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Mary Astell is best known as an advocate of equal education for women. What is less known is that she put her thoughts into practice and helped to found a charity school for girls. Although poor by London's society standards, she became an intellectual force in that capital.
1666 Mary Astell is born on November 12 to Mary Errington and Peter Astell in Newcastle, on the Tyne River in North East England.
King Charles had given coal trading rights to Newcastle and so it the city became an important business center. Both the Erringtons and Astells were involved in the coal trade. Her family were Anglicans. Politically, they were Tories and Mary never deviated from Tory principles at any time in her life.
Little is known of her childhood. She had two brothers. She was the only girl. Her father supervised merchant sales and he was expected to entertain merchants so it would seem that she was aware of the merchant class and their behaviors.
Some believe that her early education was supervised by an uncle, Ralph Astell, a clergyman whose poem “Vota Non Bella” appeared in 1660. Uncle Ralph died when she was about 13 years of age. So it would seem that even if he started her education, he could not have continued it through to her adulthood. Florence Smith, a biographer, suggests that 'wide reading' accounts for her learning.
1678 Her father, Peter dies. Her mother is given a small pension.
1679 The pension awarded her mother is cut in half. This would have left the family with some economic hardship. Much of the family money seems to have been used to advance her brother's education. Mary was in the difficult position of having an insufficient dowry for marriage.
1684 Her mother dies. Mary Astell is only 18 years old. She moves to London in the Chelsea district. She developed a friendship with Lady Catherine Jones, whose husband was Dean Atterbury, a spokesman for the High Church Party in England. Lady Catherine is of enormous help in getting her work published. Astell later dedicates her Letters Concerning the Lover of God and her The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church to Lady Catherine Jones.
During her early London years Mary Astell begins a correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft. Sancroft is the Archbishop known to have been held in the Tower for his refusal to endorse James II's Declaration of Indulgence. She send some of her unpublished poems for Sancroft and requests financial assistance. He complies. One of these collections of poems is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
1694 Mary Astell publishes A Serious Proposal To The Ladies For the Advancement of their True and greatest Interest. One of the novel ideas in this work is a proposal for a kind of Protestant nunnery for women. The idea is never adopted and put into action because it seems too Catholic for the English.
The publication of this work does seem to affect its author, though, in that eight more titles come to press in the next ten years. And she participates in the many of the intellectual discussions of her day. Many of her ideas about women are satirized - even by Jonathan Swift - but she is an intellectual force in London's educated class.
1695 Letters Concerning the Love of God was published at the request of John Norris, another person with whom she corresponded. This John Norris's is somewhat associated with another English women philosopher Damaris Cudworth Masham .
1697 Part II of A Serious Proposal is published.
1700 Mary Astell publishes Some Reflections upon Marriage Occasioned by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine's Case.
1704-05 She publishes a series of religious and political writings.
1712 At some point she obtained a house of her own. Records from 1712 show that she is living in her own home on 'By the Swan' street.
1720 At some time before this year, Mary Astell, Lady Catherine Jones, Lady Elizabeth Hastings and Lady Ann Coventry start a charity school for girls.
1729 She becomes ill with breast cancer.
1731 Mary Astell dies On May 11 at the age of 65 having spent her last month in prayerful contemplation of her oncoming death.
1694 A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest
1695 Letters Concerning the Love of God
1696 An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex - there was some controversy as to whether this work is really by Astell or if someone else (Judith Drake) wrote it. Most experts attribute the work to Astell.
1697 Part II of A Serious Proposal is published.
1700 Some Reflections upon Marriage Occasioned by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine's Case.
1704 Moderation Truly Stated: A Review of a Late Pamphlet Entitl'd 'Moderation a Vertue' with a Prefatory Discourse to Dr D'Avenant Concerning His Late Essays on Peace and War.
A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons Excerpts of this work can be found at: Mary Astell: A Fair Way.
An Impartial Enquiry in to the Cause of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom and Moderation truly Stated.
1705 The Christian Religion As Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England.
1709 Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit .
You can buy books by and about her at Amazon by clicking Mary Astell books
Mary Astell is one of more than 100 women whose portraits appear in A Pictorial History of Women Philosophers photo album, and among the 40 women featured in
Busted!! A Pictorial History of Women Philosophers DVD Volume 2.
This page was last updated 12/13/14.
Society for the Study of Women Philosophers