Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

W. Scott Howard, Ph.D.


Early Feminism, Feminist Philosophy, Marriage Contract, Mary Astell, Pamphlet Controversy, Renaissance Literature


This dissertation examines the influence of Cambridge Platonism and materialist philosophy on Mary Astell's early feminism. More specifically, I argue that Astell co-opts Descartes's theory of regulating the passions in his final publication, The Passions of the Soul, to articulate a comprehensive, Enlightenment and body friendly theory of feminine self-esteem that renders her feminism modern. My analysis of Astell's theory of feminine self-esteem follows both textual and contextual cues, thus allowing for a reorientation of her early feminism vis-a-vis contemporary feminist theory. An entire chapter in the dissertation is devoted to Astell's use of Descartes's theory of regulating the passions to render women more substantial and inherently worthy. This rendering becomes more concrete in Astell's feminist framework as she employs the language of the social contract in her fourth publication, Reflections Upon Marriage, to depict wives as contractual slaves. I argue that her assertion concerning women's slavery is theoretically consistent when read in light of her theory of feminine self-esteem, since this theory is based on the Enlightenment principles of self-mastery, independence and self-preservation. Further, I align Astell's early feminism in a dialogic sense with the Continental "querelle des femmes," especially as presented in writings by Christine de Pizan and Agrippa. Astell, I argue, contributes to the "querelle" by framing the feminist problem she wishes to solve concerning women's equality (despite bodily "inferiority") in a robust , philosophical manner that uncannily prefigures Wollstonecraft's call for the universalization of human virtues and the reform of of women's education.


Received from ProQuest

Rights holder

Kathleen A. Ahearn

File size

265 p.

File format





British and Irish literature, Gender studies