Mary, Quite Contrary Teresa Bejan

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, the author in 1706 of the first feminist challenge to John Locke’s social contract theory: If All Men are born free, how is that all Women are born slaves? Not Mary Wollstonecraft, but Mary Astell.

Astell was born in Newcastle in 1666, the eldest daughter of a gentry family. She was only 12 when her father died, after which the family descended into genteel poverty. Mary’s uncle Ralph, a local curate, educated his niece in the philosophy and theology he read at Cambridge. With this uncommon education and an iron will, Astell made her way to London with the so-called ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688: 22, poor, alone, and female.

What strikes one most about Astell at this stage is her indomitable ambition. A teenage poem ran:

‘What’s this that with such vigour fills my breast?

Like the first mover finds no rest,

And with it’s force does all things draw,

Makes all submit to its imperial Law!

Their sophistry I can controul,

Who falsely say that women have no Soul…

Vile Greatness! I disdain to bow to thee,

Thou art below ev’n lowly me,

This I’m Ambitious of, no pains will spare

To have a higher Mansion there,

Where all are Kings, here let me be,

Great O my GOD, Great in Humilitie.’

Benjamin Franklin—who once resolved to cultivate humility by ‘imitating Jesus Christ and Socrates’—could not have managed a more perfectly ironical conclusion.

Mary’s first foray into print was accidental, when the Oxford Platonist John Norris asked permission to publish their philosophical correspondence. Emboldened, she hastened her anonymous A Serious Proposal to the Ladies…by a Lover of her Sex (1694) into print. Inspired by French feminists, Astell argued for the establishment of a female Academy, where women might exchange the depredations of the marriage market for the quiet and companionable cultivation of their minds in philosophic and religious study. Her Proposal was a blockbuster, fuelling controversy, multiple editions, and a much longer sequel. It even gained political traction before being scuppered by Anglican clergy concerned about its unsavoury Catholic associations (Astell’s decision to describe her Academy as a ‘monastery’ did not help).

Thus began Mary’s second act as a feminist polemicist, turning her surgical contempt on masculine arrogance in its every guise. Some Reflections on Marriage (1700), occasioned by the Duchess Mazarin’s unhappy marriage and divorce, encouraged her sisters to think better of the whole business. Once again, controversy and multiple editions ensued, followed by a series of political pamphlets, and finally Astell’s magnum theological-philosophical opus, The Christian Religion, as Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705). Astell capped her pen in 1709, enjoying her religion and her female friendships in retirement until her death in 1731.

Why has she been forgotten? Not only was Mary Astell an extraordinarily original and productive thinker, she was also a celebrity in her own day, plagiarised and satirised by the likes of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Her political and philosophical writings engaged directly and critically with the leading thinkers (and Johns!) of the age. So why has she been excluded from teaching of the ‘Tradition’ of Western political thought by philosophers and historians alike?

Sexism tells much of the story. Eileen O’Neill has diagnosed the phenomenon of women’s ‘disappearing ink,’ effaced by 19th century historians of philosophy; Astell is no exception. But even for feminist scholars, Astell presents problems, from her style (allusive, italic) to her philosophical preoccupations (Christian Platonist). Then, of course, there is her politics, a heady mixture of Jacobite Toryism, High-Church Anglicanism, and reactionary glee. Accordingly, Mary’s politics have been a source of some embarrassment. Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1989) neglected to mention that Astell’s 1706 rejoinder to Locke on the part of female ‘slaves’ rested on a conviction that God instituted marriage as a subjugal, as well as conjugal relation – which explains, perhaps, why Mary herself opted to maintain her natural freedom from masculine tyranny.

Similarly, the Cambridge edition of Astell’s Political Writings (1996) excluded Moderation Truly Stat’d, her most original work of political theory, entirely – and thus her reflections on the ‘State of Nature’ theorising in vogue among contemporaries, including the political economist Charles Davenant:

"I have hitherto thought, that…a State of Nature was a meer figment of Hobbs’s Brain . . . till you were pleas’d to inform me of that Equality wherein the Race of Men were plac’d in the free State of Nature. How I lament my Stars that it was not my good Fortune to Live in those Happy Days when Men sprung up like so many Mushrooms... without Father or Mother or any sort of dependency!"

My own work on Astell argues that her political thought is worthy of recovery, both as the product of a singularly brilliant mind and as a fascinating vision of “equality before egalitarianism” that sheds light on the complex relationship between natural equality and social hierarchy to this day.

Scholarly efforts to ignore or excuse Astell’s politics have thus done her—and our students—a grave disservice. They give the impression that a woman thinker is worth taking seriously only if and when her conclusions ‘fit’ with what a modern audience expects. Of course, even Astell was aware of how perplexing her arguments could be: “However, since all the World is Mad, why should not I be so?” Modern readers may agree. But, please, allow Mary to be mad on her own terms.


Teresa Bejan is Associate Professor of Political Theory and Fellow, Oriel College

Follow Dr Bejan on Twitter @tmbejan


Photo credits: nile - "paper font old"; The Bodleian Library - "Vet. A3 F. 1774"

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