of pride, but their reasons for such a recommendation are different, and demonstrate somewhat different moral priorities. Lamy's counsel is based upon his own experience as the humiliated loser in verbal warfare. “Many times our obstinacy and aversion to the truth, is caused only by the fierceness and arrogance wherewith an Orator would force from our own mouths an acknowledgement of our Ignorance” (354). Astell's concern, on the other hand, is with others rather than with herself; whereas he looks inward, she looks outward in compassion: “I believe we shall find, there's nothing more improper than Pride and Positiveness, nor any thing more prevalent than an innocent compliance with weakness: Such as pretends not to dictate to their Ignorance, but only to explain and illustrate what lay hid or might have been known before if they had consider'd it, and supposes that their Minds being employ'd about some other things was the reason why they did not discern it as well as we” (185). In another passage, she takes up Lamy's point again, and specifically warns against taking a confrontational position: “And since many would yield to the Clear Light of Truth were't not for the shame of being overcome, we shou'd Convince but not Triumph, and rather Conceal our Conquest than Publish it. We doubly oblige our Neighbours when we reduce them into the Right Way, and keep in from being taken notice of that they were once in the Wrong” (186).

It might be objected that in attributing so much importance to the genuine concern of the speaker for the audience, the writer for the readers, Astell is merely following Augustine. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that Augustine's fundamental rhetorical principle is love (Sutherland, “Love as Rhetorical Principle” 139-55). Certainly Astell's French sources in Port Royal and the Oratory were strongly Augustinian, though as we have seen, Lamy appears to be less interested in this particular aspect of the relationship between morals and rhetoric than Astell herself. But without denying that she may indeed have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the rhetoric of Augustine, I think his conception of what love of the audience means differs in practice from hers. When Augustine speaks of the benefit of the audience, what he has in mind is their reception of the gospel. This is the great good which the Christian orator must bear in mind at all times. It is this that must inform his rhetorical practice from beginning to end. Astell's precept is more lowly. Of course she thinks it is important that people be good Christians—she says so repeatedly. But what she specifically recommends is tenderness towards the feelings of the audience. However misguided her opponents may be, she wants to spare them the pain of humiliation. I do not recall that Augustine's principle of love reaches down quite so far.

There are solid grounds, then, for claiming Mary Astell as a contributor to the rhetorical tradition: as a practitioner of rhetoric, she exemplifies the art of writing at its best; and as a theorist, she introduces the feminine element into what had hitherto been a masculine preserve. Both in her accommodation of Cartesian principles of naturalness to women's thinking and writing, and in her insistence upon genuine caring as a necessary element in effective persuasion, Astell makes her mark upon rhetorical history. It is time for us all to read what she has inscribed there.


Arnauld, Antoine. The Art of Thinking. 1662. Trans. James Dickoff. Repr. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.

Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest by a Lover of Her Sex. London, 1694.

———. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II Wherein a Method's Offer'd for the Improvement of Their Minds. London, 1697.

———. Some Reflections Upon Marriage, Occasion'd by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine's Case, Which is Also Consider'd. London, 1700.

Ballard, George. Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated For Their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages. Oxford, 1752.

Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic, 1986.

Carr, Thomas M. Jr. Descartes and the Resilience of Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and the Meditations. Trans. F. E. Sutcliffe. London: Penguin, 1968.

———. Principes de la philosophie. Trans. Rodger Miller and Reese P. Miller. Boston: D. Reidel, 1983.

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Lamy, Bernard. The Art of Speaking. 1676. Repr. in The Rhetorics of Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Lamy. Ed. John T. Harwood. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986. 167-377.

MacLean, Ian. The Renaissance Nation of Women. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

Perry, Ruth. The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Smith, Florence. Mary Astell. 1916. Repr. New York: AMS, 1966.

Sutherland, Christine Mason. “Love as Rhetorical Principle: The Relationship Between Content and Style in the Rhetoric of St. Augustine.” Grace, Politics and Desire. Ed. Hugo A. Meynell. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1990. 139-54.

———. “Outside the Rhetorical Tradition: Mary Astell's Advice to Women in Seventeenth Century England.” Rhetorica 9.2 (spring 1991): 147-63.

Cynthia B. Bryson (essay date 1998)

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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 writers.1 The late seventeenth century's Mary Astell has been deemed by many present-day philosophers and historians to be the first female English feminist.2 While she may or may not have in fact been the first English feminist (as Bridget Hill has identified her), Astell was undeniably (1) the first woman to enthusiastically ascribe to Descartes's methodology in publication and, perhaps even more importantly, (2) the first woman to note and to publicly address the inconsistencies she saw in Locke's epistemological writings, as well as (3) the first woman to publicly denounce Locke's political philosophies relating to the position (or nonposition) of women in his social doctrines. Astell, as a Cartesian feminist, was a woman of definite “firsts,” both philosophically and politically. While I agree with Hill's claim that she was the first English feminist, I also believe that Astell was much more than that. She was a prominent metaphysician and political theorist, and the feminism revealed in these roles was grounded on her understanding of Cartesian dualism.

At a time when male writers, such as Locke and Hobbes, were relegating adult women to the position of chattel, and thus women were owned by their husbands as “property” (the male/master “proof” of individuality),3 Astell remained resolutely unmarried and free. Partially because she was living out her understanding of the epistemological and political equality that she believed was suggested by Cartesian dualism, Astell allowed herself to be under subjection only to her monarch, still giving her freedom in the truest independent sense. Although Descartes never directly addressed the interest of gender, stating only in passing that his “method” was easy enough for even women to follow,4 Cartesian women (and men) of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw the division between mind and body as a foundational way of eliminating sex-linked theories, which suggested an inferiority in the minds and souls of women, even going so far as to suggest that these gender distinctions belonged to the category of “error.” “Error,” in Cartesian thought, can easily be redefined as “willful ignorance,” and it was this sort of “ignorance” that Astell wanted to eliminate, at least from women's understanding of themselves, if not from the opinions of “Tyrant Custom” at large.5 With Descartes's affirmation that bon sens belongs to everyone, Astell could construct a positive ground for the assertion of sexual equality.6 As wishful as she might have been in believing that Cartesian dualism supports mental symmetry between the sexes, Astell may have, however, purposely ignored Descartes's Passions of the Soul, in which he clearly asserts that there is a hierarchy of souls.7 But Astell thought it was important, at least for her own political and philosophical theorizing, that souls are equal even if bodies (childlike, mature, or elderly) are not.

In this paper, I will point out how Astell's version of Cartesian dualism supports (I) her disavowal of female subordination and traditional gender roles, (II) her position as an anti-Lockean philosopher, (III) her satiric rejection of Locke's material philosophy of “thinking matter” as a major premise for rejecting his political philosophy of “social contracts” between men and women, and, finally, (IV) her claim that there is no intrinsic difference between genders in terms of ratiocination, the primary assertion that grants her the title of the first female English feminist. While Astell is interesting as an early proponent of feminism, her role as one of Locke's earliest critics (and her position as his first female critic) has been largely neglected. Because a significant portion of this paper will be focused on Astell's criticism of Lockean theory, most particularly his “thinking matter” notion and his positioning of women in his concept of social contracts, I need to firmly establish that Astell was, indeed, a Cartesian in her “Method” of feminism and why she so violently, though reasonably, disagreed with John Locke.


It was crucial to the early feminists that the mind and body be separated, the result being that Lockean theory came under fire by most women and men who wanted to demolish gender-bias. This explains why both female and male feminists alike quickly and wholeheartedly accepted the distinction between mind and body in Cartesian dualism. In each of her books, Astell takes nearly every opportunity to practically browbeat women for allowing themselves to be denigrated to the position of a beautiful “object” in their husbands' homes, for painting themselves with cosmetics, and for adorning themselves outwardly with little or no self-respect for their own minds. She wants them to learn that who they are is not a material body but an immaterial “essence,” a “disembodied mind.” To say that “thinking” is only a “mode” of matter would, for Astell, perpetuate the notion of female inferiority, because the tradition of a woman's body being inferior to a man's had existed for several millennia.

The subtitle for Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II is Wherein a Method is offer'd for the Improvement of their Minds ([1697] 1970). After condemning the frivolities of fashion and most women's contentment to remain ignorant and to seek men's appreciation and flattery (usually with an ulterior motive) regarding their bodies, Astell launches into the need for women to “Disengage our selves from all our former Prejudices, from our Opinion of Names, Authorities, Custom and the like, not give credit to anything any longer because we once believed it, but because it carries clear and uncontested Evidence along with it” ([1697] 1970, II 68).8 For those women (and men) who “apply themselves to the Contemplation of Truth” (Astell [1697] 1970, II, 90), “Knowledge in a proper and strict sense … signifies that clear Perception which is follow'd by a firm assent to Conclusions rightly drawn from the Premises of which we have clear and distinct ideas. Which Premises or Principles must be so clear and Evident, that supposing us reasonable Creatures, and free from Prejudices and Passions, (which for the time they predominate as good as deprive us of our Reason) we cannot withhold our assent from them without manifest violence to our reason (Astell [1607] 1970, II, 81). From just these limited passages, it is obvious that Astell has read Descartes, but she slightly redefines his method while making the tenets in her own “ordered” method more obvious:

Rule I: Acquaint ourselves thoroughly with the State of the Question, have a Distinct Notion of our Subject whatever it be, and of the Terms we make use of, knowing precisely what it is we drive at. …

Rule II: Cut-off all needless Ideas and whatever has not a connection to the matter under consideration. … Some have added another Rule (vis) That we reason only on those things of which we have Clear Ideas; but I take it to be a consequent of the first. …

Rule III. To conduct our Thoughts by Order, beginning with the most Simple and Easie Objects, and ascending as by Degrees to the Knowledge of the more Compos'd.

Rule IV. Not to leave any part of our subject unexamined. … To this Rule belongs that of Dividing the Subject of our Meditations into as many Parts, as we can, and shall be requisite to Understand it Perfectly.

Rule V. Always keep our Subject Directly in our Eye, and closely pursue it thro all our Progress. …

Rule VI. To judge no further than we Perceive, and not to take any thing for Truth which we do not evidently Know to be so. Indeed in some Cases we are forc'd to content our selves with Probability … [which] oblige[s] us to Act presently, on a cursory view of the Arguments propos'd to us, when we want time to trace them to the bottom, and to make use of such means as wou'd discover Truth. … In which Case Reason will that we suspend our Judgement till we can be better Inform'd.

(Astell [1697] 1970, II, 105-108; italics in original)9

And immediately after setting out her “method,” as does Descartes, Astell initiates an ontological argument for the existence of God, which (while it is not the subject of this paper and will not be expounded upon here) is actually a bit more convincing than the one her French mentor presented in his Discourse on the Method (1637). Nonetheless, it should be apparent that Astell intended to use the Cartesian method in her position on the equality of women and in her later attacks on John Locke (though the commentary following her Rule VI noticeably contains some overtly Lockean overtones), whom she came to view as both a philosophical heretic and a misogynist.10

What Astell sees in Descartes's method is the opportunity for self-determination, a goal which any individual who feels her or his social group has been denied it would wholeheartedly embrace. In the Synopsis of his Meditations, Descartes seems to conclude that freedom, in the form of opportunity, is necessary for one to be adequately able to determine one's own future (Descartes 1641). Peter Schouls best summarizes the relationship between Descartes's (and Astell's) method and the freedom of self-determinacy. His points are: freedom is necessary for obtaining the foundations of knowledge, freedom is different from free-will in judgment, freedom is necessary for philosophizing itself and for reaching the cogito, and freedom is necessary for confirming the validity of reason (Schouls 1989, 47). A near-paradox is present: to be able to methodically and freely distinguish clear and distinct items of knowledge, the self-determination of the “will” (the mind, the self) must be free to determine clear and distinct knowledge. Astell would say that we need to be able to move beyond “Tyrant Custom” if we will ever be able to find the Archimedean point “within” ourselves upon which we can form an idea of liberty in the realm of opportunity. Through all of her writings, she is clear that what separates people is their inclination to find knowledge and their opportunity to begin the search for it. For her, Descartes's method provided a groundwork for freedom from traditional, masculinized thought and an opportunity to make a distinction “between things which pertain to mind, that is to say the intellectual nature, and those which pertain to [gendered] body” (Descartes [1641] 1994, 9). In Astell's mind, the body was unimportant to philosophy; for her and other Cartesians, all that really mattered was the “freedom” of the disembodied mind for “self”-determination.


I would be negligent if I did not proceed in an orderly fashion through the literary history that led to Astell's writing of Christian Religion (1705), which was designed primarily to be her Cartesian attack on Lockean materialistic philosophy. It is again useful to note that she was the first woman, out of many critics, to publicly take offense at many of Locke's assertions. But before her religio-philosophical/political writings after the turn of the century, Astell's first book A Serious Proposal to the Ladies ([1694, 1697] 1970)11 (a blend of primarily Cartesian and admittedly some Lockean thought) was a call for women's colleges and equal education.12 During 1694, the year of the book's (Part I) first edition, Astell was engaged in a written dialogue with her mentor John Norris.13 Norris, who is sometimes regarded as the last Cambridge Platonist, was a Cartesian scholar and feminist. He was interested in promoting in England the idealism of Malebranche and was himself the author of several books, one of which is An Account of Reason and Faith (1697), his rebuttal of Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). While Norris continued to write favorably of Malebranche and critically of Locke, Norris's and Astell's written exchanges were primarily on “the metaphysical properties of the mind and soul,” on the necessity for loving God (Perry 1986, 77), on his views concerning efficient causality, and on her disagreements with Norris for his extreme Calvinism (Squadrito 1987, 434, 439). With the success of Astell's A Serious Proposal (which went through five editions),14 Norris wanted to print privately their penned discourses, and reluctantly Astell allowed Letters Concerning the Love of God to be published in 1695.

A few years earlier, Ralph Cudworth's daughter Damaris Masham had also been a correspondent of Norris, but she switched camps and was the first to attack Norris and Astell's Letters with her critical pamphlet Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696). While Masham claimed authorship for the short piece, Astell (and Norris) was convinced that Masham's companion and confidante, John Locke, had a significant influence on the content of the criticism (Springborg 1996, 640).15

When it became abundantly clear that Astell's women's college was not going to become a reality, she published the Second Part of her Serious Proposal in 1697. Part II goes into more detail about the way a woman should study and even recommends that women should start by reading Descartes, Malebranche, Arnauld's Port-Royal Logic (1662), and Locke's Essays Concerning Human Understanding.16 Needless to say, when she suspected that Locke was probably involved in Lady Masham's attack on the Letters, she quit recommending him as one who could assist women in their intellectual training.17

It took nine years before Astell was ready to publish her four-hundred page18 “thoughts” about the Masham/Locke criticism, a book that also was primarily a summary of her religious, political (with subtlety), and educational theories. At the same time that Norris was preparing his own response to the Masham/Locke critique and reproach, Astell published The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church (1705), in which she makes a full-fledged attack on the anonymous The Ladies Religion (1692), Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), and Masham's Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696), all of which she believed had either been written directly by Locke or had been penned under his guidance (Perry 1986, 91).19 Astell seems to have realized that Masham probably wrote the Discourse, but she doesn't address this directly in her work, preferring instead to focus her attack on Locke.20 However, Astell was actually disappointed in being denied the opportunity to hear Locke's response, for while the book was in press, “the great Mr. L” unfortunately died. Not unexpectedly, Lady Masham defended Locke and criticized Astell in her Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705), a pragmatic book, quickly ignored because Masham lacked the skill that Astell had demonstrated as a metaphysician in Christian Religion.21

Largely written as a refutation against Locke's materialist philosophy and utilitarian ethics, Christian Religion was, as Perry calls it, “Astell's philosophical manifesto” (Perry 1986, 91). One of the concerns of the Platonic rationalists, such as Astell, was that materialism would lead to Deism and ultimately to atheism. Astell (and other Christian philosophers) had been fearful that the materialists/empiricists were only paying lip service to God and would eventually entice the masses astray. In her reasoning, the first symptom of the disease of atheism is utilitarian ethics and the second is in accepting the idea that matter alone has the ability to “think.” Initially in her text, Astell presents her own metaphysics with ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments for the existence of God in the first half of the book, establishing grounds for a natural religion22 and leading to the book's second half in which she recommends that these beliefs should provide a prescription of action for one's relationships with God, others, and oneself. But as Astell progresses within the book, she moves into her criticisms of Locke. While she does not actually accuse him of being a Socinian, she notes that he seems to deny the divinity of Christ in his own Reasonableness of Christianity, which she refutes at great measure in her defense of the Trinity (Astell 1705, 75).23 Still a large portion of the book is devoted to demonstrating the inconsistencies in Locke's view of the material (or at least not-immaterial) soul and thinking matter. In her objections to Locke, Astell is clearly a Cartesian dualist and rationalist.

One of the main reasons why women, such as Astell, had so widely accepted and embraced Descartes's philosophy24 was “that his rules and method for discerning truth could be used by anyone, of either sex. His dualistic separation of mind and body strengthened the Augustinian concept of mind as a place ‘where there is no sex’” (Harth 1992, 3). By dividing the body from the essence of an individual (the rational, “thinking thing”), the corporeal extension could be construed as nothing more than a meaningless dwelling place, with gender distinctions of less importance than the difference between a wood-framed and a brick house. But for mental equality (which Astell defends in every one of her books) to become evident, a “disembodied mind” must be present to negate any regard of gender-difference in thinking. Beginning with common tradition (the “Tyrant Custom”), Astell wants to destroy the notion that men think “analytically” while women's thoughts are based solely on emotions.


In maintaining the “disembodied mind” of Cartesian dualism, Astell, as the first woman who attacks Locke's “thinking matter,” makes it abundantly clear that she is intellectually equal with men. Most critics regard her particular criticism of Lockean theory to be comparable to Norris's and others' attacks on Locke.25 Nonetheless, Astell holds her own, presenting herself as a rational being capable of serious thought, as she attacks Locke's empiricism: “Most Men are so Sensualiz'd, that they take nothing to be Real but what they can Hear and See. Others who wou'd seem to be the most refined, make Sensation the fund of their Ideas, carrying their Contemplations no further than these, and the Reflections they make upon the operations of their Minds when thus employ'd” (Astell 1705, 295). Her solution, as she clearly identifies it in Serious Proposal, Part II, is to reject sensate knowledge in favor of the contemplation of pure abstract ideas, accepting for truth only what one can clearly and distinctly perceive.

Locke, of course, rejects this sort of meditation and mocks the necessity for abstract thinking: “You may as soon have Day-Labourers and Tradesmen, the Spinsters and Dairy Maids perfect Mathematicians, as to have them perfect in Ethicks this way. Hearing plain Commands, is the sure and only course to bring them to Obedience and Practice” (1695b, 279). He accuses the rationalists of clouding the essentials necessary for understanding Christianity when they make it sound “As if there were no way into the Church but through the Academy and Lyceum. … The greatest part of mankind have not leisure for learning and logic … [and] mysterious reasoning. ‘Tis well if men of rank (to say nothing of the other Sex) can comprehend plain propositions, and a short reasoning about the things familiar to their Minds, and nearly allied to their daily experience. Go beyond this, and you amaze the greatest part of mankind” (Locke 1695b, 92).

Astell responds directly to Locke's assault (1705, 399-400), but she also does not miss the misogynistic slurs suggesting that women are placed in the group of common laborers, incapable of having more than a cursory comprehension of God's reasoning beyond their daily existence. While she may be misinterpreting Locke (purposefully or not), her comment to his statement is merely to remind her readers that she is no different from any other woman and that if there appears to be a difference between women and men, or even between women and other women, then the dissimilitude arises only from the manner in which a woman (or man) applies herself to the pursuit of truth, “which is in every Womans Power” (Astell 1705, 94). Her hero, Descartes, had said that all that was necessary was “sufficient ingenuity in training and guiding them” (Descartes [1469] 1994, 348); any soul (male or female) is weaker than one that has been instructed.

As to Locke's “thinking matter,” which he sets forth in his third letter to Stillingfleet as a materialist ontogeny of thought, Locke concludes that God can superadd the property of thought, a spiritual “substance,” to parcels of matter (human beings), and then can either (1) arrange a “suitably organized system of matter” with some sort of neurophysiological connections, making it possible for matter to think (Locke [1695a] 1975, 4.3.6), or (2) add some immaterial power of thought (a something-or-another, which has regulating principles like the laws of nature, such as gravity) to mere matter. As Locke states, “we have the Ideas of Matter and Thinking, but possibly shall never be able to know, whether any mere material Being thinks, or no; it being impossible for us, but the contemplation of our own Ideas, without revelation, to discover, whether Omnipotency has not given to some systems of Matter fitly disposed, a power to perceive and think, or else joined and fixed Matter so disposed, a thinking Substance” (Locke [1695a] 1975, 4.3.6; italics in original). But whichever position [(1) or (2) as stated previously] is genuinely Locke's, what Astell sees is an inconsistency in this “thinking matter” notion. Being a good Cartesian, she is adamant in her position that matter (extension) can not “think,” because thought and body are exclusionary. Even the idea of a superaddition of thought to matter seems to confuse the issue,26 and Astell argues, “I know that a Triangle is not a Square, and that the Body is Not Mind,” and Locke's entire “maybe-God-did-this or maybe-that or maybe-something-different” positioning in his attempt to defend “thinking matter” really results in Locke's concession that the superaddition of thought to matter indicates a distinct separation between the two (Astell 1705, 256-60). ‘'Tis evident that a Thinking Being can't be Extended, and that an Extended Being does not, cannot Think any more than a Circle can have the Properties of a Triangle, or a Triangle those of a Circle” (Astell 1705, 250). Perhaps, she speculates, God can create a substance with the essence of thought and unite “this” thinking substance to the matter of the body, but even in creating this second “thinking” substance, the fact remains that “two” different things are being considered. While Astell is making this point for her own readers, Locke has already argued that this notion cannot be demonstrated (Squadrito 1987, 436). Locke says in his second letter to Stillingfleet, “that Omnipotency cannot make a substance to be solid and not solid at the same time, I think, with due reverence, may say; but that a solid substance may not have qualities, perfections, and powers, which have no natural or visibly necessary condition with solidity and extension, is too much for us … to be positive in” (Locke [1695a] 1975, 4.3.16). Satirically using Locke's own words against him, Astell responds:

Having so good authority as the Essay of Human Understanding on my side, I will presume to affirm that it is impossible for a Solid Substance to have Qualities, Perfections, and Powers, which have no Natural or Visible Connection with Solidity and Extension; and since there is no Visible Connection between Matter and Thought, it is impossible for Matter, or any Parcels of Matter to Think, at least for us to suppose it contains a Contradiction. … Thought and Extension being as incompatible to the same Substance, as the Properties of a Square and a Triangle are at the same time.

(Astell 1705, 259; italics in original)

Matter can not be “thinking,” she points out using Locke's statement, because “Thought and Extension” are not the same thing, sharing no similar properties or “visible connection.” Astell seems to ignore the numerous times when Locke contradicts himself and says that “Matter, incogitative Matter, and Motion … could never produce Thought” or “Unthinking Particles of Matter, however put together, can have nothing thereby added to them, but a new relation of position, which ‘tis impossible should give thought and knowledge to them” (Locke [1695a] 1975, 4.10.10, 16; italics in original). Locke says, though Astell chooses to ignore it, that matter can not produce thoughts without God's intervention. While Locke never fully concedes that God may have somehow managed to create a thinking substance that is solid and has some sort of nonsolid (immaterial power of thought), undetectable quality “added” or “superadded” to it, Astell ignores his admission of uncertainty and his inability to make a hard claim against the possibility of some nonsolid quality. Instead, she returns to her position that there is no visible connection between matter and thought, and, thus, she concludes, matter cannot think.

It should be noted that in her attempt to be satirical, Astell leaves herself open to a countering criticism. An accusation could be levied against her efforts to use Locke's own words effectively against him; by demanding a “Visible Connection between Matter and Thought,” Astell is precariously close to the notion of materialistic/empirical verification. However, what is more important to Astell is that Locke has already played the “thinking matter” card in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (2.1.4, 2.8.9-10, and 4.3.6), and she is, therefore, correct in pointing out his inconsistencies, even if her own argument falters. Consequently, Astell must return to her position that “thought” can only exist in a “disembodied mind” and has no direct relationship with matter. From a purely Cartesian perspective, there is no real need for a body in which the soul exists; Descartes calls a human being a “thinking thing,” and for him all that is necessary for the existence of thought is the existence of God. Implicit in Descartes's cogito is that even if I could possibly doubt my own existence, I know I exist because I'm thinking about it (ergo even if God is an Evil Genius, my thoughts tell me that I exist, with or without a body). Thus, extension is secondary to pure thought.

Astell calls Locke to the carpet again on another inconsistency: the likeness principles. She argues with his position that “thought” must be an essence or mode of the body if the body can in fact think. Using God as her example of a nonextended thing with thought, she sets out a rather lengthy argument that ends with the “Body is incapable of Thought” (Astell 1705, 251-52). She is responding directly to Locke's conclusion that with regard to God, “It necessarily follows, that the first eternal Being cannot be matter” (Locke [1695a] 1975, 4.10.10, 4.10.16). Despite Locke's concession of God's, a thinking Being's, immateriality, the devout Anglican Astell appears fearful of Locke's possible rejection of God's existence (as he has already nearly renounced Jesus Christ in his Reasonableness of Christianity), because pure thought cannot, in the materialist's view, exist without matter.

It is noteworthy, I believe, that all Locke has really conceded to is the causality of God, which relegates God to a simple law of nature. Astell may have been thinking about Locke's comments in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) or one of his letters to Stillingfleet where his treatment of gravity is quite similar to his ideas on God and thought, but I think she is misreading Locke if she anticipates eventual atheism for this particular materialist. All of his talk about “superaddition,” “annexation,” and “inherent incomprehensibility” should be enough to convince a reader either that he believed strongly in God or that his own philosophy was not sufficiently developed to explain the things that our senses could not easily understand. Not surprisingly, most critics of Locke actually lean toward the latter explanation, without even discussing his concept of God. But it is also Locke's inconsistency on the likeness principles that makes his critics, such as Astell and Norris, find it difficult to effectively dismantle his notion of thinking matter.27 If Astell is successful at anything in her criticisms of Locke in Christian Religion, it is in being one of the first of Locke's critics to demonstrate his inconsistencies. What a shame that in the great realm of post-Lockean male philosophers and political theorists, Astell's very major accomplishment is too often ignored. During the first two decades of the eighteenth century, her voice had been heard, but by the time of her death, Astell's role as Locke's first female critic was forgotten.

Though Astell never explicitly states it (at least not in what I have read thus far), I believe she most certainly considers and alludes to the notion that reducing thought to a mode of matter perpetuates the notion that women's thoughts are inferior to men's insomuch that tradition holds that women's bodies are inferior to men's (in endurance, strength, etc.). While Locke denies race, color, or sex as excluding descriptive indicators of the nominal essence of human beings, Astell's feministic political agenda prevents her from acknowledging this directly. Rather, she holds that it is the same sort of “Lockean” thinking (calling attention to physical differences between people) that, even today, makes it difficult for many women to accept pure materialism. Feministic theorizing includes the notion that until physiological (and even racial) distinctions are considered irrelevant to people's abilities, there remains a need (for people who are not white and/or heterosexual and/or men) to believe something exists independently of the body that has the potential for total equality (an equal playing field, of sorts). This kind of dualism between the finite body and the infinite mind/soul is especially necessary for women and other groups who have been made to feel inferior in the past. An equality of intellect (or even an individualization of the “will”) provides a positive avenue for a common entry into the field of uniformity. I think Astell would argue that Descartes's universal “good sense” was merely a glossing-over of the issues, but the notion provides an equitable opportunity by which women (and minorities) can hope to pursue, at least on a rational level, total equality with those who have in the past regarded them with low esteem and have considered non-white-European-males to be a kind of academic and social “lower-class.”


Astell's reasons for disliking Locke are probably grounded as much on his politics and his democratic theories as on her role as an English feminist; she was the first woman who criticized him in the press and who was writing on the subject of intellectual gender equality and abstracted rationalism (Perry 1990, 445). By basing political power on social contract, Locke neither denies nor affirms a woman's inferiority but consciously and consistently plays the issue down,28 though it remains clear that he is excluding women from his new ideas for government, which models “government as a contractual business rather than a family relationship” (Perry 1990, 450). Locke's social contract constitutes the political realm of men, while the marriage contract governs the private world of women. Yet Astell “strongly disagrees with this contractual account of the natural authority” (Browne 1987, 93).29 A social contract establishes the independence and individuality of a person according to his property-owning ability; thus, political rights are completely dependent upon the capacity to own property. In the marriage contract, during Astell's lifetime and centuries to come, women turned over their rights to own anything to their husbands and then, according to property laws at the time, and even in Locke's general theory, became property (or at least “wards”) of their husbands.

In Locke's system, women are equal to men only insomuch as a woman has the right to choose to whom (to which adult male) she will willfully relinquish control of her prenuptial property and subject herself to voluntary servitude. This “voluntary servitude,” which is predicted by Locke's “natural authority” prescriptiveness, presents a serious problem for not only women, but also for the middle and lower classes, for the ability to acquire property is the primary “symbol” and evidence, for Locke, of rationality. Property ownership, which coincides with a life of leisure during which time a man (or woman) may advance himself (or herself),30 is beyond the reach of a laborer or any person who has willfully given up control of his (or her) life and is paid by another person for services rendered.

Astell discerns that Locke places women on the same level as day-laborers and tradesmen (see earlier quote; Locke 1695b, 279). This presents a certain paradox for wives who have given control of their pre-marriage property rights to their husbands, whom Locke considers “abler and stronger” in matters of controlling property ([1689] 1988, II. 82). No matter how much the wife studies and strives to become her husband's intellectual equal, she will have no “symbol” to prove her rational capabilities (i.e., no property). It is interesting that Astell had chosen neither to marry nor to acquire property during her lifetime, defying the traditional role for women and practically denying her own gender status to remain fiercely independent.

In politics, where she is a Tory activist and pamphleteer, she notes that Locke's doctrines of self-preservation and property acquisition are in direct conflict with one's Christian duty (Astell 1705, 133, 304-07)31 and that he never even considers single adult women's rights or political status. As a Tory and Anglican, Astell challenges Locke to extend his claim for liberty against the Crown and to offer to women a form of liberty against domestic tyrants. Astell explicitly refers to Locke in her Christian Religion (1705, sections 139, 312; 133, 305-06) and An Impartial Enquiry (1704a, 10) as she argues against Locke's tenet of self-preservation, which she regards as central to his religious apostasy in Reasonableness of Christianity (Locke 1695b). In Enquiry she warns,

Beware of every one who wou'd draw you into a necessity of believing, that your Liberties and Estates are in some danger, who wou'd give you such a Prospect, and work you into such a Persuasion, and so draw you in by the old Cant of Self-Preservation, tho' they seem to demonstrate ever so great a necessity: much more ought you to abhor being drawn in by the bare meaning of it, at least if you have any regard to real Self-Preservation, and think your Souls of greater moment than your Lives or Estates.

(Astell 1704a, 10; italics in original)

She asks in Christian Religion, “What then is Self-Preservation, that Fundamental Law of Nature, as some call it, to which all other laws, Divine as well as Human, are made to do Homage? Very well; for it does not consist in the Preservation of the Person or Composite, but in preserving the Mind from Sin, the Mind which is truly the Self” (Astell 1704a, 305; italics in original). This quote and particularly last line, “the Mind which is truly the Self,” pulls together her main criticisms of Locke: (1) the “Mind” is the individual self, not the body, as Locke's self-preservation theory maintains; (2) “might makes right” (the law of nature) is only valid and applicable if one is talking about the might of the mind over the body in an effort to avoid sinning against God, and (3) the law of self-preservation does not justify opposing the divine right of kings. Metaphysically, theologically, and politically, Astell maintains that the law of nature (Locke's self-preservation) is subordinate to “true” self-preservation, because the self is not a body but a mind.

Continuing the previous quote, Astell states that genuine “self” preservation (i.e., salvation) comes from “preserving the Mind from Sin, the Mind which is truly the Self, and which ought to be secur'd at all hazards. It is this Self-Preservation and no other, that is a Fundamental Sacred and unalterable Law, as might easily be prov'd were this the proper place; which Law he obeys, and he only, who will do or suffer any thing rather than Sin” (Astell 1704a, 306; italics in original). For Astell, it is a mind/body distinction. While Locke is interested in preserving the body, Astell adheres to Cartesian dualism by elevating the Mind, “which is truly the self.” A person, as a “self,” is not Lockean “thinking matter” but is a Cartesian “thinking thing.” The disembodied mind is “who” a person is, and the gendered body is meaningless to individuality and identity.

Contemporary as well as earlier political theorists have noted that primary to Locke's contract system is the motive of self-preservation for an end, and likewise, tacit consent is a motive of self-preservation as the means. Astell notes in her Reflections Upon Marriage, “If mere Power gives Right to Rule, there can be no such thing as Usurpation; but a Highway-Man, so long as he has strength to force, has also a Right to require our Obedience” (Astell 1706, preface, x). She uses the test case of the Highway-Man over and over again in her writings to argue against Locke's position of natural law, but it is noteworthy that it was Locke who introduced the metaphor of the highway-man with the claim that “amongst men, till there were constituted great Commonwealths, it was thought no dishonour to be a Pyrate or High-way Theefe” (Locke [1689] 1988, 390); but he goes on to define the limits of self-preservation and the right to protect personal property: “For though I may kill a thief that sets upon me in the Highway, yet I may not (which seems less) take away his Money and let him go; this would be Robbery on my side. His force and the state of War he put himself in, made him forfeit his Life, but gave me no Title to his Goods” (Locke [1689]1988, 390). Thinking about this passage, Astell follows her comments in the above quoted passage from the preface to Reflections with an analogy between the citizen's tacit consent to a rogue government in the state and to a rogue government in a familial household, in which “tacit” consent is thinly veiled. Candidly challenging Locke's own analogy in The Two Treatises ([1689] 1988, 404-05) between state and family, she asks,

Again, if Absolute Sovereignty be not necessary in a State, how comes it to be so in Family? or if in a Family, why not in a State; since no Reason can be alledg'd for the one which will not hold more strongly for the other? If the Authority of the Husband so far as it extends, is sacred and inalienable, why not of the Prince? The Domestic Sovereign is without Dispute Elected, and the Stipulations and Contract are mutual, is it not then partial in Men to the last degree, to contend for, and practice that Arbitrary Dominion in their Families, which they abhor and exclaim against the State?

(Astell 1706, preface, x)

A little later in the same passage, Astell makes the infamous declaration, “By how much 100,000 Tyrants are worse than one” (Astell 1706, preface, x; italics in original). The analogy then becomes a calculated argument, no longer one which only holds to the Tory position of Absolute Monarchy, but one which centers and grounds her case against a wife's subordination to her husband: “What tho' a Husband can't deprive a Wife of Life without being responsible to the Law, he may however do what is much more grievous to a generous Mind, render Life miserable, for which she has no Redress, scarce Pity which is afforded to every other Complainant. It being a Wife's Duty to suffer everything without Complaint” (Astell 1706, 11). Astell uses Locke's own words ([1689] 1988, 142) to rephrase a question: “If all Men are born free, how is it that all 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? and if the Essence of Freedom consists, as our Masters say it does, in having a standing Rule to live by? And why is Slavery so much condemn'd and strove against in one Case, and so highly applauded and held so necessary and so sacred in another?” (Astell, 1706, 11; italics in original).32 If reason could not sanction tyrannical rule, whether Domestic or governmental, then neither could it disenfranchise either of them. If women were permitted to be their domestic masters' slaves, then should not men willingly agree to the rule of a monarch? This argument of Astell's is often regarded as one of the best against Locke's contractual system (Shanley 1979; Hinton 1967-68; Pateman 1988, 1989). She rejects contractualism in general, insomuch as there is rarely, if ever, a situation into which two free and equal individuals willingly engage; always some sort of domination and subordination exists. Supposedly in the marriage contract, there is the conjugally equal trade in bodies, but even if in bed a man and woman are equal, the wife still has a “Duty” to her husband, and he is the one who legally owns all of her prenuptial property. To Astell, Lockean contractual theory makes a mockery of the sacrament of marriage.

In repeating her question, “How is it that all Women are born slaves,” I can say that Astell only offers the opportunity of education and inclination (as well as her own personal refusal to marry) as solutions for what she regards as blatant inequality between the genders. But though she alludes to women's rights outside of education, she has left no hard record concerning her opinion on civil, property, or reproductive rights. Still, it must be recalled that while she was legally prohibited from engaging in the political social contract of men, she also voluntarily refused to participate in the marital contract, which Locke regarded as the women's world. Perhaps Astell's refusal to submit to the enslaving contract of marriage is the reason that some scholars describe her as a radical feminist.


Mary Astell, the champion of women's intellectual opportunities based on rational ability, adheres to Descartes's philosophy for at least two reasons: (1) Descartes provides a methodical way to knowing truth, and, perhaps even more importantly to Astell, (2) he clearly separates the gendered body from the nongendered “disembodied mind,” which Astell identifies as the true “self.” Without the sexual bias of “feminine” thought, Astell can present her ideas in an androgynous scholarly field. Some recent Cartesian scholars have suggested that the objectivity and purity in cognitive thinking for Descartes is conclusively “masculine,” while it also includes the emotions, the senses, and the imagination, those modes of thought that have traditionally been regarded as “feminine,”33 as part of a “mature” and controlled soul. According to this kind of hypothesizing, a woman's “womanhood” stands in diametrical opposition to the impersonal, dispassionate, rational thought process, for the very concept of “maternal” carries with it the connotation of uncontrolled “emotional” empathy. The Cartesian thinker, if she is a woman, supposedly must deny her womanhood if she chooses to enter into the traditionally masculine realm of pure reasoning and impersonal detachment. In other words, she must become androgynous, at least in thought. Or more realistically, she (or any man, for that matter) must learn to temper the passions and to allow only reason to dominate.

Astell doesn't view the mind as either masculine or feminine, nor does she believe that Descartes intended for this sort of distinction. While he argues that passions and emotions need to be controlled, Descartes points to age-differences rather than gender-differences in matters of educating the soul (see note 7 of this essay). For Mary Astell (and John Norris and other early English Cartesian feminists), the mind is distinct from the gendered body; the “mind,” as the true “self,” exists as neither masculine nor feminine. Analogously, Astell's opposition to Locke's “thinking matter” should most likely be regarded as a reaction against the traditional Aristotelian view that women are “impotent males” and never capable of being equal because of bodily difference. If the mind remains separated from “matter” (the body), then the physiological dissimilitude between men and women (the “sexual defect”) is of no consequence for in matters of rationalization they are equal. If any “deficiency” remains in women's intellectual capacity, it “could only be a result of their lack of educational and social opportunities for improving their minds,” nothing else (Mitchell 1984, 64).

Had the term been coined by the early 1700s, Astell probably would not have called herself a “feminist”; purely and simply (or “clearly and distinctly” as Descartes would say), she regards herself as a metaphysician interested in providing equal educational opportunities for women and in dispelling the notion that women are somehow intellectually inferior to men. She is a proponent of self-determination, and, for her, Descartes's method provides a possible instantiation for finding one's true freedom (and, thus, one's true self) through the process of liberating the mind to opportunities of “self”-discovery. Still, in today's terminology, that Astell denies gender distinctions classifies her as a “radical” feminist; the body's limitations are in no way indicative of the potential accomplishments of the mind (consider Stephen Hawking). Astell demonstrates through her writings that “willful ignorance” (on the part of the women) and “Tyrant Custom” (in general society) are the only things preventing women from reaching intellectual equality and ultimately, and, more importantly for Astell, from understanding innate abstract truths acquired through contemplation. Although she voluntarily accepts the dictates necessary for what has been/is traditionally considered “masculine” ratiocination to prove her own arguments, she never asks any woman to deny her own gender. Astell simply wants each woman to move beyond her designation as “female” to nongendered reasoning and pure rationality in a disembodied “self.”

While I have demonstrated that there are fundamental differences between Astell's Cartesian dualistic thinking and Locke's empirically-minded theories, I also suggest that perhaps Astell's animosity toward Locke's “thinking matter” simply provides a soap box from which she can demonstrate that she is Locke's intellectual equal, rather than that she is retaliating for his (and Masham's) public critiques of her work. Although she would never phrase it as such, perhaps Astell's “cogito” should have been, “I think, therefore I am any person's equal”;34 and her admonition to her sisters seems to have been, “You think, therefore you are also equal.” Identity and identification of a “self” as a mind without a body carries with it no gender distinction. Although no one could say for certain what her favorite verse in the Bible is, she does quote and paraphrase Galatians 3: 28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” On numerous occasions and through all of her works, Astell notes that the only differences between men and women, and people in general, are “opportunity” and “inclination”; and that the limitations, which she wants to eliminate, on women's advancement are based on errant opinion and “willful ignorance.”

Not only was Mary Astell the first female English feminist, but she was also the first female philosopher to point to Locke's inconsistencies and the first woman to denounce Locke's politico-sociological positioning of women and wives. Astell never regarded herself in her writings as a revolutionary author, because equality between the genders seemed to be a given (once women realized that men saw them as something “Other” than masculinized humanity) if rationalization was the normative for defining “human” being. Women are “property” only if men make them feel that they are, and if they accept the erroneous notion they have no freedom of their own. Astell had seen what many women and men today do not see: Descartes's method is a tool that promotes freedom and self-determination. Self-determination means the freedom to create a gender-neutral “self.” And while the gendered body becomes unimportant, no one can really deny the external difference between a penis and testicles, and a vagina and breasts. But, according to Descartes and Astell, the body's “housing” doesn't matter. What is important is the disembodied (gender-less) mind, the “true” self. And on that point, Astell would say that women and men are identical, and this is why early feminists, such as Astell and Norris, welcomed and embraced Cartesian Dualism. As the first English feminist and female political and philosophical critic of Locke, Astell concludes and signs her original Proposal ([1694, 1697] 1970) with a title that she can comfortably call herself until she dies, that of her desire to remain “A lover of her Sex.”


  1. I am indebted to Robert J. Mulvaney, Jeremiah M. Hackett, and Samuel J. Strickland, and various other readers for their comments and support during the writing of this paper.

  2. Squadrito states that Astell “was a well-known Platonist during her time” (1987, 433), and “known by scholars of the day as the ‘philosophical lady’” (1987, 434). Astell herself considered the last to be a title of ridicule (Hill 1986, 129). Her reputation should not be surprising, insomuch as she was a close friend of Lady Catherine Jones, the great-niece of Robert Boyle; see Browne (1987, 95) and Astell ([1694, 1697] 1970, 28).

  3. Astell rejected most of Hobbes's and Locke's ethics, epistemologies, and especially their construct of a “state of nature.” Perry (1990) focuses on Locke's politics and Astell's negative reactions.

  4. Letter to Vatier, 22 February 1638; cited in Lloyd (1984, 44).

  5. Astell writes in Serious Proposal, “Ignorance is the cause of most Feminine Vices, … and like error of the first Concoction, spread its ill Influences through all our lives. … Thus ignorance and a narrow education lay the Foundation of Vice, and Imitation and Custom rear it up. … 'Tis Custom, therefore, that Tyrant Custom, which is the grand motive to all irrational choices. … Since GOD has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, why should they be forbidden to improve them?” ([1684, 1697] 1970, 6-7, 10-11, 18).

  6. See Descartes's opening paragraph in his Discourse on the Method (1637).

  7. Some of my readers have called attention to a passage in Descartes's Passions in which he writes, “For since we are able, with a little effort, to change the movements of the brains in animals devoid of reason [such as the dogs he was discussing earlier], with it [it] is evident that we can do still more effectively in the case of men. Even those who have the weakest souls could acquire mastery over all their passions if we employed sufficient ingenuity in training and guiding them” (Descartes [1649] 1994, I. 348). My argument throughout this essay is that Astell is agreeing with this statement and that she is reading “mankind” into Descartes's word for “men.” Still relying on the Passions, I think there is adequate grounds for her agreeing with this position; in section 133 (Descartes [1649] 1994, I. 374), Descartes notes that there are definite differences between souls with regard to ages (“children and old people”) that cause them (the children and the old people) to be overcome by passions. However, no gender distinction is mentioned, although there is an explicit age discrimination.

  8. For the brevity of this essay, Astell's long passage, which contains a direct quote from Descartes's Principles (1644) and which Astell notes marginally in her text as being from “part I, para.45” of his work, has been included in these “Notes,” mostly to demonstrate how closely she tries to imitate Descartes, that “Celebrated Author.” Astell writes, “The First and Principle thing therefore to be observed in all Operations of the Mind is, That we determine nothing about those things of which we have not a Clear Idea, and as Distinct as the Nature of the Subject will permit, for we cannot properly be said to Know any thing which does not Clearly and Evidently appear to us. Whatever we see Distinctly we likewise see clearly, Distinction always includes Clearness, though this does not necessarily include that, there being many Objects Clear to the view of the Mind, which can't yet be seen to be distinct. That (to use the words of a Celebrated Author) may be said to be ‘Clear which is Present and Manifest to an attentive Mind, so as we say we see Objects Clearly, when being present to our Eyes they sufficiently act on ‘em, and our Eyes are disposed to regard 'em. And that Distinct, which is so Clear, Particular, and Different from all other things, that it contains not anything in itself which appears not manifestly to him who considers it as he ought’” (Astell [1697] 1970, II, 102).

  9. Because of Perry's succinctness in summarizing Astell's “method,” I will quote her: “These steps were: (1) define the questions and terms, (2) weed out all issues not directly connected to the matter under consideration, (3) proceed in an orderly fashion, (4) examine every aspect of the subject and subdivide the question into as many parts as necessary for perfect understanding, (5) judge no further than you perceive, taking nothing for the truth that has not been proven” (Perry 1986, 481, note 67).

  10. Besides Hobbes and Locke, Astell makes a few jabs at John Milton (Astell 1706, 27).

  11. Interestingly, it was initially believed that Damaris Masham had written Part I of Serious Proposal (Smith 1916, 113; Perry 1986, 87). Only after Masham criticized the Astell-Norris letters was the authorship of Part I known with certainty (Springborg 1995, 622).

  12. Squadrito comments that Astell frequently uses the terms “simple idea” and “perceive” in the Lockean sense, demonstrating both the influence of Descartes and Locke in her earliest work, Serious Proposal, Part I (Squadrito 1987, 435, note 8).

  13. Perry notes that Astell “admired [Norris] as a thinker who criticized Locke for relegating God to an unimportant role in the way that human senses build up ideas” and thus, decided to begin a correspondence with him (Perry 1986, 73). “Norris criticized Locke for not exploring the nature of ideas and of thought (as opposed to the origin of ideas) and for not distinguishing what he called ‘objective’ or absolute truth from contingent phenomena. Furthermore, he pointed out that Locke's theory of the origin of ideas in the senses only holds for ideas of bodies and does not account for moral or metaphysical ideas such as Order, Truth, Justice, Good, Being, and so on” (Perry 1986, 75).

  14. There has been a pointless discussion as to whether Serious Proposal, Part I had four or five printed editions. Ruth Perry, the current authority on Astell, lists four editions of Part I by itself and a joint edition with Part II in 1697, the same year that Part II was released singularly (Perry 1986, 459-60).

  15. See also Browne (1987, 98-99) and Perry (1986, 88-91).

  16. Astell ([1694, 1697] 1970, 20, 84, 119, 144, 148).

  17. Astell traces Locke's political career in her Moderation Truly Stated (1704b), beginning with his original support of the Anglican church, his seduction by Shaftesbury and consequent antagonism against the monarchy, his role as a propagandist for William III, and his continual typical Whiggish partisanship. In various places within her works, Astell refers to Locke as “a Socinian, an Epicurean, a party man, a defender of liberty, property, choice, and Dissent” (Springborg 1995, 630). Although Astell initially respects “the great Mr. L,” after he and his cronies begin to ridicule her philosophical opinions, she makes the claim in her Christian Religion that “Reason and Religion do not weigh with them” (Astell 1705, 154). Both personally and philosophically, Locke and Masham (and those like-minded) quickly fall from her graces.

  18. See Atherton (1994, 98).

  19. See also O'Donnell (1978, 1984).

  20. In section 87 of Christian Religion, Astell expresses her doubt that it was in fact Locke who wrote the anonymous Discourse, instead condemning “the Author” who has “not seen fit to discover himself” (Astell 1705, 82). Earlier, in the opening paragraphs of the book, she writes that it was “a Physician, a Layman, a Gentleman, and a Lady” who seemed to be undermining Christianity with their brand of religion, and she even doubts “if they are Christians” (Astell 1705, 2; italics in original). Her comments about “a Lady” imply that she is aware that Lady Damaris Masham wrote Discourse, and yet Astell makes it clear that she had believed Masham was writing under Locke's influence, thereby justifying her criticism of Masham's tract along with Locke's known and identified writings.

  21. Lady Masham is interesting in her own right. As a materialistic philosopher and one of “Locke's ladies,” her two major works, Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) and Occasional Thoughts and reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705), were written in direct response to Astell's books. Masham's second piece, which was published only four months after Astell's Christian Religion (1705), had actually been written a few years earlier, while Locke was still living, and is probably more his words than her own, although it is clear that Masham was a down-to-earth pragmatist who was more interested in today's “reality” than in Astell's abstract and idealistic preparations for the here-after.

  22. Astell seems to have felt that the Anglican faith is the “natural” religion and is polar to Locke's questionable Christianity. For her, law and religion are kindred realms bound up in Tory politics, summed up in God's ordination of the right of Kings. In a direct attack against Locke, she writes in Moderation Truly Stated that “the Government is almost shatter'd to pieces, and we're within a hair's breadth of being once more in the State of Nature” (Astell 1704b, 12). In this passage, she also manages to link Locke's politics with his epistemology, calling him a “Low Churchman” who “annex[es] to the word a determinate idea” (Astell 1704b, 10-11). In An Impartial Inquiry, Astell once again links Locke's religious ideas, politics, and epistemology, this time criticizing his “association of ideas” while claiming that holding to the “Precepts of our Holy Religion,” people should reject Locke's Whig partisan spirit and turn a deaf ear on such a “Cunning and Factious Man” (Astell 1704a, 40).

    Locke's version of natural religion is more akin to Thrasymachus's concept of “justice,” that physical “might” is stronger than spiritual “right.” For Astell, natural religion is recognizing God's “might” in nature and adhering to the tenets of the Anglican church; anything else is unnatural and unreasonable (see Astell 1704b, 10-12).

  23. In a later passage, Astell accuses the author of Discourse (which she implies was Locke's although she probably realized was Masham's work) of a blend of humanism with theology and politics: “[E]verything is not True which we find in the Discourses of our Modern Authors, who not only refine upon Philosophy, by which they do services to the World; and upon Politcks, by which they mean to serve their Party; but even upon Christianity it self, pretending to give us a more Reasonable Account of it, which they mean somewhat more agreeable to their Genius and own Conveniency, for their Systems, so far as I can find, do no manner of Service to decaying Piety, and mistaken slander'd Christianity” (Astell 1705, 135; italics in original).

  24. Harth's excellent book on women who employed Descartes's “method” never mentions Astell by name (1992).

  25. See Perry (1986, 96).

  26. Of course the “superaddition” theory may simply be perceived, as Astell did (and still is presently by some Lockean scholars), as a hypothetical alternative to the notion of a priori innate ideas.

  27. Wilson has written an interesting article on the inconsistencies in Locke's mind/matter theory. She states that the subject of “Locke's treatment of thought or mind in relation to the body” is a neglected one (Wilson 1979, 144), but, then, it is possible that Wilson never read Astell's Christian Religion.

  28. Whatever else can be said about Locke, he does suggest to a female friend that a woman's education should be similar to a man's: “Acknowledge no difference in your mind relating … to truth, virtue, and obedience” (“Letter to Mrs. Clark”; Rand 1927, 102-03).

  29. In John Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife (1697), Lady Brute wonders if the intolerable behavior on the part of a king, which automatically grants a legal separation to his wife, should be extended to all unjust husbands who become like tyrants. Because Astell cannot agree with the notion of a contractual relationship between husband and wife, she takes the almost anticipated religious position of recommending martyrdom for the mistreated woman and adherence to the Christian doctrine to love one's enemies (Astell 1705, 133, 304-07; Browne 1987, 93).

  30. Most women in the seventeenth century did not have the leisure time necessary to pursue the contemplative life, for there were babies to nurse and households to run. The routineness of everyday living was a hindrance to even Descartes himself, and he wrote, “Sometimes the interests of my household … so thoroughly deject this weak mind … that it remains for a long time afterwards, useless for anything else” (in Lloyd 1984, 49). The intrusions of mundane existence prohibit periods of contemplation and force the mind into accepting its interaction with the body, which appear to exhaust Descartes.

  31. See Acts 4: 32-37.

  32. Astell is referring to passages from the Two Treatises ([1689] 1988, 283-84, 367), which she finds to be contradictory.

  33. Bordo (1987) has a compelling argument for Descartes having “reasonably” murdered Mother Nature and Plato's World Soul through this masculinized thought, homicides that resulted in the further denotation of women as the “Other,” something mysterious and easily denigrated; see particularly Chapter 6.

  34. What Astell actually says in Christian Religion, following a Cartesian train of thought to establish her own existence, is “I am only because He is,” leading her to conclude her existence required the existence of some prior being who must be “Absolute and Infinite Perfection” and therefore God, “since God is by supposition the most Perfect Being” (Astell 1705, 6-8).


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Van C. Hartmann (essay date 1998)

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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 religious and political ideas most often associated with the male Tory satirists. Because Astell's writings seemed to straddle two conflicting ideologies, one an apparent challenge to patriarchal society, and the other a spirited defense of the old patriarchal order, otherwise enthusiastic scholars, from Regina Janes to Felicity Nussbaum, have sometimes lamented the limitation that her religious and political conservatism imposed on her feminism. As a result, some of Astell's most interesting writings have been neglected. One work about which critics have remained surprisingly silent is Bart'lemy Fair: or, An Enquiry After Wit,1 her scathing attack on the ethic of toleration espoused by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, in his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm. Astell first published Bart'lemy Fair in 1709, a year after Shaftesbury anonymously published his Letter. She then republished it, with a new preface, in 1722, at the height of the Atterbury controversy, just a few years before the major Scriblerian publications of the 1720s. Astell's one hundred seventy-five page tract provides a wide-ranging refutation of modern economic and cultural values, cast in the form of a simple enquiry into the definition of “wit.” As her enquiry proceeds. Astell extends her critique to encompass many of the targets of her Tory contemporaries: liberty, luxury, foreign trade, social leveling, religious toleration, deism, philosophical materialism, and above all, the new popular culture of entertainment and consumerism that was eroding established religious and social values.

Mary Astell deserves recognition as a significant participant in the conservative opposition to the Whig ascendancy in the early eighteenth century. Her pamphlet anticipates Swift's break with the Whigs by identifying the same combination of monstrous paradox and predatory consumerism in Shaftesbury's bourgeois liberalism that Jonathan Swift would discover in the Godolphin ministry just a year later. It also anticipates Pope's Dunciad when it combines the imagery of Bartholomew Fair with imagery of Lucretian atomism and cosmic collapse to reveal the aesthetic, social, economic, and moral chaos which, she believes, will result from Shaftesbury's philosophy. In both respects, Astell's pamphlet illustrates the unsettling impact that the new capitalism was having on social relations and human identity, especially for women, and thus helps us understand the essential continuity between High Church Tory conservatism and Astell's progressive feminism. At the core of that understanding must be a recognition of the process of alienation that was settling upon those like Astell, Swift, and Pope, who, for their different reasons, were finding themselves marginalized, and the fruits of their labors commodified, by the new economics. In their search for fully human identities, rooted in a meaningful sense of community, they turned to the traditional, patriarchal order of the past. In doing so, they provided cogent analyses of their own alienation, and, in the case of Mary Astell, a perceptive feminist response to the new forms of inequality and dehumanization being promulgated by emergent capitalistic economics and Whig liberalism.

It is not a little ironic that Astell originally identified Swift as one of the authors of Shaftesbury's Letter, and that her response provoked his satiric retaliation in The Tatler. In Bart'lemy Fair's energetic raillery, mixed with ironic, paradoxical inversions; in its analysis of the dangers of a monster breeding wit that escalates beyond common sense to madness; and, in its rejection of philosophical materialism, Shaftesburian liberalism, and Whig economics, Astell uses weapons and arguments similar to those Swift would use when he took up the Tory cause in his Examiner essays a year later. In its use of Bartholomew Fair as a controlling metaphor for the chaos spawned by false wit and social leveling, in its implicit appeal to Horace, in its use of puppet imagery to characterize the collapse of moral identity, and in its ironic play on the concepts of the latter days and the golden age, Astell's Bart'lemy Fair anticipates the imagery and thematic concerns of Pope's Dunciad. Thus, Astell presents her feminist analysis through the sharply paradoxical idiom of the male Tory satirists.

It must be emphasized that Astell's choice of Bartholomew Fair as both title and controlling metaphor for her pamphlet aligns her particularly with Swift's and Pope's attacks on contemporary popular culture. Bartholomew Fair reverberated with special significance for the early eighteenth century. Established in the reign of Henry I by his jester Rahere as a trade fair attached to the Priory of St. Bartholomew, Bartholomew Fair, by the time Shaftesbury wrote his Letter had become a six-hundred-year-old exemplum of unrestrained commercial activity, crass popular entertainment, and licentious indulgence that continually overflowed whatever boundaries attempted to contain it. Ben Jonson played on these associations when he used Bartholomew Fair as the setting for his satire of puritan hypocrisy early in the seventeenth century. During the early eighteenth century, the Fair experienced a resurgence that made it an even more apt emblem, as new entrepreneurs of entertainment, described by Pat Rogers (28-33), invested heavily in what J. H. Plumb has termed “the commercialization of leisure” (265-85).

The question remains, however, why an early feminist, for whom toleration of divergent lifestyles for women was paramount, would embrace the cause and the idioms of the conservative reaction against progressive Whig politics. Joan Kinnaird and Ruth Perry are two critics who have offered cogent analyses of the essential continuity within this apparent contradiction. Kinnaird locates that continuity in Astell's deep commitment to “corporate responsibility,” as opposed to the “personal fulfillment or self-expression” valued by modern feminism (73). Ruth Perry has argued that Astell's dual allegiances to gender and class “positioned her to see the asocial and androcentric aspects of liberal political ideology” (“Possessive Individualism” 457). Perry reminds us that the Glorious Revolution and the justification Locke gave for it in his Second Treatise on Government signaled the onset of a “world of possessive individualism … in which the only players who matter are adult white men, competing with one another and adjudicating their disputes with contrasts” (450). Finally, Bridget Hill has shown that the end result of capitalist reorganization of industry and agriculture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the exclusion of women from many occupations in which they had previously been able to make a living. Communal and family relationships were being converted into what were more exclusively property relationships, in which wives were legally defined as part of that property; and, with the loss of other means for their survival, women were finding it increasingly necessary to subject themselves to the mercenary relationship that marriage had become (21). In this context, the alliance between feminist enlightenment and conservative political reaction was especially appropriate. In both her feminism and her High Church Toryism, Astell proclaimed the corporate view of a society bound together by mutual responsibilities, and rooted in the paradigm of the family, as the alternative to that acquisitive aggression being released by the new economic and philosophical individualism, which was threatening both communal relationships in general, and women in particular.

If one still reads in Astell's life and works a narrative of contradiction, that contradiction is a representative response to the flux of her time; it is, in fact, a contradiction shared by Swift, Alexander Pope, and the Scriblerians in their own attempts to respond to what Laura Brown has described as “the cultural impact of a system of generalized commodity exchange” (4). If, conversely, the polarities of Swift's and Pope's thought find unity in a deeper consistency of values, as, indeed, critics like Irvin Ehrenpreis and Maynard Mack have shown, so, too, do the polarities of Astell's thought. For Astell, as for Swift and Pope, human identity finds its truest fulfillment not in capitalistic individualism but in community; not in the exchange of commodities but in the commonality of human experience, which, in turn, finds its locus in the shared cultural and religious tradition that was being lost in the creation of modern capitalistic Europe.

Mary Astell's family and religious background, her subsequent friendships, and the political issues that engaged her attention suggest affinities with Swift and Pope that warrant fuller emphasis than critics have given them. Perry has documented Astell's close personal relationships with the Atterbury household, with the Duchess of Ormonde, with the Duchess of Chandos, and with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Celebrated Mary Astell). These relationships, among others, connect her directly with people who played major, if at times differing, roles in the dramas of Swift's and Pope's own lives. Her distaste for the Whig-dominated Kit-Kat Club, with what she saw as its mixture of atheistic frivolity and self-indulgent consumption, anticipates Swift's and Pope's subsequent decisions to break with the Whigs and, ultimately, to join forces with Gay, Arbuthnot, Bolingbroke, and Harley in the political and cultural opposition that became the Scriblerians. Astell's fervent support of that opposition following the death of Queen Anne, her intense antipathy to Walpole during his political rise under the Hanoverians, and, in particular, her loyalty to Atterbury during his trial and exile, engaged her in the same extended battle that commanded so much of Swift's and Pope's attention during the 1720s and 1730s.

More significant, perhaps, were Astell's origins in the traditionally Roman Catholic and royalist community of Newcastle, which had suffered political and economic disenfranchisement at the hands of a rising class of Puritan parliamentarians, then at the hands of Whig entrepreneurs. Her loss of her father at an early age, and the family's consequent financial vulnerability; her subsequent need to make her lone way in the world without family support; and, especially, her status as a single woman of relative poverty, all but assured her economic and social marginality within the new power structures settling into place at the start of the eighteenth century (Perry, Celebrated Mary Astell 24-54). While Swift and Pope obviously benefited from their status as men in ways that were closed to Astell, both also experienced a marginality that predisposed them to feel the dehumanizing effects of the new economic order. Jonathan Middleton Murray has called Swift “a homeless man” (13), and Ehrenpreis has documented in depth how the half-orphaned, Anglo-Irish outsider's quest for both father figures and personal dignity led to Swift's frustrating pursuit of career and identity through “the dying order” of the High Church Tories and the so-called “Old Whigs” (1: 250). As Maynard Mack has shown, Pope's personality was also shaped, in part, by “a nagging consciousness of exclusion” (79), imposed by his status as a disenfranchised Roman Catholic (285). That consciousness could only have been intensified by his disfiguring illness, as Roger Lund has argued, and by the increasingly virulent attacks launched largely, but not exclusively, by the Whig ministry's hacks on the poetic self—what Peter Quennell has termed “the dignified status of honnête homme” (254), and Dustin Griffin has aptly labeled the “poet in the poems”—that Pope repeatedly attempted to nurture.

Finally, as persons of letters, all three writers—Pope, Swift, and Astell—experienced that profound change in the relationship between writer and patron, which, according to Lewis Coser, gave rise to a professional class of alienated intellectuals as “booksellers replaced patrons as a source of support,” as “bookselling [became] a major branch of commerce,” and as “intellectual products [became] a commodity” (42). All three felt the concrete, practical consequences of this commodification; indeed, all three experienced what Bertrand Goldgar has described as the “alienation of literary figures from the world of public action” (Walpole and the Wits 6) caused by the economically voracious Walpole government—a government devoted to business enterprises and “which made no bones about its hostility to men of letters and its contempt for their role in society” (8). When Astell responds to these new economic forces in Bart'lemy Fair, she both anticipates the responses Swift and Pope will voice in their turn and reveals the even greater difficulties encountered by an intellectual eighteenth-century woman in her attempts to develop a fully-integrated human identity, as opposed to the trivialized commodity to which her society would relegate her.

When Astell first published Bart'lemy Fair as a reply to Shaftesbury's anonymous Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, she mistakenly attributed the Letter to the “illustrious Society of the Kit-Cats, who with their Tales of a Tub, lead captive silly Women” (83). In other words, Astell believed Swift to be the instigator, and Richard Steele, whose remarkable new publication, The Tatler, had followed close upon the Letter in early 1709, to be the actual author. Astell was not alone in suspecting Swift of complicity in the Letter's authorship, however, nor in assuming that he made his bed with the Whigs. In a letter of September 14, 1708, to the Whig poet Ambrose Philips, Swift himself protests that “All my Friends will have me to be the Author” (Correspondence 1: 100). Whatever changes Astell may eventually have made in her assessment of Swift, her judgment of Steele's Tatler remained firm. When she republished Bart'lemy Fair some twelve years later, long after Shaftesbury had acknowledged his authorship of the Letter, she continued to accuse the Tatler of having “made himself a Partner in the Crime” (Advertisement).

Nor was Astell wrong in her fundamental judgment. At the core of Steele's new enterprise lay an appeal to consumerism hardly alien to the philosophical and political thrust of Shaftesbury's Letter. Richmond Bond's analysis of the Tatler reveals the commercial dimension of Steele's venture in 1709, a dimension that suggests that this refiner of public taste was also a member of that “new class of person,” described by Pat Rogers as “the purveyor or entrepreneur of entertainment” (3). While Steele cultivated taste, he also promoted the consumption of entertainment, along with other commodities, in a manner characteristic of the increasingly robust capitalism of his day. The Tatler was a business venture that sought a profit from selling its own new form of pleasure to a new class of consumers, as Steele himself makes clear when, in his first issue (No. 1: Tuesday, April 12, 1709), he documents the capital outlays that necessitated his “Penny a Piece” charge. But Steele's profits did not depend solely on the sale of issues any more than do those of a twentieth-century newspaper or magazine. Bond enumerates the growing and diverse nature of the advertisements that brought income to the Tatler and increasingly intruded upon its visual layout (30-7). In a late issue (No. 224: September 12, 1710), the Tatler (at this point, perhaps Addison) writes with no little enthusiasm of “those Collections of Advertisements that appear at the End of all our publick Prints,” noting that “a Man that is by no Means big enough for the Gazette may easily creep into the Advertisements, by which Means, we often see an Apothecary in the same Paper of News with a Plenipotentiary or a Running Footman with an Ambassador. An Advertisement from Picadilly goes down to Posterity with an Article from Madrid; and John Bartlett of Goodman's-Fields is celebrated in the same Paper with the Emperor of Germany.” The odd miscellany described above mirrors the profound impact that the new economic forces were having on society at large, an impact for which Pope and Astell would find as the most appropriate symbol the chaotic social and economic microcosm of Bartholomew Fair.

If this jostling, democratizing atmosphere of the marketplace captures the Tatler's imagination, so, too, does the vision of an unrestricted access to a multitude of consumer goods. In a passage that perhaps illustrates better than any the role of women as commodity and property in the new economic order, the Tatler writes,

If a Man has Pains in his Head, Cholicks in his Bowels, or Spots in his Clothes, he may here meet with Cures and Remedies. If a Man would recover a Wife or a Horse that is stolen or strayed, if he wants new Sermons, Electuaries, Asses Milk or any Thing else, either for his Body or his Mind, this is the Place to look for them in.

(No. 224, italics mine)

Thus, advertising of consumer products jostled with essays—themselves in part advertisements for the consumption of public entertainment—to create a surreal confusion of the august and the banal, of the pathetically human and the crassly commercial, of the sacred and the profane. Besides the “True Spanish Blacking for Shoes” and the “Beautifying Cream for the Face” that the Tatler mentions as competing with “The Present State of England,” the edition in question advertises the following array of items, among others, without distinction: silk morning gowns for men and women; a new edition of The Great Necessity and Advantage of Publick Prayer and Frequent Communion; “41 Buts and 7 Hogsheads of new excellent Barcelona wines”; the household goods and fine China of the Hon. Admiral Churchil lately deceased; a Mr. Stockton's sale of goods; Mrs. Ogle's catalogue of plate, including a silver tea kettle, lamp, and teapot; a sale of “Plate, and other rich Goods,” belonging to Mrs. Elizabeth Lancaster (including a large silver punch bowl, silver teapot, and lamp); and a cure for distemper and giddiness by one John Moor, Apothecary.

Behind these sometimes comic juxtapositions lies a more serious social and economic transformation, for here, if anywhere, one can read the “rhetoric of acquisition” that Laura Brown sees in the long lists of commodities in Pope's Rape of the Lock (12-13). One is compelled to wonder how much human tragedy, especially for widowed or unmarried women, how many versions of Moll Flanders, lay behind the economic dislocation evidenced by these sales of household goods. One must remember that Astell's own father died when she was only twelve years old, and that her mother might well have undertaken the same cataloguing and sale of the relatively modest family possessions (Perry, Celebrated Mary Astell 57-60), whether through newspaper advertisements, or through one of the newly emerging auction houses, which, according to Cynthia Wall, were facilitating the dismantling of the existing class structure. At the same time, one must ask to what extent the format itself created an image, for a woman like Mary Astell, of a consumerism at work in society at large that was transforming all of its previously coherent relations into a chaos of competing commodities, and which placed women alongside strayed horses, ass's milk, and cures for colic in the bowels.

Consumerism is one of the two defining vices that Astell attributes to “The Illustrious Society of the Kit-Kats,” to whom she addresses her “Dedication” in 1709; the other is unnatural wit. In her attack on these vices, she anticipates Swift's satirical use of the mock encomium, which, as Rosalie Colie and Henry Knight Miller have both shown, had become a highly developed rhetorical topoi by the end of the seventeenth century. Astell sarcastically praises these smug, self-satisfied Lords of the Kit-Kat Club for rivaling their Roman predecessors in the stateliness of their social position but notes caustically that they have redefined virtue and “Greatness” as economic predation and conspicuous consumption. The victims of their avariciousness are the lower classes and the female sex:

You perfectly understand how to maintain your Grandeur and noble Hautiness upon just Occasions. As when a cluster of saucy Tradesmen, thinking they have an English Right to ask their own, intrude into your Anti-Chambers … [or] When an Ill-bred Fellow endeavours to protect a Wife, or Daughter, or other vertuous Woman, from your very Civil Addresses, your noble Courage never fails of being rous'd upon such great Provocations, and if the vile Offender don't sneak out of your way, unarm'd as he is, you know how to whip him thro' the Lungs most valiantly.


One wonders how fully Astell perceives the growing gulf between the emerging class of moneyed investors and the lesser merchants, tradesmen, and craftsmen, of which Fernand Braudel writes (2: 525-37, 572-8), as well as the transformation of many of these previously independent small businessmen into wage laborers. For Astell, at any rate, it is this consumption of pleasure, made possible by a new accumulation of wealth, that distinguishes the emerging moneyed class from the mob, rather than the outdated virtues of “Prudence and Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, an unblemish'd Faith, and spotless Honour” (10).

One of Astell's most Swiftian passages again employs the paradoxical encomium to extol the mystery of this modern consumption, which she contrasts to the simple virtues of an hypothetical Roman military hero, “who knew no better than to return to his Plough from the Head of a Triumphant Army, to dine upon Turneps, dres'd by his own victorious Hands; and who like a very Rustic, chose to eat in Earthen Dishes rather than have a Service of Plate (9). This Roman hero's modern Whig counterparts are, by contrast “well instructed in the noble Mystery of good Eating and Drinking, … Men who have the Fortitude to let the Cries and Tears of whole Troops of Orphans and Widows go unregarded, but who will suffer no part of Voluptuousness to pass by them, nor meanly curb any of their loosest Desires” (10). She concludes that “for such as these to leave the Delicacies of the Town for the Fatigues of a Campagne, were most Unreasonable, and must not be expected” (10). J. G. A. Pocock places this conflict between “virtue” and “commerce” at the heart of the eighteenth-century social debate. Pocock notes that the opponents of the Whig order postulated the antique ideal of an integrated human personality “rooted in property, bearing his own arms and engaging in his own government, whereas the inhabitant of [the new] commercial and cultivated society was tempted to leave these components of an active virtue to be exercised for him” (16). The effect was to fragment individuals and society into various specialized professional roles, including the standing army that Swift would oppose, and thus create a new division of labor.

Astell, understandably, locates the arena in which these modern economic heroes perform their mock heroic pursuit of “taste” in the same centers of bourgeois entertainment from which the Tatler gathers his news:

But why do I mention such little Heroes, as are forc'd to seek occasions Abroad, of shewing their Conduct and exercising their Valour? Your perfect Heroism makes Opportunities, and finds in every Place an ample Theatre for your Merits. The Bath, the Wells and every Fair, each Chocolate, Gaming House and Tavern resounds with your Noble Exploits.


This relationship between pleasure, wit (or “Men's Inventions”), and the transforming effects of the new economics of profit and consumption gives Astell's “Dedication” its concluding focus. In a passage that again anticipates Swift's use of paradox as both technique and theme in the Examiner, and which suggests a passing jibe at the Tatler's own financial calculations, she explains that

it is the Felicity of the present Age to reconcile Contradictions, and no Men more fit to do it than your Witty Selves. For this Reason then, it wou'd be the highest Ingratitude and want of Conduct, not to fix you in Places of greatest Honour and Trust, Power and Profit, for which you are extremely well qualified, Profit at least, your vast Expences requiring this Supply: Whereas Honour and Trust may be left in Meaner Hands.


This use of the mock encomium is a rhetorical technique that Swift will employ a year later in his own attacks on the former Godolphin ministry and that same group of Whigs for whom Steele's Tatler and subsequent Guardian became the voice. In Examiner No. 14 (November 9, 1710), Swift satirically praises the “Art of Political Lying”; in No. 22 (January 4, 1710), he paradoxically defends atheism and blasphemy as a form of piety; and, in No. 26, he ironically exposes the defects of the Tory ministry in order to provide a mock praise of the inverted values that the Whigs have paradoxically redefined as virtue. Swift also identifies the new economics as the source of the paradoxical transformations effected by these new creatures, whom, in his first contribution to the Examiner (Number 13), he describes as “a species of Men quite different from any that were ever known before the Revolution; consisting … of such whose whole Fortunes lie in Funds and Stocks: So that Power, which, according to the old Maxim, was used to follow Land, is now gone over to Money” (5). As Astell had argued previously, Swift argues here that it is the search for profit that drives this new species of economic men to elevate the paradoxical inventions of their own wit—what Astell had identified as their ability to “reconcile Contradictions”—over plain common sense. In Examiner No. 35, Swift concludes that they are beings “patched up of heterogeneous, inconsistent Parts, whom nothing served to unite but the common Interest of sharing in the Spoil and Plunder of the People” (122). And, in Examiner No. 16, Swift directs his most pointed charge of greed at the Whigs' most famous military hero, the Duke of Marlborough, in a passage that closely parallels Astell's earlier comparison between the humble Roman hero and the modern Wits. In examining the paradoxical charge, leveled by the Whigs, that the Tories stand guilty of “Ingratitude” towards the famous hero, Swift tabulates the financial value of the Roman general's rewards at under a thousand pounds. He then offers as evidence of the Tories' “ingratitude” the vast wealth that Marlborough's exploits have enabled him to acquire, totaling “a good deal above half a Million of Money” (21-2). For Swift, modern warfare had become the engine by which the Whig moneyed class, of whom Marlborough was a most conspicuous representative, turned a profit. Traditional, intangible definitions of personal worth, rooted in an integrated self within an integrated community, had given way to a new economic man. As a result, the bases and nature of human identity were being drastically transformed, as new classes of professional soldiers and professional politicians turned service into profit. More than a year earlier, in her “Dedication” to Bart'lemy Fair, Astell had drawn a similar distinction between the Whig consumers and the Roman generals, and had similarly characterized the consequence as a form of witty paradox.

The new economics commands much of Astell's attention in the body of Bart'lemy Fair. In the liberty that Shaftesbury's Letter proposes, she sees a loosening of the restraints placed on acquisitiveness and an increase in the predation of one class over another, as when she speaks of “some of the Sons of Adam's Lording it over the rest of their Brethren, and engrossing to themselves the sole Use of those Advantages, of which they are only Stewards, and not Proprietors” (62). Of course, as Robert Voitle points out, Shaftesbury himself was one of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony, and his tutor, John Locke, drew up its first set of “Fundamental Constitutions” (54-9). According to Voitle, Shaftesbury's own thoughts about the governance of this apparently troublesome and economically unproductive colony seem to echo the relationship between personal liberty and the accumulation of private property outlined in Locke's Second Treatise. Astell, on the other hand, makes a distinction between personal ownership of property (“proprietorship”) and responsible management of resources for the good of the whole social body (“steward-ship”), by arguing that, were it not for the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of such proprietors, “things wou'd be reduc'd to a greater Equality, and there wou'd not be so many, and so just complaints, as are at present in the World.” She further probes the consequences of this new emphasis on private ownership devoid of communal responsibility when she asks,

Can any thing be more ridiculous, than that the Fool shou'd have money enough to throw away upon every Extravagancy, whilst the Ingenious is crampt for want of it in his generous Undertakings for the Good of Mankind! That the Liberal-minded Person shou'd have nothing to bestow, and that there shou'd be no end of the Miser's Acquisitions! How unnatural is it that an idle, useless Wretch shou'd gorge himself to Uneasiness and Sickness, at an Expence which wou'd keep many Indigent Families from starving.


In the pursuit of this wealth, which she identifies, in part, with the development of commerce with the Americas and the “cunning Traders” (99) in Peruvian gold, she locates the disintegration of the bonds within society that give to the individual a human, as opposed to an economic, identity:

It is this Unnatural Thirst after Gold, which yet one can neither Eat nor Drink, and which has no other Value than what a deluded Fancy sets upon't; it is the rapacious Desire of this, which makes a Man abandon and betray his Master, his Patron, his Friend, his very Country, and deny his GOD; and in spite of Gratitude and Honor, Faith and Conscience, or even Moral Honesty, deliver himself up, by way of Auction to the highest Bidder.


These passages resonate with anticipations of Swift's own attacks on the Whigs. They also present a scathing indictment of the Whigs' ongoing commodification of the human identity. According to Astell, the moral principles which give to human beings their humanity, and to society its coherence, are succumbing to the marketplace of pleasure and profit. Perceiving the inherent conflict between the values of that marketplace and communal values, she asks sarcastically, “what can be done better, or more like Men of Rank and Figure, than to free Mankind from slavish Principles? that is from All Principles, for they are all but so many Fetters and Restraints, which cramp us in the pursuit of great Designs, and lose us many fair opportunities of Profit and Pleasure” (143). In that freedom from principle, necessary to the creation of modern economic man, Astell sees a formula for the loss of the fully human self.

If the pursuit of profit to underwrite consumption constitutes the KitKats' most characteristic economic activity, then, according to Astell, the uncontrolled exercise of wit constitutes their most characteristic mode of thought. Bart'lemy Fair is, after all, An Enquiry after Wit, and Astell begins her “enquiry” with an attempt to define that elusive, protean substance that she fears may, in the end, prove but a nonexistent “Fairy Treasure.” In her ensuing definition, she, like Swift, makes clear that the economic activity and the mode of thought are intimately related:

I shou'd now fall into a Method, define Wit, describe it by infallible Characters, and give a hint where, and for what, it may be Purchas'd. I say Purchas'd, for doubtless it wou'd be a Grievance not to be endur'd by an Inlightened People, if Wit shou'd not be Vendible as well as every other thing, except an Honest Man and his Inflexible Conscience.


Astell is responding here to the central premise of Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Enthusiasm: that ideas, principles, and beliefs are themselves consumable commodities that should stand the test, or the bidding, if you will, of the intellectual auction house.

Shaftesbury's Letter is a classic defense of open and free inquiry, in the tradition of Milton's Areopagitica, in which he proposes that all customs and opinions, however sanctioned or sacred, be subjected to the test of public ridicule. Using language that applies equally to the rise and fall of the value of currency and stock, he argues, “Let but the Search go freely on and the right measure of every thing will soon be found. Whatever Humour has got the start, if it be unnatural, it cannot hold: and the Ridicule, if ill plac'd at first, will certainly fall at last where it deserves” (I: 318). He asserts, furthermore, that “there can be no impartial and free Censure of Manners where any peculiar Custom or National Opinion is set apart, and not only exempted from Criticism, but even flatter'd with the highest Art” (316). This belief in an ideologically neutral forum, in which truth will emerge from a witty and good-humored jostling of competing ideas, is, of course, the underlying faith of bourgeois democratic liberalism.

If one accepts Voitle's analysis that Shaftesbury was motivated by “his burning desire to vindicate his grandfather, coupled with a set of idealized principles distilled from the first Earl's practices and inculcated by Locke” (53), one finds ample reason to agree with Stanley Grean's view that Shaftesbury's “skeptical or destructive method” of free inquiry (17) was, in fact, the first of a two-phased program, intended as an intellectual hand-maiden to the progress of bourgeois capitalism itself. Both Richard Ashcraft and Maurice Cranston have pointed to the pronounced capitalistic instincts of both the first Earl, who along with Locke (the tutor of the young third Earl, it will be recalled) were stockholders of the Hudson Bay Company, the Royal Africa Company (which dealt in the African slave trade), and the Bahamas Adventurers, as well as investors in the raw silk trade and a number of other commercial ventures. At the same time, according to Ashcraft, the elder Shaftesbury embraced a policy of linkage between religious toleration and the advancement of trade which became the basis of a new “social language” that served “to link together the stated and unstated presuppositions and arguments” (65) of the emerging economic and political order. Thus, it seems clear that, along with the vast capitalistic holdings which the Third Earl of Shaftesbury inherited from his grandfather, he also inherited an ideology which justified the accumulation and preservation of those holdings. In this context, the use of ridicule to tear asunder beliefs which custom and national policy have protected becomes a necessary precursor to the tearing asunder of social relationships in the new economic marketplace.

Shaftesbury certainly encourages one to draw this equation when he places his marketplace of ideas amidst the witty raillery and popular entertainments of Bartholomew Fair. In arguing for toleration rather than persecution of the so-called French prophets, the Camisards, whose zealous antics had recently captured London's attention, Shaftesbury writes,

I am told, for certain, that they are at this very time the Subject of a choice Droll or Puppet-Shew at Bart'lemy-Fair. There, doubtless, their strange Voices and involuntary Agitations are admirably well acted, by the Motion of Wires, and Inspiration of Pipes. For the Bodys of the Prophets, in their State of Prophecy, being not in their own power, but (as they say themselves) mere passive Organs, actuated by an exterior Force, have nothing natural, or resembling real Life, in any of their Sounds or Motions: so that how aukardly soever a Puppet-Shew may imitate other Actions, it must needs represent this Passion to the Life. And whilst Bart'lemy-Fair is in possession of this Privilege, I dare stand Security to our National Church that no Sect of Enthusiasts, no new Venders of Prophecy or Miracles, shall ever get the Start, or put her to the trouble of trying her Strength with 'em, in any Case.


Shaftesbury then argues that the Romans and the Jews made the mistake of feeding the spirit of martyrdom by subjecting Christ and the early Christians to persecution rather than “act Puppet-Shews in his Contempt” (342).

Astell sees in the Letter's use of Bartholomew Fair the telltale signs of what underlies its author's proposal that our most sacred of communally-held beliefs should be subjected to the same marketplace of consumerism as the boot black and the silver plate in the Tatler's advertisements, a perception that Pope would share when he dramatized a similar conflict between the sacred and the profane in the late 1720s, by portraying Smithfield as the spawning ground for the dunces' assaults on culture and religion. Almost two decades earlier, Astell forges an identification between the Fair and all that she sees wrong with the emerging philosophy of liberalism, or what she calls “Wit.” First of all, because of its indeterminateness, Shaftesbury's wit has the same instability as any of the Fair's commodities, whose values shift with the vicissitudes of fashion and taste:

Liberty having been [taken] of late, to [pass] off any sordid Jest, mere Drollery or Buffoonery, under the Name of Wit, and by this Imposture to take with the Men of Sense and Breeding, as they wou'd be thought. Nor is it easy to distinguish the finer and truer Wit from the sordid Jest, the Ridicule from the Buffoonery; both having stood the Test of Bart'lemy Fair; been daily swallow'd by, and had the Approbation, the Presence at least, of the Men of Wit, the Great Vulgar as well as the Small.


Nonetheless, this new wit, in the form of Shaftesbury's Letter, is “industriously spread in the Nation,” even “sent, by way of Mission, into Foreign Parts” (23), and, thus, floated like unstable currency, seeking its proper value and having its destabilizing effects. Astell deftly identifies the truth of Shaftesbury's proposal: “A New sort of Policy, unknown to Mankind, till Wits … found it turn to their Account to be Men of Business” (23). Swift would discover this same truth a year later, when he shifted allegiance and began to write for the Tories.

Through its substitution of wit for warfare, Shaftesbury's new policy also promises to usher in a new age of unrestrained and unrefined pleasure, similar to the Golden Age that Pope will eventually describe in his Dunciad. Astell writes, sarcastically,

The Golden Age would then return … And besides the many Lives that wou'd be spar'd, and wholly spent in Mirth and Good Humour, abundance of Money wou'd be sav'd for the better Expence of Operas and Entertainments, more suitable to the Mildness of Human Nature than Ghastly Wounds.


After suggesting that the Bartholomew Fair Wit proposed by the Letter “lies only in the Oddness of the Thought, which takes us not with its Beauty, but with its Monstrousness” (47), Astell concludes:

If it is absurd in Comedies, to make a Peasant talk in the Strain of a Hero, or a Country Wench use the Language of the Court, how Monstrous and Unnatural is it, which weighs more with some People than its being Profane and Impious, to bring in Apollo and the Muses, the Nymphs and the Fairies, Bart'lemy Fair, and a Puppet-shew, when we speak of the True GOD and his Worship.


Astell's recipe for a monster here not only anticipates the monsters that Pope warns against in Peri Bathous and the Dunciad, but also recalls those created by Horace's bad poets in the Ars Poetica, which Astell herself cites in her “Dedication” (16). At the same time, her juxtaposition of hero and wench, and of puppets and God, captures a vision of social and moral relationships in collapse beneath the leveling pressure of the economic and intellectual marketplace proposed by Shaftesbury and applauded by the Tatler.

If the value and nature of the Letter's wit are uncertain, and its productions thus monstrous, its origins are even more troublesome, suggesting roots in a materialism similar to that of which Swift had accused his Moderns in the Tale of a Tub (a relationship that Astell would have been loathe to acknowledge) and in his Mechanical Operation of the Spirit. Astell asks,

What do you do when you Write and Read such Epistles? With what do you prepare your selves? The making use of stew'd Prunes, taking Physic, and letting Blood, are not powerful enough. Do you then swallow Opium, according to the method of no small Modern WIT? Or do you in imitation of your great Predecessor and Master in Ridicule Hugh Peters, fortifie your selves with a Bottle, or so.


Astell here again recalls the mechanically inspired poets of the Ars Poetica, along with Horace's play on the idea of Bacchic inspiration throughout the Odes. But Shaftesbury himself had identified a mechanical operation of the spirit in his description of the puppet-like mechanisms that moved the French prophets; his attempt to explain the psychological mechanics of religious enthusiasm in terms of Lucretian atomism gave Astell the very weapons she needed to expose the fragmenting materialism she saw in his own philosophy. Astell presents the following vision of a materialistic world that is succumbing to Shaftesbury's Bartholomew Fair Wit:

And we may see in our own Age, a small Company, Votaries to Bacchus, and such like Deities, who … by their loud Clamours, and Industry, and Laughter, manag'd to good advantage among some ecchoing Machines, whose Skulls are empty, and their Front of Proof; Engines who resemble Men in every thing, except in the want, the inconsiderable want! of Reason and Religion.


If this is not quite the world of Pope's Dunciad, it is certainly the loud, noisy, clamorous, and chaotic world of the Fair, with its booths and puppet shows, in which Pope would locate the origins of his own great Anarch. And, even more certainly, the approach to human identity that Astell sees in the Letter's materialism casts the mold for Pope's dunces. She suggests that, if these new materialistic men of wit could “but be ASSUR'D that there is no GOD, that they have only mere Chance to trust to; and are no more than a sort of larger Puppets, which being worn out, and the Show over, shall be thrown into the Grave, and there's an End of them, they wou'd doubtless be much easier in their Minds” (91-2).

Astell uses the Fair, then, as a metaphor for the moral chaos inherent in the open forum of ideas that Shaftesbury had proposed, and she turns back upon him his own use of one of the Fair's most prominent entertainments, the puppet show, to expose the dehumanization that she sees resulting from his proposal's underlying philosophy. In this she anticipates not only the social world of Pope's Dunciad, but also its Lucretian cosmology. She joins him in finding in contemporary Newtonian physics a metaphor for coherence, which, as does Pope, she presents as proof of a reigning intelligence that vitalizes matter, and, thus, as an argument against the deadening materialism Shaftesbury adopts from Lucretius:

Sir Isaac Newton, if your Reason is sublime enough to Understand him, will Demonstrate this to you, as well as any Divine, and you cannot suspect him of Priestcraft. Your Self-Moving Atoms and their lucky jumble into such a Beautiful Form as that of the Universe, is yet more Ridiculous. Shew us then some New and Better way of Accounting for our own Being, and the Origine of the World, if you reject that of an Infinitely Perfect and Self-Existing Mind, the Maker and Governer of all Things.


Astell finds telling parallels between the jumble of the Fair, as locus for both economic and intellectual chaos, and the jumble of atoms in a Lucretian cosmos, and warns against any attempt to deny the reigning intelligence—what Pope in the Dunciad would call the nous—that must give coherence to these analogous spheres of activity:

And yet this Mutual Attraction, tho' not essential to Matter, but foreign and superinduc'd by a Superior Being, is so necessary to the very Being of the Universe, in that Form in which we now behold it, or at least to our Solar System, and as far as our Observation and Reasoning can carry us; that were it once suspended, unless a Miraculous Power interpos'd, there wou'd be no more distinction among Material Beings; all wou'd crumble into Dust.


This cosmic dust and collapsed mechanism recalls the earlier empty skulls and worn out puppets which, at life's end, will be thrown into the grave. Through this thread of parallel imagery, Astell projects a world in which human identity and human community have been commodified into interchangeable and discardable parts. From Newtonian physics, Astell draws her conclusion that “then cannot the Source of all Perfection be Matter, but Mind; which Mind, whatever it be as to its positive Nature, is not, cannot be material” (118-19). In place of this eternal Mind, essential to all coherence, the Letter Concerning Enthusiasm would, according to Astell, locate at the center of its economics, its politics, its aesthetics, its philosophy, and its cosmology the transient, all-consuming self: “for a Man of loose Principles cares for no Body but himself; he is his own Centre, and values other People no farther than as Tools to his Interest and Instruments of his Pleasures” (138). This loose principle of self is also one source of the cosmic incoherence by which philosophers like Shaftesbury, in the character of Theocles, will precipitate the “Universal Darkness” which “buries all” in Pope's Dunciad:

Or, at one bound o'er-leaping all his laws,
Make God Man's Image, Man the final Cause,
Find Virtue local, all Relation scorn,
See all in Self, and but for self be born:
Of nought so certain as our Reason still,
Of nought so doubtful as of Soul and Will.
Oh hide the God still more! and make us see
Such as Lucretius drew, a God like Thee:
Wrapt up in Self, a God without a Thought,
Regardless of our merit or default.

(IV, 477-86)

While Astell would clearly agree that the collapse of all social relation into an ethic of self signals a society-wide calamity, she would also argue that the burden of that calamity falls most heavily on the women, the widows, the orphans, and the poor, who have become mere tools to the interest and instruments to the pleasure of the witty male consumers of the Kit-Kat Club.


  1. All quotations from Bart'lemy Fair come from the second edition, published in 1722. This edition differs from the first (1709) only in the addition of an extended new “Advertisement.” The extent to which Bart'lemy Fair has been neglected is indicated by the absence of any modern edition or reprint.

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Patricia Springborg (essay date 1998)

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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 with the company of Hostman of Newcastle upon Tyne, before he died leaving the family debt-ridden when Mary was twelve. With customary spiritedness Mary Astell moved to London when she was twenty, making her literary debut by presenting to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, a collection of her girlhood poems, dedicated to him, accompanied by a request for financial assistance.1 Whether or not the Archbishop, who numbered among the prominent members of the clergy who had refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary, became Astell's patron in fact, we do not know. But Astell entered a circle of High Church prelates and intellectual and aristocratic women, including Lady Anne Coventry, Lady Elizabeth Hastings, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Lady Catherine Jones. To Lady Catherine Jones Astell dedicated the Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695) and her magnum opus,The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church (1705). Later, as a known literary figure, Astell was to contribute a preface to Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters: The Travels of an English Lady in Europe, Asia and Africa (1724, 1725), a work now famous in the literature surrounding the “invention” of Eastern Europe.

Astell established herself with an impressively diverse array of canonical works, beginning with a tract on women's education, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694, 1697),2 which very nearly won funding support for an exclusively female academy from Queen Anne. In Reflections upon Marriage (1700), written in response to the scandalous divorce of Hortense Mazarin, Astell displayed her powers as a social critic, for which she was emulated and imitated. Meanwhile the philosophical and theological seriousness of a carefully focused and strongly centered writer was manifested in correspondence with the Cambridge Platonist, John Norris, Rector of Bemerton, begun in 1693, and published at his instigation in 1695 as Letters Concerning the Love of God.3

On the strength of these credentials Astell entered the political and constitutional controversy over Occasional Conformity. Her three pamphlets of 1704, published, and probably commissioned by, the High Church printer Richard Wilkin, Moderation truly Stated,A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons, and An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War,4 entered the Tory canon as specific responses to Whiggish works by James Owen, Daniel Defoe, and Bishop White Kennett, respectively.5 And in 1705 Astell published what she herself regarded as her magnum opus, her long and systematic philosophical and theological critique of Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity, entitled The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church.6

Astell's last major published work, Bart'lemy Fair of 1709, is in a different genre altogether, an essay in Augustan belles lettres. Subtitled An Enquiry after Wit in which due Respect is had to a Letter Concerning Enthusiasm,Bart'lemy Fair directly addressed the Letter, a work by the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke's pupil. But Astell took it in fact to be the work of Jonathan Swift and so wrote under the name of William Wotton, the author parodied by Swift in A Tale of A Tub. She thus entered the Battle of the Books, that literary controversy, begun in France and then transported to England, which marked the watershed between modernity and pre-modernity, as a self-conscious contender on the side of the moderns.7 Astell lived on until 1731, seeing her works reissued and debated. We have evidence that she continued to pursue Tory causes, although not in published works of her own, but in the research (for which she is acknowledged) for John Walker's massive study, The Sufferings of the Clergy (1714).8

Commentators have noted the capacity of Restoration women to live in the interstices of social institutions, in new literary and critical spaces created out of the great upheaval of the Civil War, as novelists, dramatists, and political pamphleteers. Astell's is a curious case. On the one hand she undertook a self-conscious critique of the very institutions at the root of female oppression: contemporary education and marriage practices. On the other she was a commissioned Tory pamphleteer. How do we explain this? It does little justice to the capacity of women to fabricate an existence amid the legal and structural constraints within which they found themselves to harp too much on their absence from the official record, if this were even true. To some extent the problem is definitional. But that we so readily acquiesce to a definition of the public realm that restricts it to the polis and its forms, is a story in itself. For this narrowness in the definition of public life excludes not only women. The Elizabethan period, one of the richest flowerings of commentary on the changing forms of public life in all their social and political dimensions, has been virtually expunged from the history of political thought. This is due to exclusions on the basis of genre, rather than gender. The works of Marlowe, Kyd, Spenser, and Shakespeare, intensely “political” in the broad sense, were cast for the stage or in verse, for a complex of reasons which included forms of lyric expression favored by Renaissance writers, a preference for “veiled allegory” due to religious and magical beliefs, involvement in foreign and sometimes treasonable causes and, not least, the activities of Elizabethan secret police under Secretary of State Walsingham. The New Historicists9 have sought to rectify the loss for which the Old Historians are guilty. But political theorists have yet to leap into the fray.

As further testimony to the power of our categories to frame history, early modern liberal theory set out to entrench the public/private split which had the consequence of expunging women from the public record. Mary Astell stands as a living witness to the artificiality of this distinction and the untruthfulness of its ramifications. For in Astell we have the curious case of a mainstream religious thinker and political pamphleteer, celebrated in her day, whose works in some cases ran through four editions and only gradually lost currency. Her most celebrated persona was as “Madonella,” the founder of an academy for “superannuated virgins” in Steele's satire of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies in Tatler, nos. 32 and 63.10 As author of a project to “erect a monastery or religious retirement” for women, Astell was lampooned on the stage by Mrs. Centlivre in Basset Table,11 although lionized by Samuel Richardson in Sir Charles Grandison12 and as the model for Clarissa.13 It was this persona to which Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Lilia of The Princess (1847) refers, imitated in turn by Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida, their lampoon of a female academy over whose doors was emblazoned the motto “Let no man enter on pain of death.”14

To give some indication of the reception and circulation of Astell's works, Part i of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, of 1694, was reprinted four times and plagiarized at least as many. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II, which followed in 1697, was even more notoriously pirated. Some 147 pages of chapter three, sections 1-5 of the 1697 edition of A Serious Proposal, Part II, were excerpted without acknowledgment in The Ladies' Library of 1714, a work widely circulated, which went through eight impressions up to 1772 and was translated into French and Dutch. Steele was until recently believed to be the compiler of The Ladies' Library, and the man to whom Astell herself, in the 1722 Preface to Bart'lemy Fair, attributed the plagiarism. But The Ladies' Library, according to the title page, “published by Mr. R[ichard] Steele,” who supplied a preface, and “written by a Lady,” was in fact compiled by George Berkeley (1685-1753), Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, philosopher, and polymath, as recent scholarship establishes.15 Meanwhile, Astell's Reflections upon Marriage16 was to run to four editions, to the third of which (1706) she added a controversial preface, expanding her arguments of 1697 and 1700 to furnish one of the earliest and most percipient critiques of John Locke's political arguments.

Astell's revival as a positive model has largely been the work of feminists; Catherine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and their associates, in the first instance; and the great wave of late twentieth-century feminists, in the second. Here we will briefly review the contexts for Mary Astell's feminism, her contribution to political debates in the Augustan age, her religiosity, and her enduring contribution to Augustan letters.

Mary Astell had an overwhelming concern to persuade general citizens of the sanity of Tory arguments and the dangers to the public interest of theories of social contract and resistance; theories that had ever gained but a little advocacy. New ideas were abroad, unsettling to old Tory views, and it is a mark of the complexity of Astell's thought that she reflects these tendencies also. John Pocock17 and Mark Goldie18 both remark on the inroads made in the second half of the seventeenth century by doctrines of natural right. They intruded into an environment of fairly parochial argument about the legitimacy of monarchy, where case and counter-case were argued in terms of English history: the ancient constitution, whether king or parliament were the true repository of immemorial custom, and claims made for the English common law as a fund of equity and justice and on behalf of the lawyer practitioners who articulated it. To the Continental legal tradition belonged the great European natural rights theorists, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94), the former of whom Astell cites,19 along with their English counterparts, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, whose sojourns on the Continent had acquainted them with their European contemporaries.

It would oversimplify the position to argue that the English legal tradition had been parochial for long. As Pocock in his Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law well shows, the Continental feudal law tradition had early been inserted into the debate against the common law parliamentarians. The “ancient constitution” lived on as a conceit, which it may always have been, against the onslaught of the rationalists, whether they be canon law proponents of popular sovereignty, earlier, or Whiggish adherents of natural rights, latterly, whom Astell wisely lumps together. And many conservative arguments, including those of Astell, were philosophical, not historical, and grounded in an appeal to reason.20

Natural rights doctrines, although less immediately recognized, and more narrowly subscribed to, were to prove more devastating. Drawn in initially as resources in the constitutional crisis of 1688 and developed in the refinement of the Whig position, they were to open a new chapter in political debate. Notwithstanding the fact that she uses it to entrench traditional positions, Astell participates in a rationalism that is ultimately corrosive of Tory causes, to the extent—which is not as great as sometimes claimed—that they depended on historicist arguments. Here we have the anomaly of a theorist contributing to the very movement that was to render her political philosophy obsolete—supplying perhaps an explanation for the removal from the political theory canon of a woman whose works in her day regularly ran to five editions.

Astell is among the most trenchant critics of Locke and Hobbes. Yet she participated in the Continental philosophical tradition out of which Hobbism and Lockeanism grew. Under the tutelage of John Norris, and through the medium of such contemporary popularizers as Richard Allestree (1619-81), Astell was an early convert to the view of Descartes that introspection, complemented by faith, provided the fundamental truths of philosophy.21 English philosophy of her day represented commentary on Descartes. Hobbes, most famous of the early modern atomists and materialists, had supplied Objections to Descartes's Discourse on Method (1637), later published with the French philosopher's Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). It was in exile in France, as a member of the circle gathered around Marin Mersenne, that Hobbes had first sought to establish his credentials as a philosopher, in the company of the like-minded Epicurean and sceptic, Pierre Gassendi and others. To a greater extent than is usually acknowledged Hobbes's metaphysics belong to the history of the reception of Descartes, so many of whose ideas he absorbed. It was this tradition of epistemology to which Locke contributed so greatly with his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690): an epistemology, like that of Hobbes, which laid the foundations of modern behaviorism, pioneering the notion of the mind as a black box, which processed sensations as inputs and produced ideas, simple and complex, as outputs.

Astell satirized Locke's theory of the association of ideas, atomist, materialist, and Gassendist, as it was.22 Too frequently modern commentators have missed this, tracing Astell's feminist reformism, like that of Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor, whose views are otherwise so different, to an epistemology founded on Lockean principles. For the philosophies of both Descartes and Locke provided the foundations for a gender-neutral theory of mind. If, as Descartes maintained, the great truths of existence were affirmed by the solitary thinking subject, and if the mental processes of the thinking subject facilitated reason, the claims of men to rule women were baseless. The equality of all believers, which Protestantism preached, and to which Descartes was responding, had to include women or its very foundations were breached. Alternatively, if as Locke maintained, Descartes was wrong about ideas of existence being pre-theoretically imprinted in the human mind; and if, as Locke asserted, the mind was a clean slate receptive to sense impressions, gendered mind was once again an incoherent concept. It was Descartes, whose Platonist idealism Locke followed Hobbes in rejecting, who so profoundly influenced Astell.23 And Astell's critique of Locke on “thinking matter” in The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church, lies at the heart of her refutation of Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity in particular and his epistemology in general.24

In the realm of social theory, Astell made that particular politico-juridical legacy of Hobbes and Locke, the theory of social contract, the target of her attack. Designed to explain the relation between subjects and rulers as the outcome of a pact by which subjects exchanged obedience for protection, social contract relied for its force on the only form of legal contract with which ordinary people had experience, the marriage contract. In doing so, social contract theory drew an implicit parallel between the voluntary submission of wives, who enter the marriage contract as free and equal partners but emerge as radical unequals in the marriage estate; and subjects, who contract as free and equal individuals, but enter the political estate bound to an absolute sovereign. The marriage contract/social contract homology, which Hobbes and Locke bequeathed to liberalism as a paradigm for the future,25 was subject to Astell's assault in Reflections Upon Marriage; a sortie as deadly as her assault on the Whig fabrications of a Popish Plot and the French alliance in An Impartial Enquiry.26 She thus attacked the program of Locke and the Shaftesbury circle on all fronts.


Astell's critique of social contract may well be one of the first published critiques of arguments central to Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Certain it is that Astell's Impartial Enquiry belongs to a genre that deals no less with the Exclusion Crisis, the Glorious Revolution, and the succession crises in the reign of Anne, than it does with the Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century. Thus Locke's and Astell's works belong to the same political milieu, a politics which, from the Exclusion Crisis to the end of Anne's reign is, in many respects, a seamless whole.

The greater issues on which these particular debates turned were the following. The ultimate source of law: was it customary right enshrined in common law, or the will of the prince? The true guardian of the law: was it the parliament as representative of the people, or the Crown, with its duty of protection in exchange for allegiance? The provenance of the ancient constitution: did it lie in immemorial custom or the institutions of the Crown? The nature of the relationship between the Crown and its subjects: was it contractual, or was it defined by submission to providential rights or rights of conquest? The entitlement rights of subjects in their own person and to their property: did they exist by nature, or by contract? Another set of questions concerned the respective antiquity of the institutions under contest and their historical status. Were they relatively indigenous, native to Englishmen; were they feudal, or rooted in Roman Law; or were they ahistorical, originating in the “natural right” of individuals, belonging to the human condition itself?

The long contest begun in the 1640s between parliament and the Crown had seen a disaggregation of customary rights and the ancient constitution.27 The upshot of the contest was the hijacking of customary right by the parliamentary party (later the Whigs) and of the ancient constitution by the Royalists (later the Tories). If such a characterization seems too crude, it is worth noting that party politics in the age of Anne, in which Astell participated, turned on just these principles, and are barely comprehensible without them. From Sir Edward Coke's time on, juridical thought had conceived of the ancient constitution as comprising the Crown, its institutions, and the entirety of common law, and statutory law enacted by parliament sitting as a high court. But the heightening conflict between the Crown and the parliament over the royal prerogative brought with it a contest over their antiquity and, therefore, the superior claims of one against the other.

The long process of disaggregating the ancient constitution and customary rights, marked the juridically most sophisticated, perhaps the politically most participatory, certainly the party-politically most polarized, and the most vigorous pamphlet war in the history of the early modern English state. It was ultimately won by the Whig side, with limitations on royal prerogative put in place successively from 1649 to 1702. Goldie, in his review of politics and the press for the period concludes, “Between 1689 and 1714, newspapers apart, the figure of five to six thousand, or on average four per week, would not be an unrealistic guess at the total number of polemical pieces coming off the presses.”28

Astell was implacably opposed to the removal of James II from the throne and hostile to William and Mary as imposters. Her allies numbered prominent non-jurors, and her early works are replete with double entendre aimed at William III and his apologists. Much of Astell's case against the fickleness with which men treat their marriage vows in Reflections upon Marriage can be read at another level as criticism of the fickleness of those who undertook oaths of allegiance to William and Mary despite solemn and binding oaths to James II still in force. In this way Astell characteristically turned to her advantage the marriage contract/social contract homology. So for instance in the famous 1706 Introduction to Reflections upon Marriage, Astell combines insistence on the rule of queens as affirmed by Salic Law in general, and endorsement of the rule of Queen Anne in particular, with jibes at Locke, Defoe, and William's propagandists who, in forsaking James II, forsook the lineage of the great Queen Elizabeth I:

If they mean that some Men are superior to some Women this is no great Discovery;29 had they turn'd the Tables they might have seen that some Women are Superior to some Men. Or had they been pleased to remember their Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy, they might have known that One Woman is superior to All the Men in these Nations, or else they have sworn to very little purpose. And it must not be suppos'd, that their Reason and Religion wou'd suffer them to take Oaths, contrary to the Law of Nature and Reason of things.30

Only the radical Whigs, among whom Locke of the Two Treatises of Government belongs, along with Tyrrell, Samuel Johnson, Atwood, Blount, and Defoe, “used a natural law case for resistance or right of deposition”—although a Whig middle group used contractual resistance in some form.31 Astell mounts against them a brilliant case, calling upon distinctions between authorization and designation that are to be found in Hobbes and Filmer, drawn ultimately from scholastic debate and now put to similar use by thinkers otherwise very much at odds, to deny a right to dethrone kings, even bad kings.

In this, as in other instances, Astell demonstrated her consistency and care in argumentation preparatory to her great attack by ridicule on the social contract/marriage contract analogue in Reflections upon Marriage and An Impartial Enquiry. The attempt, in scholastic theory, to drive a wedge between authorization and consent as sanctions for institutions public and private, had its legacy in Hobbes's finely crafted theory of simultaneous authorization and consent in the moment of social contract. If for Hobbes popular consent was the necessary but not sufficient condition for legitimacy, the fabric of social institutions could nevertheless not be allowed to hang by such slender threads. Mainstream scholastic theory had sought to secure the social power of even secular institutions, the magistracies of state, and semi-secular ones, notably the family, by separating out as different acts the authorizing of an institution and the appointment of an incumbent to it. Authorization fell to God alone, but in the act of designation the people had their day. Where the Roman Catholics Robert Cardinal Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez took the more radical position that only a community could authorize the transfer of power from a community to a ruler, Hobbes fell back on the older scholastic position that vests power to authorize with the author (in this case God), leaving only the designation of an incumbent to popular choice.32 Hobbes's extension of contract theory to the recesses of household and family was not necessarily inconsistent. Scholastic theory held, correspondingly, that entry to the estate of marriage could only be divinely authorized, as registered in the marriage vows, but that the choice of incumbents could be left to consent, as recognized by the marriage contract between the parties.

Astell, who tipped her hand against the marriage contract/social contract analogue in Reflections upon Marriage, argued her case systematically in An Impartial Enquiry and The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church. Themes from contemporary parliamentary and pamphlet controversy dominate these works. In An Impartial Enquiry, she proceeded to invoke Paul, Romans 13,33 although not by name, the very text canonically recited by the rationalists and pragmatists of her day, who claimed as a practical necessity of government that God, while ordaining good governors, also permitted bad ones to be obeyed. It was once again an argument only permitted on the grounds of the scholastic distinction between ordinatio commissionis, and ordinatio permissionis34 which absolved the Deity of whatever bad choices the people might make in choosing incumbents to offices. Since these were offices that only God could authorize, and because their continued stability was in his care, the consent of the people was a non-revocable act: once made it could not be withdrawn. This was precisely the argument made by Hobbes. It was also the basis for the Christian case against divorce. Astell in Reflections upon Marriage, by no accident, used the opportunity of a celebrated divorce case between the courtesan Hortense Mazarine and her husband, a close relative of Louis XIV's famous Cardinal, to reflect on duty and contract in the public and private spheres.


It is ironic that Locke's Two Treatises, written, it is now argued, between 1681 and 1683, constantly revised and secretly guarded until their release was safe after 1689, may have been disguised as the mysterious work Tractatus de Morbo Gallico, “Concerning the French Disease,” which had a double meaning: syphilis in one sense, despotism in another, both considered by the English to be peculiarly French.35 But then the Whigs trumped up threats of a French alliance, popery, and despotism, as justifications for the deposition of James II and grounds for continuing fears of reinstatement of the Pretender, latterly in exile in France. Mary Astell reserved her most stinging invective for such subterfuges. Presbyters, not Popes, were the greatest threats to the prevailing civil order, she charged; and Presbyterians were more than popish in their tactics. Just as Whigs charged Tories with popery and francophilia, so Tories charged Whigs with Presbyterian-Calvinist plots against church and state.

The Act of Allegiance of 1689, in its first wording, had raised the specter of “Jesuits and other wicked persons” advising James II “to subvert the constitution of the kingdom by breaking the original contract between king and people.”36 It was on the basis of such calumnies, admittedly moderated somewhat in the final form of the bill, that clerics mindful of their oaths to the Stuarts had been deprived of their livings. Among them Mary Astell numbered her most revered authorities, Archbishop Sancroft, her earliest patron, Lord Clarendon, upon whose History she relied, Henry Dodwell, and Bishop George Hickes. Astell's anti-Whig treatise, An Impartial Enquiry, the weightiest rebuttal that White Kennett's inflammatory sermon to commemorate the death of Charles I ever received, is firmly anchored in the politics of the Glorious Revolution.

Political events in 1701 had conspired to give Lockean arguments a rerun, heralded by the reissue of radical tracts from 1649 and 1689. The Tories, enjoying the heady powers conceded to the parliament by the Revolution of 1688 which fell to them after their electoral victory of 1701, provided the conditions. They sought to curtail William III's campaign against the French by denying him funds and by seeking to impeach the Lords Somers, Halifax, Portland, and Orford for their Continental involvement. The Kentish Petitioners, who demanded the Crown fund a new war with France and were jailed for their efforts, were the catalyst.37 Somers and the indefatigable Daniel Defoe, a publicist for Locke, leapt to the defense of the right of subjects to petition. Somers, citing Locke's Two Treatises, argued precisely for government as a pact between property-owners, whereby consent of the governed to government as a species of protection agency entailed that the people might also submit grievances where their liberties seemed to be jeopardized. Charles Davenant, in Essays upon Peace at Home and War Abroad (1704), on which Mary Astell comments in the long prefatory discourse to her pamphlet Moderation Truly Stated (1704), pointed out that, in the Civil War itself, radical proponents of consent had not more loudly proclaimed rights of resistance and parliamentary accountability.38 Davenant, preoccupied with Machiavellian theories on corruption engendered by war, followed up with the trenchant True Picture of the Modern Whig, which showed modern Whigs to be careerists prosecuting war with France to gain political place and personal profit,39 just the line of argument followed by Astell in An Impartial Enquiry. This was also the argument made by Astell, in Moderation Truly Stated, where her target appears to be Locke, although her tract was read by contemporaries as a refutation of Davenant.40

The Kentish Petitioners had raised in the minds of pamphleteers on both sides constitutional issues which never lay far beneath the surface. But Whig strategies to keep alive the threat of French despotism and the Pretender as a pretext for war, cast serious doubt on their credentials as defenders of immemorial rights, while “Tory writers manipulated the ancient constitution myth by levelling it at its perpetrators.”41 Hence we have Charles Davenant, and even Mary Astell, declaring the English constitution to be a mixed constitution consisting of “the harmony of a prince ‘who is Head of the Republic’, the lords and the commons.”42 Davenant, using Machiavellian language, speaks of a constitution balanced between arbitrary government and democracy (Crown and Commons), arguing that a fourth estate for the common people with separate rights, such as the Kentish Petitioners had pressed for, would be destabilizing. Mary Astell, in An Impartial Enquiry, argues similarly against “the People's Supremacy”:

And since our Constitution lodges the Legislative Power in the Prince and the Three Estates assembled in Parliament; as it is not in the Power of the Prince and one of the Houses, to Make or Abrogate any Law, without the Concurrence of the other House, so neither can it be Lawfully done by the Prince alone, or by the two Houses without the Prince.43

Whatever Locke's position on the ancient constitution may have been—and his official position is, as usual, silence, despite the role he played in drafting a constitution for the American Carolinas—Mary Astell was quick to convict him of opportunism. She observed the antinomy between the reductionism of his sensationalist psychology that placed collectivities for ever out of reach, and his predilection for the fictions of the “state of nature” and “natural rights.” This was the point of her constant parody of appeals to “the rights of freeborn Englishmen” made by Locke, Defoe, and John Tutchin.44 If Locke in fact endorsed a “mixed constitution,”45 he would not have endorsed that peculiar version of “mixarchy” to which Lord Clarendon or Astell subscribed, a version of the ancient constitution as comprised of king, Lords, and Commons. For Clarendon, like the bishops who promulgated the theory under Charles II, the Lords included the bishops of the Anglican Church, jealous in the protection of their ecclesiastical power,46 something Astell supported and Locke denied. If Locke's constitutional monarchy looked down the centuries in its anticipation of modern constitutional forms, it did so precisely by virtue of a lack of commitment to the constitutional niceties of which Astell and Clarendon, along with those Whigs who tried to reconcile contract and conquest, were zealously protective.

Mary Astell's political pamphlets gravitate around the twin pillars of Toryism: abhorrence of the doctrine of right of resistance and abhorrence of Nonconformity. They also represent a response to the upsurge of Lockean language occasioned by the two events already mentioned as critical: the demands of the Kentish Petitioners, who raised again the question of Ancient Liberties, a constitutional myth which the Whigs defended and the Tories manipulated; and the Occasional Conformity Bill, introduced into parliament in 1703, but not passed until 1711. For Mary Astell, the Occasional Conformity crisis presented the true test of theological seriousness. On this subject two of her three important pamphlets of 1704 turn. In Moderation Truly Stated (1704), her 185-page rebuttal of James Owen's pamphlet, Moderation a Virtue (1703), whose defense of Occasional Conformity was not unreasonable, Astell adopts the extreme tactic of representing this sort of reasonableness as treason. If the Church of England was established by law, then attempts to bypass the requirement that office-holders must be communing Anglicans were unconstitutional at the very least, she maintained. Astell dealt a particularly stinging and belittling riposte to Daniel Defoe, himself a Dissenter, whose string of satirical pamphlets on the hysterical harangues of Henry Sacheverell, Charles Leslie, and others drew her ire in A Fair Way with Dissenters and their Patrons.

On the issue of Occasional Conformity Astell was at one with some of the most conservative writers. Goldie has suggested that the real roots of Tory constitutionalism in the revolt against James lay in the choice of church over king.47 Archbishop Sancroft and Edward Hyde (1609-74), first Earl of Clarendon, the former Mary Astell's patron, the latter her intellectual mentor and much cited source, were representative of the Anglican hierarchy of the 1680s, uncompromising on the status and independence of Anglicanism, and hostile to Presbyterianism and popery.48 The language of toleration was, to Astell, the language of schism: schism in religion and schism in politics. Occasional Conformity meant opening the door to religious and patriotic slackness, one of her most sustained objections to it. Thomas Edwards, author of Gangraena, and “the most voluble opponent” of the religious sects,49 is among her most cited sources. Astell agrees with John Nalson, whom she cites in An Impartial Enquiry, that religion, in the household as in the commonwealth, is what makes people observe the covenants they have made. The moderate Earl of Clarendon, Astell's intellectual mentor, who also lay the disorder of the Great Rebellion at the door of the Protestant sects, saw the same consequences: “Children asked not blessing of their parents … The young women conversed without any circumspection or modesty … Parents had no manner of authority over their children.”50

In An Impartial Enquiry, Astell introduces her onslaught on Lockean principles, for which White Kennett is the surrogate. It is no accident that the occasion of Mary Astell's pamphlet should have been the memorial day for the commemoration of the death of “the Royal King and Martyr.” Tory iconography depicting Charles I “as a mythological but appealing figure”51 dates in fact to the work Eikon Basilike of 1649—a sentimental and embroidered version of Charles's last reflections. Its authorship was entangled in debates over the Civil War to which Mary Astell contributed, for glorification of “the Royal Martyr” had been a calculated Tory stratagem.52


Astell entered public debate at the end of a century of biblical patriarchalism which had never been more baldly stated than in Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha of 1680, the work of a man desperate to restore his standing with the Crown.53 Filmer categorically denied the view argued by Aristotle and entrenched by Aristotelianism that different power sets establish qualitatively different spheres. Aristotle, in his distinctions in the Politics between forms of paternal, marital, despotic, and political power (as the power of a father, husband, slave owner, and magistrate, respectively) had created a distinction between private and public spheres that Hobbes and Locke, for different reasons, were keen to revive. Ignoring Aristotle's caution against confusing the rule of a large household for that of a small kingdom,54 Filmer claimed in fact that men were born into states by being born into families and that the power of kings was the power of fathers and nothing more. Filmer's claim raised the counter-claim that if fathers were indeed kings, the sovereign was superfluous.

Not only was such a notion intolerable to Hobbes and Locke, but so were the assumptions of biblical fundamentalism associated with Puritanism that underpinned it. Moreover, the separation of public and private spheres on which they insisted had a larger purpose. The great stress Hobbes laid on the state being “artificial” rather than natural was designed to erode any self-authenticating powers the Scriptures may be claimed to have in the Protestant community of believers. At the same time it prepared the way for an analysis of the particular artifice in terms of which the creation of the state was brought about: a contract. Scripture had its uses in acclimating people to negotiation by covenant or contract, of which marriage was the most immediate experience in the everyday life of most people. For the marriage contract to function as an analogue for social contract as an institution-creating artifice, the spheres had to be categorically distinct.

Astell, who had much in common with Filmer, and whose mentor, Archbishop Sancroft, had assisted Edmund Bohun in arranging the 1685 publication of Patriarcha, was nevertheless gravely offended by his patriarchalism. She shared Filmer's concern to distinguish the separate moments of authorization and designation, noting however the propensity of the Presbyterians to borrow scholastic casuistry:

Yet upon the grounds of this doctrine both Jesuits and some over zealous favourers of the Geneva discipline have built a perilous conclusion, which is “that the people or multitude have power to punish or deprive the prince if he transgress the laws of the kingdom.” Witness Parsons and Buchanan … Cardinal Bellarmine and Mr Calvin both look asquint this way.55

Like Filmer she supported the notion of a unitary state, divided not into spheres but into power zones in which power was distributed hierarchically. But she marshaled an impressive line of biblical women to remonstrate against the misogyny of the Apostle Paul and those adherents who argued the natural inferiority of women.56 And here Astell appealed to canons of reason established by Descartes and vouchsafed by Hobbes and Locke, for whom men and women were naturally equal but made radically unequal by the marriage contract, as the model for the radical inequality of citizen and sovereign powers achieved by the social contract.

Astell with characteristic irony enlisted the support of Bishop William Sherlock (1641?-1707), Dean of St. Paul's, against Locke. Sherlock, whom she names among the three Whig bishops who preached the 31 January memorial sermon for Charles I,57 might have been thought of as in Locke's camp. But Astell invokes him for his distinction between authority and title made against Locke. She phrases the distinction thus: “For, allowing that the People have a Right to Design the Person of their Governour; it does by no means follow that they Give him his Authority, or that they may when they please resume it.”58

Astell could not have known that Locke had actually put into print a rebuttal of Sherlock's distinction, which he considered it important to refute. Sherlock had argued quite cogently that the necessity of government was logically prior to the title of any particular sovereign. If authority was the right to command obedience, decided, it turned out, on de facto grounds, legitimate title was a question of constitutional law, de jure.59 Sherlock then carefully distinguished three modes of political empowerment: patriarchal, on the grant of authority made to Adam, Noah, Moses, and all subsequent fathers; by divine command (as to a Chosen People); and by consent. He dismissed the patriarchal argument and the argument from consent; the former because it ignored all the usurpations, beginning with Nimrod; the latter because consent, once given, could be withdrawn. He dismissed any historical arguments concerning legitimate title as “carrying men into such dark Labyrinths of Law and History, etc., as very few know how to find their way out of again.”60 He came down rather on the side of the Hobbesian reciprocity of protection/allegiance, citing Paul, Romans 13, and concluding, “If the prince can't Govern, the Subject can't Obey,”61 a view shared by the secular Engagers, Anthony Ascham and Marchmont Nedham. Sherlock tried to distance himself from the controversial Hobbes, however, for whom “dominion is naturally annexed to Power,” whereas he, Sherlock, was at pains to stress the moral duty of allegiance.62

Locke, whose comments on Sherlock constitute his only recorded remarks on political obedience postdating the Two Treatises of 1689, ridiculed Sherlock for attempting to separate legal title and God's authority—as if the law could breach the latter—seeming certainly to subscribe to obedience and non-resistance in this instance: “Q. Does not god['s] authority whch the actuall K[ing] has bar all other human claims & are not the subjects bound to maintain the right of such a prince as far as they can.”63

Locke, like Sherlock, distanced himself from Hobbism, but this time Sherlock's “submission” was not enough for legal title; it had to be consent: “Where there is noe resistance ther is a generall Submission, but there may be a general submission without a general consent wch is an other thing.”64

Sherlock had argued, quite to the contrary, and indistinguishably from Hobbes on conquest: “All Mankind have this natural Right to submit for their own preservation”; a submission that “is a voluntary Consent, tho' extorted by Force.”65 Astell does not even deal with Sherlock's argument, but she demolishes Locke's, turning against him exactly the argument he uses against slavery. Locke's case for freedom was based on the eloquently expressed argument against slavery:

For a Man, not having the Power of his own Life, cannot, by Compact, or his own Consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the Absolute, Arbitrary Power of another, to take away his Life, when he pleases. No body can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own Life cannot give another power over it.66

This is just the argument that Astell uses to make the case for a distinction between authority and title, but on assumptions that are otherwise directly contrary to Locke on authorization. People may choose the person of the governor, but they cannot empower him, because: “None can give what they have not: The People have no Authority over their own Lives, consequently they can't invest such an Authority in their Governours.”67 The argument with which Astell then proceeds seems to be explicitly aimed at Locke:

And tho' we shou'd grant that People, when they first enter into Society, may frame their Laws as they think fit; yet these Laws being once Establish'd, they can't Legally and Honestly be chang'd, but by that Authority in which the Founders of the Society thought fit to place the Legislature. Otherwise we have been miserably impos'd upon by all those Arguments that were urg'd against a Dispensing Power.68


Astell cogently argues the Tory case, interspersing her exegesis of the Tory canon, in the form of her authorities, the Bible, the Earl of Clarendon, and Henry Foulis, with broadsides in all directions. On the subject of factiousness she lashes out at fanatics: “Malignants, High-flyers and what not.”69 She takes a shot at Hobbesian mechanism as voiced by White Kennett: “we are told, that the Prime Engines were Men of Craft, dreadful Dissemblers with GOD (what is meant by adding and Heaven, I know not, for the Dr. is too zealous against Popery, to suffer us to imagine that he takes in Angels and Saints).”70 Then she dares to turn against Dissenters and regicides Hobbesian charges of demonology: “They shou'd not suffer Men to infect the Peoples Minds with evil Principles and Representations, with Speeches that have double Meanings and Equivocal Expressions, Innuendo's and secret Hints and Insinuations.”71 It is not the only time that she uses explicitly Hobbesian language to hoist the famous author on his own petard. Nowhere is her parody of Hobbes more explicit than in her defense of popery against the worst charges of the Presbyterians, notoriously popish casuists. There she echoes the great master's comments about hay and stubble and straw men:72

Now they who are curious to know what Popery is, and who do not rail at it at a venture, know very well, that every Doctrine which is profess'd by the Church of Rome, is not Popish; God forbid it shou'd, for they receive the Holy Scriptures, and teach the Creeds. But that Superstructure of Hay and Stubble, those Doctrines of Men or Devils, which they have built upon this good Foundation, this is Popery.73

Having demolished faction, Astell recommends against democracy: “For we have the sad Experience of our Civil Wars to inform us, that all the Concessions the King and his Loyal Subjects cou'd make to the Factious and Rebellious, cou'd not satisfie.”74 She even suggests that the outspoken, and presumably the press, should be muzzled: “Governours therefore may very justly animadvert upon, and suppress it. For it is as much their Duty, and as necessary a Service to the Public, to restrain the Turbulent and Seditious, as it is to protect the Innocent, and to reward the Deserving.”75

Astell's charge that the Scots, John Pym, and the French Cardinal Richelieu had conspired to trump up the French threat in the 1630s and 1640s is a constant refrain. At one point she even enlists Grotius against “factious, turbulent, and Rebellious Spirits,” by which she means Pym and company, otherwise known as “Presbyterians, or Whiggs, or whatever you will call them.”76 Having produced a litany of offenders against political obedience and supporters of passive resistance outstanding in this particular debate, she proceeds to give an equally impressive list of evil ministers, intent on “appeas[ing] the Party … obstruct[ing] the King's Business, and … weaken[ing] his authority”; the cause, as Henry Foulis instructs us, of “‘perpetual Hurly-burly … and … Leap-frog Government.’”77 She does not mention Locke by name, but he could well be chief among “those Mercenary Scriblers whom all sober Men condemn, and who only write after the Fact, or in order to it, to make their own Fortunes, or to justifie their own Wickedness.”78 Locke it was who, in his anonymous and unpublished Minute for Edward Clarke, declared:

Every one, and that with reason, begins our delivery from popery and slavery from the arrival of the prince of Orange and the compleating of it is, by all that wish well to him and it, dated from King William's settlement in the throne. This is the fence set up against popery and France, for King James's name, however made use of, can be but a stale to these two. If ever he returne, under what pretences soever, Jesuits must governe and France be our master. He is too much wedded to the one and relyes too much on the other ever to part with either. He that has ventured and lost three crowns for his blinde obedience to those guides of his conscience and for his following the counsels and pattern of the French King cannot be hoped, after the provocations he has had to heighten his natural aversion, should ever returne with calme thoughts and good intentions to Englishmen, their libertys, and religion. And then I desire the boldest or most negligent amongst us, who can not resolve to be a contemned popish convert and a miserable French peasant, to consider with himself what security, what help, what hopes he can have, if by the ambition and artifice of any great man he depends on and is led by, he be once brought to this market, a poore, innocent sheepe to this shambles; for whatever advantageous bargains the leaders may make for them selves, tis eternally true that the dull heard of followers are always bought and sold.79

These do not sound like the words of a democrat, or even of an abstract political theorist. Locke's reputation for being overly philosophical is not something he necessarily enjoyed in his own day. Astell quite clearly sees him as a polemical political theorist, whatever the undoubted merits of his psychological theory might be. As James Farr and Clayton Roberts note, even passages in the Two Treatises apparently concerned with obligation in the abstract take on a different significance, seen in the light of this private document. And so do apparently contradictory statements, such as his claim in his criticism of Sherlock's The case of allegiance due to soveraign powers, that, “Allegiance is neither due nor paid to Right or to Government which are abstract notions but only to persons having right of government.”80 While such a statement might seem to deny all attempts to provide a de jure rather than de facto basis for government, more closely scrutinized it reads differently. The “Right or … Government” deemed abstract are in fact Divine Right and hereditary monarchy.

The virtue of the Williamite settlement was that it could be presented as virtually an elective monarchy if the right construction was put upon the empowering oaths; in other words, the notoriously unstable Stuart patrilineal line had suffered an interloper in the form of William III, on the strength of popular sentiment. Much of Locke's effort in the brief to Clarke was to ensure that the Whig project to convert a de facto into a de jure settlement was accomplished.81 Such a purpose casts Locke's claims in the Two Treatises concerning de facto power and the basis of citizenship in a new light. There he asserted both that “An Usurper … [can never] have a Title, till the People are both at liberty to consent, and have actually consented,”82 and concerning how individuals “come to be Subjects or Members of [any] Commonwealth,” that, “Nothing can make any Man so, but his actually entering into it by positive Engagement, and express Promise and Compact.”83

Locke's critique of Sherlock, and his political behavior more generally, might seem to fly in the face of his claim in the Two Treatises, that “there cannot be done a greater Mischief to Prince and People, than the Propagating wrong Notions concerning Government.” But he was consistent in his view, as the brief to Clarke demonstrates, that royal claims to rule by divine right should be treated with “public condemnation and abhorrence.”84 His critique of Sherlock merely affirmed what he elsewhere asserted, that oaths of allegiance took precedence over hereditary right, as supplying that element of consent prerequisite to social contract. However, for those who were not willing to swear allegiance, the alternative was “separation from the Government”85—a position perilously close to the sanctions against Occasional Conformity which Locke could not have approved. The more immediate problem was to cut a swathe through the conflicting oaths that tied the non-jurors to the Stuart dynasty, and this Locke could do.

It had been the accomplishment of Thomas Hobbes to justify government on non-providential grounds.86 Locke was in this respect a successor to Hobbes, but one who argued less for the necessity of government than for its conventionality—both prongs of the Hobbesian position—emphasizing not the injunction of reason on citizens to obey, but the motivations for governments to contract and citizens to consent. The elaborate juridical artifice by means of which citizens, like wives, children, and servants, were deemed voluntarily to have contracted into subordination had as little credibility in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as it does today, but for different reasons. In the early modern era providential arguments still reigned supreme; in ours different conclusions are drawn from contractarian arguments, which seem to have won the day.


  1. Mary Astell's Collections of Poems Dedicated to the most Reverend Father in God William by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury (1689), Rawlinson MSS poet. 154:50, Oxford: The Bodleian Library; excerpted in Bridget Hill, The First English Feminist: “Reflections Upon Marriage” and other Writings by Mary Astell (Aldershot: Gower Publishing, 1986), pp. 183-84, and printed in full in Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986), pp. 400-54. I would like to thank Bridget Hill, Mark Goldie, John Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and Lois Schwoerer, and my editor, Steven Zwicker, for their comments on an earlier version of this piece. Sincere thanks to the Australian Research Council, the Folger Shakespeare Library, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, under whose joint auspices it was written.

  2. Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, London, Printed for R. Wilkin, 1694 (Folger Library, 140765 [Wing A4063]). Second edition corrected, 1695, London, Printed for R. Wilkin (Folger Library, 145912 [Wing A4063]). Fourth edition, 1701, London, Printed by J.R. for R. Wilkin (Folger Library, PR3316.A655.S3.Cage).

  3. Mary Astell, Letters Concerning the Love of God, between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris, Published by J. Norris, Rector of Bemerton nr. Sarum, London, Printed for Samuel Manship, 1695 (Wing 1254).

  4. Astell's three commissioned Tory tracts of 1704 are in order of publication: Moderation truly Stated: or a Review of a Late Pamphlet, Entitul'd Moderation a Virtue, or, The Occasional Conformist Justified from the Imputation of Hypocricy … With a Prefatory Discourse to Dr. D'Avenant, Concerning His Late Essays on Peace and War, London, Printed by J.L. for Richard Wilkin, at the King's-Head, in St. Paul's Church-yard, 1704 (Folger Library, BX5202.A8.Cage); A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons, London, Printed by E.P. for R. Wilkin, at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church-yard, 1704 (Folger Library, BX5202.A7.Cage); and 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, London, Printed by E.P. for R. Wilkin, at the King's Head in St. Paul's Churchyard, 1704 (Folger Library, BV 4253.K4.C75.Cage).

  5. See James Owen, Moderation a Vertue: Or, the Occasional Conformist Justify'd from the Imputation of Hypocrisy (London, 1703); Daniel Defoe, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters: Or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (London, 1702) and More Short-Ways with the Dissenters (London, 1703); and White Kennett's A Compassionate Enquiry into the Causes of the Civil War: In a Sermon Preached in the Church of St. Botolph Aldgate, On January 31, 1704, the Day of the Fast of the Martyrdom of King Charles I (London, 1704).

  6. Mary Astell, The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England in a Letter to the Right Honourable T.L., C.I., London, Printed by S.H. for R. Wilkin, at the King's Head in St. Paul's Churchyard, 1705 (Folger Library, 216595).

  7. See Joseph M. Levine's magisterial The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). It is symptomatic that women should have participated in pathbreaking ways in this discourse on the cusp of modernity. Astell recognized the particular contribution of her acknowledged role model, Anne Lefevre Dacier (1654-1720), a French scholar and classics translator (see A Serious Proposal, p. 10). And she must have valued the contribution of her Chelsea acquaintance, the English antiquarian and linguist, Elizabeth Elstob (see Levine, The Battle of the Books, pp. 378-79).

  8. Hill, The First English Feminist, p. 48.

  9. Formative works of the New Historicists include Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); the Shakespearean studies of contributors to Jean E. Howard and Marian F. O'Connor (eds.), Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1987); and Don Wayne's work on Renaissance country-house poetry, especially that of Ben Jonson, in Penshurst: The Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (London: Methuen, 1984). “Cultural Materialism,” in the works of British scholars such as Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore shares a similar emphasis on the material circumstances of texts, their social function in society, and the ways in which cultural texts enact the work of subversion and containment. See Sinfield and Dollimore (eds.), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985). I owe these observations to Steven Zwicker and thank him for his kind assistance.

  10. See Astell's Forward to the second edition of Bart'lemy Fair, 1722 (p. A2a), on how Swift put Steele up to the satire of her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies in Tatler, No. 32, from White's Chocolate-house, 22 June 1709, “a little after the Enquiry [Bart'lemy Fair] appear'd.” See also Tatler, No. 63, 1-3 September 1709. Ruth Perry, in The Celebrated Mary Astell (pp. 229-30, 516 n. 81), and Bridget Hill, in “A Refuge from Men: The Idea of a Protestant Nunnery,” Past and Present, 117 (1987), pp. 107-30 (esp. p. 118, nn. 47 and 48), ascribe authorship of the Tatler pieces to Swift, but the revised Tatler does not, and Astell clearly believes them to be the work of Steele:

    But tho' the Enquirer had offended the Tatler, and his great Friends, on whom he so liberally bestows his Panegyrics, by turning their Ridicule very justly upon themselves; what had any of her Acquaintances done to provoke him? Who does he point at? For she knows of none who ever attempted to erect a Nunnery, or declar'd That Virginity was to be their State of Life.

  11. The Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, 3 vols. (London, 1761), vol. i, pp. 210, 218, cited in Hill, “A Refuge from Men,” p. 120. Susannah Centlivre, a gentlewoman whose family fled to Ireland at the Restoration, may have disliked Astell's politics, Basset Table having been written after the publication of Astell's Royalist political pamphlets of 1704. The widow of two husbands, Centlivre had raised herself from obscurity by writing plays, was a friend of Richard Steele, and in 1706 married Queen Anne's chief cook, Joseph Centlivre (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn., vol. v, p. 674).

  12. The Works of Samuel Richardson, 19 vols. (London, 1811), vol. xvi, pp. 155-56, cited in Hill, “A Refuge from Men,” p. 121. See also the authoritative modern edition of Richardson's History of Sir Charles Grandison, ed. Jocelyn Harris, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), vol. ii, pp. 255-56 and notes.

  13. See A. H. Upham, “A Parallel Case for Richardson's Clarissa,Modern Language Notes, 28 (1913), pp. 103-05. It is notable, however, that standard works on Richardson, including the authoritative biography by T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), and Tom Keymer's study Clarissa and the Eighteenth Century Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), do not even include Astell in the index.

  14. The Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (London, 1905), pp. 167, 176, cited by Hill, “A Refuge from Men,” p. 107.

  15. See E.J.F. and D.B., “George Berkeley and The Ladies Library,Berkeley Newsletter (Dublin), (1980), pp. 5-13; and G. A. Aitken, in “Steele's ‘Ladies' Library’,” The Athenaeum, 2958 (1884), pp. 16-17.

  16. Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage, Occasion'd by the Duke & Dutchess of Mazarine's Case …, London, Printed for John Nutt, 1700 (Wing A4067). Second edition (no known copies extant). Third edition, Reflections Upon Marriage. To which is added a Preface in Answer to Some Objections, London, Printed for R. Wilkin, at the King's Head in St. Paul's Church Yard, 1706. Fourth edition, 1730.

  17. J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957).

  18. Mark Goldie, “Tory Political Thought 1689-1714,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge (1978).

  19. Astell in An Impartial Enquiry, p. 48, cites Henry Foulis, The History of the Wicked Plots and Conspiracies of Our Pretended Saints … 2nd edn., Oxford, Printed by Henry Hall for Ric. Davis, 1674 (Folger Library, F1643, 204, 205): “The Blood of many thousand Christians, shed in these Wars and before, crieth aloud against Presbytery, as the People only guilty of the first occasion of Quarrel … Of whom Grotius says, ‘That he looks upon them as factious, turbulent, and Rebellious Spirits.’”

  20. This is emphasized in Johann Sommerville, “History and Theory: the Norman Conquest in Early Stuart Political Thought,” Political Studies, 34 (1986), pp. 249-61.

  21. For instance, Astell both cites and paraphrases Richard Allestree's The Ladies Calling in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, as on pp. 4, 9, 37, 122, 148, 153ff. of the 1694 edition, which correspond to the following sections of Allestree: part 1, section 5 (1673), 1705 edition, p. 100; part 2, sections 2 and 3, “Of Wives” and “Of Widows,” 1703 edition, pp. 201ff., 231ff.; part 2, section 3, 1705 edition, p. 257; part 2, section 1, “Of Virgins,” 1705 edition, p. 172; part 2, section 3, 1705 edition, p. 232; part 2, section 3, 1705 edition, p. 125, respectively. On many substantive points Astell's program for women echoes Allestree, who in The Ladies Calling had remonstrated against the reduction of women, denied education, to menial status and had argued in favor of “Home-education” and against sending children abroad.

  22. See for instance her sarcastic remark in An Impartial Enquiry, p. 40: “Only let me recommend to all such Thinkers, Mr. Lock's Chapter of the Association of Ideas; they need not be afraid to read it, for that ingenious Author is on the right side, and by no means in a French Interest!”

  23. Astell in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part i, 1694 edn., pp. 85-86, recommends Englishwomen were better to improve themselves with the “study of Philosophy (as I hear the French Ladies do) Des Cartes, Malebranch and others.” In A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II, she draws heavily on Descartes, citing “Les Principes del la Philosofie de M. Des Cartes, Pt. I. 45,” at some length on p. 134 (1697 edn.), declaring on pp. 250-51: “But this being already accounted for by Des Cartes [Les Passions de l'Ame] and Dr. More, in his excellent Account of Vertue, I cannot pretend to add any thing to what they have so well Discours'd.”

  24. “Mr. Locke's Supposition that it is possible for Matter to Think, consider'd” comprises sections 259 to 271 of Astell's The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church, pp. 250-63, the first two parts of which (sections 1-105, pp. 1-95) are devoted to establishing “What it is that a late Book concerning the Reasonableness of Christianity, etc., pretends to drive at.” For commentary by modern philosophers see the excellent articles by K. M. Squadrito, “Mary Astell's Critique of Locke's View of Thinking Matter,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 25 (1987), pp. 433-40; and Patricia Ward Scaltas, “Women as Ends—Women as Means in the Enlightenment,” in A. J. Arnaud and E. Kingdom (eds.), Women's Rights and the Rights of Man (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1990).

  25. See R. W. K. Hinton, “Husbands, Fathers and Conquerors,” Political Studies, 15, 3 (1967), pp. 291-300 and 16, 1 (1968), pp. 55-67; Mary Lyndon Shanley, “Marriage Contract and Social Contract in Seventeenth-Century English Political Thought,” Western Political Quarterly, 32 (1979), pp. 79-91; Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).

  26. See Patricia Springborg, “Mary Astell (1666-1731), Critic of Locke,” American Political Science Review, 89, 3 (1995), pp. 621-33; and my introductions to Mary Astell (1666-1731): Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Parts I and II (London, Pickering and Chatto: 1997).

  27. See Pocock, The Ancient Constitution, pp. 233ff.

  28. Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 38.

  29. Astell may well be referring to theories of Nicolas Malebranche, 1638-1715, De la Recherche de la Verit, ou l'on traitte de la nature de l'esprit de l'homme, & de l'usage qu'il en doit faire pour viter l'erreur dans les sciences, 4th revised and enlarged edn. (Folger Library B 1893.R.3.1678.Cage). Astell treats Malebranche's principle of “seeing all things in God” at length in her correspondence with John Norris, Letters Concerning the Love of God, of 1693, published in 1695. She addresses Malebranche's revisions to Descartes in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II, of 1697, and no more critically than on the subject of sex differences. Malebranche deals with the different structures of mind between the sexes in part 2 of the The Search for Truth, “Concerning the Imagination,” 1.1, “Of the Imagination of Women.” See the 1700 translation by Thomas Taylor, Father Malebranche his treatise concerning the search after truth … Printed by W. Bowyer, for Thomas Bennet, and T. Leigh and D. Midwinter, 2nd corrected edn., London (Folger Library M318), which Astell may well have used. Discussing the greater excitability of women, Taylor, Father Malebranche, p. 64, accurately translates Malebranche, 1678 edn., pp. 105-06:

    But though it be certain, that this Delicacy of the Fibres of the Brain is the principal Cause of all these Effects; yet it is not equally certain, that it is universally to be found in all women. Or if it be to be found, yet their Animal Spirits are sometimes so exactly proportion'd to the Fibres of their Brain, that there are women to be met with, who have a greater solidity of Mind than some Men. 'Tis in a certain Temperature of the Largeness and Agitation of the Animal Spirits, and Conformity with the Fibres of the Brain, that the strength of parts consists: And Women have sometimes that just Temperature. There are women Strong and constant, and there are Men that are Weak and Fickle. There are Women that are Learned, Couragious, and capable of every thing. And on the contrary, there are men that are Soft Effeminate, incapable of any Penetration, or dispatch of any Business. In Fine, when we attribute any Failures to a certain Sex, Age, or Condition, they are only to be understood of the generality; it being ever suppos'd, there is no general Rule without Exception.

  30. Preface to the third edition of Reflections upon Marriage, p. iv.

  31. See Mark Goldie, “The Revolution of 1689 and the Structure of Political Argument,” Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 83 (1980), pp. 473-564, esp. pp. 508-09.

  32. See Patricia Springborg, “Thomas Hobbes and Cardinal Bellarmine: Leviathan and the Ghost of the Roman Empire,” History of Political Thought, 16, 4 (1995), pp. 503-31.

  33. “Let every person render obedience to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those in authority are divinely constituted,” The Holy Bible (Nashville, Tennessee: Gideons International, 1986), p. 843.

  34. Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 100. See especially Johann Sommerville's perceptive treatment of Hobbes and Bellarmine in Thomas Hobbes: Political Ideas in Context (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 113-19, which complements his overview of papalist theory and Anglican responses in his Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-40 (London: Longman, 1986), pp. 189-203. On the perceived convergence of Presbyterianism and popery on the power to depose kings, see Sommerville's “From Suarez to Filmer: a Reappraisal,” Historical Journal, 25 (1982), pp. 525-40; and the Introduction to his edition of Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), esp. pp. xv, xxi-xxiv. On the medieval roots of consent theory see Francis Oakley, “Legitimation by Consent: the Question of the Medieval Roots,” Viator, 14 (1983), pp. 303-35, and Omnipotence, Covenants, and Order (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), esp. pp. 48-91.

  35. See Peter Laslett's Introduction to his edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 62-65.

  36. See Goldie, “The Revolution of 1689,” pp. 473-564, esp. p. 476.

  37. Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 167. For the more general political context see Lois Schwoerer, “The Right to Resist: Whig Resistance Theory, 1688 to 1694,” in Nicholas Phillipson and Quentin Skinner (eds.), Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 232-52; and on the legal ramifications of the Kentish Petitioners' claims, see Philip A. Hamburger, “Revolution and Judicial Review: Chief Justice Holt's Opinion in City of London v. Wood,Columbia Law Review, 94, 7 (1994), pp. 2091-153.

  38. Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 168.

  39. See John Pocock, The Ancient Constitution, pp. 436-48; Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 168.

  40. See the remarks of the eighteenth-century commentator George Ballard, in his Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who have been Celebrated for their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts and Sciences (1752), cited by Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell, p. 196.

  41. Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” pp. 169, 173.

  42. Davenant, Essays upon Peace at Home and War Abroad, 1704, in Works, 5 vols. (London, 1771), vol. iv, sections 1 and 13.

  43. Astell, An Impartial Enquiry, p. 34.

  44. Ibid., pp. 8, 14, 30, etc., mocks the language of the country Whig, exemplified in particular by John Tutchin (1661?-1707) who combined reverence for the ancient constitution, parliament, and “native right” with xenophobia, declaring of the constitution “she's as well beloved now by all true Englishmen, as she was by our Forefathers a Thousand Years ago” (Observator, 7-10 April 1703). His views were set out in the Observator from 29 September to 7 November 1703, focusing on resistance and targeted at Charles Leslie (see Phillipson and Skinner [eds.], Political Discourse, p. 217). They were bound for this reason to have come to the attention of Astell, who includes a poke at Leslie in the title to A Fair Way with the Dissenters, claiming her work “Not Writ by Mr. L———y, or any other Furious Jacobite, whether Clergyman or Layman; but by a very Moderate Person and and Dutiful Subject to the Queen.” Astell complained in her Postscript to that work (A Fair Way with the Dissenters, pp. 24-27), that the “High Flyer” Leslie had gotten the credit for her own Moderation truly Stated. And in An Impartial Enquiry (pp. 8ff.) Astell gives the impression that Kennett held the same views as Tutchin. Tutchin, it is true, admired “those two great men, Mr. Sidney and Mr. Locke,” defenders of ancient liberty, “the one against Sir Robert Filmer, and the other against a whole Company of Slaves.” (See Tutchin, Observator, 14-18 September 1706, cited in Nicholas Phillipson, “Politeness and Politics in the Reigns of Anne and the Early Hanoverians,” in J. G. A. Pocock, Gordon J. Schochet, and Lois G. Schwoerer [eds.], The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500-1800 [Washington, DC: Folger Institute, 1993], pp. 211-45, esp. p. 218.) But this, the only occasion on which Tutchin names Locke, is too late for Astell's pamphlet.

  45. See Martin Thompson, “Significant Silences in Locke's Two Treatises of Government: Constitutional History, Contract and Law,” The Historical Journal, 31 (1987), pp. 275-94, esp. pp. 291-92; and Lois Schwoerer, “Locke, Lockean Ideas and the Glorious Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 51, 4 (1990), pp. 531-48, esp. pp. 540-41.

  46. See Richard Tuck's Review of Michael Mendle, Dangerous Positions: Mixed Government, the Estates of the Realm, and the Answer to the XIX Propositions (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985), Journal of Modern History, 59, 3 (1987), pp. 570-2.

  47. Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 64.

  48. Ibid., p. 63.

  49. Keith Thomas, “Women and the Civil War Sects,” Past and Present, 13 (1958), pp. 42-62, esp. p. 55.

  50. Clarendon, Life, vol. i (London, 1827), pp. 358-59, cited in ibid., p. 57.

  51. See Quentin Skinner, “Conquest and Consent: Thomas Hobbes and the Engagement Controversy,” in G. E. Aylmer (ed.), The Interregnum: the Quest for Settlement 1646-1660 (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 85.

  52. Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 195.

  53. See Sommerville, Introduction to Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Writings. See also Gordon Schochet's authoritative treatment, Patriarchalism and Political Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975).

  54. Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, paragraph 2, 1252a 9-15, Loeb Classical Library edn., ed. H. Rackham (London: Heinemann, 1932), p. 3:

    Those then who think that the natures of the statesman [politikon], the royal ruler [basilikon], the head of an estate [oikonomikon] and the master of a family [despotikon] are the same, are mistaken (they imagine that the difference between these various forms of authority is between greater and smaller numbers, not a difference in kind—that is, that the ruler over a few people is a master, over more the head of an estate, over more still a statesman or royal ruler, as if there were no difference between a large household and a small city.)

  55. Filmer, Patriarcha, p. 3. Astell in An Impartial Enquiry, pp. 24-28, undertook to supply chapter and verse, drawing on Henry Foulis, The History of Romish Treasons … 1681 edn. (Book 2, ch. 3, pp. 75ff.) who had analyzed the specific indebtedness of Presbyterian advocates of popular sovereignty to the Scholastics and Jesuits, a claim which Astell repeated, to target Locke and the Whigs.

  56. See William Nicholls (1664-1712), The Duty of Inferiors towards their Superiors, in Five Practical Discourses, 1701, London (Folger Library, 178-610q), Discourse iv, “The Duty of Wives to their Husbands,” which Astell attacks in the opening pages of the Preface to the 1706 edition of Reflections upon Marriage.

  57. Astell, An Impartial Enquiry, p. 16: “Since a Dr. Binks, a Mr. Sherlock, a Bishop of St. Asaph, and some few more, take occasion to Preach upon this Day such antiquated Truths as might have past upon the Nation in the Reign of K. Charles II. or in Monmouth's Rebellion.”

  58. Ibid., p. 34.

  59. William Sherlock, A Vindication of the Case of Allegiance, 1691, p. 11, cited in Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 93.

  60. Sherlock, The Case of Allegiance due to Sovereign Powers, 1691, p. 2, cited in ibid.

  61. Sherlock, ibid., pp. 21, 14, 45, 42, cited in Goldie, ibid., p. 94.

  62. Sherlock, ibid., p. 15, cited in Goldie, ibid., p. 95.

  63. Oxford, The Bodleian Library, Locke MSS c.28, fo. 9iv, cited in Goldie, ibid., p. 103.

  64. Bodl. Locke MSS c.28, fo. 96r, cited in Goldie, ibid., p. 104.

  65. Sherlock, Vindication of the Case of Allegiance, pp. 18, 13, cited in Goldie, ibid., p. 104.

  66. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), Book 2, paragraphs 23, 24, p. 284.

  67. Astell, An Impartial Enquiry, p. 34.

  68. Ibid.

  69. Ibid., p. 7.

  70. Ibid., p. 5.

  71. Ibid., p. 8. See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 29-30, for Hobbes's famous account of words as counters. Hobbes attributes “insignificant” speech to an ignorance of the relation between sign and signifier:

    Nature it selfe cannot erre: and as men abound in copiousnesse of language; so they become more wise, or more mad than ordinary. Nor is it possible without Letters for any man to become either excellently wise, or … excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other Doctor whatsoever, if but a man.

    Hobbes's marvelous images for “insignificant” speech often involve the entrapment of birds, as in Leviathan, p. 28. If ‘truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations,” he says, then “a man that seeketh precise truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly, or else he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in limetwigges; the more he struggles, the more belimed.” And, again, Leviathan, p. 28:

    For the errours of Definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds; and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoyd, without reckoning anew from the beginning, in which lyes the foundation of their errours. From whence it happens, that they which trust to books, do as they that cast up many little summs into a greater, without considering whether those little summes were rightly cast up or not; and at last finding the errour visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to cleere themselves; but spend time in fluttering over their bookes; as birds that entring by the chimney, and finding themselves inclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glasse window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.

  72. Hobbes frequently invokes the scarecrows and straw men created by Catholic casuistry, that, “built on the Vain Philosophy of Aristotle, would fright [men] from Obeying the Laws of their Country, with empty names; as men fright Birds from the Corn with an empty doublet, a hat, and a crooked stick.” Leviathan, p. 465.

  73. Astell, An Impartial Enquiry, p. 22.

  74. Ibid., p. 9.

  75. Ibid., p. 8.

  76. Ibid., p. 48.

  77. Ibid., p. 32.

  78. Ibid., p. 29.

  79. Bodleian MS Locke e.18, reprinted in James Farr and Clayton Roberts, “John Locke on the Glorious Revolution: A Rediscovered Document,” The Historical Journal, 28 (1985), pp. 385-98, esp. pp. 395-98.

  80. Ibid., p. 292.

  81. See Mark Goldie, “John Locke's Circle and James II,” The Historical Journal, 35, 3 (1992), pp. 557-86.

  82. Locke, Two Treatises, book 2, section 198, p. 398.

  83. Ibid., book 2, section 122, p. 349.

  84. Bodleian MS Locke e.18, fo. 5, reprinted in Farr and Roberts, “John Locke,” pp. 395-98.

  85. Ibid.

  86. See Quentin Skinner, “Conquest and Consent”; and Mark Goldie, “Tory Political Thought,” p. 98.

Kristin Waters (essay date 2000)

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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 heart. Her political views have an affinity with those of Hobbes and Edmund Burke in their common defenses of monarchy, but she differs from Hobbes, criticizing his mechanistic individualism and atheism, which were anathema to her. Her feminism, or protofeminism, foreshadows certain aspects of radical feminism and even the separatist feminism of the late twentieth century. Her arguments about political foundations are radical-conservative and monarchical, but suggest (the danger of) arguments used today by postmodern writers against liberal foundationalism. She did not hold a high opinion of men. She wrote ostensibly for a female audience and both excoriated and was excoriated by the glib and witty writers of her day—Addison, Steele, and Defoe. She was a formidable intellect about whom there is tantalizingly little current scholarship and vast room for further study.

Her biographer Ruth Perry writes that both of the new radical epistemologies of the time, rationalism and empiricism, enabled women like Mary Astell to think of themselves as rational creatures situated in the Enlightenment ideology of human achievement. The rationalism of Descartes held that intellectual introspection could find truth, and the empiricism of Locke and Bacon found that one could “collect and record natural curiosities, peer through microscopes and telescopes and describe what she saw there.”2 In principle, both of these new methodologies were available to women in ways that authority-based medieval epistemologies were not. The democratic impulses of the century rubbed off on women, and while the franchise was not yet in sight, education and increased opportunities were. One writer observes that the “Cartesian philosophy fostered an introspective psychology, a radical consciousness of self-important to the growth of feminism—by its insistence on the thinking I as the touchstone of all knowledge and even existence.”3 Then, as today, new epistemologies created a radical shift which enabled new kinds of understanding to flourish.

[P]erhaps I have said more than most Men will thank me for, I cannot help it, for how much soever I may be their friend and humble servant, I am more a friend to Truth.4

Astell's first book had the intriguing title of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, By a Lover of Her Sex. The work begins with the Enlightenment premise that women have the same potential for reasoning as men and proceeds to argue the need (intellectually, economically, and socially) for a college for women. One of the early “second wave” feminists to revive Mary Astell's work is the Australian feminist Dale Spender. Spender's thesis is that counter-hegemonic theories such as feminism historically have difficulty gathering a head of steam and creating lasting social change because the dominant ideologies periodically erase them. Thus, they need to be reinvented by each succeeding generation. In the case of Mary Astell, despite her wide audience in the late seventeenth century, it is not a certainty even that she was read by another ardent feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the late eighteenth century. And, until very recently, her work has been nearly invisible.

Spender credits Astell with formulating an early account of patriarchy as a system in which men claim control over women, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. A goal of Astell's is to reclaim women for themselves. Spender also attributes to Astell an early formulation of the concept of “victim blaming,” that women are “blamed” for social arrangements that men devise. As Astell says:

Women are from their very infancy debarred those advantages, with the want of which they are afterwards reproached, and nursed up in those vices which will hereafter be upbraided to them.5

Astell's serious proposal is to establish a women's college, where women could take up intellectual pursuits, tend to spiritual needs, and be protected from the problems associated with male control: forced domestic service, sexual exploitation, and domestic violence. The college would be funded by charitable subscription, and could be less expensive than the dowries required in marriage. She argues that women and men are made by God for the same purposes, and with the same intellect. Abstract thinking is what differentiates humans from animals. Since God has made nothing in vain, it follows that women should use their intellect.6 The Serious Proposal was well received generally, and led her to write and publish Part II, which is a work on methodology, designed particularly for women to help them individually improve their learning, in the absence of an educational institution.

In 1700 she published Some Reflections upon Marriage, Occasion'd by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine's Case. This work, about the divorce suit of her Chelsea neighbor, reveals Astell in all her complexity. The case was wildly famous, with many published accounts of the trial. The Duke of Mazarine, whose name was taken from the French cardinal who was the Duchess Hortense Mazarine's guardian, was a notorious brute and abusive husband.7 His wife fled his abuses and the case wound up in court. Not just a commentary on marriage, this work is primarily a political critique. In it, Astell deftly inverts the analogy between the marriage contract and the social contract, used in different ways by Locke and Hobbes.


For the sake of argument, Astell hypothesizes the truth of Locke's claim that the sovereignty of the monarch is not absolute, and argues by analogy that the sovereignty of the husband is not absolute, something few writers including Locke were willing to claim. Using this device she exposes the excesses of marital abuse perpetrated by the Duke of Mazarine on his wife. In a remarkable twist, however, Astell concludes that Hortense Mazarine made a vow before God to obey her husband, and the vow may not be broken. God is the foundational authority. It is heinous that the husband should behave in such a way, but the proper response to unreasonable power is passive obedience—a term used by Tories and “high flyers” to describe the proper response to objectionable political authority. In other words, the Dissenters should have practiced passive obedience, not revolt, towards the Stuart monarchs.

Following the analogy, Astell reasons that if divorce in marriage is not justified, so neither is “divorce” in civil government. God is the foundational authority for the power of the monarch and passive obedience is required even in cases of the most blatant abuse.

Because God made all Things for himself, and a rational mind is too noble a being to be made for the sake and service of any creature. The service she at any time becomes obliged to pay to a man, is only a business by the bye. Just as it may be any man's business and duty to keep hogs; he was not made for this, but if he hires himself out to such an employment, he ought conscientiously to perform it.8

A woman fool enough to marry a man must obey him as she might be obliged to “tend the pigs.” Her argument contains another clever twist leading to her most radical conclusion. Astell argues for political authority: men must submit to the state, women must submit to men. In this there is only one loophole. Women may refuse to marry. Astell strongly advocated not marrying, getting out from under the authority of men, staying celibate:

… If a Wife's case be as it is here represented, it is not good for a Woman to Marry, and so there's an end of the Human Race. But this is no fair consequence, for all that can justly be inferr'd from hence, is that 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 manag'd it may prove one as to the next.9

She realizes that taken to its conclusion (i.e. if all women followed this path) it would be the end of the human race, but seeing that as an unlikely outcome, she strongly recommends a separate woman's sphere. Astell perceives what much later comes to be critiqued, especially by socialist feminist writers, as the “public/private distinction” in liberalism and uses it to her advantage.10 These writers argue that by creating a public world of legal action and protection for men and a private sphere for women, men can exclude women from legal redress and protection and can be physically abusive, take sexual advantage, and exact slave or servile work conditions for women, who have no recourse to the state. This analysis would apply to women who are under male power.

Astell's view is that the public sphere—the state—is not the proper sphere for women. Theirs is not to engage in politics or statecraft. So women who choose not to marry are in a kind of Lockean state of perfect freedom (although she would not call it that!) with no cause to be concerned with state authoritarianism or spousal control. Such women can have intellectual lives, go about their daily business, develop female friendships, and engage in religious devotion. Women like herself, so long as they have some small means of support, are truly free. This view foreshadows current arguments by Mary Daly, who dismisses the male sphere as “necrophiliac” and who exalts “woman-identified” culture as having a special and harmonic relationship with the world.11 Astell's work also resonates with that of poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, who argues for woman-centered education.12 Of course, Astell herself was deeply engaged with the prevailing male intellectual culture. But she had a profound vision of the benefits of a highly developed women's culture to society and especially to women.

In 1703 Astell published Moderation Truly Stated, a reply to arguments for “occasional conformity,” the practice of Dissenters attending Anglican services once a year to make themselves eligible to hold office. In An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom: An Examination of Dr. Kennett's Sermon, Jan. 31. 1703/4 (1704), she expresses outrage that a minister of the church would use the day commemorating Charles I's execution as an excuse to criticize the church and monarchy. Contrary to received wisdom, she argues that Dissenting views are more dangerous than papist ones. Her next pamphlet was A Fair Way with the Dissenters and Their Patrons Not Writ by Mr. L. [eslie], or any other Furious Jacobite, whether Clergyman or Layman; but by a very moderate person and Dutiful Subject to the Queen. This was a reply to Defoe's pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, a heavy satire which proposes the total destruction of all non-Anglicans. In A Fair Way she argues for the destruction of Dissenters, but as a political party devoted to factionalizing and working against stability and order.

The Christian Religion, As Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England was written as a reply to Locke's philosophy, and its political implications. Political scientist Patricia Springborg identifies a systematic critique of Locke's three major principles: a principle of self-preservation, a right of freedom from heritable encumbrance, and a principle of government based on popular consent.13 In A Fair Way, Astell uncovers serious problems with Locke's justification of a “rogue government” which she compares with a highwayman. She notes that in Locke the right of conquest is denied to the monarch but asserted with respect to the people. Just as anti-foundationalists of the late twentieth century gradually lay bare arguments for first principles, so does Astell argue that all social institutions are contingent. Her very different purpose is to justify dynastic transition through a religious foundation, but it raises honest questions about the sources of political authority.

Another important feature, especially of her first two books, A Serious Proposal and Some Reflections upon Marriage, is Astell's insistence that women have “an oblique angle of vision” from the standard or dominant one. This foreshadows a central innovation of twentieth-century feminism. An epistemological approach known as feminist standpoint epistemologies rejects the notion of a single logical point from which knowledge is generated. Instead, this view argues that one's subject position, social location, race, gender, and class position, and other factors as well, influence the creation of knowledge.14 As Astell puts it in Some Reflections upon Marriage:

Allow us then as many glasses as you please to help our sight, and as many good arguments as you can afford to convince our understanding; but don't exact, we beseech you, to affirm that we see such things as are only the discovery of men who have quicker senses; or that we understand, and know what we have by hear-say only; for to be so excessively complaisant, is neither to see nor to understand.15

Astell's work is important for standpoint epistemology, first, because she proposes an early version of this theory, and second, because she herself provides a distinctly seventeenth-century feminist standpoint which serves as an excellent counterpoint to the standard accounts of early modern political theory.


Locke's philosophy and its systematic critique are the bricks and mortar of modern western political thought, from conservative and liberal to socialist and communitarian theories. Locke's theory is the standard against which other theories are drawn, measured, and compared. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's identification of the ills of modern society with the privatization of property is affirmed against Locke's elevation of indefeasible property rights. Mill and Marx both understood and were students of Locke's modern liberal theories.

A work that synthesizes socialist and feminist criticism of liberal theory derived from Locke is Alison Jaggar's Feminist Politics and Human Nature.16 Jaggar provides a comprehensive synthetic critique of modern liberalism. Drawing on the critical history of modern liberal theory, she identifies two salient features of liberalism, what she calls normative dualism and abstract individualism. Normative dualism issues from the liberal conception that human beings have a dual metaphysical ontology: they are composed of mental and physical components—minds and bodies. Medieval and classical Greek metaphysics did not posit a clear separation of these two sorts of being, avoiding the problems posed by oppositional dualities. Further, the Enlightenment period, in its view of reason as the essential human element, valued the mind more highly than the body. Ecofeminists such as Carolyn Merchant argue that this ideal which placed human reason above and in power and control over the physical, whether it be human bodies or the earth and the natural world, had disastrous results through the industrial revolution to the present in promoting harm to the physical environment. Women have long been troublesomely connected with nature. How can we revalue the physical and assert women's (and human) connections without relegating women to “naturally determined roles” and assigning positions that preclude rationality as a quality of women? As Merchant says:

celebrations of the connection between women and nature contain an inherent contradiction. If women overtly identify with nature and both are devalued in modern Western culture, don't such efforts work against women's prospects for their own liberation? Is not the conflation of woman and nature a form of essentialism?17

Jaggar explains that Enlightenment (and contemporary) mind/body dualisms are normative because they value the rational more highly than the physical. Insofar as women are not seen as primarily rational, but rather as primarily physical, they are devalued, and viewed as something to be controlled rather than as beings exercising rationality. Thus, a seemingly neutral abstract premise underlying liberal theory will have the real-world consequence of devaluing women both in their traditional activities and in innovative ones.

Jaggar identifies a second problem with liberalism—its abstract individualism, a position which attributes rationality to individuals, rather than groups. Synthesizing the work of many social and feminist theorists, Jaggar challenges the presocial construction of individuals, a premise questioned, for example, by writers as diverse as Marx, in his social theory, and Wittgenstein in the private language arguments. She recounts both empirical and conceptual arguments against individualism, that cognitions and emotions are socially and contextually constructed, not innate and presocial; and that meaning and interpretation are social and cannot be made sense of in individual isolation.

Astell's political thought presents the opposite situation from Locke's. Instead of an immense standing literature, her “erasure” has been so complete that there is no substantial secondary literature critiquing her work, only a few excellent, but isolated, articles.18 And yet Patricia Springborg argues that Astell's work is nothing less than a systematic critique of Locke's whole philosophy. Curiously, the received wisdom from Laslett and other prominent scholars is that Locke's political theory was fundamentally inconsistent with his metaphysics and epistemology. Yet, Perry and Springborg view Locke holistically. Springborg says that Astell's is

a Locke who until recently has been eclipsed by the Locke of the American Revolution, the Locke of possessive individualism (or of the political economists) and other post-Enlightenment Lockes. Astell's Locke, in fact, provides a test of authenticity that only very recent scholarship has met. For this reason, perhaps her pioneering critique was for so long overlooked. The issues on which it focuses are Anglicanism, trinitarianism, and the settlement of 1688; contracts, oaths, and political allegiance; biblical patriarchalism and the claims of dynastic monarchy; and the rights of freeborn Englishmen versus the ancient constitution.19

In another critical exposition of Astell's theories, Ruth Perry argues that Astell “thought the doctrine of individualism selfish and asocial and was suspicious of the way genetic theories of citizenship beginning with a ‘state of nature’ erased the social and political meaning of maternity.”20 Perry argues that the Enlightenment and “glorious Revolution were times for reasserting male authority” and that Locke effected a “paradigm shift” from a political world populated by men and women involved in a web of familial and sexual interconnections to an all-male world based solely on contractual obligation.21

Future scholarship on Astell will no doubt add substantially to the traditional assessments of political theory. The investigation of liberal conceptions of freedom and equality lay at the heart of any evaluation of western political philosophy, and in western cultures, liberalism has exercised a profound influence, earning for itself the need for both sympathetic and critical accounts. Astell's critique of Locke raises serious questions about the sources of political authority, social contract theory, the legitimacy of revolutionary transfers of authority, and foundationalism not based on a higher power. Her original theories contribute ideas about education, marriage, a gender division of culture, religion, and political power. Considering Locke and Astell together recontextualizes the origins of liberal theory and may provide a less distorted account than one that views political theory only through the lenses of later times.


  1. [Ruth] Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell [: An Early English Feminist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)], p. 70.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Joan K. Kinnaird, “Mary Astell: Inspired by Ideas,” in Dale Spender, ed., Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers (New York: Pantheon, 1983), p. 33.

  4. Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage, p. 54 of this volume.

  5. Astell, A Serious Proposal, p. 40 of this volume.

  6. Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell, pp. 60-70.

  7. The cardinal was the second most powerful man in France under French King Louis XIV. In The Celebrated Mary Astell, Perry elaborates on the Duke's abuses: “The duke proved an impossible husband. A religious fanatic, he woke his young wife in the middle of the night to tell her his visions and forbade her to nurse the baby on fast days. Sexually obsessed, he mutilated the magnificent statues at the Palais Mazarine and splashed paint on the nudes to make them ‘decent.’ He wanted to forbid his farmers to milk cows because it looked so obscene, and he once considered sawing off the teeth of his young daughters to make them unattractive and thus to protect them from future sexuality.”

  8. Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage, p. 47 of this volume.

  9. Ibid., p. 54.

  10. See Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1983) for an especially clear treatment of this issue.

  11. Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978).

  12. Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979).

  13. [Patricia] Springborg, “Mary Astell (1666-1731), Critic of Locke,” [American Political Science Review, 89:3 (1995) pp. 621–33.

  14. For discussions of standpoint epistemologies, see Diane Bell, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Feminist Ethnography: Reflections from Three Australian Fields,” in Gendered Fields: Women, Men and Ethnography, ed. D. Bell. P. Caplan and W. Karim (London: Routledge, 1993); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

  15. Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage, in Springborg, The Political Writings of Mary Astell, [(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)] p. 10.

  16. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, p. 43.

  17. Carolyn Merchant, Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. xvi.

  18. The entire 1950 Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Mary Astell says: “English author, was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne. She published, in 1697, a work entitled A Serious Proposal … A scheme of hers for an Anglican sisterhood, which was favorably entertained by Queen Anne, was frustrated by Bishop Burnet. Mary Astell was attacked in the Tatler (No. 52) under the name of Madonella.”

  19. Springborg, “Mary Astell (1666-1731), Critic of Locke,” p. 624.

  20. Ruth Perry, “Mary Astell and the Critique of Possessive Individualism,” Eighteenth Century Studies, 23:4 (1990), p. 448.

  21. Ibid., pp. 449-50.


Principal Works


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