Key thinker: Mary Astell (1666-1731)
Mary Astell (1666-1731)
Mary Astell was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, into an upper middle-class Anglican family. Astell did not attend school and received no formal education. Her uncle Ralph Astell, a Cambridge graduate and former clergyman, however, introduced Astell to Anglican theology and Neo-Platonist philosophy (see Chapter 2 on Plato) (https://iep.utm.edu/mary-astell/). Ralph Astell died when Mary was in her teens, leaving her to pursue her education on her own (https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/social-reformers/mary-astell). When Astell’s father died in 1678, the family faced social and financial ruin. Despite the family’s precarious financial situation, they paid for her younger brother’s education. Astell, on the other hand, couldn’t marry because the family couldn’t afford her dowry (https://projectvox.org/astell-1666-1731/).
In the 1680s, Astell left her childhood home and moved to London, where she lived and worked under the patronage of progressive women like Lady Ann Coventry and Lady Marty Wortley Montagu. Their patronage allowed Astell to pursue a career as a writer (https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/mary-astells-reflections-upon-marriage). With the publication of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694, 1697) and Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695), Astell earned a reputation as an eloquent and controversial writer. In 1700, she published Some Reflections upon Marriage, her most popular feminist work (https://iep.utm.edu/mary-astell/). In 1709 Astell, a lifelong advocate of women’s education, set up a charity school for girls in Chelsea. This charity work would occupy her until the end of her life (https://projectvox.org/astell-1666-1731/). Astell died of breast cancer in 1731. She was 64 years old.
Astell takes issue with Thomas Hobbes (see Chapter 5 on Thomas Hobbes) and John Locke’s (see Chapter 7 on John Locke) theory of human nature, rejecting their claim that women are inferior to men. Instead, she argues that inequalities between men and women are socially constructed (see 8.2. Astell’s Philosophical Projects). For Astell, any inequalities that exist in society are not expressions of some essential truth, but a reflection of the norms, values, and practices that shape our institutions. Astell grounds her argument about the radical equality of women in her philosophy of religion (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/astell/). Because all humans are engaged in the rational pursuit of knowledge which brings us closer to God, we are all equal before God. Astell argues that men and women need each other to fulfil God’s purpose; therefore, it cannot reasonably be ‘natural’ (or as God intended) to prevent women from accessing education, for example. If human beings want to live according to God’s will, she argues, women should be granted access to education (see 8.1. Human nature).
In Reflections, Astell uses the example of the Mazarine Case (see Key Concept: The Mazarine Case) to show how marriage curtails women’s freedom. She argues that marriage should be an agreement between equals, not a contract that enshrines unequal social relations between men and women. Astell takes issue with social contract theory’s claim that marriage is a microcosm of the commonwealth (see 8.3. Problematizing Social Contract Theory). By illustrating the differences between a national sovereign (the State) and a domestic sovereign (the husband or father), Astell shows that the authority of the domestic sovereign is derived from brute force, not superior intellect (see 8.3.2. Sovereignty). Because humans are rational, as God intends them to be, legitimate authority can only be derived from a greater degree of knowledge. For Astell, the rule of husband over wife is only legitimate if women consent on the basis of the man’s virtuous character. But women are often unable to truly consent to marriage, since they are denied access to knowledge that would allow them to make an informed decision (see 8.3.3. Consent).
Astell challenges social contract theory’s account of political obligation by showing that we cannot tell coerced or real consent apart in conditions characterized by political, social, or epistemic inequality (see 8.3.3. Consent). This undermines the core assumption of social contract theory, which argues that the sovereign derives its authority from an agreement between free and equal citizens who consent to its rule (see 8.2.2. Social Contract Theory and Liberalism). Astell instead grounds her account of political obligation in the submission to the absolute authority of God. There is a tension in Astell’s political thought between her commitment to women’s emancipation and her conservative Anglican beliefs. While Astell critiques the socio-political institution of marriage, she insists that it is a divine sacrament that is part of God’s plan for human beings. It is at times unclear whether Astell is a deeply conservative thinker who endorsed hereditary monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings, or a thinker of women’s emancipation and fierce critic of all forms of tyranny (see 8.4. Marriage as Social Contract).
Astell was careful how she articulated opinions that were considered radical or controversial at the time. She frequently used irony to ensure plausible deniability, since any public accusations could have jeopardized her writing career. Moreover, she published her political pamphlets under pseudonyms to avoid public backlash (see 8.2.1. An Interpretive Puzzle). Although Astell contributed to the important political and intellectual debates of her time, she has often been overlooked as a canonical philosopher and political thinker (see 8.1. Introduction). Anonymity and ambiguity are perhaps two reasons for Astell’s relative obscurity. Nonetheless, her work was known to philosophers like Locke, George Berkeley, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (https://iep.utm.edu/mary-astell/), as well as many nineteenth-century feminists. Astell’s work laid the foundations for later Feminist thought. Her critique of social contract theory, for example, breaks down the division between the public and the private realm, a sentiment that is echoed in the Feminist claim that ‘the personal is political’ (see 8.5. Conclusion).
Astell, M. (2013), The Christian Religion, as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England, Jacqueline Broad, ed. (Toronto: Iter, Inc.)
Astell, M. (2002), A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (Pts. I & II), Patricia Springborg, ed. (Toronto: Broadview Press Ltd.)
Bejan, T. M. (2019), “‘Since All the World is mad, why should not I be so?’ Mary Astell on Equality, Hierarchy, and Ambition,” Political Theory, 47, 781-808.
Broad, J. (2015), The Philosophy of Mary Astell: An Early Modern Theory of Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press).