Monday, July 29, 2013

Mary Astell, Seventeenth Century Feminist

by Diane Scott Lewis

While researching feminist writers to bolster my early nineteenth century character’s beliefs in the rights of women, I came across numerous women who promoted rights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When I added these ideas into my story, a man in my critique group objected, saying women didn’t demand their due until the twentieth century. After that, I found that many people shared this narrow view. I myself was surprised by the varied women I discovered in the past who railed against their restrictive lives.

As I sought further documentation to strengthen my point, I came across this treatise by a woman in the seventeenth century named Mary Astell: Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, published in 1694.

Mary Astell was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1666 to an upper middle-class family. Her father was a royalist Anglican who managed a coal company. As a woman, she received no formal education, as the culture of the time felt girls didn’t require any learning outside of the domestic realm. 

Fortunately for Mary, starting at the age of eight, she received an informal education from her uncle. Her uncle, an ex-clergyman, was affiliated with the Cambridg- based philosophical school which based its teachings around radical philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras.

Mary’s father died when she was twelve, leaving her without a dowry. Her family’s limited finances were invested in her brother’s higher education, and Mary and her mother were forced to move in with her aunt. After the death of her mother and aunt, Mary moved to Chelsea, London in 1688, where she was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a circle of influential and literary women. These women, including the poet Lady Mary Chudleigh (who also published works dealing with feminist themes), helped Mary with the development and publication of her treatise.

Lady Mary Chudleigh

Mary was also in contact with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, who was known for charitable works. Sancroft assisted her financially and introduced her to her future publisher.

Mary Astell was one of the first Englishwomen to advocate that women were as rational as men, and just as deserving of education. Her Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest presented a plan for an all-female college where women could pursue a life of the mind.

In 1700, Mary published another work: Some Reflections upon Marriage. She warned, in witty prose, of the dangers to females "...of an ill Education and unequal Marriage." She urged women to make better matrimonial choices because a disparity in intelligence and character may lead to misery. Marriage should be based on lasting friendship rather than short-lived attraction.

Influenced by Descartes, Mary Astell was known for her ability to debate freely with both men and women, and particularly for her groundbreaking methods of negotiating the position of women in society by engaging in philosophical debate rather than basing her arguments in historical evidence as had previously been attempted. One of her famous quotes stated: "If all Men are born Free, why are all Women born Slaves?"

Mary withdrew from public life in 1709 and founded a charity school for girls in Chelsea. She died in 1731, a few months after a mastectomy to remove a cancerous breast. In her last days, she refused to see any of her acquaintances and stayed in a room with her coffin, thinking only of God. She was buried in the churchyard of Chelsea Church in London.

So when reviewers—or readers—criticize a novel for promoting a heroine who acts "before her time" remember that women have been seeking liberation for centuries.

Resources: "Astell, Mary." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2011.

Visit Diane Scott Lewis’s website for information on her novels that depict strong women:



  1. What an interesting woman Mary Astell was. Given the time she lived in, she must have had a lot of courage and determination. It would be intresting to know more about her personal life. Was she fortunate enough to have the kind of marriage she advocated? Did she go on to write other books?

  2. I LOVE this article!!!! This is incredible. Is there a historical novel about this lady by any chance?

  3. This is someone I haven't heard of before, but what a fascinating woman - thanks Diane for adding another 17th Century character to my research list!!!!

  4. I was thrilled to discover her. I don't think she ever married, and I haven't found a fiction book about her (I'm still looking).
    There is a book published in the 1980's called 'The Celebrated Mary Astell', by Ruth Perry

  5. Oh, I like this! Thinking of how I can include a reference to her in my next book!

  6. I read a biography of Captain John Smith (who met Princess Pocahontas) recently. This mentioned in passing that his school teacher was a radical chap who educated his daughter. Apparently she was a force to be reckoned with. I think the book said she emigrated to America. So, food for thought, plot and character. Steve


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.