Mary Astell

If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?

— Mary Astell, Some Reflections on Marriage

Mary Astell (12 November 1666 – 11 May 1731) was an English feminist writer and rhetorician. Her advocacy of equal educational opportunities for women has earned her the title "the first English feminist."[1]


Life and career

Few records of Mary Astell's life have survived. As biographer Ruth Perry explains, "as a woman she had little or no business in the world of commerce, politics, or law. She was born, she died; she owned a small house for some years; she kept a bank account; she helped to open a charity school in Chelsea: these facts the public listings can supply."[2] Only four of her letters were saved and these because they had been written to important men of the period. Researching the biography, Perry uncovered more letters and manuscript fragments, but she notes that if Astell had not written to wealthy aristocrats who could afford to pass down entire estates, very little of her life would have survived.[3]

Mary Astell was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 12 November 1666, to Peter and Mary (Errington) Astell.[4] Her parents had two other children, William, who died in infancy, and Peter, her younger brother.[4][5] She was baptized in St. John's Church in Newcastle.[6] Her family was upper-middle-class and lived in Newcastle throughout her early childhood. Her father was a conservative royalist Anglican who managed a local coal company.[1] As a woman, Mary received no formal education, although she did receive an informal education from her uncle when she was eight, an ex-clergyman named Ralph Astell whose bouts with alcoholism prompted his suspension from the Church of England.[7] Though suspended from the Church, he was affiliated with the Cambridge based philosophical school which based its teachings around radical philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras.[8] Her father died when she was twelve years old,[1] leaving her without a dowry. With the remainder of the family finances invested in her brother's higher education, Mary and her mother relocated to live with Mary's aunt.

After the death of her mother and aunt in 1688, Astell moved to Chelsea, London, where she was fortunate enough to become acquainted with a circle of literary and influential women (including Lady Mary Chudleigh, Elizabeth Thomas, Judith Drake, Elizabeth Elstob, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu),[9] who assisted in the development and publication of her work. She was also in contact with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, who was known for his charitable works; Sancroft assisted Astell financially and, furthermore introduced her to her future publisher.

In response to a divorce, Mary Astell published Some Reflections upon Marriage in 1700. One valid point that Astell made was that in order for a woman to obtain a healthy marriage she should first receive an education. [10]

In her third edition of Some Reflections upon Marriage, Astell responded to critics by urging women to seek out marriage based on friendship rather than necessity and pride. [11]

After withdrawing from public life in 1709, Astell founded a charity school for girls in Chelsea as a token of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, organizing the school's curriculum herself with likely financial support from her patrons Lady Catherine Jones and Lady Elizabeth Hastings. When she sixty years old, she was invited to live with Lady Jones, where she resided until her death.[12]

Astell died in 1731, a few months after a mastectomy to remove a cancerous right breast. In her last days, she refused to see any of her acquaintances and stayed in a room with her coffin, thinking only of God; she was buried in the churchyard of Chelsea Church in London.[13] Astell is remembered for her ability to debate freely with both contemporary men and women, and particularly for her groundbreaking methods of negotiating the position of women in society by engaging in philosophical debate (Descartes was a particular influence) rather than basing her arguments in historical evidence as had previously been attempted. Descartes' theory of dualism, a separate mind and body, allowed Astell to promote the idea that women as well as men had the ability to reason, and subsequently they should not be treated so poorly: "If all Men are born Free, why are all Women born Slaves?"[14]


Title page from the third edition of A Serious Proposal

Her two most well known books, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694) and A Serious Proposal, Part II (1697), outline Astell's plan to establish a new type of institution for women to assist in providing women with both religious and secular education. Astell suggests extending women's career options beyond mother and nun. Astell wanted all women to have the same opportunity as men to spend eternity in heaven with God, and she believed that for this they needed to be educated and to understand their experiences. The 'nunnery' style education she proposed would enable women to live in a protected environment, without the influences of the external patriarchal society.

Her proposal was never adopted because critics said it seemed "too Catholic" for the English. Later her ideas about women were satirized in the Tatler by the writer Jonathan Swift.[15] Despite this, she was still an intellectual force in London's educated classes.

A few years later, Astell published the second part of A Serious Proposal, detailing her own vision of women's education for courtly ladies. She broke away from the contemporary rhetorical style of the period where orators spoke before an audience for learning, and instead offered a conversational style of teaching "neighbors" the proper way of behavior. She referred only to the Port-Royal Logic as a source of contemporary influence, though still relied upon classical rhetorical theories as she presented her own original ideas. In her presentation, she offered that rhetoric, as an art, does not require a male education to be master, and listed the means of which a woman could acquire the necessary skills from natural logic, which established Astell as a capable female rhetorician.[16]

In the early 1690s Astell entered into correspondence with John Norris of Bemerton, after reading Norris's Practical Discourses, upon several Divine subjects. The letters illuminate Astell's thoughts on God and theology. Norris thought the letters worthy of publication and had them published with Astell's consent as Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695). Her name did not appear in the book, but her identity was soon discovered and her rhetorical style was much lauded by contemporaries.

List of works

  • A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest. London, 1694, 1697, 1701
  • Letters Concerning the Love of God, between the author of the 'Proposal to the Ladies' and Mr John Norris. London, 1695
  • Some Reflections upon Marriage. London, 1700
  • Moderation Truly Stated: 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. London, 1704
  • A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons. London, 1704
  • An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in This Kingdom. London, 1704
  • The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England. London, 1705
  • Bart'lemy Fair, or An Enquiry after Wit. London, 1709


  1. ^ a b c Batchelor, Jennie. "Mary Astell". The Literary Encyclopedia. 21 March 2002. Accessed 6 July 2008.
  2. ^ Perry, 22.
  3. ^ Perry, 23.
  4. ^ a b Smith, Mary Astell, 2.
  5. ^ Sutherland, Eloquence, xi.
  6. ^ "Mary Astell". Oregon State. Retrieved 1 May 2011. 
  7. ^ Donawerth, edited by Jane (2002). Rhetorical theory by women before 1900 : an anthology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 100. ISBN 0742517179. 
  8. ^ "Astell, Mary". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved April 28 2011. 
  9. ^ Sowaal, Alice. "Mary Astell." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2005) 16 December 2006 <>.
  10. ^ "Astell, Mary". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved May 1 2011. 
  11. ^ "Astell, Mary". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved April 28 2011. 
  12. ^ Donawerth, Jane (2002). Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. pp. 100. ISBN 0742517179. 
  13. ^ "Mary Astell". Oregon State. Retrieved 1 May 2011. 
  14. ^ Astell, Reflections, 107.
  15. ^ "Mary Astell". The Columbia Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 28 2011. 
  16. ^ Donawerth, Jane (2002). Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. pp. 101. ISBN 0742517179. 


  • Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Ed. Patricia Springborg. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2002. ISBN 1551113066.
  • Hill, Bridget. The First English Feminist: "Reflections Upon Marriage" and Other Writings by Mary Astell. Aldershot: Gower Publishing, 1986.
  • Hill, Bridget. "A Refuge from Men: The Idea of a Protestant Nunnery". Past and Present 117 (1987): 107-30.
  • James, Regina. "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Or, Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft Compared". Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 5 (1976): 121-39.
  • Kinnaird, Joan K. "Mary Astell and the Conservative Contribution to English Feminism". Journal of British Studies 19 (1979): 53-79.
  • Perry, Ruth. The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. ISBN 0226660931.
  • Smith, Florence M. Mary Astell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916.
  • Springborg, Patricia. Mary Astell (1666–1731), Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Springborg, Patricia. "Mary Astell and John Locke". The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1650 to 1750. Ed. Steven Zwicker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Stone Stanton, Kamille. ‘“Affliction, the Sincerest Friend’: Mary Astell’s Philosophy of Women’s Superiority through Martyrdom.” Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism. [ISSN: 0144-0357] Special Issue: The Long Restoration. Vol. 29.1. Spring, 2007, pp. 104-114.

--. “‘Capable of Being Kings’: The Influence of the Cult of King Charles I on the Early Modern Women’s Literary Canon.” New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century. [ISSN: 1544-9009] Vol 5.1. Spring, 2008, pp. 20-29.

  • Sutherland, Christine. The Eloquence of Mary Astell. University of Calgary Press, 2005.
  • Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith. Edited by William Kolbrener and Michal Michelson. Aldershot, 2007, 230 pp.

External links

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