Astell, Mary

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Astell, Mary (1666-1731), English Writer.

The boldly polemical, rational, polished style of her publications makes Mary Astell the first major feminist writer in the English language. Born into a family of Newcastle coal merchants and gentry, Astell was educated by a clergyman uncle who introduced her to philosophy and literature. Her main intellectual influences were the Cambridge Platonists, who emphasized rational contemplation and an ascetic, disciplined lifestyle as a means of grasping truth and acquiring virtue. Her social and political views were shaped by the Tory principles of her royalist family.

The death of Astell's father when she was twelve left the family financially straitened, and the lack of a sufficient dowry precluded marriage with a social equal. At the age of twenty, Astell settled outside London in Chelsea, where she spent the rest of her life supporting herself through writing and financial help from her friends. Her first important publication was A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, For the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694), which proposes a college or monastic retreat where unmarried women may develop their intellectual and moral faculties. Six years later, Astell published Some Reflections upon Marriage, Occasion'd by the Duke and Dutchess of Mazarine's Case (1700), in which she argues that since marriage in a patriarchal society subjects women to the absolute authority of frequently unjust or abusive husbands, women would be better off avoiding marriage. In both treatises, Tory convictions compelled Astell to accept the authority of husbands as a corollary to the absolute rule of the monarch, and her feminist innovation was to recommend that under these circumstances, women should educate themselves, seek ways to support themselves, and cultivate friendships with other women rather than seeking shelter in marriage.

Astell also published several treatises on political and theological issues. A Serious Proposal was followed by publication of her philosophical correspondence with the Cambridge Platonist John Norris, Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695). Some Reflections upon Marriage was followed in 1704 by three treatises espousing the cause of the Stuarts and the High Church, Moderation Truly Stated, A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons, and An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom. In 1705, Astell published The Christian Religion, As Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England. Her last published work was a rebuttal to what she perceived to be irreligion in Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of 's and others' writings on religious enthusiasm, Bart'lemy Fair: Or, An Enquiry after Wit (1709).

In her emphasis on reason and equality, Astell brought the ideals of the Enlightenment to the Woman Question, which preoccupied British writers in the Restoration and eighteenth century. Astell influenced many contemporaries of both sexes-- Defoe, Daniel, Lady Mary Chudleigh, Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley, Richardson, Samuel, Johnson, Samuel--as well as the more widely known, late eighteenth-century feminist, Mary Wollestonecraft.

Further Reading:

Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist, 1986.

Glen Colburn

Morehead State University