Mary Astell, Philosopher of Education

Posted on January 1, 2024
In this Project Vox Classroom post, Michael Vazquez discusses the way he pairs Astell and various philosophers of education, ethics, and race for his students. Astell’s presence in the classroom, Vazquez says, prompts students to reflect on their own assumptions about the role and future of education.

“If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?”
Reflections upon Marriage,

Mary Astell (1666–1731) is sometimes called the first British feminist philosopher, but her place in the history of feminist thought is as fraught as that label. A prominent public intellectual who wrote on a wide variety of subjects including metaphysics and epistemology, she is remembered for the force and energy with which she called out the rank hypocrisy of Enlightenment philosophers who championed the natural equality and natural rights of men. 

In 1694 Astell published the first part of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies For the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest, by a Lover of Her Sex. Astell called for the establishment of a women’s learning institution that would provide the social and intellectual community that unmarried women were never afforded. The goal of this “Monastery” or “Religious Retirement” was unabashedly ameliorative: “Therefore, one great end of this Institution, shall be to expel that cloud of Ignorance, which Custom has involv’d us in, to furnish our minds with a stock of solid and useful Knowledge, that the Souls of Women may no longer be the only unadorn’d and neglected things.” (SP, Part 1, p. 77) Below I highlight two major themes from Astell’s Serious Proposal that are of particular relevance to the philosophy of education.

Bad Custom is (Mis)education

For Astell, bad custom prevents women from achieving their God-given potential: excellence of mind and character. Bad custom teaches women that their vices stem from their defective nature, rather than their defective socialization. I use the word ‘teaches’ advisedly. An important aspect of Astell’s view is that “education” is not limited to formal schooling (indeed, Astell was largely denied an education in this sense due to bad custom). Her worry was not that women were receiving no education at all, but that they were receiving a pernicious and enfeebling one. That is, bad custom is a form of miseducation. As Astell puts it: “The Cause therefore of the defects we labour under, is, if not wholly, yet at least in the first place, to be ascribed to the mistakes of our Education; which like an Error in the first Concoction,1 spreads its ill Influence through all our Lives.” (SP, Part I, pp. 59-60)

Astell’s expansive conception of “education” enables her to identify the deleterious effects of patriarchal norms and assumptions. It also helps us to see how her framework might be applied in other contexts—as, for example, one might do in the context of informal kinds of racialized education in the United States. In particular, I recommend Chris Lebron (2015) as a reading that helps students apply Astell’s ideas to the contemporary American context through a discussion of James Baldwin (Lebron’s discussion of racialized perception and experience also connects nicely with themes from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a common first reading in the philosophy of education). In sum, education is a lifelong process of formation and socialization within and outside of schools, for better and for worse.

Educational Remedies

In what way is education the solution to bad custom? Alice Sowaal has given us a handy way to organize Astell’s educational proposals: the “Separatist Strategy” and the “Inward Strategy” (Sowaal, 2007):

Separatist Strategy

The Separatist Strategy, articulated in part one of Serious Proposal, consists in removing women from the grip of bad custom: “The only way then is to retire from the World, as the Israelites did out of Egypt . . .” (SP, Part I, p. 95) Astell describes this move as a “Retreat from the World,” but one that ultimately enables women “to do the greatest good in it.” (SP, Part I, p. 73)

The Separatist Strategy suggests that there can be a legitimate role for separation or segregation within institutions of learning. This might strike the reader as deeply mistaken. But some educational theorists insist that we distinguish the kind of racist segregation that was enshrined in Plessy v. Ferguson from other forms of segregation that are motivated by the pursuit of social justice. Consider, for example, de facto segregated schools and “counterpublics” that provide a culturally sustaining and identity affirming education for racial and ethnic minorities. The legitimacy of these forms of separate schooling and their conflict with the democratic ideal of integration remain the subject of debate among philosophers of education. In the past, I have paired Astell’s Serious Proposal with contemporary ethical case studies on patterns of segregation in American schooling (for example, “Particular Schools for Particular Students: Are Charter Schools New Democratic Spaces, or Simply Segregated Ones?” in Democratic Discord in Schools: Cases and Commentaries in Educational Ethics), as well as more theoretical discussions of the moral ideal of integration (e.g., Michael Merry, “Segregation and Civic Virtue”).

Inward Strategy

The “Inward Strategy,” articulated after Astell recognized that the Religious Retirement would not materialize, is a Cartesian therapy for overcoming “Diseases of the Mind” that prevent women from living a virtuous and flourishing life (SP, Part II, p. 127). Astell provides the meditating student with a battery of arguments for the perfectibility of women’s understanding and will. The introspective approach to dislodging the effects of bad custom provides an obvious contrast to the separatism outlined above. Taken to an extreme, Astell’s strategy has a broadly Stoic character: despite the unfreedoms and injustices of the external world, a form of internal freedom is possible. In this mode, Astell writes that “our only endeavour shall be to be absolute Monarchs in our own Bosoms,” to become women who are “intimately acquanited with our own Hearts.” (SP, Part II, p. 234) If this seems to run the risk of quietism and escapism, it is worth emphasizing that Astell’s Inward Strategy has critical potential to liberate women from the effects of bad custom.

For Astell, education is fundamentally a humanizing project, allowing students of any sex to become more fully themselves and to realize their potential as rational creatures. Astell’s account presents us with a philosophical question worth asking again and again: Is education only instrumentally valuable for social, civic, and economic ends, or is it valuable in its own right as a contemplative ideal? The answer is likely ‘both’. But in our present day, when humanistic education is called upon often to justify itself in instrumental terms, the philosophy classroom should be a space where students reckon honestly with this question for themselves.


Astell, Mary. (2002 [Part I = 1694, Part II = 1697]). A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Parts I and II. Edited by Patricia Springborg. Broadview Press Ltd., 2002.

Lebron, Chris (2015). “Thoughts on racial democratic education and moral virtue.” Theory and Research in Education 13(2), 155-164.

Levinson, Meira & Jacob Fay (2019).  Democratic Discord in Schools: Cases and Commentaries in Educational Ethics. Harvard University Press.

Merry, Michael. (2012). “Segregation and Civic Virtue.” Educational Theory, 62(4), 465-486.

Sowaal, Alice (2007). “Mary Astell’s serious proposal: Mind, method, and custom.” Philosophy Compass 2(2), 227–243.

Michael Vazquez is a Teaching Assistant Professor of Philosophy and the Director of Outreach for the Parr Center for Ethics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A philosopher of education and a historian of philosophy, Michael received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2020. Since then, he has served as a lecturer in the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at the Graduate School of Education.

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