Mary Astell’s Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), which she wrote at age twenty-eight, proposed that unmarried women seek their spiritual and intellectual improvement in dedicated institutions. Astell, a transplant to London from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, hoped to persuade women to stop focusing on their physical beauty and turn inward, to transfer comeliness “from a corruptible Body to an immortal Mind.”
Astell warned women to develop capacities other than those that are attractive to men. Sin was on her mind: “Your Glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection with your own Minds.” At this time, marriage and childbearing were closely entwined, and so her warnings focus primarily on the dangers of defining oneself through the quest for a man:“We value them too much, and our selves to little, if we place any part of our worth in their Opinion; and do not think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless heart.”
For Astell, the ultimate aim is moral development, to secure “the love and admiration of GOD and Angels” not “vain insignificant men.” Piety could not take root without intellectual consideration to the theology undergirding belief.
Unlike her contemporaries, Astell understood that women needed alternatives that would support them not just prior to marriage, but for their entire, single lives. She hoped to build these places for “religious retirement” where women could either stay at the house until they chose to marry, or remain for their entire lives. In this way, women could avoid a hasty marriage simply to avoid the moniker “old maid.” In Protestant England, however, Astell’s proposal smacked too much of Catholicism and was not funded.
Astell lived to the age of sixty-five, and never married.
Susan S. Lanser, "Singular Politics: The Rise of the British Nation and the Production of the Old Maid," in Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800, ed. by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999): 297-323.
Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, ed. Patricia Springborg (Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2002), 51, 52, 55-56.
Amy M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 171-173.