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Astell, Mary, , . A Serious Proposal to the Ladies: Parts I and II
2002, Broadview Press
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Added by: Francesca Bruno, Contributed by:

Publisher’s Note: Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies is one of the most important and neglected works advocating the establishment of women’s academies. Its reception was so controversial that Astell responded with a lengthy sequel, also in this volume. The cause of great notoriety, Astell’s Proposal was imitated by Defoe in his “An Academy for Women,” parodied in the Tatler, satirized on the stage, plagiarized by Bishop Berkeley, and later mocked by Gilbert and Sullivan in Princess Ida.

Comment: This new edition by Patricia Springborg of Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies: Parts I and II includes helpful introductory material and explanatory annotations to Astell’s text. Springborg’s introduction places Astell’s work in the context of the woman question and the debate over empirical rationalism in the eighteenth-century. This is a good text to use in an early modern course.

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Berges, Sandrine, , . On the Outskirts of the Canon: The Myth of the Lone Female Philosopher, and What to Do about It
2015, Metaphilosophy, 46(3), pp.380-397.
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Added by: Benny Goldberg, Contributed by:

Abstract: Women philosophers of the past, because they tended not to engage with each other much, are often perceived as isolated from ongoing philosophical dialogues. This has led – directly and indirectly – to their exclusion from courses in the history of philosophy. This article explores three ways in which we could solve this problem. The first is to create a course in early modern philosophy that focuses solely or mostly on female philosophers, using conceptual and thematic ties such as a concern for education and a focus on ethics and politics. The second is to introduce women authors as dialoguing with the usual canonical suspects: Cavendish with Hobbes, Elisabeth of Bohemia with Descartes, Masham and Astell with Locke, Conway with Leibniz, and so on. The article argues that both methods have significant shortcomings, and it suggests a third, consisting in widening the traditional approach to structuring courses in early modern philosophy.

Comment: A good paper for any classes on how to teach philosophy, on early modern philosophy, the philosophy of history, or feminism.

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Broad, Jacqueline, , . Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century
2002, Cambridge University Press.
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Added by: Alison Stone, Contributed by: Karen Green

Publisher’s Note: In this rich and detailed study of early modern women’s thought, Jacqueline Broad explores the complexity of women’s responses to Cartesian philosophy and its intellectual legacy in England and Europe. She examines the work of thinkers such as Mary Astell, Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway and Damaris Masham, who were active participants in the intellectual life of their time and were also the respected colleagues of philosophers such as Descartes, Leibniz and Locke. She also illuminates the continuities between early modern women’s thought and the anti-dualism of more recent feminist thinkers. The result is a more gender-balanced account of early modern thought than has hitherto been available. Broad’s clear and accessible exploration of this still-unfamiliar area will have a strong appeal to both students and scholars in the history of philosophy, women’s studies and the history of ideas.

Comment: The book is organised around six authors: Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Mary Astell, Damaris Masham and Catherine Trotter Cockburn. The book focuses on their relations to Cartesianism and this means the book can be readily used on a history of modern philosophy course. It can be treated as introducing the ideas of all the women philosophers just mentioned and, e.g., a chapter could be further reading each week accompanying primary texts by the women philosophers in question.

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Detlefsen, Karen, , . Custom Freedom and Equality: Mary Astell on marriage and women’s education
2016, In Penny Weiss & Alice Sowaal (eds.), Feminist Interpretations of Mary Astell. Pennsylvania State University Press, 74-92.
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Abstract: Whatever may be said about contemporary feminists’ evaluation of Descartes’ role in the history of feminism, Mary Astell herself believed that Descartes’ philosophy held tremendous promise for women. His urging all people to eschew the tyranny of custom and authority in order to uncover the knowledge that could be found in each one of our unsexed souls potentially offered women a great deal of intellectual and personal freedom and power. Certainly Astell often read Descartes in this way, and Astell herself has been interpreted as a feminist – indeed, as the first English feminist. But a close look at Astell’s and Descartes’ theories of reason, and the role of authority in knowledge formation as well as in their philosophies of education, show that there are subtle yet crucial divergences in their thought – divergences which force us to temper our evaluation of Astell as a feminist. My first task is to evaluate Astell’s views on custom and authority in knowledge formation and education by comparing her ideas with those of Descartes. While it is true that Astell seems to share Descartes’ wariness of custom and authority, a careful reading of her work shows that the wariness extends only as far as the tyranny of custom over individual intellectual development. It does not extend to a wariness about social and institutional customs and authority (including, perhaps most crucially, the institution of marriage as we see in her Reflection on Marriage). The reason for this is that Astell’s driving goal is to help women to come to know God’s plan for women – both in their roles as human and in their roles as women. According to Astell, while it is true that, as individuals, women must develop their rational capacities to the fullest in order to honor God and his plan for women as human, as members of social institutions, including the institution of marriage, women must subordinate themselves to men, including their husbands, in this case so as to honor God and his plan for women as women. Once we understand the theological underpinnings of her equivocal reaction to authority and custom, we can see that Astell may be considered a feminist in a very tempered way. My second task is to use these initial conclusions to re-read her proposal for single-sexed education that we find in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. It is true that Astell encourages women to join single-sexed educational institutions for the unique and empowering friendships that women can develop in such institutions. Still, my argument continues, the development of such friendships is not entirely an end in itself. Rather, Astell encourages women to develop such friendships such that they can re-enter the broader world armed with the tools that will help them endure burdensome features of the lives that await them in the world, including their lives as subordinated wives – burdens that Astell does not, in principle, challenge.

Comment: This is a useful paper for understanding how an early modern woman (Astell) understood the implications of Descartes’ work for women, on the subject of marriage. It would be very useful in undergraduate courses that explore the social implications of early modern philosophy, as well as more advanced courses on early modern philosophy more generally.

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Sowaal, Alice, , . Mary Astell’s Serious Proposal: Mind, Method, and Custom
2007, Philosophy Compass 2/2: 227-243.
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Added by: Francesca Bruno, Contributed by:

Abstract: In general outline, Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies is well understood. In Part I, Astell argues that women are educable, and she proposes the construction of a women’s academy. In Part II, she proposes a method for the improvement of the mind. In this article, I reconstruct and contextualize Astell’s arguments and proposals within her theory of mind and her account of the skeptical predicament that she sees as being endemic among women. I argue that Astell’s two proposals are best understood as strategies that, when employed, will allow women to critique prejudice and custom.

Comment: This is a very accessible article and would be a good secondary source to assign for an introductory course reading Astell’s work, ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies.’

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Webb, Simone, , . Mary Astell’s ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies’ (1694)
2018, 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology
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Added by: Simon Fokt, Contributed by: Simone Webb

Introduction: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is established in the popular imagination as the “first feminist,” but another philosopher provided a systematic analysis of women’s subjugated condition and a call for female education nearly a century before Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Mary Astell’s (1666-1731) A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest by a Lover of Her Sex, Parts I and II (1694, 1697) is a philosophical text that argues that women are in an inferior moral condition compared to men, analyses the causes of this problem, and presents a two-part remedy.

Comment: This is a 1000-word introductory article to Mary Astell’s feminist thought as expressed in her philosophical treatise A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. It would work well as pre-class reading, or a very basic introduction to the study of the history of feminist thought or women in early modern philosophy.

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