heart_in_the_margins: (Beaton Reader)
(I'd like to begin with the complaint that it is weirdly easier for me to focus on writing things when I'm not writing in Word? This may be a problem. This is in fact not my first post-Word option; Scrivener is; but as I sketched out what I wanted to accomplish, page-by-page, in the ten pages of paper I have to write tomorrow and Saturday, I realized that there are exactly three pages whose content remains somewhat mysterious to me, and those are the pages discussing Mary Astell, and Scrivener wasn't helping me figure them out. So here I am.)

Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies is actually the text that got me started thinking about this paper. I found it a fascinating read -- about halfway through my notes, somewhere, there is the scrawled phrase "heavenly feminist university scheme!" probably surrounded with hearts or something, because basically Astell's proposal is that women should come together into a communal retreat that would do everything from providing a space for religious devotion to educating women in useful knowledge to supporting real friendship instead of backbiting and gossip to (ultimately) preventing rich single women from being sexually assaulted by men with designs on their fortunes.

Custom, Fashion, and the World

For Astell, though, the worldly reasons for this retreat have less to do directly with the potential of sexual assault and more to do with the ways in which the world of society trains women up from a young age to possess unbalanced perceptions of their physical vs. spiritual beauty and worth. Simply put, she's convinced that "custom" has both created and indulged women's fascination with fashion and beauty while encouraging them to neglect their educations. She introduces the argument of her pamphlet by stating, “This is a Matter infinitely more worthy your Debates, than what Colours are most agreeable, or what’s the Dress becomes you best. Your Glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own Minds” (140). Astell slowly works in this sentence to restore seriousness of thought to words like "Debates" and "reflection" which have been debased by a slavish adherence to custom. This attempt to take the terms of fashion and of petty female conversation and elevate them or swap them out for those terms that Astell wants women to emphasize reoccurs throughout the pamphlet -- at one point, she laments that women are so quick to follow French fashions, when what they should really find fashionable and worthy of imitation is an education in French philosophy [cite]!
“Thus Ignorance and a narrow Education lay the Foundation of Vice, and Imitation and Custom rear it up. Custom, that merciless torrent that carries all before it, and which indeed can be stem’d by none but such as have a great deal of Prudence and a rooted Vertue” (147)

“ ‘Tis Custom therefore, that Tyrant Custom, which is the grand motive to all those irrational choices which we daily see made in the World, so very contrary to our present interest and pleasure, as well as to our Future. We think it an unpardonable mistake not to do as our neighbours do, and part with our Peace and Pleasure as well as our Innocence and Vertue, merely in complyance with an unreasonable Fashion” (147)
“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.” (152)
A Happier Eden: Undoing the First Fall, Creating Female Friendship and Conversation

While Astell doesn't precisely gender "custom," I do think that there is a sense that her use of "custom" and my use of "patriarchy." Early on, she writes,
“Let us learn to pride ourselves in something more excellent than the invention of a 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.” (141)
Rejecting the male gaze as the impetus for female "improvement" [a charged word in the context of pastoral at this point!] opens up a space in which women can encourage and help improve each other -- a space of female friendship that the pressures of the outside world seem to render impossible. When Astell describes her proposed retirement as a “Happy Retreat! which will be the introducing you into such a Paradise as your Mother Eve forfeited” and where “there are no Serpents to deceive you,” the invocation of women's lineage from Eve serves both as a reminder of the biblical justification for some of women's weaknesses and as a promise that that perceived weakness is just another form of "custom" that rears its serpent head and prevents women from achieving their fullest potential as rational creatures (151).

And it is as rational creatures, not just spiritual or emotional ones, that the women of Astell's proposal are called to form a community. Writing against the imagined complaints of men who would reject her proposal as hurtful, Astell counters, “I cannot imagine wherein the hurt lies, if instead of doing mischief to one another, by an uncharitable and vain Conversation, Women be enabled to inform and instruct those of their own Sex at least” (155). Wouldn't it be nice, Astell says, if “In stead of that Froth and Impertinence, that Censure and Pragmaticalness, with which Feminine Conversations so much abound. we should hear their tongues employ’d in making Proselytes to heaven” (164)? What actual conditions would be possible to make this the case?

After seclusion, the first real answer is education:
“What is it but the want of an ingenious Education, that renders the generality of Feminine Conversations so insipid and foolish and their solitude so insupportable? Learning is therefore necessary to render them more agreeable and useful in company, and to furnish them with becoming entertainments when alone” (154)
The "company" imagined here is a specifically feminine company that has little in common with the company of the world. Instead, “this happy Society will be but one Body, whose Soul is love, animating and informing it, and perpetually breathing forth it self in flames of holy desires after GOD and acts of Benevolence to each other” (157). While Astell does emphasize the spiritual nature of her proposed venture, she isn't shy about the educational value she wants women to derive from it: in a sequel pamphlet, responding to critiques, she describes the venture as “rather Academical than Monastic” (179), suggesting that this imagined retreat might serve not only as a place of spiritual but also intellectual growth and power. In the end, the retreat from heterosexual society into a homosocial one is empowering for Astell: “you may more peaceably enjoy your selves, and all the innocent Pleasures it is able to afford you, and particularly that which is worth all the rest, a Noble Vertuous and Disinteress’d Friendship” (151).

Make Way for Eden: Actual vs. Virtual Space

While Astell's Proposal is often classed as something of a utopian scheme, certain sections of the text suggest that she has every intention of making this institution a reality. Her proposal, she suggests, needs to be enacted in the real world because it would serve to alleviate the real-world concerns of a particular set of women:
And if after so many Spiritual Advantages, it be convenient to mention Temporals, here Heiresses and Persons of Fortune may be kept secure from the rude attempts of designing Men; And she who has more Money than Discretion, need not curse her Stars for being expos’d a prey to bold importunate and rapacious Vultures. She will not here be inveigled and impos’d on, will neither be bought nor sold, nor be forc’d to marry for her own quiet, when she has no inclination to it, but what the being tir’d out with a restless importunity occasions. (165)
The "rude attempts of desigining Men" are real, the inveigling and imposing and forcing is real, and that's why women need a real space to allow for their retreat from it. Astell's argument in this passage is similar to the arguments of many English men and women around this period who began to lament the lack of alternative options for women who would not -- or could not -- be married. Astell's labeling of her retreat as a "female monastery" [cite] may have upset some of her readers, but in many ways the institution she seeks to establish would perform the functions ascribed to Catholic nunneries in earlier ages, giving women a respectable (and typically inexpensive) alternative to marriage, and thus an alternative to being pursued by men whose desires might find violent expression.

The one thing to note is that Astell isn't being terribly egalitarian about all of this. She cares mostly about "Heiresses and Persons of Fortune"; later, she states that her plan might be most useful to “Persons of Quality who are over-stock’d with Children, for thus they may honourable dispose of them without impairing their Estates. Five or six hundred pounds may be easily spar’d with a Daughter, when so many thousands would go deep” (168). Not many families would have had five or six hundred pounds just lying around -- and while Astell is surprised that no one answers her proposal with ready money, I'm not, because by this time, the kinds of women who might have seriously benefited from an institution like this didn't necessarily have the financial support to make it a possibility.

And yet, for all of Astell's disappointment at the failure of this community to come together as a reality, there's something to be said for the idea that a woman can use the space of print publication to summon (and perhaps in so doing create) a public of specifically female readers, who are initially encouraged to improve their genius in order not to let down former examples of female literary talent: “Remember, I pray you, the famous Women of former Ages, the Orinda’s of late, and the more Modern Heroins, and blush to think how much is now, and will hereafter be said of them, when you your selves (as great a Figure as you make) must be buried in silence and forgetfulness!” (141) [something about the literary community of women around Katharine Phillips?] Astell, through print publication, ensures that she will never be "buried in silence and forgetfulness."


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June 2017



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