“If all Men are born Free, why are all Women born Slaves?”from Mary Astell, Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1699)
Astell should be one of Newcastle’s most celebrated daughters, but her name is little known. Here’s a short summary of her life and contribution.
In a nutshell, Astell advanced ideas and beliefs that many people in modern Britain hold today – the belief that by increasing equality and access to education we can build a better and fairer society. One which invests in the happiness of its people, and doesn’t believe that ignorance is bliss.
Astell was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 12th November 1666. On both sides of her family she was descended from barristers and coal merchants and Astell had a prosperous start to life. Her early intellectual potential was recognised by her Uncle Ralph Astell, who was curate of St. Nicholas’s Church (now Newcastle Cathedral). Ralph educated his niece, in essence providing her with a home-taught version of the Cambridge education he had himself received. Upon his death, Mary inherited her uncle’s library, and we know she added to this extensively with her own collection of books.
Mary Astell began her career as a writer by writing poetry in the years 1685-8. By 1688, she had left Newcastle, moving to London. Her family had fallen on hard times following the death of her father in 1678, which left them with debts it took years to repay. Possibly Mary turned to writing to earn some income, but it is clear her published writings were not primarily driven by the desire to make money, but rather to change society for the better.
In 1694 Astell published her first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. This quickly established her reputation as an intellectual and a writer. The book went through four editions by 1701, the equivalent of a bestseller today. Serious Proposal was a proto-feminist work, making arguments about women’s equality two centuries before the feminist political movement would take shape in arguing for women’s right to the vote.
Astell argued that women should have a similar education to men, as this would help them to engage with the ideas and debates that shaped British society. Astell thought most women were raised to be ornamental and superficial creatures, who had no formal education and whose sole purpose was to look attractive and find a husband. Throughout Serious Proposal, Astell addressed her female readers directly:
‘How can you be content […] to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden, to make a fine shew and be good for nothing’?(Astell, Serious Proposal).
Yet Astell was not a radical thinker in every way. She was a deeply Christian woman, dedicated to the Anglican Church and loyal to the Tory party with its traditional and conservative values. She wasn’t looking to turn society upside down, but to reform it for the better. In this vein, she entered into correspondence and debate with leading theologians of the day, and much of this material informed her writings.
But Astell did not shy away from intellectual confrontation, directly challenging the ideas of England’s leading philosopher, John Locke, in her 1695 book The Reasonableness of Christianity by arguing that women and labouring class men should be able to engage with, and understand, ideas about revealed religion. Further challenges to leading male wisdom followed. In her 1704 book Moderation Truly Stated, Astell took on Thomas Hobbes and Locke, and the influential idea that humankind emerged out of a ‘state of nature’, a type of chaotic and brutal state from which society had to be built.
Today, Astell’s most discussed views were those relating to the institution of marriage. Astell believed in the sanctity of marriage but she also saw this as a key problem area for women. At the time, the marital contract effectively made women the property of their husbands, which Astell characterised as a form of slavery. Astell wrote about this extensively in her book Some Reflections Upon Marriage. Published in 1700, it was inspired by the court case of the Duchess of Mazarin, an aristocratic woman who had caused an international scandal when she left her deeply problematic marriage in France, fleeing to England (via Savoy) in her bid to escape her husband’s control. Mazarin briefly became the mistress of Charles II, with the king offering her financial and political protection, and she published a public account of her flight.
Astell disapproved of Mazarin as a public example, but she recognised that the Mazarin case raised pressing questions about the institution of marriage. In Some Reflections Astell argued that women were not truly free unless they entered into marriages where they became partners in a mutually beneficial relationship. Astell promoted the idea of the companionable marriage, where husband and wife were friends and supportive of one another’s happiness. And in cases where women didn’t find a suitable partner to marriage, Astell suggested they should be able to invest their dowries in women’s seminaries, where women could live together in safety and happiness.
Astell never married. Her direct family line ended with her as her brother, Peter, together with his young family, all predeceased her. Around the age of sixty she developed breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy for this in 1731. She died two months later, on the 9th May, and was buried in Chelsea.
If you’d like to find out more about Astell’s life please see the links below.
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II
A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons
The Christian Religion, as Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England
An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom
Bart’lemy Fair, or, An Enquiry after Wit
More on Astell…
March 8, 2021
Magdalene College Cambridge has uncovered a treasure trove of women’s intellectual history…
BBC Radio 4 episode In Our Time, Mary Astell
Nov 5, 2020
Listen to an episode of ‘In Our Time’ exploring Astell’s life and career.
March 8, 2021
Teresa Bejan’s essay on Astell’s ‘Disappearing Ink’…
It is an open secret among teachers of the history of Western political philosophy that from the 16th to the 20th century, every other author is named ‘John.’ For those of us committed to diversifying the canon from within, it is thus a great pleasure to introduce students to an early modern Mary… Not Mary Wollstonecraft, but Mary Astell…