Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Diane Scott Lewis, the flummoxed author-on early women's rights!

On Women’s Rights, gasp, prior to the 20th century:

Back in my na├»ve days as a fledgling author, I joined critique groups to better polish my historical novels. My story, which took place in 1815, had a young woman who tried to stand up for herself in a typical male-dominated environment. I researched, and was surprised how many women advocated for "women’s rights" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

But the man in my group objected, saying women never asked for rights until the twentieth century. What did he think we were doing all those centuries when most of us had minds of our own?

I found many people shared this narrow view.

When I came across an actual treatise on a female who sought her due in the seventeenth century, a woman now forgotten by time, I had to blog about her.

Mary Astell, a school teacher from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, published Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, in 1694.

She was born in in 1666 to an upper middle-class family. Her father was a royalist Anglican who managed a coal company. As a woman, she received no formal education, as the culture of the time felt girls didn’t require any learning outside of the domestic realm. Fortunately for Mary, starting at the age of eight, she received an informal education from her uncle. Her uncle, an ex-clergyman, was affiliated with the Cambridge based philosophical school which based its teachings around radical philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras. Heady stuff for what was called, the feeble brains of women.

Mary’s father died when she was twelve, leaving her without a dowry. Her family’s limited finances were invested in her brother’s higher education and Mary and her mother were forced to move in with her aunt. After the death of her mother and aunt, Mary moved to Chelsea, London in 1688 where she was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a circle of influential and literary women. These women helped Mary with the development and publication of her treatise.
Mary Astell was one of the first Englishwomen to advocate that women were as rational as men, and just as deserving of education. Her Serious Proposal presented a plan for an all-female college where women could pursue a life of the mind. In 1700, Mary published another work: Some Reflections upon Marriage. She warned, in witty prose, of the dangers to females "...of an ill Education and unequal Marriage." She urged women to make better matrimonial choices because a disparity in intelligence and character may lead to misery. Marriage should be based on lasting friendship rather than short-lived attraction.

She was known to debate freely with both men and women, and particularly for her groundbreaking methods of negotiating the position of women in society by engaging in philosophical debate rather than basing her arguments in historical evidence as had previously been attempted. One of her famous quotes stated: "If all Men are born Free, why are all Women born Slaves?"

Mary withdrew from public life in 1709 and founded a charity school for girls in Chelsea. She died in 1731, a few months after a mastectomy to remove a cancerous breast.
So when reviewers—or readers—criticize a novel for promoting a heroine who acts "before her time" remember that women have been seeking liberation for centuries.

Resources: "Astell, Mary." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2011.

My current release, Ring of Stone, called a "true historical epic" depicts strong women in the eighteenth century, one who strives to become a physician before women were allowed, and uncovers shocking secrets in a small Cornish village.

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