4. Mary Astell asked why women were born as slaves and campaigned throughout England to earn equality for the sexes
“If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?” Mary Astell asked that question – the same question many feminists around the world are still asking to this day – back in the early 18th century. Her brave, tireless campaigning for equal opportunities in education in particular have helped Astell gain a reputation for being one of the English-speaking world’s earliest, and most important, feminists.
Aside from the fact she was born in the city of Newcastle in 1666, hardly anything is known about Astell’s early life. It’s likely she received some basic education from male relatives or from the church, though she never went to school. Upon her father’s death, Astell, then aged just 12, moved to London. The family settled in the neighborhood of Chelsea. Here, she grew to know a number of female literary figures. She even got to know the Archbishop of Canterbury and when Astell started producing essays and books of her own, he lent her his financial backing.
From 1694 onwards, Astell wrote prolifically on the idea of women’s rights. As well as education, she also tackled the theme of equality in marriage. Her ideas, above all that all girls should be given the same education as boys and that marriage should be an equal union based on mutual respect and friendship, were considered ground-breaking, even controversial, at the time. In her most notable work, Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, Astell proposed an all-female college. She eventually achieved this in 1709. Despite being ill and in her 50s, she designed the curriculum of the Chelsea school herself and she also used her contacts and influence to secure the necessary funding.
Astell died in 1731. Her works continued to be published, albeit anonymously, long after her death. Later feminists would build on her arguments on marriage and education for women, and her works continue to be the subject of much scholarly discussion today. Even though she was highly religious – indeed, her main argument was that women should be educated so that they could enjoy and appreciate Heaven as well as men could – she is equally admired by secular feminists.