Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mary Astell and the Early Modern Debate about Women

Mary Astell (born 12 November 1666)

Mary Astell seems, at first glance, an unlikely participant in the noisy, contentious, and very public debate about women in early modern England. 

Born on 12 November 1666, Mary Astell was the daughter of Peter Astell, a successful coal merchant, and his wife, Mary Errington, who was the daughter of George Errington, another successful Newcastle coal merchant. 

As a daughter born into such a comfortably situated, well-connected family, the young Mary Astell might have been expected to marry, raise children, and live out her life quietly, in equally comfortable obscurity. But the modest good fortune of her family did not last, Mary Astell never married, she raised no children, and rather than living and dying in obscurity, she came to be one of the most celebrated women in London.

Not a great deal is known about Astell’s childhood. As a girl, she would have received conventional training in household chores and basic reading and writing skills. Although she received no formal schooling, she was tutored by her uncle, a Cambridge-educated curate who introduced the young Astell to the study of philosophy and theology, among other subjects less conventional for a young girl. 

After Astell’s father, Peter Astell, died in 1678, the fortunes of the family quickly declined; what resources could be found went to providing for her brother’s education and legal training. According to Astell’s biographer, Ruth Perry, there were “no such prospects” for Mary Astell, who “was a burden to her family, and neither marriage nor independence seemed possible.” 

What happened next, however, seems no less possible. When she was in her early twenties, Astell left Newcastle and her mother’s home, traveled to London, and made a life there for herself.  There, without the benefit of family connections, a wealthy husband, or a secure financial future, Astell found friends, intellectual companions, and supporters. And there, between 1694 and 1709, Astell published, in rapid succession, a series of works on a variety of philosophical, theological, and political issues.

But it is Astell's passionate and lifelong advocacy for women that is her most enduring legacy. Throughout her life, in her personal relationships as well as in her role as a public intellectual, Astell defended women, advocated for women, and, to the greatest extent possible, moved from advocacy for to action on behalf of women. 

Perhaps nowhere is her feminist position more clearly articulated than on the title page of her first publication, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies: she addresses herself to women, her aim is “the advancement of their true and greatest interest,” and she identifies herself as “a lover of her sex.” In this work, Astell proposed the establishment of an educational institution for women aimed solely at fulfilling their needs, a place where women could withdraw from a harsh and threatening world controlled by men and organized to suit men's desires, irrespective of women's. 

In Some Reflections on Marriage, published in 1700, she focused her attention on the institution of marriage. For Astell, marriage is a divinely ordained state, a "Christian institution," the only way to perpetuate humankind. But, she asks, "if marriage be such a blessed state, how comes it . . . there are so few happy marriages?"

When her analysis is complete, there is not much to recommend the institution, at least from a woman's perspective. Marriage is necessary since it represents "the only honorable way of continuing mankind." But, as Astell observes, the woman who marries "ought to lay it down for an indisputable maxim that her husband must govern absolutely and entirely and that she has nothing else to do but please and obey." Her radical conclusion? If she cannot accept marriage "as it truly is," then a woman might choose not to marry; perhaps, Astell suggests, it is not good for a woman to marry."

With the assistance of a number of women who would be her life-long friends and companions, Astell opened a charity school for girls in 1709. Housed in the Chelsea Royal Hospital, the school Astell founded would survive until 1862. In 1712, Astell acquired her own house in Chelsea, on Paradise Row. 

The last decades of her life were quiet. Aside from her work with the Chelsea school, she attended church every day. She made plans for a book on natural philosophy to be written for women by women. She owned a parrot. She wrote letters. In 1718, she became ill and spent several months recuperating in Sussex. As she grew older, she gave up her own home but remained in Chelsea, living with her oldest friend, Lady Catherine Jones. 

She was well enough, early in 1730, to be able to make the walk from Chelsea to St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields to hear the sermons of a new vicar, Zachary Pearce. But at some point, she developed breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She survived the surgery but died two months later, May 9, 1731, a few months short of her sixty-fifth birthday. 

In her groundbreaking biography of Mary Astell, published in 1986, Ruth Perry notes that when she first started to research Astell’s life, “only four of her letters had been preserved in the two great libraries of Britain, the Bodleian at Oxford and the British Museum, and these had been saved because they had been addressed to prominent men of the period. . . .” During her research, Perry was able to locate more letters and a “few more poems and fragments,” saved not because they had been written by “the celebrated Mary Astell,” but “because they were part of the estates of Astell’s wealthy friends.” 

At the time of Astell’s death in 1731, no one published “letters and poems in honor of the incomparable Mary Astell”; no one saved her manuscripts, her correspondence, her books, or her papers. There are no surviving likenesses of Astell. She was not buried with the famous and the great in Westminster Abbey but quietly in Chelsea, in the burial ground at Chelsea Old Church. The exact site of her grave is unknown; today her name is on a plaque inside the church. 

What survives is the work—and Astell’s singular life. 

Ruth Perry's excellent biography, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist, is now out of print, but used copies are readily available.

For my edition of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, click here. For my edition of Some Reflections upon Marriage, click here


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