Proto-Feminism and Mary Astell (Early British Feminism)

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A number of proto-feminists (women focusing on equality during the period when feminism was still unknown) were active during the 17th century.

This was a period in Britain’s history when women were considered the “weaker vessel,” a belief derived through biblical story of Eve being created out of the rib of Adam which was entrenched within the Church itself. The common perception was that a woman’s natural role was primarily that of a wife or a mother, and her value was in reproduction. There were some notable exceptions to this as found in certain non-conformist religious sects such as the Anabaptists and Quakers who protested that women and men were equal before God and believed they could also attend meetings and even preach.

A number of proto-feminists turned to writing as a way to challenge the idea that the female sex is inferior. Bathsua Makin (1600-1675) penned An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (1673) and Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) critiqued women’s place within society. In her 1655 writing, Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655), Cavendish referred to how women were “kept like birds in cages,” were distanced form any sense of power, and disliked by conceited men. Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was not only a writer but the first Englishwomen to make a living from writing. In her plays, she mocked the male-dominated literary world as well as male behaviour. Behn’s critics would accuse her of plagiarism although her works drew an audience.

Important in early British Feminism was proto-feminist Mary Astell (1666-1731) who was born into an upper-middle class Anglican family in Newcastle. She received little in the way of formal education although her uncle educated her in classical philosophy. She moved to Chelsea in 1688 following the death of her mother where she struggled financially as a writer. Despite these challenges, Astell remained committed to her pursuits and was encouraged by fellow literary female figures of the time. She was also a friend of William Sancroft (1617-1693), the Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave her financial support.

Astell was far more of a writer (who penned extensively on the situation of women around her) than an activist. She explored the idea that women should be considered inferior to men and thus be under their control, and even while a devout Christian, she criticized the Church’s view that the women’s secondary role was ordained by God. She argued that God had created women with equally “intelligent souls” to men, and therefore men and women possessed an equal ability to think. She also believed that by denying women independent thought, men kept them enslaved, which was of a great offense to God. It was men, rather that God, who made women subordinate. She argued that a better education was a key to greater equality. In her work A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), Astell explains that women need to learn to develop their intellect and skills, rather than being constantly reliant on men. She even proposed setting up a secular nunnery or university where women could attend and follow “the life of the mind.” Astell, although never marrying anyone herself, was also interested in marriage, which she speaks of in some of her work. In Reflections on Marriage (1700) she acknowledges both the need and desire for marriage but warns her fellow women not to marry for reasons such as lust or money. Rather, education was the key for women who wanted to obtain fulfillment and happiness in their lives.

In 1709 Astel withdrew from public life and went on to establish a charity school for girls in Chelsea. She died in 1731 following a mastectomy to remove breast cancer.

References and Recommended Readings

Lit2Go. Proto-feminist Literature. Available.

McCann, H. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book. p. 20-21.

Norton, Mary Beth. 1981. Review: Proto-Feminism in Seventeenth-Century New England. Reviews in American History, 9(3): p. 324-329.

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