A Serious Proposal to the Ladies

By Mary Astell

Edited by Jack Lynch

Just a few important paragraphs from Astell’s Serious Proposal, parts 1 (1696) and 2 (1697). The paragraph numbers are my own.


[1] What a pity it is, that whilst your Beauty casts a lustre all around you, your Souls which are infinitely more bright and radiant (of which if you had but a clear Idea, as lovely as it is, and as much as you now value it, you wou’d then despise and neglect the mean Case that encloses it) shou’d be suffer’d to over-run with Weeds, lie fallow and neglected, unadorn’d with any Grace! Altho’ the Beauty of the mind is necessary to secure those Conquests which your Eyes have gain’d, and Time that mortal Enemy to handsome Faces, has no influence on a lovely Soul, but to better and improve it. For shame let’s abandon that Old, and therefore one wou’d think unfashionable employment of pursuing Butterflies and Trifles! No longer drudge on in the dull beaten road of Vanity and Folly, which so many have gone before us, but dare to break the enchanted Circle that custom has plac’d us in, and scorn the vulgar way of imitating all the Impertinences of our Neighbours. Let us learn to pride our selves in something more excellent than the invention of Fashion; And not entertain such a degrading thought of our own worth, as to imagine that our Souls were given us only for the service of our Bodies, and that the best improvement we can make of these, is to attract the Eyes of Men. We value them too much, and our selves too little, if we place any part of our desert in their Opinion; and don’t think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless heart. She who has opportunities of making an interest in Heaven, of obtaining the love and admiration of God and Angels, is too prodigal of her Time, and injurious to her Charms, to throw them away on vain insignificant men. She need not make her self so cheap, as to descend to court their Applauses; for at the greater distance she keeps, and the more she is above them, the more effectually she secures their steem and wonder. Be so generous then, Ladies, as to do nothing unworthy of you; so true to your Interest, as not to lessen your Empire and depreciate your Charms. Let not your Thoughts be wholly busied in observing what respect is paid you, but a part of them at least, in studying to deserve it. And after all, remember that Goodness is the truest Greatness; to be wise for your selves the greatest Wit; and that Beauty the most desirable which will endure to eternity.

[2] The Incapacity, if there be any, is acquired not natural; and none of their Follies are so necessary, but that they might avoid them if they pleas’d themselves. Some disadvantages indeed they labour under, and what these are we shall see by and by and endeavour to surmount; but Women need not take up with mean things, since (if they are not wanting to themselves) they are capable of the best. Neither God nor Nature have excluded them from being Ornaments to their Families and useful in their Generation; there is therefore no reason they should be content to be Cyphers in the World, useless at the best, and in a little time a burden and nuisance to all about them. And ’tis very great pity that they who are so apt to over-rate themselves in smaller matters, shou’d, where it most concerns them to know, and stand upon their Value, be so insensible of their own worth.

[3] 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, spreads its ill Influence through all our Lives.

[4] The Soil is rich and would, if well cultivated, produce a noble Harvest, if then the Unskilful Managers not only permit, but incourage noxious Weeds, tho’ we shall suffer by their Neglect, yet they ought not in justice to blame any but themselves, if they reap the Fruit of their own Folly. Women are from their very infancy debarred those advantages with the want of which they are afterwards reproached, and nursed up in those Vices which will hereafter be upbraided to them. So partial are Men as to expect Brick where they afford no Straw; and so abundantly civil as to take care we shou’d make good that obliging Epithet of Ignorant, which out of an excess of good Manners, they are pleas’d to bestow on us!

[5] One would be apt to think indeed, that Parents shou’d take all possible care of their Childrens Education, not only for their sakes, but even for their own. And tho’ the Son convey the Name to Posterity, yet certainly a great Part of the Honour of their Families depends on their Daughters. ’tis the kindness of Education that binds our duty fastest on us: For the being instrumental to the bringing us into the World, is no matter of choice and therefore the less obliging: But to procure that we may live wisely and happily in it, and be capable of endless Joys hereafter, is a benefit we can never sufficiently acknowledge. To introduce poor Children into the World, and neglect to fence them against the temptations of it, and so leave them expos’d to temporal and eternal Miseries, is a wickedness, for which I want a Name; ’tis beneath Brutality; the Beasts are better natur’d for they take care of their off-spring, till they are capable of caring for themselves. And if Mothers had a due regard to their Posterity, how Great soever they are, they wou’d not think themselves too Good to perform what Nature requires, nor thro’ Pride and Delicacy remit the poor little one to the care of a Foster Parent. Or, if necessity inforce them to depute another to perform their Duty, they wou’d be as choice at least in the Manners and Inclinations, as they are in the complections of their Nurses, lest with their Milk they transfuse their Vices, and form in the Child such evil habits as will not easily be eradicated.

[6] Nature as bad as it is and as much as it is complain’d of, is so far improveable by the grace of God, upon our honest and hearty endeavours, that if we are not wanting to our selves, we mai all in some, tho’ not in an equal measure, be instruments of his Glory, Blessings to this World, and capable of eternal Blessedness in that to come. But if our Nature is spoil’d, instead of being improv’d at first; if from our Infancy we are nurs’d up in Ignorance and Vanity; are taught to be Proud and Petulent, Delicate and Fantastick, Humorous and Inconstant, ’Tis not strange that the ill effects of this conduct appear in all the future Actions of our Lives. And seeing it is Ignorance, either habitual or or actual, which is the cause of all sin, how are they like to escape this, who are bred up in that? That therefore Women are unprofitable to most, and a plague and dishonour to some Men is not much to be regretted on account of the Men, because ’tis the product of their own folly, in denying them the benefits of an ingenuous and liberal Education, the most effectual means to direct them into, and to secure their progress in the way of Vertue.

[7] What are Ignorance and Vice but Diseases of the Mind contracted in its two principal Faculties the Understanding and Will? And such too as like many Bodily distempers do mutually foment each other. Ignorance disposes to Vice, and Wickedness reciprocally keeps us Ignorant, so that we cannot be free from the one unless we cure the other; the former part of this Proposition has been already shewn, and the latter may easily be made apparent; for as every Plant does Naturally draw such juices towards it as serve for its Nutrition, as every Creature has an aptness to take such courses as tend to its preservation; so Vice that spawn of the Devil, that Ignis fatuus which can’t subsist but in the dark night of Ignorance, casts forth Vapours and Mists to darken the Soul and eclipse the clear light of Knowledge from her View. And tho a Wicked Man may pretend to Wit, tho he have never so much Acumen and Facetiousness of Humour, yet his Impiety proclaims his Folly; he may have a lively Fancy, an Intriguing Cunning and Contrivance, and so may an Ape or a Fox, who probably if they had but Speech, tho destitute of Reason, wou’d outdo him in his own way; but he wants the Ingenuity of a Man, he’s a Fool to all Rational Intents and Purposes. She then who desires a clear Head must have a pure Heart; and she who has the first in any Measure will never allow herself to be deficient in the other. But you will say what degrees of Purity are requisite in order to Knowledge, and how much must we Know to the end we may heartily endeavour to Purify?

[8] Now in Order to satisfie this demand I consider, That there are certain Notices which we may call the Rudiments of Knowledge, which none who are Rational are without however they came by them. It may happen indeed that a habit of Vice or a long disuse has so obscur’d them that they seem to be extinguish’d but it does only seem so, for were they really extinguish’d the person wou’d be no longer Rational, and no better than the Shade and Picture of a Man. Because as Irrational Creatures act only by the Will of him who made them, and according to the Power of that Mechanisme by which they are form’d, so every one who pretends to Reason, who is a Voluntary Agent and therefore Worthy of Praise or Blame, Reward or Punishment, must Chuse his Actions and determine his Will to that Choice by some Reasonings or Principles and the Consequences he deduces from them he is to be accounted, if they are Right and Conclusive a Wise Man, if Evil, Rash and Injudicious a Fool. If then it be the property of Rational Creatures, and Essential to their very Natures to Chuse their Actions, and to determine their Wills so that Choice by such Principles and Reasonings as their Understandings are furnish’d with, they who are desirous to be rank’d in that Order of Beings must conduct their Lives by these Measures, begin with their Intellectuals, inform themselves what are the plain and first Principles of Action and Act accordingly.

[9] By which it appears that there are some degrees of Knowledge necessary before there can be any Human Acts, for till we are capable of Chusing our own Actions and directing them by some Principle, tho we Move and Speak and so many such like things, we live not the Life of a Rational Creature but only of an Animal. If it be farther demanded what these Principles are? Not to dispute the Number of ’em here, no body I suppose will deny us one, which is, That we ought as much as we can to endeavour the Perfecting of our Beings, and that we be as happy as possibly we may. For this we see is Natural to every Creature of what sort soever, which endeavours to be in as good Condition as its Nature and Circumstances will permit. And now we have got a Principle which one would think were sufficient for the Conduct of our Actions thro the whole Course of our Lives; and so indeed it were, Cou’d we as easily discern, wherein our Happiness consists as ’tis natural to wish and desire it. But herein lies our great mistake and misfortune; for altho we all pursue the same end, yet the means we take to obtain it are Indefinite: There needs no other Proof of this than the looking abroad into the World, which will convince us of the Truth and raise our Wonder at the absurdity, that Creatures of the same Make shou’d take not only so many different, but every contrary Ways to accomplish the same End! We all agree that its fit to be as Happy as we can, and we need no Instructor to teach us this Knowledge, ’tis born with us, and is inseparable from our Being, but we very much need to be Inform’d what is the true Way to Happiness. When the Will comes to ask the Understanding this Question, What must I do to fill up my Vacuities, to accomplish my Nature? Our Reason is at first too weak, and afterwards too often too much sophisticated to return a proper Answer, tho it be the most important concern of our Lives, for according as the Understanding replies to it so is the Moral Conduct of the Will, pure and right if the first be well Inform’d irregular and vitious if the other be weak and deluded. Indeed our power of Willing exerts it self much sooner than that Rational Faculty which is to Govern it, and therefore t’will either be left to its own range, or to the Reason of another to direct it; whence it comes that we generally take that Course in our search after Happiness, which Education, Example or Custom puts us in, and, tho not always, yet most commonly, we tast of our first seasoning; which shou’d teach us to take all the care we can that it be Good, and likewise that how Good soever it appear, we be not too much Wedded to and biass’d by it. Well then, the first light of our Understanding must be borrow’d, we must take it on trust till we’re furnish’d with a Stock of our own, which we cannot long be without if we do but employ what was lent us in the purifying of our Will, for as this grows more regular the other will enlarge, if it clear up, that will brighten and shine forth with diffusive Rays.

[10] Indeed if we search to the bottom I believe we shall find, that the Corruption of the Heart contributes more to the Cloudiness of the Head, than the Clearness of our Light does to the regularity of our Affections, and ’tis oftner seen that our vitious Inclinations keep us Ignorant, than that our Knowledge makes us Good. For it must be confess’d that Purity is not always the product of Knowledge; tho the Understanding be appointed by the Author of Nature to direct and Govern the Will, yet many times it’s headstrong and Rebellious Subject rushes on precipitately, [not only] without[, but against] its directions. When a Truth comes thwart our Passions, when it dares contradict our mistaken Pleasures and supposed Interests, let the Light shine never so clear we shut our Eyes against it, will not be convinced not because there’s any want of Evidence, but because we’re unwilling to Obey. This is the Rise of all that Infidelity that appears in the World; it is not the Head but the Heart that is the Seat of Atheism. No Man without a brow of Brass, and an Impudence as strong as his Arguments are weak, cou’d demur to the convincing Proofs of Christianity; had not he contracted such diseases in his Passions as make him believe ’tis his Interest to oppose those that he may gratify these. Yet this is no Objection against what we have been proving, it rather confirms what was said concerning the mutual Relation between the Understanding and the Will, and shews how necessary it is to take care of both, if we wou’d improve and advance either.