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Or, you're fucking up my chauvinism

I don't wish to mislead anyone; what follows is a brief review of a text composed in 1694 by Mary Astell, and not, as it would at first appear, a treatise of potential comedic value suggested by the phrase "the ladies."

A Serious Proposal is precisely what its title suggests, and is one of only a few 17th and early 18th Century works by a female author I've encountered in eight years of studying English Literature. If you are a fan of Virginia Woolf, you'll want to read this as a forerunner to her beliefs and feminist sensibilities.

I'm no feminist. Frankly, I don't care much for Virginia Woolf, and always rather felt that Aphra Behn only found her way back into the canon through some misguided action of political correctness and what seems the pedagogically unapproachable monolith of Women's Studies.

HOWEVER. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest has completely altered my timeframe, and reminded me--as sometimes I need reminding--that western women didn't just suddenly become brilliant with Austen and the Brontes. The sentiments Astell expresses, her sophisticated beliefs and absolutely astounding grasp of both ancient and contemporary schools of philosophy are truly remarkable, not only in and of themselves, but particularly given the sociopolitical environment and time in which she somehow managed to get them published. A damn good thing London booksellers recognized the profitability of scandal.

At the risk of sounding like an ass, I just didn't expect this from a woman writing in 1694--and that's not good. Writeups like these don't typically get a lot of attention, I realize. And I'm a notorious XP-addict. This text impressed and suprised me enough to bring it to your attention.

The Plan and Argument

"I therefore persuade my self, you will not be less kind to a Proposition that comes attended with more certain and substantial Gain; whose only design is to improve your Charms and heighten your Value, by suffering you no longer to be cheap and contemptible. Its aim is to fix that Beauty, to make it lasting and permanent, which Nature with all the helps of Art cannot secure: and to place it out of the reach of Sickness and Old Age, by transferring it from a corruptible Body to an immortal Mind."

A fine idea, to be sure. But difficult to accomplish when women are constantly surrounded by baubles, beaux, and other corrupting influences that secure them to the glass. Astell opens the Proposal with an examination of the female condition at the close of the 17th Century, and though men are largely to blame, she doesn't deny the role some women have in maintaining the "enchanted circle."

That's a reference to Custom, which Astell labels a vicious tyrant keeping women from acknowledging the divine spark within and seeking out self-improvement. She's going to make a lot out that divine spark, and it's going to lead to the first major philosophical paradox in the work--between her Platonist belief in innate ideas and the nurture-over-nature theory suggested by subjugation to Custom.

Fair enough; no one's perfect. If Astell can't keep her philosophies entirely straight it's only because she's trying to work with so many. It's all a bit much for the average Joe--or Jane--and the odds of a wide readership of women picking up on every name dropped or treatise referenced were exceedingly slim, which is of course the very problem she was trying to rectify. Without heavy annotation--hell, even with it--I would have been hopelessly lost, which fact is testament to the sheer amount of knowledge Astell had at her dendrite-tips.

The important things to come away with are sentiments like these:

"When a poor Young Lady is taught to value her self on nothing but her Cloaths, and to think she's very fine when well accoutred; When she hears say that'tis Wisdom enough for her to know how to dress her self, that she may become amiable in his eyes to whom it appertains to be knowing and learned; who can blame her if she lay out her Industry and Money on such Accomplishments, and sometimes extends it farther than her misinformer desire she should?"

Women are better by nature than tradition allows; they just need education. And a nice safe place to get it.

Five hundred a year and A Room of One's Own

Astell's got Woolf beat by better than 230 years. The crux of the proposal is the temporary self-removal of women from the society of men, so they can improve the quality of their minds away from distractions. Astell suggests the foundation of a Monastery, or if that sounds too Catholic for you (it did for Queen Anne), a Religious Retirement, sequestered from the male gaze. Why Religious? Because Astell is not so radical as to suggest that God has nothing to do with the project. Indeed, he (yes, Astell refers to God as "he") has everything to do with it, as it was God that endowed women with that old divine spark and the potential they're not living up to.

She encourages the questioning of Christianity in order to improve the understanding of it, and was a big fan of the Church of England, in case anyone was wondering on which side of the Pope she came down on. Encouraging the questioning religion in 1694? That's radical.

The price of admission to this retreat, by the way, was set by Astell at...five hundred pounds, to be supplied by what would have much less usefully gone as a dowry.

"For her Heroick Soul is too great to ambition any Empire but that of her own Breast, or to regard any other Conquest than the rescuing poor unhappy Souls from the slavery of Sin and Satan, those only unsupportable Tyrants; and therefore what Decays she observes in her Face will be very unconcerning but she will with greatest speed and accuracy rectify the least Spot that may prejudice the beauty of her lovely Soul."

Tough Crowd

Very much as one would expect, and going some distance to explain why her rather substantial body of work isn't very well known, Astell was lambasted in all quarters following the Proposal's publication in 1695. At least that means people read it. But Astell took a walloping in the press, on stage, and in public by people history now remembers as the greatest Wits of the age.

Not to be discouraged, Astell fired back with A Serious Proposal, Part II in 1697, a longer text of incredible, nigh impenetrable philosophical exposition and analysis that increased her notoriety tenfold.

This woman held her own. You don't know her name, but the names you know knew her. John Stuart Mill read her. She presaged Rene Descartes. Queen Anne considered giving her money to start the Retirement. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wanted to run it. And she traded brain-blows with John Locke.

Clunky and repetitive and times, A Serious Proposal is not the easiest or fastest read. It's a polticial, social, and philosophical treatise rolled into one, requiring an immense ancillary education and healthy degree of patience. But she was on the vanguard of early feminist thought, and she came to the field fully armed.

"But how hard is it to quit an old road? What courage as well as prudence does it require? How clear a Judgement to overlook the Prejudices of Education and Example and to discern what is best, and how strong a resolution, notwithstanding all the Scoffs and Noises of the world to adhere to it!"

The Proposal isn't just for women. There are countless bon mots, turns of phrases, and insights that I came away with dying to apply to the here and now. Three centuries gone by--so much learned, so much forgotten, so much overlooked.

I need to read more.

Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Ed. Patricia Springborg. Orchard Park, New York: Broadview Literary Texts, 2002. Paperback, $16.95 new from Amazon. Or you can have mine when I'm done with it. I'll send it to you. Seriously.

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