Rhetoric and Religion in Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal
The late 17th century is known as a time of religious devotion. Though the Church of England’s monopoly on Christian worship was coming to an end, its ideological influence remained. Throughout the scientific revolution and into the enlightenment, many notable thinkers (i.e. Newton, Descartes and Spinoza) shaped the intellectual landscape while remaining devout in their faith. Despite the obvious challenges their discoveries yielded, the groundwork for modern science and philosophy was set in Christian values. The origins of feminism are not dissimilar; Mary Astell, often accredited with being the first English feminist, was a deeply religious writer. Her Tory Anglican views helped persuade the highly devout and conservative aristocracy in advocating the establishment of academic institutions for women, which otherwise may have been dismissed as radical. In her book, A Serious Proposal to the Lades for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest, Astell aims to promote women’s education by appealing to Christian values. The thesis and key points of part I of A Serious Proposal are nicely summarized in the excerpt titled “A Religious Retirement”, in which Astell outlines her argument for the erection of a “monastery” dedicated to women’s education (Astell 18). This monastery, or institution as she calls it (deliberately eschewing the word convent), is suggested to be a kind of seminary where women would be taught things like literature, philosophy and “Christianity as professed by the Church of England” (22). Astell says that such an institution will have a two purposes; to keep women “out of the road of sin” (19), and to “expel that could of ignorance which custom has involved [women] in” (21). That it would function as both an isolated retreat, where women would be kept innocent and uncontaminated, and academic academy, where useful knowledge could be feasted upon. Astell stresses quality...
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