Mary Astell: the first English feminist?

Mary Astell is probably one of the most influential women you’ve never heard of. Her writing on marriage, education and the position of women in society, published almost one hundred years before that of Mary Wollstonecraft, was truly radical and influential in the work of later feminist writers and reformers like Sarah Scott and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Astell was one of the first women to propose the shocking notion that women were just a rational as men, and therefore, just as deserving of education. In her first work, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), Astell lays out plans for a secular nunnery, or women’s university, where women could pursue ‘a life of the mind’.

It’s clear that Astell liked to practise what she preached and in 1709 she founded her own charitable school for girls in Chelsea with the financial backing by her patrons Lady Catherine Jones and Lady Elizabeth Hastings.

In addition to educational reform, Astell also argued against marriage as it existed in the seventeenth century.

In 1700, Astell published Some Reflections on Marriage, a witty critique of ‘unequal marriages’ and a warning to women of the dangers of ill-considered unions. Astell believed that educating women would enable them to make better matrimonial decisions and disapproved of matches based on money or lust.

Two quotations great quotations from Some Reflections Upon Marriage include:

If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves? 
Some Reflections upon Marriage

How can a Man respect his Wife when he has a contemptible Opinion of her and her Sex? 
Some Reflections upon Marriage

Despite the radical nature of her work, for centuries Astell only featured as a foot-note in the male-centric narrative of English history, and her legacy might have been forgotten completely if it weren’t for the work of Professor Ruth Perry.

Perry, professor of literature at MIT, discovered Mary Astell whilst researching her PHD thesis but was initially discouraged from pursuing her research into by her male colleagues, who saw little merit or interest in the work of this obscure seventeenth century woman writer. But she was undeterred by their comments.

A fascinating woman in her own right, Perry founded the MIT Women’s Studies program in 1984 which increased the pitiful intake of women to 47 percent and it was Astell’s feminist message that inspired her to continue her research.

Perry carried on her research by tracking down Astell’s poetry, letters, manuscript fragments and personal records. By piecing together her findings, Perry was able to compile the first ever biography of Mary Astell which she published in 1986 under the title The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist.

Perry’s research reignited interest in this almost forgotten figure of feminist history and, although Astell is still not as well-known as she ought to be, her writing is now considered as part of the English canon.

If you are interested in reading some of Astell’s work, she can be found in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which I’m sure my fellow English Literature undergraduates will agree, is pretty much as close to sainthood as any writer can get.

Article by Joy Molan

Illustration by Billie Gavurin

This article was inspired by Professor Ruth Perry’s talk at Chawton House Library in 2015

To find out more about women’s literature from 1600 to 1830, visit http://www.chawtonhouse.org/ 

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