Early Modern Philosophy
Gender and Early Modern Women Philosophers
What was Mary Astell’s contribution to early modern philosophy?
In her poem “The Disappointment” she relates Lysander’s impotence when he is in the presence of the extremely desirable Cloris. Cloris flees, blushing with “distain and shame,” and Lysander curses, “The sheppardess’ charms / Whose soft betwitching influence / Had damned him to the hell of impotence.”
Mary Astell (1666–1731) used Descartes’ ideas to criticize custom, insisting that tradition itself is not a sufficient justification for the subordinate position of married women. She wrote: “That the Custom of the World, has put Women, generally speaking, into a State of Subjection, is not denied, but the Right can no more be prov’d from the Fact, than the Predominancy of Vice can justify it.” This willingness to criticize custom in the service of an unpopular claim was an important intellectual innovation.
Astell was interested in the use of reason as an innate capacity of women. She argued that women could find their own religious salvation, intellectually as well as morally. The target of her argument was the prevailing practice of not offering women the same education as men. In her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) she proposed a college for upper-class women that would prepare them for intellectual activities and religious services. Her claim was that the faults attributed to women could be corrected through education.