Mary Astell

Title-page of Mary Astell's Proposal to the Ladies

First part

of the


to the



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       The Incapacity, if there be any, is acquired not natural;1 and none of their Follies are so necessary, but that they might avoid them if they pleas'd themselves.  Some disadvantages indeed they labour under, and what these are we shall see by and by and endeavour to surmount; but Women need not take up with mean things, since (if they are not wanting to themselves) they are capable of the best.  Neither God nor Nature have excluded them from being Ornaments to their Families2 and useful in their Generation; there is therefore no reason they should be content to be Cyphers3 in the World, useless at the best, and in a little time a burden and nuisance to all about them.  And 'tis very great pity that they who are so apt to over-rate themselves in smaller matters, shou'd, where it most concerns them to know, and stand upon their Value, be so insensible of their own worth.
       The Cause therefore of the defects we labour under, is, if not wholly, yet at least in the first place, to be ascribed to the mistakes of our Education; which like an Error in the first Concoction,4 spreads its ill Influence through all our Lives.
       The Soil is rich and would, if well cultivated, produce a noble Harvest, if then the Unskilful Managers not only permit, but incourage noxious Weeds, tho' we shall suffer by their Neglect, yet they ought not in justice to blame any but themselves, if they reap the Fruit of their own Folly.5  Women are from their very infancy debarred those Advantages with the want of which they are afterwards reproached, and nursed up in those Vices which will hereafter be upbraided6 to them.  So partial are Men as to expect Brick where they afford no Straw; and so abundantly civil as to take care we shou'd make good that obliging Epithet of Ignorant, which out of an excess of good Manners, they are pleas'd to bestow on us!
       One would be apt to think indeed, that Parents shou'd take all possible care of their Childrens Education, not only for their sakes, but even for their own.  And tho' the Son convey the Name to Posterity, yet certainly a great Part of the Honour of their Families depends on their Daughters.  'Tis the kindness of Education that binds our duty fastest on us:7 For the being instrumental to the bringing us into the World, is no matter of choice and therefore the less obliging: But to procure that we may live wisely and happily in it, and be capable of endless Joys hereafter, is a benefit we can never sufficiently acknowledge.  To introduce poor Children into the World, and neglect to fence them against the temptations of it, and so leave them expos'd to temporal and eternal Miseries, is a wickedness, for which I want a Name; 'tis beneath Brutality; the Beasts are better natur'd for they take care of their off-spring, till they are capable of caring for themselves.  And if Mothers had a due regard to their Posterity, how Great  soever they are, they wou'd not think themselves too Good  to perform what Nature requires, nor thro' Pride and Delicacy remit the poor little one to the care of a Foster Parent.  Or, if necessity inforce them to depute another to perform their  Duty, they wou'd be as choice at least in the Manners and Inclinations, as they are in the complections of their Nurses, lest with their Milk they transfuse their Vices, and form in the Child such evil habits as will not easily be eradicated.8
       Nature as bad as it is and as much as it is complain'd of, is so far improveable by the grace of GOD, upon our honest and hearty endeavours, that if we are not wanting to our selves, we mai all in some, tho' not in an equal measure, be instruments of his Glory, Blessings to this World, and capable of eternal Blessedness in that to come.  But if our Nature is spoil'd, instead of being improv'd at first; if from our Infancy we are nurs'd up in Ignorance and Vanity; are taught to be Proud and Petulent, Delicate and Fantastick,9 Humorous and Inconstant, 'tis not strange that the ill effects of this conduct appear in all the future Actions of our Lives.  And seeing it is Ignorance, either habitual or or actual,10 which is the cause of all sin, how are they like to escape this, who are bred up in that?  That therefore Women are unprofitable to most, and a plague and dishonour to some Men is not much to be regretted on account of the Men, because 'tis the product of their own folly, in denying them the benefits of an ingenuous11 and liberal Education, the most effectual means to direct them into, and to secure their progress in the way of Vertue.

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1 Astell seriously engages the question of the relation between gender and custom, arguing throughout that women's subordination is customary, not natural.  There would appear to be an implicit contradiction between her Platonist belief in innate ideas and her subscription to nurture over nature as formative of character.  It is a contradiction which she seeks to resolve by appeal to Malebranche's notion of "seeing all things in God," whereby the "innateness" of ideas is a consequence of divine design.  When Astell later is persuaded, probably by Masham's critique, to give up the notion of the human mind as an efflux of the Divine, the contradiction, source of much confusion among her commentators, remains.  What is clear, however, is that she does not subscribe to Lockean sensationalist psycholody, which some have argued is the provenance of the nurture over nature argument for the power of custom and habit that she makes in A Serious Proposal, Parts I  and II, and Reflections upon Marriage.
2 John Stuart Mill took seriously Astell's charge to women to be "Ornaments to their Families," a subject of disagreement between him and Harriet Taylor.
3 Variant of "cipher," from the Arabic term for zero, and arithmetical symbol or character of no value by itself, which increases the value of other figures according to its position; by transference, a person who fills a place, but is of no importance or worth, a nonentity, a "mere nothing" (OED).
4 Digestion of food.  The old physiology recognized three phases: the first concoction, digestion in the stomach and intestines; the second concoction, the process whereby nutrients were turned into blood; and the third concoction, secretion (OED).  Astell refers to the ingestion of bad food or poison.
5 The 2nd edn (1695, 22), substitutes for "their own Folly," "this their foolish Conduct," which the 1701 edn (16) repeats.
6 Be upbraided to them, brought forward, adduced, or alleged as a matter of censure or reproach against them (OED).
7 Bringing children into the world is more by accident than design, but education is a gift intentionally bestoed which obliges the recipient to gratitude.
8 It is not likely that Astell, who believed virtue to be acquitted and not innate, would literally believe that children could imbibe the vices of wet-nurses.  This appears to be a plea for nursing mother.  Astell's emphasis on an education for women that would produce serious mothers parallels Madame de Maintenon's proposals for Saint-Cyr, based on Fénelon's De l'Education des filles  (1687, 1933 edn, 18, 100-101), and the admonitions of Richard Allestree in The Ladies Calling, Part 2, §2 and §3 "Of Wives and "Of Widows" (1703 edn, 201ff., 231 ff).
9 "Fantastick" (of persons, their actions and attributes): fanciful, impulsive, capricious, arbitrary (OED).
10 Astell distinguishes habitual ignorance from ignorance exhibited in deeds or discrete acts, active ignorance OED).
11 Astell uses the term "ingenuous," more often than not satirically, in the obsolete seventeenth-century sense meaning "of high or excellent quality or character," i.e., a "Person of Quality," or "Befitting a free-born person, or one of honourable station; liberal, high-class" (OED); so, for instance of White Kennett and John Locke in An Impartial Enquiry (1704 edn, 37, 43; 1996 edn, ed. Springborg, 173, 180); and William Nicholls (1664-1712) in Reflections upon Marriage (1706 edn, ii, vi; 1996 edn, 8, 12).

Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies.
Parts I and II. Patricia Springborg, ed.
Peterborough, ON, Canada: Broadview Press, 2002. 59-62.

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