Mary Astell (1666-1731)


It is very certain that nothing is true but what is conformable to reason, that is to the divine reason of which ours is but a short faint ray, and it is as certain that there are many truths which human reason cannot comprehend. Therefore to be thoroughly sensible of the capacity of the mind, to discern precisely its bounds and limits and to direct our studies and inquiries accordingly, to know what is to be known, and to believe what is to be believed is the property of a wise person.
from A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II, chapter III as reprinted in Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. (105)

Mary Astell is one of the earliest women philosophers of the early modern period not born into the class of nobility or wealth that allowed women to expand their intellectual horizons. She is hailed today as one of the first feminists chiefly because of her outspoken beliefs concerning the education of women and her thoughts concerning marriage.

Mary Astell was very impressed with the philosophy of Father Nicholas Malebranche. Writing to John Norris, one of Malebranche's great expositors in England, Astell expressed the wish:"I could read that ingenious author in his own language, or he spoke mine." McCraken in Malebranche and British Philosophy notes that she "subscribed both to Malebranche's doctrine that God is the immediate cause of our sensations and that He is the sole proper object of our love. While she abandonded Malebranchian occasionalism:

...she held firm to the Malebranchian doctrine of love, which she defended in The Christian Religion, as profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (London 1705) against the assault of Lady Masham (who Norris had sought to conver to Malebranchianism in Reflections upon the conduct of Human Life...in a Letter to Lady Madham) had made on it in a A Discourse Concerning the Love of God.
--McCraken, Pg.6


Astell Timeline

166612, November. Mary Astell is born to Mary Errington and Peter Astell and is baptized at St John's Church in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her parents are members of the merchant class. There is no record of Mary's childhood and the popular belief that Mary Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her parents are members of the merchant class. There is no record of Mary's childhood and the popular belief that Mary was educated by her clergyman uncle is dismissed by biographer Florence Smith who notes: "...as he died when she was but thirteen, she can hardly have received from him the full education with which she has been credited." (Mary, 5) Smith goes on to posit that Mary's education more than likely is that of a wide reader.
167819, March. Peter Astell dies and is buried in the chancel of the same church Mary was baptized in. Her mother is awarded a small pension which is cut in half the following year.
168416, October. Mary Errington Astell dies. Mary moves to the Chelsea district of London, and more than likely lives with Lady Catherine Jones. Lady Catherine's prominence in court circles allows Mary to become involved a number of well-educated women interested in changing the status of women.
1694Mary publishes her first work, A Serious Proposal To The Ladies For the Advancement of their True and greatest Interest. A first edition copy, inscribed in Mary's handwriting to Lady Mary Montagu still exists and is in the British Museum.
1695Letters Concerning the Love of God, comprised of Mary's correspondence with John Norris is published at his request. She dedicates the volume to Lady Catherine Jones.
1697 Mary publishes part II of A Serious Proposal... in which she gives instructions to women on how to think clearly and logically.
1700The unhappiness of one of Mary's neighbors, the Duchess of Mazarine, compels her to write and publish Some Reelections upon Marriage Occasioned by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine's Case. In it, she condemns men who marry for money or love of beauty as being governed by irregular appetites. She also counsels women not to marry out of duty or to escape the hardships of life, but to make their decisions based on reason.
1704-05Mary turns her attention to religious and political writings. A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons attacks Defoe; Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit is her disagreement with Shaftesbury; An Impartial Enquiry in to the Cause of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom defends the royalist party, and Moderation truly Stated defends the established church. She completes her writing career with a summary of her religious and educational theory in The Christian Religion As Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England. In this last tract, Mary appeals to the Queen to aide in furthering the education of women, saying in response to her opponents: "But generous designs for the Glory of God and the good of Mankind haven been opposed in all ages...by supposed and far fetched dangers and by misrepresentations, to raise the mob and popular prejudice against them, since reason will not furnish out any objection." (Mary p. 25)
1712Tax records indicate that Mary is now living in her own residence on the street called By the Swan.
1712 At some indiscernible date between 1712 and 1720, Mary refocused her energy towards creating a charity school for girls rather than a women's college. Her friends, the Lady Catherine Jones, Lady Elizabeth Hastings, and Lady Ann Coventry, along with others establish a charity school for girls. The school remained active until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
17319, May. Mary dies of breast cancer.
1931Mary Astell is buried in the churchyard of Chelsea Church.

Astell Timeline Sources


Captain's Choice of Secondary Materials