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The seventeenth-century English writer Mary Astell (1666-1731) presents a challenge to some of our modern preconceptions about feminist pioneers. Far from being a radical revolutionary, Astell was a profoundly conservative political thinker. As a High-Church Anglican and a Tory royalist, she was an active campaigner against the toleration of Protestant dissenters in early eighteenth-century England. Unlike her Whig contemporaries, such as John Locke, she did not regard political liberty or freedom from religious persecution as the unquestionable right of all human beings. In terms of political allegiances, she was diametrically opposed to the 'republic of letters' devoted to universal religious toleration in late seventeenth-century Europe. Recent commentators point to the fact that Astell's religio-political conservatism shapes and informs every aspect of her philosophy--including her feminist ideas. (1) In the 1706 edition of her Reflections upon Marriage, Astell observed that not even well-known advocates of resistance, such as John Milton, 'wou'd cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves, or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny'. (2) But it was never her intention to take up where Milton had left off--Astell was not an advocate for the political right of resistance or freedom from slavery for women. For her, women's liberty was a spiritual rather than a political concept: it consisted in a woman's freedom to choose (or not to choose) that which was good for her soul, and it could be exercised by any woman, anywhere, regardless of her social or political circumstances. For a modern reader, the spiritual focus of Astell's feminism threatens to render it unintelligible or perhaps even contradictory. On the one hand, Astell clearly recognizes that women as a social group suffer from significant disadvantages due to the tyranny of men; and in her three major feminist works, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (part I, 1694; part II, 1697) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), she suggests ways in which to end male tyranny over the lives of women. But on the other hand, Astell maintains that true tyranny is tyranny over a woman's spiritual life and her capacity to make judgements about right and wrong for the sake of her salvation. To rectify this tyranny, women do not need to rectify their disadvantages as a social group: each woman simply needs to improve her own individual capacity for rational deliberation and practical decision-making. In the second part of the Proposal, Astell shows how this self-improvement can be achieved through a woman's own efforts, by following Cartesian rules for thinking. By learning to discipline the will, according to Astell, women can redirect their passions to worthy objects, and resist the influence of custom on their judgements about right and wrong. In keeping with her broader political views about passive obedience, Astell urges that women should not rebel against the rule of men, even when they are subject to physical and psychological abuse; the only acceptable course of action is for women to bring about their own self-transformation. As Rachel Weil observes, 'Astell approaches politics in a radically subjective manner: it is not about the rules governing relations between people in civil society, but about people's relationship to themselves and to God'. (3)

July 1
Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies

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