Mary Astell (16681731)



  • Author

Sharon L. Jansen, Pacific Lutheran University
July 2022

Mary Astell (1666–1731) was an English philosopher and author whose political polemics and religious writings brought her widespread admiration—and derision—from her contemporaries in the noisy, contentious, and combative literary scene early eighteenth-century London.  Today, Astell is most remembered for two prose works that have earned her recognition as “the first English feminist,” A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700).

Astell seems, at first glance, an unlikely participant in the very public debate about women in early modern England. The baptismal book of the Church of St. John’s, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, includes the following notice of her birth: “Mary Astell 12. Nov. 1666, the daughter of Mr. Astell.” The “Mr. Astell” to whom the record refers is Peter Astell, a successful coal merchant; his wife, Mary Errington, was the daughter of George Errington, another successful Newcastle coal merchant. Both families also claimed status as members of the gentry, a class that, in the mid-seventeenth century, included not only those with land and titles but those who could claim a respectable family history, some degree of education, and a measure of economic success. As a daughter born into such a comfortably situated, well-connected family, the young Mary Astell might have been expected to marry, raise children, and live out her life quietly, in equally comfortable obscurity. But the modest good fortune of her family did not last, Mary Astell never married, she raised no children, and rather than living and dying in obscurity, she came to be a very public figure in the city of London.

Not a great deal is known about Astell’s childhood. A younger brother, Peter, was born in 1668; a third child and second son, William, was born to Peter and Mary Astell a few years later and lived only a week. As a girl, Mary Astell would have received conventional training in household chores and basic reading and writing skills. Although she received no formal schooling, she was tutored by her uncle, a Cambridge-educated curate who introduced the young Astell to the study of philosophy and theology, among other subjects less conventional for a young girl. After Astell’s father, Peter Astell, died in 1678, the fortunes of the family quickly declined; what resources could be found went to providing for her brother’s education and legal training. According to Astell’s biographer, Ruth Perry, there were “no such prospects” for Mary Astell, who “was a burden to her family, and neither marriage nor independence seemed possible.” What happened next, however, seems no less possible. When she was in her early twenties, Astell left Newcastle and her mother’s home, travelled to London, and made a life there for herself.

The first evidence of Astell in the city is an undated letter addressed to the archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, and collected among his papers for 1688; in this letter, Astell presents herself as a “humble petitioner being brought to very great necessity through some very unfortunate circumstances.” “I am a gentlewoman,” she asserts, “not able to get a livelihood.” She is ashamed to beg, but absolute necessity forces her to write in the hope Sancroft will take pity on her “unhappy state.” He seems to have helped her with money and with contacts, perhaps connecting her with Richard Wilkin, who would publish her first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, in 1694. In the years following her contact with Sancroft, Astell settled in Chelsea where, in September of 1693, she initiated a correspondence with John Norris, an Anglican priest, rector of Bemerton, and noted philosopher. Richard Wilkin would publish their correspondence, Letters Concerning the Love of God, in 1695.

In the next few years, Astell published, in rapid succession, a series of works on a variety of philosophical, theological, and political issues, including Some Reflections upon Marriage, first published in 1700. After 1709, she produced nothing new. It may be, as Perry suggests, that Astell “recognized that the weight of history was against her”: “Her last two works had not sold well; she was being lampooned in the public papers as a peculiar old maid. She had probably overstayed her welcome in the world of letters.” But her attention and energy may, rather, have shifted focus, since Astell had also moved beyond advocacy into action, opening a charity school for girls in 1709. Housed in the Chelsea Royal Hospital, the school Astell founded would survive until 1862. And while Astell published no new titles after 1709, she continued to rethink and revise her earlier work, in particular A Serious Proposal to the Ladies.

Astell’s school was established with the assistance of a number of women who were or would become her life-long friends and supporters, among them Lady Catherine Jones, Lady Elizabeth Hastings, Lady Anne Coventry, and Elizabeth Hutcheson. In 1712, Astell acquired her own house in Chelsea, on Paradise Row. The last decades of her life were quiet. Aside from her work with the Chelsea school, she attended church every day. She made plans for a book on natural philosophy to be written for women by women. She owned a parrot. A cousin, another Newcastle coal merchant, like her father, visited on occasion. She wrote letters. She walked. In 1718, she became ill and spent several months recuperating in Sussex. As she grew older, she gave up her own home but remained in Chelsea, living with her friend, Lady Catherine Jones. She was well enough, early in 1730, to be able to make the walk from Chelsea to St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields to hear the sermons of a new vicar, Zachary Pearce. But at some point, she developed breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She survived the surgery but died two months later, on May 9, 1731, a few months short of her sixty-fifth birthday. She was buried in the churchyard of Chelsea Old Church on May 14.

Although many details of Mary Astell’s daily life remain unknown, her values and beliefs are clearly known, outlined, argued, and defended in her written work. Three political pamphlets published in 1704 reflect her conservative Tory views: Moderation Truly Stated, A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons, and An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom. In matters of religion, she was a staunchly conservative Anglican, publishing what Ruth Perry has called her “religious credo,” The Christian Religion, as Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England, in 1705. In the last of her polemics, Bart’lemy Fair: Or, an Inquiry after Wit, published in 1709, Astell once more defended authority and established order and exposed the dangers of religious dissent and of mockery disguised as “liberty” and “wit.”

While Astell was actively engaged in the theological, political, and philosophical controversies of the early eighteenth century, it is her passionate and lifelong defense of women that is her most enduring legacy. Throughout her life, in her personal relationships as well as in her role as a public intellectual, Astell supported women, wrote to and for women, and, to the greatest extent possible, moved from advocacy for to action on behalf of women. Perhaps nowhere is her feminist position more clearly articulated than on the title page of her first publication, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies: she addresses herself to women, her aim is “the advancement of their true and greatest interest,” and she identifies herself as “a lover of her sex.”

In the decades since Bridget Hill proclaimed Mary Astell to be the “first English feminist” (The First English Reminist: Reflections on Marriage and Other Writings by Mary Astell [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986]), a determined scholarly project has been underway not only to place Astell’s work within the context of the early modern debate about women, but also to reconsider her contributions to philosophy.

Any reading of Mary Astell must begin with the work of Ruth Perry, whose archival research is the source of all the information included in this essay and to whom all subsequent scholars owe a debt of gratitude. Perry’s 1986 The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press) remains the single definitive resource on Astell’s life and work. Perry’s entry on Mary Astell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (“Astell, Mary ]1666–1731”]. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2009, provides an update of her Astell biography written thirty years earlier. For an open-access but limited biography and bibliography, see Jacqueline Broad, “Mary Astell,” Oxford Bibliographies, 2018. For a thorough and authoritative overview of Astell’s philosophical views, see Alice Sowaal’s “Mary Astell,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2021.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

ASTELL, MARY (1668–1731), authoress, was the daughter of a merchant at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her uncle, a clergyman, observing her excellent abilities, undertook to educate her himself. She passed the first twenty years of her life at Newcastle; she then settled in London, and afterwards at Chelsea, where she was a neighbour and acquaintance of Dean Atterbury. She was the intimate friend, to the end of her life, of the excellent Lady Elizabeth Hastings, and the esteemed con-espondent of Norris of Bemerton.

Mary Astell is now chiefly known as the authoress of a 'Serious Proposal to Ladies' (1694). It was published anonymously 'by a Lover of her Sex;' but the authorship appears to have been an open secret. The proposal was, in her own words, 'to erect a monastery, or, if you will (to avoid giving offence to the scrupulous and injudicious by names which, tho' innocent in themselves, have been abus'd by superstitious practices), we will call it a Religious Retirement, and such as shall have a double aspect, being not only a retreat from the world for those who desire that advantage, but likewise an institution and previous discipline to fit us to do the greatest good in it.' There were to be no vows or irrevocable obligations, not so much as the fear of reproach to keep the ladies longer than they desired.' It was to be conducted strictly on the principles of the church of England; the daily services were to be performed 'after the cathedral manner, in the most affecting and elevating way;' the 'Holy Eucharist was to be celebrated every Lord's day and holy day;' there was to be 'a course of solid, instructive preaching and catechizing,' and the inmates were to 'consider it a special part of their duty to observe all the fasts of the church.' But it was intended quite as much for mental as for moral and religious training; or, rather, the two were to go hand in hand, for 'ignorance and a narrow education lay the foundation of vice.' The proposal, she tells us, met with a favourable reception from 'the graver and wiser part of the world,' and therefore she published in 1697 a second part, much longer than the first, 'wherein a method is offered for the improvement of their minds;' and this she dedicated to the Princess of Denmark, afterwards Queen Anne. The proposal, however, met with unmerited obloquy from more than one quarter. 'A certain great lady,' supposed by some to have been the Princess Anne herself, by others the Lady Elizabeth Hastings, was so attracted by the scheme that she purposed giving 10,000l. towards the erection of a 'sort of college for the education and improvement of the female sex, and as a retreat for those ladies who, nauseating the parade of the world, might here find a happy recess from the noise and hurry of it. But the design coming to the ears of Bishop Burnet, he immediately went to that lady, and so powerfully remonstrated against it, telling her it would look like preparing a way for popish orders, and would be reputed a nunnery, that he utterly frustrated that noble design' (Ballard). The alarm was surely unfounded. Mrs. Astell observes with perfect truth, in the 'conclusion' of her second part: 'They must either be very ignorant or very malicious who pretend that we would imitate foreign monasteries, or object against us the inconveniences that they are subject to. A little attention to what they read might have convinced them that our institution is rather academical than monastic.'

However, the project fell to the ground; but not without drawing upon its well-intentioned proposer a still more unmerited and, unfortunately, a more widely circulated aspersion. In the 32nd number of the 'Tatler' appeared what the annotator of the edition of 1797 justly terms a 'gross misrepresentation' of Mrs. Astell under the name of 'Madonella.' There is not a shadow of foundation for the insinuation against Mrs. Astell's personal character, and the account of the proposed college betrays a profound ignorance of the whole scheme which that good lady projected. The slander was repeated in the 59th and 63rd numbers of the same periodical; and in the latter it is stated (no doubt with the intention of turning the whole affair into ridicule) that Mrs. Manley, authoress of that vile work, the 'New Atalantis,' was to be the directress of the new institution. The whole story would be unworthy of mention, were it not that it appeared in so famous a paper as the 'Tatler,' and that the great names of Swift and Addison are supposed to be connected with the writing of it. 'Madonella' is called 'Platonne,' but the next point to be noticed in her literary career is her controversy with one of the most distinguished of English Platonists, John Norris, of Bemerton, about one of the pivot doctrines of Platonism, the pure love of God. She again wrote anonymously, but her name was soon discovered. If Mrs. Astell met with unmerited obloquy for her 'Serious Proposal,' the balance was partly redressed by the extravagant eulogy which her antagonist, and editor of the 'Letters,' lavished upon her. As a matter of fact, the 'Letters' are full of pertinent inquiries, and prove the writer to have been, at any rate, a very intelligent woman. In 1705 Mrs. Astell published an octavo volume entitled 'The Christian Religion, as professed by a Daughter of the Church of England,' which gives a clear exposition of Church teaching, according to the type of the great Caroline divines; it strongly advocates the doctrine of non-resistance, and protests strongly against Romanism. It was published anonymously, but everybody knew who the 'Daughter of the Church of England' was. Another anonymous work, entitled 'Occasional Communion' (1705), is attributed to Mrs. Astell by Dean Hickes, who describes it as being 'justly admired so much.' As its title implies, it deals with what was the burning question of the day. In 1706 we find her engaged in a controversy with her neighbour, Dean Atterbury, who sends her 'Remarks' to his friend Smalridge, 'taking them to be of an extraordinary nature, considering they come from the pen of a woman;' 'had she,' he adds, 'as much good breeding as good sense, she would be perfect. She attacks me very home.' She also wrote against Locke's 'Reasonableness of Christianity,' against Tillotson's famous sermon on the eternity of hell torments, and against a sermon of Dr. White Kennett, and on each occasion proved herself an acute controversialist. Henry Dodwell speaks of her as 'that admirable gentlewoman, Mrs. Astell,' and she deserved the title: for her life was blameless, and her writings show that her abilities and attainments were considerably above the average, though she may not have been so extraordinary a genius as her admirers imagined.

[Mrs. Astell's Works, passim; Ballard's Memoirs of British Ladies, &c.; Folkestone Williams's Memoirs and Correspondence of Bishop Atterbury.]

J. H. O.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

ASTELL, MARY (1668–1731), English author, was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She was instructed by her uncle, a clergyman, in Latin and French, logic, mathematics and natural philosophy. In her twentieth year she went to London, where she continued her studies. She published, in 1697, a work entitled A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, wherein a Method is offered for the Improvement of their Minds. With the same end in view she elaborated a scheme for a ladies’ college, which was favourably entertained by Queen Anne, and would have been carried out had not Bishop Burnet interfered. The most important of her other works was The Christian Religion, as professed by a Daughter of the Church of England, published in 1705.