La differece of being woman

Research and Teaching of History

Area: Essays

The love of knowledge: Mary AstellJulia Cabaleiro Manzanedo.

Introduction: The education of women in the seventeenth century

During the seventeenth century and under the impetus of the two religious reforms, there was a substantial increase in literacy, which also affected girls. Both the pedagogues and the different reformed religious orders carried out an extensive work of instructing the people, understood as a necessary premise for a more serious evangelisation.

But the quality of women’s education had considerably worsened. Well-educated women were rare and, even, families who previously would have given their daughters a humanist education now only taught them how to sew, dance, sing and play an instrument. Many women of the second half of the century mourned, like Bathsua Makin, the fact that “women had been educated in the past in the knowledge of the arts and languages and many of them reached, through their education, a great erudition”.

The education of women generated, during that century, great controversies. Various French treatises, which echoed these, were often immediately translated in England. The men who were considered learned debated whether women had the right or not to education, to knowledge, to truth. Throughout the seventeenth century, it was thought that it was not appropriate for women to become learned like men. Rather, having access to knowledge was conceived of as a danger or to mean a loss of the concept of femininity that patriarchal society had built over time, a conception, on the other hand, applicable to practically any historical period. It is not strange, then, that the Précieuses, learned women who held and gave life to the literary salons, were ridiculed by -amongst others- Molière, in works such as “Les précieuses ridicules". Poulain de la Barre -a defender of the equality of the sexes and the right of women to education- reflects the criticism directed at them in his work “The Education of the Ladies”. Even in Spain, where the level of education was not as high as that of other European countries, Quevedo wrote "La culta latiniparla” [the learned Latin speaker], a text in which he tries to ridicule a supposedly learned woman for her infidelities.

The decline of women’s education in England should be placed in relation, as well, to the effects of Protestantism, amongst which figure the disappearance of the feminine monastic institutions, and cultural and artistic centres, as well as the birth of new mentalities linked to a mercantile ethic.

However, the struggle for women’s education had very important representatives in Anna Maria van Schurman or in Aphra Behn. Also, women like the aforementioned Batshua Makin or Elisabeth Elstob sustained with their lives the possibility of remaining single, intellectually active and economically independent. All of them contributed to outlining a model of life that, in the case of Mary Astell, would also reach a level of theorisation and proposal.

The birth of a desire

Mary Astell (1666-1731), a woman recognised in her time for her ingenuity, eloquence and erudition, created a precedent in her life that would be followed by other women in English society: that of an educated woman who chooses to live alone and in relationship with other women, and in whom the desire for knowledge takes shape.

She was born into a middle class family that had gone down in the world, from Newcastle, a town that, before the Reform, had been an important centre for monasticism, which acts as a point of reference that, very probably, Mary would try to recover, endowing it with a new meaning.

On the death of her father, she lived in a home that was fundamentally female. Her uncle was her tutor. Thus, at a time when most women were illiterate, she received an education that covered the studies of philosophy, mathematics and some modern languages. From her work we can deduce that she had knowledge of theology, politics, history and classical literature. She spent her youth enjoying her solitude, absorbed in the pleasure of reading.

When she was about twenty, she decided to move to London with the intention of remaining single and dedicated to literature, very aware both of the limitations that the society of her time imposed on women and of the strength of her own desires: those of a soul “born for more”, that aspires to greatness.

What shall I do? Not to be Rich or Great
Not to be courted and admir’d,
With beauty Blest, and Wit inspir’d
Ah! Nothing of this deserves my effort or sweat,
ni puede contentar mis ambiciones;
mi alma, nacida para más, nunca se someterá a tales cosas,
Nor can make happy my ambitions;
My soul, born for more, will never submit to such things.

A circle of women

In London she settled in the area of Chelsea, where little by little a circle of women would take shape around her, of friends, who were over the years her most intimate companions and her main support, both economically and emotionally: lady Elizabeth Montague (to whom she dedicated the 1694 edition of her “Proposal...”), lady Catherine Jones (to whom John Norris, at her request, would dedicate the “Letters Concerning the Love of God” of 1695), Elisabeth Hasting, Ann Coventry... They were aristocratic women -having, therefore, abundant incomes of their own-, who had chosen a life similar to that of Mary: they had decided to remain single or they had refused to marry again on having become widows.

They shared many things amongst themselves, from books to homemade remedies, but they all recognised the authority of Mary, in such a way that it can be said that the relationship they established possessed the two axes that Luce Irigaray points to as necessary for a female symbolic to exist. This female circle configured a symbolic kinship structured by love and it constituted Mary Astell’s only family.

These women, who maintained a network of relationships of solidarity with others who were less fortunate economically and socially (they helped homeless widows, they taught their maids to read and write or provided school instruction for the girls of their family), took care of Mary in the last years of her life (at the age of sixty, Mary Astell retired to the house of her friend Catherine Jones, where she stayed until her death in 1731). They shared her ideas pertaining to the education of women and they supported her when, towards the end of her life, having stopped writing, she devoted herself to managing a Charity School for the daughters of retired soldiers of Chelsea Hospital, which existed until 1862. This latter was the only educational project that Mary Astell was able to put into practice, since her Proposal never materialised.

An educational proposal

Mary Astell is one of the fundamental figures of any historical approach to women’s thought on female education, thanks to her piece of work “A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her Sex” (1694).

On presenting herself as “a lover of her sex”, Mary is explicitly making manifest, already from the title, the deepest meaning that informs her educational proposal: the love of women. And, while it is true that throughout the text she affirms her authority through the recurrent use of the pronoun “I”, she also often uses the pronoun “we” or the expression “our sex”, presupposing readers, interlocutors, who are exclusively feminine. She addresses women directly, calling them “Ladies”, and writes in letter form, which establishes an immediate, close, communication. She favours, thus, the demarcation of what Diana Sartori defines as a sexed hermeneutic circle.

Her identification with those of her sex presents itself as intimately connected to her personal commitment to the progress of women. Mary Astell was deeply convinced of the legitimacy and the need for women’s cultural development, as the only premise that could guarantee their freedom of choice. Because of this, she wanted to create the existence of a space where it could be made possible. A space like those that the medieval nuns had constructed in their monastic communities, in order to devote themselves to their own education, living in relationship to one another and isolated from men.

Knowledge, happiness and freedom

What she called “monastery” or, in order not to wound the most scrupulous, “religious retreat”, would not have the traditional hierarchical structure. There would be neither abbess nor confessor. The bonds between teachers and students would be those of friendship and affection, a concept that appears to emanate from her own life. It would be a place orientated towards personal development, where women could stay the time they wished to. It would be financed by the payment of 500 pounds, to be contributed by the residents, women who would live in community. They would meet daily to pray and weekly for mass and fasting. But, as well as to prayer, the women would devote the day to meditating, cultivating friendship, works of charity and studying. Because the community that Mary Astell planned responded more to an academic proposal than a monastic one, properly speaking. Her objective was for women to be able to become self-sufficient beings, both emotionally and intellectually. The institution that she was proposing would allow them to separate from male society for their own wellbeing and to be able to prepare themselves for productive work. This communal and religious life would make it possible for them to enjoy peace and happiness.

¡Feliz Retiro! El que encontraréis cuando entréis en este Paraíso como el que perdió vuestra Madre Eva, donde festejaréis con los Placeres que, al contrario de los de este mundo, no os decepcionarán (...) aquellos que os harán verdaderamente felices ahora, y que os prepararán para que lo seáis perfectamente en el futuro. Aquí no hay Serpientes que os engañen mientras os divertís en estos deliciosos Jardines (...) El lugar al que estáis invitadas es Modelo y Antepasado del Cielo.

Mary Astell makes, then, an intimate connection between knowledge and happiness. The desire for knowledge, the love of knowledge, is joined to the enjoyment produced by knowledge; a knowledge that, besides, is acquired and developed in a feminine relational framework, a women’s space that recovers the lost paradise and that she calls “delicious gardens”, allowing us to evoke the “Hortus deliciarum”, the piece of work created by Herralda de Hohenburg five centuries previously, not by chance, in a monastery. Thus, we find in Mary a concept of knowledge that does not separate love and knowledge. And, although the protestant reform breaks this connection by affirming a rationality that separates and isolates the emotional sphere from that which it defines as belonging to reason, she keeps herself apart from this dichotomy.

The monastery of Mary Astell would provide for the kingdom of “pious and prudent Ladies” who would be, in turn, an inspiration for other women. Those that would marry would have the preparation to be able to educate their daughters and sons and teach them to “live wisely and happily”. They would also be able to make use of their knowledge with their neighbours and in all matters of life.

Those others who would not lean towards marriage, would be able to fulfil their purpose, a purpose such as education and teaching. Because, as she herself points out: el Mundo entero es la Familia de una Dama sola y las oportunidades de que le vayan bien las cosas no disminuyen sino que aumentan si es libre.

The relationship with knowledge

In 1697 the second part of the Proposal came out, dedicated to Princess Anne. In it Mary Astell proposes in detail a model of learning and establishes a general study plan specially designed for women desirous of knowledge. A model and a plan that were far from the socially accepted male model which was of inciting the use of select readings. Because, for her, the objective does not consist of acquiring a scholastic culture or encyclopaedic knowledge. Erudition is less important to her than the capacity to reason and method of learning, for whose acquisition she signals as necessary knowledge of the mother tongue, logic, mathematics and philosophy.

To obtain Knowledge, it was not a formal programme of study that was offered, but rather an invitation to converse and the reading of books of contemporary philosophers -like Descartes and Malebranche- and by women writers such as Anne Dacier and Madeleine de Scudéry, “Sappho”, for which the French language would suffice.

The educational model of Mary Astell is far, then, from the parameters established by the conceptualisation of the dominant knowledge of her time. She does not seek for women an equivalent in that kind of knowledge. Probably not so much because it does not seem possible to her but because it is not desirable to her, as we pick up from the words quoted in the document, charged with an undeniable irony. She rather seeks to offer a space when women might be able to go on a free and pleasurable journey, where knowledge is not separated from life, but rather becomes part of it, enrichening and transforming it. A knowledge that is the generator of freedom.

Between the Querelle and the Enlightenment

Mary Astell, placed historically and chronologically between the Querelle des femmes and the Enlightenment, represents in the face of both of them a singular posture, in that she theorises and makes into a project a practice and way of life of her own, which become the bases that hold up her discourse. Theory and practice, discourse and action, are presented, thus, as un-separated and inseparable. Astell projects and desires for other women the possibility of something that she has made into reality for herself. That is why she defends singleness with conviction, lived and experienced; that it is a state that, together with education, can constitute a way of being in the world that is gratifying and desirable.

Singleness and education form, then, in Mary Astell, an inseparable unit. She considered that in education lay the possibility of offering women a different road to that of marriage, a road that was not centred on men, but rather on themselves. That is why she wanted women to come to have total power over their intellectual abilities. It was a desire that we cannot perceive as only limited to the defence of the intellectual equality of the two sexes and the right of women to education.

Both in her life and her work, Mary Astell gives examples of a great symbolic independence with regards to the established order of her time. She does not look for a measure in that order: she knows it well, she reveals its snares with lucidity and sarcasm, but she does not try to fit into it. That is why we can say that she situates herself in her world in an original way.

What she seeks and desires is freedom for women, freedom of choice, she says, which is in reality the freedom to manage their own lives in accordance with their own projects. A freedom that is derived from education, from knowledge. It is the “plus” that Mary Astell’s soul aspires to, a “plus” that she wants to situate on the horizon of women, of any woman, that they might inhabit and act in the world, in that whole world that constitutes “the family of a Lady alone”.

Teaching suggestions

The detailed analysis of Mary Astell’s document is of special importance, allowing us to establish the principles that her educational proposal is based on, as well as the comparison, that she herself makes, with the characteristics of the socially sanctioned male educational model.

At the same time, it is interesting to relate the principles of her educational project both with the most determining features of the life of Mary Astell herself, and with the model of knowledge and culture created by the medieval women in monastic communities.

Third Edition of A Serious Proposal To The Ladies by Mary Astell

Third Edition of A Serious Proposal To The Ladies by Mary Astell

© 2004-2008 Duoda, Women Research Center. University of Barcelona. All rights reserved. Credits. Legal note.

Related Essays
  1. 1. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, II, Mary Astell.