Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is established in the popular imagination as the “first feminist,” but another philosopher provided a systematic analysis of women’s subjugated condition and a call for female education nearly a century before Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Mary Astell’s (1666-1731) A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest by a Lover of Her Sex, Parts I and II (1694, 1697) is a philosophical text that argues that women are in an inferior moral condition compared to men, analyses the causes of this problem, and presents a two-part remedy.
1. The Problem with Women
Astell’s concern is not that women are materially oppressed by a patriarchal society or that they lack rights. Instead, she argues that their selves are corrupted, that most women lack autonomy – internal freedom and self-mastery – and are instead governed by the whims of their emotions.
Astell claims that rather than exercising the rational capacities that all human beings possess to make accurate judgments on the way things are, women tend to pay attention to appearances instead. They believe that material things such as their bodily beauty or wealth are important, rather than their immaterial and immortal souls. They fall into the predominantly feminine vices of pride and vanity, valuing themselves on the wrong things. Women often concern themselves with the impression that they give to men, valuing themselves according to men’s appreciation of them.
Astell doesn’t think that women are by nature inferior. This being so, she needs to account for women’s particular subjection to certain vices.
2. The Cause
The key causes of women’s defects, according to Astell, are poor education and custom.
Women are prevented from learning appropriate things – their true natures, the nature of God, etc. – and are educated in mistaken principles, such as the importance of men’s opinions of them. She writes, “Women are from their very Infancy debar’d those Advantages, with the want of which, they are afterwards reproached, and nursed up in those Vices which will hereafter be upbraided to them” (SP, Pt I, p. 60). Astell links women’s ignorance with their vices: since they are not taught how to think, they lack the “Judgment and Skill to discern between reality and pretence” (62), and so end up valuing themselves on their beauty or money.
Custom is responsible for “all that Sin and Folly that is in the World” (67). It involves both the formation of habits that are difficult to break and societal forces that are difficult to counter. By being repeatedly vain and foolish and failing to exercise powers of rationality, women “spoil the contexture and frame of our minds” and “render our selves incapable of any serious and improving thought” (68). Women who act counter to prevailing customs and habits are subject to strong social disapproval – “all the Scoffs and Noises of the world” (95) – which functions as a strong motivator against self-improvement.
The first part of Astell’s cure is her best-known: the establishment of an all-female educational community.
Her intention is that women should retreat from the world and devote themselves to education and virtue in the company of other women. The seclusion will shield them from the ethical dangers of the everyday world, which tempts them toward vanity, inconstancy and pride. They will also be protected from the inimical effects of custom – instead, they can develop their own, positive habits which will guide the development of their characters toward virtue. They will have the time and space for reflection and acquisition of self-knowledge. And, of course, they will be “kept secure, from the rude attempts of designing men” (SP, Pt I, 102).
Astell might be read as prefiguring twentieth-century feminist separatist movements. Such movements saw women’s total removal from institutions and social structures built and maintained by men, as well as from men themselves, as a strategy for personal growth and liberation .
Part II of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies sets out the method for self-improvement that readers should follow; this is the regimen in which women inside her community would be instructed. It involves meditation, reading, philosophical reflection, and emotional self-control.
By meditating on philosophical topics using the method Astell advocates, drawn largely from Logic: or the Art of Thinking (1662), women will develop their powers of rational thought – and also realize how best to govern their lives. For instance, philosophical reflection will bring women to understand that they have an immaterial, immortal soul, and that the material world and their bodies are unimportant by comparison. Realizing this will help women to abandon their concern with fashion and external beauty.
The result of Astell’s method won’t be a societal change that provides women with rights and opportunities: rather, it takes the form of individual women’s internal transformation. She maintains that “Men therefore may still enjoy their Prerogatives for us, we mean not to intrench on any of their Lawful Privileges, […] our only endeavour shall be to be absolute Monarchs in our own Bosoms” (233-4). By following Astell’s method, her female reader will attain autonomy, no longer subject to her own shifting emotions or societal customs.
Despite her commitment to women’s improvement, Astell’s position as a feminist has been doubted (Perry 1986; 8, 13, 97). Unlike later feminists, she doesn’t argue for women’s access to equal rights, and nor is she concerned to change the fundamental patriarchal structures of society. Her attention is on individual self-improvement, not on communal resistance to oppression. However, in her view that men and women are fundamentally equal in terms of intellectual and moral capabilities, her systematic analysis of how women come to lack autonomy in society, and her advocacy of women’s education, she goes beyond many prior proto-feminist writers. Her use of philosophical argument to these ends establishes her as a key forerunner to feminist philosophy today.
 For discussion of modern feminist separatism, which does not reference Astell, see Frye (1997).
 For comparisons between Astell’s goal of self-determination and modern feminist approaches to autonomy, see Broad (2015). Broad suggests that both Astell and Marilyn Friedman (2003) emphasise true liberty as “a matter of living life in accordance with the deeper interests of the true self” (Broad 2015, 173), which helps women challenge sexist social norms and practices.
Arnauld, Antoine and Pierre Nicole, Logic or the Art of Thinking, translated by Jill Vance Buroker, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 
Broad, Jacqueline, The Philosophy of Mary Astell: An Early Modern Theory of Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015
Friedman, Marilyn, Autonomy, Gender, Politics, Studies in Feminist Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
Frye, Marilyn, “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power”. In Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. Edited by Diana Tietjens Meyers, New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 406–414.
For Further Reading
Broad, Jacqueline, “Mary Astell,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL= <http://www.iep.utm.edu/astell/>
Detlefsen, Karen, ‘Cartesianism and its Feminist Promise and Limits: The Case of Mary Astell’. In Descartes and Cartesianism: Essays in Honour of Desmond Clarke. Edited by Stephen Gaukroger and Catherine Wilson, Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2017, pp. 191–206.
Duran, Jane, Eight Women Philosophers: Theory, Politics, and Feminism. University of Illinois Press, 2006
Perry, Ruth, The Celebrated Mary Astell: an Early English Feminist. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1986
Sowaal, Alice, ‘Mary Astell’s Serious Proposal: Mind, Method, and Custom’. In Philosophy Compass, 2(2), 2007, pp. 227–243.
Sowaal, Alice, “Mary Astell,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/astell/>.
Sowaal, Alice and Weiss, Penny (eds), Feminist Interpretations of Mary Astell. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016
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Feminism Part 2: The Difference Approach by Annaleigh Curtis
About the Author
Simone Webb is a Ph.D. student in Gender Studies at University College London. Her thesis is on Astell’s writing read through the lens of Michel Foucault’s later work on ethics, juxtaposed with a feminist critique. https://simonewebb.weebly.com, @SimoneWebbUCL