Mary Astell and Enlightenment

  • Ruth Perry


All the contradictions of the period we call the ‘enlightenment’ were embodied in the life and writings of Mary Astell, a feminist intellectual who lived from 1666 to 1731. She argued for women’s right to an independent intellectual life yet she upheld absolute monarchy in the state. She believed in Reason but distrusted the materialism of the new way of ideas. An extremely devout Anglican, she rigorously observed all the vigils, fasts, and feasts of the established church. Yet her notion of heaven was a rationalist’s notion: a place where all knowledge was complete, all mysteries made clear. ‘Poor we that toil in life’s hard drudgerie,’ she poeticized as a young woman, ‘Pick scraps of Knowledge here and there,/While the blest Souls above do all things know;/All things worthy to be known ….’1 To be in heaven must include being as learned as one wished to be, she thought, dwelling in a society that increasingly valued knowledge as an instrumental means to power, but which steadfastly refused to educate its women.


Royal Greenwich Observatory Woman Writer Christian Religion Religious Toleration Coffee House 
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  1. 3.
    M. C. Jacob, Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 136.Google Scholar

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© Ruth Perry 2005

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  • Ruth Perry

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