From "Introduction," A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (Saltar's Point Press):

For more than two thousand years, the men who shaped western culture and devised its intellectual, religious, legal, and social systems were united in their assumption of male superiority and female inferiority, equally certain of men’s infinite capacity for creativity and accomplishment and of women’s much more limited potential for understanding and achievement. There may be no more clear-sighted, if deeply ironic, assessment of these attitudes than that offered by Mary Astell. Surveying this long-established set of “truths,” Astell wonders how it is that anyone—especially anyone who happens to be female—can presume to doubt what all these authorities have agreed upon. “How,” she asks, “can a woman scruple entire subjection, how can she forbear to admire the worth and excellency of the superior sex, if she at all considers it?” In the catalogue of male accomplishment that follows, Astell carefully lists the overwhelming evidence of masculine superiority—or, at least, of men’s inflated sense of their own superiority:

Have not all the great actions that have been performed in the world been done by them? Have not they founded empires and overturned them? Do not they make laws and continually repeal and amend them? Their vast minds lay kingdoms waste, no bounds or measures can be prescribed to their desires. War and peace depend on them, they form cabals, and have the wisdom and courage to get over all these rubs which may lie in the way of their desired grandeur. What is it they cannot do? They make worlds and ruin them, form systems of universal nature and dispute eternally about them, their pen gives worth to the most trifling controversy, nor can a fray be inconsiderable if they have drawn their swords in’t. All that the wise man pronounces is an oracle, and every word the witty speaks a jest. It is a woman’s happiness to hear, admire, and praise them, especially if a little ill nature keeps them at any time from bestowing due applauses on each other. And if she aspires no further, she is thought to be in her proper sphere of action, she is as wise and as good as can be expected from her.1

This tartly worded assessment of men’s “natural” superiority is characteristic of the distinctive voice of Mary Astell, whose passionate defense of women once earned her the title of the “first” English feminist.2

Astell occupies a pivotal position in the long fight to dismantle the misogynist tradition that dominated the conversation about women. Chronologically, she stands midway between the emergence of new attitudes about women in early modern European history and women today, in the twenty-first century. The first female writer known to have raised her voice in defense of women, speaking her truth to male power, was Christine de Pizan; at the turn of the fifteenth century, she initiated the so-called querelle des femmes, or debate about women, when she composed a series of letters objecting to the pervasive misogyny of the popular Romance of the Rose, an allegorical poem intended to praise and instruct the reader about love.She continued the debate in Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), completed in 1405. Here, in what has today become her most well-known and frequently read book, Pizan seems to share Astell’s skeptical view of men’s “superiority.”

When the City of Ladies opens, Pizan’s first-person narrator, “Christine,” is overwhelmed by a “gushing fountain” of male authorities who, whatever their disagreements on other topics, could all agree that woman “is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice.”4 Through an extended conversation with Lady Reason, who arrives at this moment of crisis to begin the process of her reeducation, Pizan’s “Christine” soon learns that “a woman with a mind is fit for all tasks.”5 Women are so fit, in fact, that they have discovered, invented, imagined, or done virtually everything worth finding, having, knowing, or doing: women have ruled kingdoms and led armies, they have invented the legal system, the alphabet, and mathematics, they have discovered medicine, agriculture, music, literature, and painting, and they have figured out how to make everything from wool, iron, and steel to love poems, silk, and olive oil. In the end, Lady Reason’s claims for women’s worth and their accomplishments serve as an anticode to male self-absorption. Just as she carries a mirror into which “no one can look . . . without achieving clear self-knowledge,”6 Lady Reason offers up her catalogue of women’s achievements as a corrective mirror into which men can look to see their own folly and hubris.

Today, more than a decade into the twenty-first century, it is clear that women in North America and western Europe have made remarkable progress in their effort to realize their full potential as human beings. And yet, despite the enormous strides they have made, their participation in many areas of contemporary society remains limited—in 2014, they are still under-represented in government, in business, in the media, and in the professions, and they still suffer economic disparity simply because they are female. In the United States, for example, women currently occupy only 18.5 percent of the 535 seats in the 113th Congress and hold only 4.5 percent of the CEO positions in Fortune 1000 companies.7 Only 30.2 percent of television news directors are women and, according to the most recent available figures, only 14 percent of those interviewed on Sunday morning news shows broadcast by NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and Fox in all of 2012 were female.8 In The New York Times Book Review, only one third of the authors reviewed during the same period were women.9 At Google, women in senior executive positions are losing, rather than gaining, ground; currently, there is only one woman among Google’s senior managers.10 During the 2011-12 television season, the most recent year for available statistics, women directed just 11 percent of the 3,100 episodes broadcast on prime time; in 2012, women directed only 9 percent of the top-grossing American films.11 According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about one-third of U.S. physicians are women, 31.5 percent of lawyers are women, 17.5 percent of clergy are women, and 9.7 percent of civil engineers are women (though women account for 97 percent of the preschool and kindergarten teachers and 80.8 percent of social workers).12 The wage gap persists; although the Equal Pay Act was passed fifty years ago, in 1963, today women in the U.S. still earn 81¢ for every dollar earned by men.13

In so many ways, then, men’s voices continue to dominate public life and public discourse. To ensure that the ongoing conversation does not revert to the monologue it once was, when women’s voices were silent or silenced, it is important to listen intently to voices, like Astell’s, that were long suppressed or ignored. They can tell us much about ourselves—and remind us of just how much progress women have, and have not, made.




1. Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage (London, 1700), 58-59. I have silently modernized the spelling and punctuation of the original.

2. Bridget Hill notes that Astell is often described as “an early—if not the first—English feminist”; see The First English Feminist: “Reflections upon Marriage” and Other Writings by Mary Astell (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 1. For Moira Ferguson, Astell is “the first self-avowed, sustained feminist polemicist in English”; see her First Feminists: British Women Writers, 1578-1799 (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1985), 180.

Other important early studies of Astell as a feminist foremother include Hilda L. Smith, Reason’s Disciples: Seventeenth Century English Feminists (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1982); Joan Kinnaird, “Mary Astell: Inspired by Ideas (1668-1731), in Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Women’s Intellectual Traditions, ed. Dale Spender (London: The Women’s Press, 1983), 28-39; Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); and Gerda Lerner, The Creation of a Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy, vol. 2 of Women and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 14 and passim.

Now, some thirty years after Hill’s assessment of Astell, we have identified many women writers who might be said to vie, along with Astell, for the title of the “first” English feminist. Laying aside the question of primacy, we are still indebted to the working definitions of feminism articulated in these influential early studies of Astell. For Ferguson, the feminist writes “to urge or to defend a pro-woman point of view which includes resistance to patriarchal values, convention, and domination, or a challenge to misogynous ideas” (27). For Kinnaird, “an identification with her sex as a whole and a personal commitment to the advancement of women . . . mark the feminist” (32). For Smith, feminists are “individuals who viewed women as a sociological group whose social and political position linked them together more surely than their physical or psychological natures” (4); their “desire to change women’s lives, rather than simply to recognize isolated injustices, separated the feminists from other sixteenth- and seventeenth-century critics of women’s role in society” (5). To this Perry adds the importance of the “recognition of oppression and a conviction of women’s intellectual and moral worth” and of the significance of “mutually supportive circles of women” (18-19). Lerner writes, “I define feminist consciousness as the awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group; that they have suffered wrongs as a group; that their condition of subordination is not natural, but is societally determined; that they must join with other women to remedy these wrongs; and finally, that they must and can provide an alternate vision of societal organization in which women as well as men will enjoy autonomy and self-determination” (14). An excellent “Summary of Feminist Premises” can be found in Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 91-93.         

3. On Pizan’s role in the querelle, see Christine de Pizan, The Debate of the “Romance of the Rose, ed. and trans. David F. Hall, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

4. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards, rev. ed. (New York: Persea Books, 1998), 5.

5. Pizan, City of Ladies, 32.

6. Pizan, City of Ladies, 9.

7. Center for American Women and Politics, “Women in the U.S. Congress 2013,” Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, December 2013, (accessed January 7, 2014); Catalyst, “Women CEOs of the Fortune 1000,” Catalyst, Inc., January 1, 2014, (accessed January 7, 2014).

8. Diana Mitsu Klos, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013, Women’s Media Center,, 22, 25 (accessed January 7, 2014).

9. VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, “The Count 2012,” VIDA, March 2013, (accessed January 7, 2014).

10. Claire Cain Miller, “In Google’s Inner Circle, a Falling Number of Women,” New York Times, August 22, 2012, (accessed August 22, 2012); Google, “Management Team,” Google Inc., (accessed January 7, 2014).

11. For television statistics, see Klos, Status of Women, 40; on women film directors, see Martha M. Lauzen, The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2012, Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, 2013, (accessed February 23, 2013), 1.   

12. United States Census Bureau, “Labor Force, Employment, and Earnings,” Table 616, “Employed Civilians by Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012), (accessed January 7, 2014.

13. Ariane Hegewisch, Claudia Williams, and Angela Edwards, “The Gender Wage Gap: 2012,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, March 2013, (accessed May 28, 2013), 1. This wage gap is seen across occupations: “Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations, whether they work in occupations predominantly done by women, occupations predominantly done by men, or occupations with a more even mix of men and women” (Ariane Hegewisch and Maxwell Matite, “The Gender Wage Gap by Occupation,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, April 2013, [accessed January 7, 2014]).

For analysis of the wage gap, as well as the ways race, ethnicity, class, motherhood, and pregnancy affect issues of pay equity, see Council on Contemporary Families, “Equal Pay Symposium: Proceedings,” Council on Contemporary Families, June 7, 2013, (accessed June 9, 2013).