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Mary Astell

By Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon

SHELLEY’S mother-in-law, the famous Mary Wollstonecraft,
vindicated the rights of women in a powerful and somewhat
disagreeable book, which was published in 1792. For many years
she has been believed to be the first pioneer of the higher educa-
tion of women, and the first wailer over their wrongs, of any power
and distinction ; but Mary Wollstonecraft, though she possessed
many merits as a writer, was herself too much absorbed by her
own private matrimonial troubles to make her a competent judge
of the wrongs of other women.

A century before Mary Wollstonecraft there lived another Mary
whose surname was Astell, who never married, and who, as far as
we can gather from her writings, had no private grievances of her
own to ventilate in print, and therefore her arguments have a
special value. Two centuries ago this remarkable woman strove to
rouse the consciences of her sister women, and tried lustily to make
them take up a healthier attitude of mind towards the opposite sex.
Mary Astell was born at Newcastle, and the appreciative Ballard
in his memoir records of her,* “that she had a piercing wit, a solid


* ” Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain who have been celebrated for their writings, or skill in the Learned Languages, Arts, and Sciences.” George Ballard : Oxford, 1752.

                        106 Mary Astell

judgment, and a tenacious memory, so that she could make herself
complete mistress of anything she attempted to learn with the
greatest ease imaginable.”

An uncle undertook her education, and she appears to have
studied philosophy, mathematics, logic, and French. She was not
a Latin or a Greek scholar, nevertheless she states in one of her
publications that her “favourite heathen authors were Xenophon,
Plato, Tully, Seneca, Epictetus, Heraclitus, and Marcus Anto-
ninus.” So, taking into consideration the times in which she lived,
she must have been a learned lady, even though she was only able
to study the classics in translations.

When she was twenty years old she came to live in Chelsea, and
supported herself by writing theological tracts of an exceedingly
orthodox character, which are all of them very dejecting reading,
though occasionally a vigorous phrase or an apt adjective brightens
their dreary controversial pages. But in 1694 Dame Astell published
anonymously a queer little brown volume of quite another order
of merit. This little seventeenth century bomb-shell was entitled
” A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their
True and Greatest Interest. By A Lover of Her Sex.”

This volume deserves to be rescued from oblivion, not only for
its own intrinsic merit, but because there is little doubt that
Daniel Defoe (the first male advocate for the better education of
women) derived many of his ideas upon the training of girls from
its authoress, and though he differed from her conclusions on some
few material points, yet he cannot be credited with originating
all the reformatory schemes set forth in his ” Essay on Projects.”
I think it is not too much to say that “The Serious Proposal
to the Ladies ” contains the embryo of the ideas which were
developed and expanded by a later generation into Newnham,
Girton, and all the other ladies’ colleges. A considerable portion


                        By Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon 107

of the book is taken up with long religious dissertations, such as
were appreciated by the women of the times in which, and for
which, they were written ; but shorn of the conventional senten-
tiousness suitable for that period, Mary Astell’s ideas will be found
to be so much in advance of her age, that it is not difficult to
understand why her drastic wit and uncompromising candour
scandalised the bishops and clergy of her day, and made for her
many enemies among her own sex, whose foibles and frivolities she
so sarcastically derided. This stringent dame was of opinion that
” Women value men too much and themselves too little—and that
they should be capable of nobler things than the pitiful conquest
of some worthless heart.” She thinks that, ” Were men as much
neglected, and as little care taken to cultivate and improve them
as is spent upon women, they would sink into the greatest stupidity
and brutality,” and that ladies “who have comely bodies should
not tarnish their glory with deformed souls.” She pleads eloquently
for a better education for their minds, and implores them not to be
content “to be in the world like tulips in a garden, to make a fine
show and be good for nothing.”

The pages of this quaint little book abound in sprightly
sayings, but the pith of her ” Serious Proposal ” was, that a
Monastery (sic) should be erected, and so organised that it should
fit women, by education and discipline, to do the greatest good in
the world that their natures and characters were capable of. The
establishment was to be conducted upon the principles of the
Church of England, but the religious education was to be supple-
mented by sound mental instruction. One can imagine what a
startling proposition this must have been to the gay ladies of the
seventeenth century, and one smiles to think how they must have
cackled and argued over this audacious proposal.

Dr. Karl Bulbring in an article contributed to the Journal


                        108 Mary Astell

of Education upon Mary Astell and her influence over Defoe,*
points out that Defoe writes of this book by the title of ” Advice
to the Ladies,” and that he asserts in the Preface to his ” Essay
on Projects” that he was not influenced in any way by Mary
Astell’s ideas upon education. I have carefully read over Defoe’s
essays and compared them with the ” Serious Proposal,” and I
feel sure that any fair-minded person who has examined these
two books (as well as Defoe’s and Mary Astell’s respective writings
upon the lives and characters of the country gentleman of those
times) must acknowledge the remarkable resemblance of their
ideas, and methods of expressing them. But Mary Astell’s
” Serious Proposal ” was published three years before the famous
” Essays on Projects,” and therefore it is difficult to give whole-
hearted credence to Defoe’s assertion, that his ideas were formed
long before Mary Astell’s were made public. But whatever con-
troversy the curious may like to engage in as to the priority of
these ideas, it is at any rate a remarkable fact that a woman writer
in those days should have attracted the notice of a man like Defoe,
and that he should have condescended to review her schemes in
his book. Though the accordance of many of his ideas with those
of Mary Astell is so apparent and so remarkable, there was yet
one prominent point in the ladies’ ” Proposal ” of which the gentle-
man could not, and did not approve, for with regard to the monas-
tery for ” Religious Retirement and Mental instruction,” Defoe
observes :

” Saving my respect to the sex, the levity which perhaps is a little
peculiar to them (at least in their youth) will not bear the restraint ;
and I am satisfied nothing but the height of bigotry can keep up a
nunnery. Women are extravagantly desirous of going to heaven, and


* Journal of Education, April 1, 1891.

                        By Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon 109

will punish their pretty bodies to get thither ; but nothing else will do
it, and even in that case sometimes it falls out that nature will prevail.
When I talk therefore of an Academy for Women, I mean both the
model, the teaching, and the government different from that which is
proposed by that ingenious lady, for whose proposal I have a very great
esteem, and also a great opinion of her wit ; different too from all
sorts of religious confinement, and above all from vows of celebacy.”

Ballard in his Memoirs relates that Mary Astell’s scheme for an
educational monastery for ladies, although it was first received
with approval by some influential persons, was yet ultimately
frustrated through the influence of Bishop Burnet. “A certain
great lady” promised the sum of £10,000 towards carrying out
this proposal, but was dissuaded from her intentions by the aforesaid

Poor Dame Astell seems to have excited the enmity of all the
clergy of those times, for it is recorded that she was preached
against from many pulpits ; and Dr. Atterbury, Bishop of
Rochester, wrote in a letter to Dr. Smallridge concerning her :

” had she as much good breeding as good sense she would be
perfect, but she has not the most decent manner of insinuating what
she means, but is now and then a little offensive and shocking in her
expressions, which I wonder at, because a civil turn of words is what
her sex it always mistress of. She is, I think, wanting in it.”

In 1697 Mary Astell published the second part of the “Serious
Proposal to the Ladies, wherein a Method is offered for the
Improvements of their Minds.” This book, in spite of a few
stalwart paragraphs, is not so engaging as its predecessor. The
second appeal met with no more response than the first had done.

It is difficult to discover any materials for writing a biography
of Mary Astell, for with the exception of a few allusions to her


                        110 Mary Astell

schemes in contemporary writings and the ” Memoirs of Ballard,”
from which I have already quoted, nothing more is known of her
except what we can deduce ourselves from her vigorous little books.

The ” Dictionary of National Biography ” gives only a short
summary of Mary Astell and her writings. The article in the
second volume was, I believe, contributed by Canon Overton,
who does not even mention another very remarkable book pub-
lished by her in 1697, which appeared anonymously under the
title “An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex,” in which Mary Astell
discusses the position and education of women, and protests
against their subjection to men. Dr. Karl Bulbring, in the article
from which I have already quoted, records that two editions of
this book were issued in the first year, and the third in 1697.
The title-page states that the book is dedicated to Princess Anne
of Denmark, who, according to the remarks at the end of the
volume, caused her to write the Essay. The astute Dr. Bulbring
(to whom, I believe, must be accorded the credit for practically
re-discovering Mary Astell) points out that this volume, as well
as the more famous ” Proposal,” appeared before the publication
of Defoe’s essays, and before the publication of his “Compleat
English Gentleman.”

Being much interested in Mary Astell and her influence over
the author of “Robinson Crusoe,” I have not only read all her
works and compared them with Defoe’s in the British Museum,
but I have (by patient advertising and searching of booksellers’
catalogues) acquired possession of all her books myself. They
are delectable reading, and have acquired a place of honour in my
cherished library as much for their own value as for their historical

“The Defence of the Female Sex” is even more entertaining
reading than her former volume. In it she naively enquires,

                                                ” Whether

                        By Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon 111

” Whether the time an Ingenious Gentleman spends in the Company
of Women may justly be said to be misemployed or not ?”

She then proceeds to point out most insinuatingly the great
advantages that the ingenious gentleman would secure by pro-
viding himself with a better educated helpmate, and the profit
that would be derived by the nation at large by teaching women
arithmetic and other arts which require not much bodily strength,
so that lusty men could be sent whither hands and strength are
more required.

She remarks on page 19 of this same book :

“I know our Oposers usually miscall our quickness of Thought,
Fancy, and Flash, and christen their own heaviness by the specious
Names of Judgement and Solidity ; but is easie to retort upon ’em the
reproachful Ones of Dullness and Stupidity with more Justice.”

Mary Astell was not only very advanced in her views about
women’s education, but I think she must also have been an
advocate, more or less, of the now called “modern side” education
of boys, for she says on page 27 of this same book that :

” Scholars, though by their acquaintance with Books and Conversing
much with Old Authors …. yet lose their way at home in their
own parish. They are mighty admirers of the Wit and Eloquence of
the Ancients ; yet, had they lived in the time of Cicero and Csesar,
would have treated them with as much supercilious Pride and dis-
respect as they do now with reverence. They are great hunters of
ancient Manuscripts, and have in great Veneration anything that has
scap’d the Teeth of Time and Rats, and if Age have obliterated the
Characters, ’tis the more valuable for not being legible. But if by
chance they can pick out one Word, they rate it higher than the
whole Author in Print, and wou’d give more for one Proverb of
Solomon’s, under his own hand, then for all his Wisdom. These

The Yellow Book—Vol. IX. G


                        112 Mary Astell

superstitious, bigotted Idolaters of time past, are Children in their
understanding all their lives ; for they hang so incessantly upon the
leading Strings of Authority, that their Judgements like the Limbs of
some Indian Penitents, become altogether crampt and motionless for
want of use.”

On page 37 of these same Essays, the discriminating lady remarks
that for conversational purposes it is

“not requisite we should be Philologers, Rhetoricians, Philosophers,
Historians or Poets ; but only that we should think pertinently, and
express our thoughts properly on such matters as are the proper subjects
for a mixed conversation.”

She considers that pleasant conversation between the sexes
should turn upon lively topics—love, honour, gallantry, morality,
news, raillery, and a numberless train of other things, copious and
diverting. Religion, she argues, is too tender a subject ; business
too dry and barren ; points of learning too profound ; and abstruse
speculations and nice politics too argumentative to awaken the
good humour or raise the mirth of the company.

After summing up the many interesting subjects there are that
women can study, she remarks that :

“nothing but discouragement or an Idle Uncurious Humour can
hinder us from Rivalling most Men in the Knowledge of great Variety
of Things without the help of more Tongues than our Own ; which
the Men so often reproachfully tell us is enough.”

Mary Astell must have been somewhat of a Socialist as well as
an advocate for the better education of her own sex, for she devotes
several scathing pages to describing the country gentry of her times,

” for eight or nine years are whipt up and down through two or
three counties, from School to School, when, being arriv’d at sixteen


                        By Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon 113

or seventeen years of age, and having made the usual Tour of Latin
and Greek Authors, they are call’d home to be made Gentlemen.”

Her description of the after careers of these so-called gentlemen
is withering, and must have been rather unpleasant reading for her
male acquaintances.

Mary Astell has been somewhat fortunate in finding an illus-
trator with some sense of humour, who has contributed a frontis-
piece to her book, depicting “The Compleat Beau” admiring
himself in his looking-glass, and dextrously applying a patch to
his chin, while an anxious-faced barber powders his wig at the
back. Below the engraving these lines are printed :

    “This vain gay thing sets up for man,
    But see w⁺ fate attends him
    The powdering Barber first began,
    The Barber Surgeon ends him.”

It was hardly to be expected that a pioneer lady (of even the
seventeenth century) should be content to leave the marriage
problem alone, and therefore it is not surprising to find that Mary
Astell, like many women of the present day, rushed into print to
give the world as forcibly as she dared her ideas upon this subject.
In 1700 she published a fiery little volume entitled, ” Some Reflec-
tions upon Marriage,” which was republished in 1705 and 1706,
and as it attained three editions it must have attracted considerable
attention. Therein, she endeavours to point out that one of
the principal reasons of unhappiness in married life is the want of
solid education upon the part of the wife, and also that a woman
is forced to marry from the custom of the world, and to be pre-
server of the family. ” A woman,” she remarks, ” can’t properly be
said to choose ; all that is allowed her is to refuse or accept what
is offered.”


                        114 Mary Astell

With regard to the choice of the man, the acid-minded lady
remarks :

” there is no great odds between Marrying for Love of Money, or for
the Love of Beauty ; a man does not act according to reason in either
case, but is govern’d by Irregular Appetites. But he loves her Wit
perhaps, and this you will say is more spiritual, more refin’d ; not at
all, if you examine it to the Bottom for what is that which now a days
passes under the name of Wit ? A bitter and illnatured Raillery, a
pert Repartée, or a confident talking at all. It is not improbable
that such a Husband may in a little time by ill usage provoke such a
wife to exercise her Wit, that is her Spleen, upon him, and then it is
not hard to guess how very agreeable it will be for him.”
Mary Astell devotes several pages to pointing out how many un’
happy matings arise by reason of the false notions in which women
are educated, and most of her able arguments would apply equally
forcibly to the average pre-matrimonial education of the present

The little old copy of ” Some Reflections upon Marriage,”
which is in my possession, has evidently been read with much
dissent by one Mr. Robert Grace, upon whom the book had been
bestowed by a lady friend of the name of Mrs. Eversfeild. He
records his robust male objections in various marginal notes, ques-
tion, and exclamation marks, and on one page (where the authoress
insists very strongly upon the necessity of women rousing their
understanding and opening their eyes, that they may distinguish
between truth and appearances), the indignant Mr. Robert Grace
breaks into verse, and pens along the margin the following lines :

    Give me a wife with countenance full smiling,
    With gentle courtesy and temper willing,
    Whose speech unmix’t with gall shews her whole heart.
    Then will I say ” My Wife my Love thou art ! “

                                                Mr. Robert Grace,

                        By Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon 115

Mr. Robert Grace, it is to be hoped, was better qualified to be a
husband than he was to be a poet !

Later on in the same volume Mary Astell evidently becomes
frightened of her own dawning opinions, her relations had perhaps
been worrying her about them, and many candid friends had been
telling her, how pernicious and foolish her schemes were, for on
page 58 she draws in her argumentative horns, and says :

“How can a woman scruple intire subjection, how can she forbear
to admire the worth and excellence of the Superior Sex, if she at all
considers it ? Have not all the great Actions that have been perform’d
in the World been done by Men ? Have they not founded Empires
and overturn’d them ? Do not they make Laws, and continually repeal
and amend them? Their vast minds lay kingdoms waste, no bounds
or measures can be prescrib’d to their desires. . . . . What is it that
they cannot do ? They make Worlds and ruine them. Form systems
of universal Nature, and dispute eternally about them. . . . . She
then who Marries ought to lay it down for an indisputable Maxim
that her husband must govern absolutely and intirely, and that she has
nothing else to do, but to Please and Obey. She must not attempt to
divide his Authority, or so much as dispute it to struggle with her yoke
will only make it gall the more, but must believe him Wise and Good,
and in all respects the Best, at least he must be so to her. She who
can’t do this is in no way fit to be a wife.”

She continues this kind of dissertation for several pages more,
but the discriminating reader will not fail to notice that in this
honeyed sop thrown to the male Cerebus, there is a good deal of
hidden satire, and the culmination of all her argument is :—Pray
educate us women a little better that we may be the more capable
of adequately admiring you men, which argument shows that there
was a good deal of Mother Eve in this ancestor of ours. But in
spite of the clerical and feminine influence brought to bear on her,

                                                Mary Astell’s

                        116 Mary Astell

Mary Astell’s robustness of character occasionally breaks free of
their shackles, and towards the end of the volume she exclaims :

“A Woman should always remember that she has no mighty obli-
gation to the man who makes love to her ; she has no reason to be fond
of being a wife, or to reckon it a piece of preferment when she is
taken to be a man’s upper servant…. If a woman were duly
taught to know the world, especially the true sentiments that men have
of her, and the Traps they lay for her under so many gilded compli-
ments—women would marry more discreetly and demean themselves
better in a married state than some people say they do. A woman
would then duly examine and weigh all the circumstances, the good
and evil of the marriage state, and not be surprised with unforseen
inconveniences, and either never consent to be a wife, or make a good
one when she does it.”

In a preface to the third edition she becomes even more cour-
ageous, and bravely asks :

“To whom do we poor Fatherless Maids and Widows who have lost
their Masters owe subjection ? It can’t be to all Men in general,
unless all Men are agreed to give the same commands ; do we then
fall as Strays to the first who finds us? from the Maxims of some Men,
and the Conduct of some Women, one wou’d think so.”

I have now given extracts from Mary Astell’s three most re-
markable volumes, to wit, ” A Serious Proposal to the Ladies,”
“An Essay in Defence of her Sex,” and ” Some Reflections upon
Marriage;” and only wish that I had space wherein to quote more
of her wise, witty, and sarcastic sayings. Tenderness was a quality
that Mary Astell evidently did not possess.

Ballard tells us in his Memoirs that she had a very sincere
friendship with Lady Elizabeth Hastings, who he relates gave her
as much as four score guineas at one time. During the time she


                        By Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon 117

lived in Chelsea she much resented her studies being interrupted
by gossiping visitors, and when she accidentally saw needless callers
coming, who she knew to be incapable of discoursing on any use-
ful subject, but come for the sake of chat and tattle, she would
look out of the window and jestingly tell them, ” Mrs. Astell is
not at home.”

The end of her life was a very sad one, and she proved that her
physical must have been as great as her moral bravery. For many
months she concealed a terrible cancer in the breast. In the hopes
that an operation might be successful, she went privately to a phy-
sician, and (remembering that chloroform was not known in those
days) we cannot but admire her fortitude when we read that she
” refused to have her hands held, and did not discover the least
timidity or impatience, but went through the operation without
the least struggling or resistance, or even so much as giving a
groan or a sigh.” But in spite of her stoical courage, she subse-
quently endured some years of suffering which she bore with the
greatest fortitude, and died in 1731 at the age of sixty-three.

MLA citation:

Gordon, Mrs. J. E. H. [Alice Gordon]. “Mary Astell.” The Yellow Book, vol. 9, April 1896, pp. 105-117. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.