In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Astell

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedic Resources
  • Primary Sources
  • Modern Editions
  • Biographies

Philosophy Mary Astell
Allauren Samantha Forbes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0430


Mary Astell (b. 1666–d. 1731) is a philosophical mind best remembered for her early work, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694). Astell presents a kind of interpretive puzzle to modern scholars. Astell was a pamphleteer on the Tory side of the occasional conformity debate, was a staunch Anglican, and yet A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700) seem to imply a much more radical, feminist critique than would seem to be consistent with her stated religious and political convictions at first blush. She was a strident critic of Locke and Hobbes, both on metaphysical and political grounds, and yet she uses some of those conventional arguments in seemingly ironic, rhetorical ways. This philosophical irony is on display throughout Some Reflections upon Marriage. Astell has been interpreted as holding Cartesian and Malebranchean metaphysical and epistemological views and as incorporating elements of Lockean political theory in her critiques of marriage and gendered subordination. Understanding Astell on her own terms has been and continues to be a philosophically nuanced project. While Astell’s major social and political philosophical works, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and Some Reflections upon Marriage, have been the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny, her writings on metaphysics, especially love and religion, are also rich with philosophical theorizing. Some scholars have argued that it is precisely from Astell’s faith and subsequent religiously informed metaphysics that she acquires her feminist moral and political commitments about women’s equality and social standing. Her Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695), a published correspondence with Cambridge Platonist philosopher John Norris, provides early insight into the entanglement of Astell’s social and epistemological commitments alongside the principles of her faith. Astell’s The Christian Religion (1705) is the most mature and detailed expression of her metaphysical and epistemological views, but even this work illustrates the sociality that pervades her thinking. This article lists some general overviews of Astell scholarship, Astell’s major philosophical works, modern editions, encyclopedic resources, and secondary literature on several philosophical strains of Astell’s thought: Astell’s philosophical conversations, her epistemology, her theory of friendship, her metaphysical and religious commitments, and her political theorizing with special emphasis on gender.

General Overviews

Recent Astell scholarship focuses on thematic, conceptual, and methodological elements of her thinking. The anthologies Kolbrener and Michelson 2007 and Sowaal and Weiss 2016 span the gamut. Broad 2015 focuses on Astell’s moral philosophy, while Broad 2018 offers a brief overview of Astell and some of her interlocutors. Springborg 2005 offers the only sustained analysis of Astell’s view of freedom. Green 2015 provides a historical, contextual bridge between Broad 2015 and Springborg 2005. Sutherland 2005 offers insightful commentary on Astell’s rhetorical theory.

  • Broad, Jacqueline. The Philosophy of Mary Astell: An Early Modern Theorist of Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198716815.001.0001

    A comprehensive picture of Astell’s philosophical commitments, with particular focus on her moral theory and the importance of virtue in her philosophical system.

  • Broad, Jacqueline. “Introduction to Mary Astell with Jacqueline Broad.” New Narratives Podcast. Hosted by Haley Brennan, 2018.

    A brief conversation between Broad and Brennan introducing the listener to Mary Astell, including some of her main philosophical commitments and interlocutors.

  • Green, Karen. “A Moral Philosophy of Their Own? The Moral and Political Thought of Eighteenth-Century British Women.” The Monist 98.1 (2015): 89–101.

    DOI: 10.1093/monist/onu010

    An overview of Astell and her contemporaries, with particular focus on the commonalities in the moral and political theories of Astell, Catharine Trotter Cockburn, and Catharine Macaulay, despite their pronounced differences in political affiliations and sympathies.

  • Kolbrener, William, and Michal Michelson. Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    Collected essays on Astell’s philosophy. Topics range from Astell’s epistemology to politics and to poetry. An excellent resource for scholars and students alike.

  • Sowaal, Alice, and Penny Weiss. Feminist Interpretations of Mary Astell. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780271077604

    Collected essays on Astell’s philosophy, but with the specific sociopolitical lens of feminism as a theme. Topics range from the family to esteem, education, and romance. An excellent resource for those interested in the history of feminism and of Astell’s specific brand of feminism.

  • Springborg, Patricia. Mary Astell: Theorist of Freedom from Domination. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511499203

    Insightful analysis of Astell’s political philosophy and her notion of freedom or liberation as emerges from her collected works by the scholar who has produced two of the most important annotated modern editions of Astell’s works. Specifically useful to see Astell’s political context, as in her disagreements with Whigs in general and Locke especially.

  • Sutherland, Christine M. The Eloquence of Mary Astell. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2005.

    An overview of Astell’s thinking and writing in the context of the Enlightenment, with particular focus on method and rhetoric as relates to gender.

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