Mary Astell (1666–1731) was an English philosopher and writer who advocated for equal rights for women.
For the next installment in our Wise Women series, we’re talking about the life and thought of Mary Astell, an early feminist pioneer writing in England at the turn of the 18th century. She argued that women are men’s intellectual equals, encouraged women not to marry, and proposed that they go to an all-women’s school instead.
And she defended this proto-feminism with some really cool arguments. For instance, to defend women’s equality, she appealed to Cartesian dualism—the idea that your mind is a completely separate substance from your body. This was a central theme in our previous Wise Women episode on Elisabeth of Bohemia, who was skeptical and pushed back against Descartes in her letters to him. But Astell believed in dualism and used it as a basis for her feminism. Men’s and women’s bodies are different, she said, but their minds are fundamentally the same: equally rational, and equally capable of intellectual virtue.
This was no doubt a fairly radical view at the time. In those days, most women had far less access to education, and many male thinkers said they were ruled by their passions, not their reason—too focused on the cut of their clothes and not enough on spiritual matters. And Astell had a lot to say about that. She thought it was true that women were often vain and silly, but she blamed society, not women's essential natures. Everybody kept telling them they were only valuable for being pretty, and then criticized them for only caring about their looks. If you want women to care about important things, Astell said, you have to educate them.
And she tried to create a school to do just that. In her book A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, she describes how it would work: Women would live together in a retreat away from “vain insignificant men.” They would study philosophy, develop supportive friendships, and cultivate their virtue together. She was hoping to find a wealthy patron to sponsor this retreat, but unfortunately she couldn't secure the funding (not that we'd know anything about that...).
But she didn’t give up! She wrote a Part Two, which explained a method for achieving virtue even if you’re not able to attend a retreat or surround yourself with supportive friends. And if you follow her method, you can achieve virtue no matter who you are. You can cultivate your understanding so it starts taking charge of your will, showing you what’s really important to care about. Instead of worrying about the latest fashions, you’ll spend time studying the best books (and, we like to think, radio shows).
Astell certainly sounds rather ahead of her time: she believed in women’s rational nature, advocated for supportive female friendships, and criticized sexist double standards. She also told women not to get married, so they wouldn’t have to be bossed around by their husbands. Yet at the same time she also told them that if they did get married, they just had to accept their subordinate status. And she felt the same way towards the monarchy and the church: she said you had to obey them, even if their dictates were objectively wrong. This was in direct opposition to John Locke, who was writing around the same time, and spoke of the right to rebel when our monarchs are tyrannical and arbitrary. Astell disagreed: you've got to obey God in the sky, king on the throne, and husband in the home.
It can be difficult to reconcile all of Astell’s ideas. She argues that women are just as capable of rationality as men, and even says that in a lot of ways women are more virtuous than men. So why does she let husbands boss their wives around? That's among the things we'll ask our guest, Allauren Forbes from McMaster University, author of many articles including The Oxford Bibliography on Mary Astell.