Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Kathleen Ahearn: "Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith"

Kathleen Ahearn
University of Denver

Book Review

William Kolbrener and Michal Michelson, eds., Mary Astell: Reason, Gender and Faith, Ashgate (Burlington, VT, 2007), 230 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5264-9. $99.95 (USD).

1> A quotation on the inside jacket of Mary Astell: Reason, Gender and Faith refreshingly characterizes Astell as “not merely a proto-feminist but a major figure of the early modern period.” That prominent scholars featured within this edition advance oppositional viewpoints concerning Astell’s conservative politics, the impact of Anglicanism on her feminism, and her relationship to the egalitarian principles associated with the Enlightenment attests to the veracity and timeliness of such a characterization. This volume manages, however, to move beyond arguments concerning the conservative/radical dichotomy of Astell’s polemics by presenting essays that resituate her corpus vis-à-vis history (especially in relationship to Whig/Tory politics) and philosophy (especially in relation to Descartes) so that new avenues of inquiry, such as Astell’s ambiguous relationship to women dissenters of the Civil War period, may also be considered. In this manner the volume helps to nudge Astell into the “major figure” category where she clearly belongs.

2> At least two prominent scholars, Sharon Achinstein and Hilda L. Smith, offer diametrically opposing viewpoints concerning Astell’s early feminism. Achinstein argues that contemporary scholars misread Astell’s work by anachronistically privileging secularism over theology, thereby eliding the importance of obedience, otherworldliness, and what Achinstein terms a “master/slave” orientation toward God. Achinstein goes so far as to claim that, “one would be hard pressed to call [Astell’s brand of egalitarianism] feminism” (24). She is not alone in expressing this doubt. Anne Jessie Van Sant offers a similar, though tempered, view when she argues that Astell held an “extreme commitment to obedience,” at the same time that she “was profoundly committed to women’s equality” (129). Van Sant attempts to resolve this paradoxical riddle by focusing on, “the contemporary opposition between law and equity;” whereby, because of her theological commitments, Astell falls on the conservative side of the law/authority vs. the equity/individual divide (129). Van Sant concludes, however, that Astell “simply accedes to the injustice, schooling her audience not in any potentially remedial practice, but rather resignation” (137).

3> Hilda Smith, by contrast, argues that Astell “did not fully dismiss egalitarian and democratic principles, even given her royalist and Tory politics” (195). She makes her point by separating Astell’s politics from her commitment to women’s betterment, a cause, she claims “that mattered most to her” (195). Smith briefly alludes to the influence of Cartesian epistemology on Astell’s feminism, stating that “she always saw her proposed retreat for women as founded primarily upon philosophical principles” (197). Further, Smith claims that Astell’s feminism may be described as not just idiosyncratic but “radical” when read in light of, “the liberating nature of serious intellectual and philosophical engagement” that Astell proposed as an alternative to courtship and marriage as “the end of their [women’s] existence.” (198, 199). E. Derek Taylor offers a refreshing (and long overdue) perspective on the debate about whether Astell should be characterized as a radical or a conservative thinker when he notes in his essay that, “even if we conclude that Astell is a contradictory philosopher, we would do well to consider what good company she keeps” (183). Taylor goes on, however, to discern a “remarkable degree of consistency” with respect to the epistemological underpinnings of her educational theory (188). And he joins with other scholars in this volume who extract Astell’s complex epistemological stance/influences from underneath Locke’s long shadow, since before doing so “we have failed to identify the more appropriate context for her educational thought” (188).

4> Mark Goldie, like Taylor, debunks the notion that “Astell is assumed to have Locke permanently in her sights and constantly to be antagonistic towards him,” a long held assumption in Astell studies that Goldie ties to the mistaken tendency among feminist scholars to “retain Locke as the presiding ideologue of the Revolution” (69). The resulting misreads of Astell’s work center around what Goldie characterizes as commonplace, Tory propaganda within Astell’s pamphlets (especially Reflections Upon Marriage) that have been misinterpreted as direct attacks on Lockean social contract theory. Rather, Goldie convincingly demonstrates that Astell was most likely stirred to “vehemence” in Reflections on Marriage as a result of having read a misogynist passage within a little known (to contemporary audiences) Lockean text entitled The Paraphrase. This finding supports his claim that Astell was far more concerned with Locke’s “materialism and Socinianism” than his politics (85). Melinda Zook’s essay illuminates Astell’s feminism within the context of her Tory politics. She compares Astell’s and Aphra Behn’s treatments of “noisy dissenting women,” demonstrating that Behn’s characterizations were consistently contemptuous and geared toward entertainment, while Astell’s depictions were equivocal since, as Zook points out, she “found the boldness of these women both attracting and deeply disturbing” (111, 110). Hannah Smith, by contrast, privileges Anglican influences over feminist leanings by aligning Astell’s work with a long tradition of Anglican sermons/pamphlets pertaining ostensibly to manners but that were really geared toward, “preserving the spiritual monopoly of the Church” (47). With this context in mind, Smith contradicts Goldie when she concludes that, “all her work was, in some way, political” (47).

5> Two essays in the collection shed new light upon the trope of martyrdom in Astell’s prose and poetry. William Kolbrener demonstrates that a shift in Astell’s “design of friendship” from “censure and correction” (i.e. martyrdom) to redemption and reciprocity occurs between Letters and the first Serious Proposal (49). Kolbrener points out that this shift corresponds to Astell’s alignment with an earlier Platonist metaphysics that “asserts congruity between spirit and matter,” whereby female friendship may become emblematic of divine love/perfection as opposed to a stepping stone (via rejection/dissatisfaction) toward it (62). Contrary to Achinstein’s claim that Astell’s thinking lacks relevance to contemporary feminism, Kolbrener’s nuanced study discerns a link to the contemporary notion of the role of female friendship in empowering women. Along similar lines, Claire Pickard’s essay demonstrates that martyrdom in Astell’s early volume of unpublished poems corresponds both to a conventional “idealization of the wronged Stuarts” at the same time that it offers “a non-material solution to the problems of gender inequality” (116). Furthermore, Pickard discerns within the body of Astell’s small collection of poems the emergence of an assertive, aspirational poetic persona that couches ambition in religious terms and that communicates an ethic of feminine “self-belief”—otherwise termed the “worthy character of the speaker”—that Astell will carry forward polemically and philosophically into her next, more pragmatic publications (119, 121).

6> Only two essays in this edition approach Astell directly as a philosopher. Jacqueline Broad broaches the conservative/liberal ‘problem’ in Astell studies by emphasizing in one of the first articles of its kind the influence of Descartes’s ethical theory of judgment on her second Serious Proposal. Previous studies (including Hilda Smith’s in this volume) have tended to gloss Descartes’s influence on Astell’s feminism and her educational theory by emphasizing his method of reasoning while bypassing the influence of his final publication, The Passions of the Soul, to which she dedicates an entire chapter. Broad argues that Astell was less inspired by Descartes’s paradigm of radical doubt than by his theory of judgment, which had practical applications in reforming women’s daily lives and their characters. She concludes with the novel assertion that “Astell’s writings show that radicalism is not a necessary outcome of Descartes’s philosophy” (179). Eileen O’Neil’s essay similarly emphasizes Astell’s “steadfast orthodox Cartesian views” when she argues with an earlier assertion by Taylor that Astell realigned herself with Norris’s occasionalist stance that she had previously rejected in order to shore up an attack on Locke’s theory of thinking matter. O’Neil argues, however, that Astell’s particular brand of body/mind causation (inspired more by Descartes than Henry More) allowed her to “maintain the real distinction of soul and body” and to argue that these two distinct substances could interact while not “jeopardizing arguments for the immortality of the soul” (162, 163).

7> Hilda Smith writes that “it is crucial to see Astell’s feminist works as expressing an integrated vision that incorporates her political values and intellectual interests, as well as a gendered analysis of social and cultural politics” (199). I tend to disagree that we must seek out and even force (as some essays within this collection do) such consistency. Yet, paradoxically, surface contradictions that have puzzled and sometimes misled scholars in the past have, within this collection, led to enriched and refined understandings of Astell’s “tripartite vision” that encompasses her politics, philosophy and early feminism.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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