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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Mary Astell

b. 1666, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England; d. 1731, London

“If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?”

—Mary Astell, Political Writings, 18

Mary Astell’s feminist polemics were often at odds were her conservative political and religious principles. Born into an affluent family that later fell on hard times, Astell settled in London in 1687/88, dependent on her own resources. Although not formally educated, she was extremely well read in philosophy and theology. Her first foray into the world of letters, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, brought her instant success. Published in 1694 and signed by “a lover of her sex,” A Serious Proposal argues for women’s right to a life of the mind and suggests that (bourgeois) women pool their resources to establish secular “monasteries” where they could live, study, and perform charitable works. Astell envisioned these communities not only as educational academies but as an alternative to marriage, which she denounced as domestic slavery in Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), enjoining women to reject blind obedience to husbands. On the other hand, Astell’s commitment to Tory politics and High Anglicanism—with their implicit patriarchalism—and her public opposition to dissent and religious pluralism ultimately undermine her critiques of gender inequality.

Astell, Mary. Political Writings. Edited by Patricia Springborg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.