The first English feministThe English thinker, Mary Astell (1666-1731) advocacy of equal educational opportunities for women has earned her the title "the first English feminist."
In Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), She critiques the philosophical underpinnings of the institution of marriage in 1700's England, warning women of the dangers of a hasty or ill-considered choice. Astell argues that education will help women to make better matrimonial choices and meet the challenges of marriage.She is well ahead of her time, stating her case boldly and without remorse in a time where women hid reluctantly in their husband's shadows, having no voice of their own.
If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves? - Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage
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Some Reflections Upon Marriage
By Mary Astell
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
SOME REFLECTIONS UPONMARRIAGE,
Occasion'd by the Duke and Dutchess of Mazarine's CASE; which is also consider'd.
Curiosity, which is sometimes an occasion of Good, and too frequently of Mischief, by disturbing either our Own, or our Neighbour's Repose, having put me upon reading the Duke and Dutchess of Mazarine's Case; I thought an Afternoon wou'd not be quite thrown away in pursuing some Reflections that it occasion'd. The name of Mazarine is considerable enough to draw the Eyes of the curious, and when one remembers what a noise it had made in Europe, what Politick Schemes have been laid, what vast designs brought about by the Cardinal that bore it; how well his measures were concerted for the Grandeur of that Nation, into which he was transplanted, and that he wanted neither Power nor Inclination to establish his own Family and make it as considerable as any Subjects could possible be, and what Honours and Riches he had heap'd together in order to this, one cannot but enquire how it comes about that he should be so defeated in this last design; and that those to whom he intrusted his Name and Treasure, should make a figure so very different from what might have been expected from them. And tho' one had not Piety enough to make a Religious Reflection, yet Civil Prudence woul'd almost enforce them to say, that Man being in Honour has no Understanding, but is compar'd unto the Beasts that Perish. He blesseth his Soul, and thinks himself a happy Man, imagining his House will endure for ever, and that he has establish'd his Name and Family. But how wise soever he may be in other respects, in this he acts no better than the Ignorant and Foolish. For as he carries nothing away with him when he dies, so neither will his Pomp and Glory descend as he intended. Generous and Worthy Actions only can secure him from Oblivion, or what is worse, being remembred with Contempt; so little reason have we to envy any Man's Wealth and Greatness, but much to Emulate his Wisdom and Vertue.
The Dutchess of Mazarine's Name has spread perhaps as far as her Uncle's, and one can't help wishing that so much Wit and Beauty, so much Politeness and Address, had been accompany'd and supported by more valuable and lasting Qualities; one cannot but desire that her Advocate instead of recriminating had clear'd the imputations laid on her, and that she her self, who says enough in her Memoirs, to shew she was unfortunate, had said more to prove her self discreet. They must be highly ill-natur'd who do not pity her ill fortune at the same time that they must blame her Conduct, and regret that such a Treasure should fall into his hands who was not worthy of it, nor knew how to value and improve it; that she who was capable of being a great Ornament to her Family and Blessing to the Age she liv'd in, should only serve (to say no worse) as an unhappy Shipwrack to point out the dangers of an ill Education and unequal Marriage.
Monsieur Mazarine is not to be justified, nor Madam his Spouse excus'd. It is no question which is most Criminal, the having no sense, or the abuse of a liberal Portion, nor any hard matter to determine who is most to be pity'd, he whom Nature never qualify'd for great things, who therefore can't be very sensible of great Misfortunes; or she, who being capable of every thing, must therefore suffer more and be the more lamented. To be yoak'd for Life to a disagreeable Person and Temper; to have Folly and Ignorance tyrannize over Wit and Sense; to be contradicted in every thing one does or says, and bore down not by Reason but Authority; to be denied ones most innocent desires for no other cause, but the Will and Pleasure of an absolute Lord and Master, whose follies a Woman with all her Prudence cannot hide, and whose Commands she cannot but despise at the same time she obeys them, is a misery none can have a just Idea of, but those who have felt it.
These are great Provocations, but nothing can justify the revenging the Injuries we receive from others, upon our selves: The Italian Proverb shews a much better way Vuoi far vendetta del tuo nemico governati bene. If you would be reveng'd of your Enemies, live well. Had Madam Mazarine's Education made a right improvement of her Wit and Sense, we should not have found her seeking Relief by such imprudent, not to say Scandalous Methods, as the running away in Disguise with a spruce Cavalier, and rambling to so many Courts and Places, nor diverting her self with such Childish, Ridiculous, or Ill-natur'd Amusements, as the greatest part of the Adventures in her Memoirs are made up of. True Wit consists not meerly in doing or saying what is out of the way, but in such surprizing things as are fit and becoming the Person from whom they come. That which stirs us up to Laughter most commonly excites our Contempt; to Please, and to make Merry are two very different Talents. But what Remedies can be administered, what Relief expected, when Devotion, the only true support in Distress, is turn'd into Ridicule? Unhappy is that Grandeur which makes us too great to be good; and that Wit which sets us at a distance from true Wisdom. Even Bigotry it self, as contemptible as it is, is preferable to Prophane Wit; for that only requires our Pity, but this deserves our Abhorrence.
A Woman who seeks Consolation under Domestick troubles from the Gaieties of a Court, from Gaming and Courtship, from Rambling and odd Adventures, and the Amusements mixt Company affords, may Plaister up the Sore, but will never heal it; nay, which is worse, she makes it Fester beyond a possibility of Cure. She justifies the Injury her Husband has done her, by shewing that whatever other good Qualities she may have, Discretion, one of the Principal, is wanting. She may be Innocent, but she can never prove she is so; all that Charity can do for her when she's Censur'd is only to be silent; it can make no Apologies for suspicious Actions. An ill Husband may deprive a Wife of the comfort and quiet of her Life; may give her occasion of exercising her Virtue, may try her Patience and Fortitude to the utmost, but that's all he can do: 'tis her self only can accomplish her Ruin. Had Madam Mazarin's Reserve been what it ought to be, Monsieur Herard needed not to have warded off so carefully, the nice Subject of the Lady's Honour, nor her Advocate have strain'd so hard for Colours to excuse such Actions as will hardly bear 'em; but a Man indeed shews the best side of his Wit, tho' the worst of his Integrity, when he has an ill Cause to manage. Truth is bold and vehement; she depends upon her own strength, and so she be plac'd in a true Light, thinks it not necessary to use Artifice and Address as a Recommendation; but the prejudices of Men have made them necessary: their Imagination gets the better of their Understanding, and more judge according to Appearances, than search after the Truth of Things.
What an ill Figure does a Woman make with all the Charms of her Beauty and Sprightliness of her Wit, with all her good Humour and insinuating Address; tho' she be the best Oeconomist in the World, the most entertaining Conversation; if she remit her Guard, abate in the Severity of her Caution and Strictness of her Virtue, and neglect those Methods which are necessary to keep her not only from a Crime, but from the very suspicion of one!
Are the being forbid having Comedies in her House, an ill natur'd Jest, dismissing of a Servant, imposing Domesticks, or frequent changing them, sufficient Reasons to authorize a Woman's leaving her Husband and breaking from the strongest Bands, exposing her self to Temptations and Injuries from the Bad, to the contempt, or at the best to the pity of the Good, and the just Censure of all? A Woman of sense one would think should take little satisfaction in the Cringes and Courtship of her Adorers, even when she is single; but it is Criminal in a Wife to admit them, interested Persons may call it Gallantry, but with the modest and discreet it is like to have a harder Name, or else Gallantry will pass for a scandalous thing, not to be allow'd among Vertuous Persons.
But Madam Mazarin is dead, may her Faults die with her; may there be no more occasion given for the like Adventures, or if there is, may the Ladies be more Wise and Good than to take it! Let us see then from whence the mischief proceeds, and try if it can be prevented; certainly Man may be very happy in a Married State; 'tis his own fault if he is at any time otherwise. The wise Institutor of Matrimony never did any thing in vain; we are the Sots and Fools if what he design'd for our Good, be to us an occasion of falling. For Marriage, notwithstanding all the loose talk of the Town, the Satyrs of Ancient or Modern pretenders to Wit, will never lose its due praise from judicious Persons. Tho' much may be said against this or that Match, tho' the Ridiculousness of some, the Wickedness, of others and Imprudence of too many, too often provoke our wonder or scorn, our indignation or pity, yet Marriage in general is too sacred to be treated with Disrespect, too venerable to be the subject of Raillery and Buffonery. It is the Institution of Heaven, the only Honourable way of continuing Mankind, and far be it from us to think there could have been a better than infinite Wisdom has found out for us.
But upon what are the Saytrs against Marriage grounded? Not upon the State it self, if they are just, but upon the ill Choice, or foolish Conduct of those who are in it, and what has Marriage, considered in its self, to do with that? Let every Man bear his own Burden: If through inordinate Passion, Rashness, Humour, Pride, Coveteousness, or any the like Folly, a Man makes an Imprudent Choice, Why should Marriage be exclaim'd against? Let him blame himself for entering into an unequal Yoke, and making Choice of one who perhaps may prove a Burthen, a Disgrace and Plague, instead of a Help and Comfort to him. Could there be no such thing as an happy Marriage, Arguments against Marriage would hold good, but since the thing is not only possible, but even very probable, provided we take but competent Care, Act like wise Men and Christians, and acquit our selves as we ought, all we have to say against it serves only to shew the levity or impiety of our own Minds, we can only make some flourishes of Wit, tho' scarce without Injustice, and tho' we talk prettily it is but very little to the purpose.
Is it the being ty'd to One that offends us? Why this ought rather to recommend it to us, and would really do so, were we guided by Reason, and not by Humour or brutish Passion. He who does not make Friendship the chief inducement to his Choice, and prefer it before any other consideration, does not deserve a good Wife, and therefore should not complain if he goes without one. Now we can never grow weary of our Friends; the longer we have had them the more they are endear'd to us; and if we have One well assur'd, we need seek no farther, but are sufficiently happy in Her. The love of Variety in this and in other cases, shews only the ill Temper of our own Mind, we seek for settled Happiness in this present World, where it is not to be found, instead of being Content with a competent share, chearfully enjoying and being thankful for the Good that is afforded us, and patiently bearing with the Inconveniences that attend it.
The Christian Institution of Marriage provides the best that may be for Domestick Quiet and Content, and for the Education of Children; so that if we were not under the tye of Religion, even the Good of Society and civil Duty would oblige us to what that requires at our Hands. And since the very best of us are but poor frail Creatures, full of Ignorance and Infirmity, so that in Justice we ought to tolerate each other, and exercise that Patience towards our Companions to Day, which we give them occasion to shew towards us to Morrow, the more we are accustom'd to any one's Conversation, the better shall we understand their Humour, be more able to comply with their Weakness and less offended at it: For he who would have every one submit to his Humours and will not in his turn comply with them, tho' we should suppose him always in the Right, whereas a Man of this temper very seldom is so, he's not fit for a Husband, scarce fit for Society, but ought to be turn'd out of the Herd to live by himself.
There may indeed be inconveniencies in a Married Life; but is there any Condition without them? And he who lives single, that he may indulge Licentiousness and give up himself to the conduct of wild and ungovern'd Desires, or indeed out of any other inducement, than the Glory of GOD and the Good of his Soul, through the prospect he has of doing more Good, or because his frame and disposition of Mind are fitted for it, may rail as he pleases against Matrimony, but can never justifie his own Conduct, nor clear it from the imputation of Wickedness and Folly.
But if Marriage be such a blessed State, how comes it, may you say, that there are so few happy Marriages? Now in answer to this, it is not to be wonder'd that so few succeed, we should rather be surpriz'd to find so many do, considering how imprudently Men engage, the Motives they act by, and the very strange Conduct they observe throughout.
For pray, what do Men propose to themselves in Marriage? What Qualifications do they look after in a Spouse? What will she bring is the first enquiry? How many Acres? Or how much ready Coin? Not that this is altogether an unnecessary Question, for Marriage without a Competency, that is, not only a bare Subsistence, but even a handsome and plentiful Provision, according to the Quality and Circumstances of the Parties, is no very comfortable Condition. They who Marry for Love as they call it, find time enough to repent their rash Folly, and are not long in being convinc'd, that whatever fine Speeches might be made in the heat of Passion, there could be no real Kindness between those who can agree to make each other miserable. But as an Estate is to be consider'd, so it should not be the Main, much less the Only consideration, for Happiness does not depend on Wealth, that may be wanting, and too often is, where this abounds. He who Marries himself to a Fortune only, must expect no other satisfaction than that can bring him, but let him not say that Marriage, but his own Covetous or Prodigal Temper, has made him unhappy. What Joy has that Man in all his Plenty, who must either run from home to possess it, contrary to all the Rules of Justice, to the Laws of GOD and Man; nay, even in opposition to Good nature, and Good breeding too, which some Men make more account of than all the rest; or else be forc'd to share it with a Woman whose Person or Temper is disagreeable, whose presence is sufficient to sour all his Enjoyments, and if he have any remains of Religion, or Good manners, he must suffer the uneasiness of a continual watch, to force himself to a constrain'd Civility!
Excerpted from Some Reflections Upon Marriage by Mary Astell. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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