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.