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Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft

Blog Post | Gender Equality

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft

Introducing the English 17th and 18th century thinkers widely considered to have been the earliest pioneers of feminist philosophy, Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Today marks the 46th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled Heroes of ProgressThis bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the well-being of humanity. You can find the 45th part of this series here.

This week, our heroes are Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft–two 17th and 18th century English thinkers, who are widely considered to have been the earliest pioneers of feminist philosophy. The works of Astell and Wollstonecraft gained popularity in the 19th century and helped to provide the philosophical foundation for suffragette and womens rights movements all over the world.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Western European women were often poorly educated and had very little protection under the law. In a series of prominent works, Astell argued that women should have equal educational opportunities as men. Astell was also the first thinker to base her arguments for gender equality in philosophy, rather than historical evidence, as had previously been the norm.

Wollstonecraft took Astells call for equal education between the sexes a step further. The former argued that, since both men and women were endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, women should also be granted the right to vote and allowed to pursue whatever career they wished.

Mary Astell was born on November 12, 1666, into an upper-middle-class family in Newcastle, England. Her father managed a local coal company, but despite her familys wealth, Astell did not receive any formal education. Instead, she was taught at home by her clergyman uncle, Ralph Astell. Ralph was heavily involved in the philosophical school called Neoplatonism, which taught rationalist beliefs based on the works of the Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras.

At the age of 12, Astells father died and left her without a dowry, which meant that her prospects for marrying someone of a similar social class became unlikely. A year later, her uncle Ralph died, leaving her without a teacher. Yet, throughout her teenage years Astell continued to teach herself many subjects and discovered that she had a particular aptitude for political philosophy.

In 1684, Astells mother died. That spurred Astell to move to Chelsea, a suburb of London. In Chelsea, Astell became quickly acquainted with a circle of literary and influential women. Astells new friends, along with William Sancoft, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who provided her with financial support, helped Astell to develop and publish her writings.

In 1694, Astell published her first book Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest. Six years later, her second book titled Some Reflections upon Marriage was published. Both of these works were published anonymously. In them, Astell argued that women should receive an equal education to men. She averred that the existing intellectual disparity between men and women was not due to a natural inferiority, but due to the latters lack of educational opportunity. Astell also argued that women should be able to choose whom they marry or to refrain from marriage if they so desired.

Through these works, Astell became one of the first writers to advocate in favor of the idea that women were just as rational as men. By using Descartestheory of dualism (the idea that the mind and body are distinct and separable), Astell argued that both genders had an equal ability to reason irrespective of their physical differences. As such, women should be treated as equals. Astell famously wrote If all men are born free, why are all women born slaves?”

Later in life, Astell left the public eye. In 1709, she became head of a charity school for girls. Astell designed the curriculum and it is thought that hers was the first school in England to have an all-women Board of Governors. After a mastectomy to remove a cancerous breast, Astell died in her Chelsea home on May 11, 1731.

Throughout her life Astell encouraged both genders to fight for womens rights. After her death, Mary Wollstonecraft continued the advocacy for educational reform for women that Astell began.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759, in London, England. Like Astell, she was born into an upper-middle-class family that became significantly poorer over time. Wollstonecrafts father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a violent man who frequently beat his wife in drunken rages. As a child, Mary would often intervene and try to prevent her fathers abuse. Over time Wollstonecrafts father gradually squandered the familys money, causing the family to move several times during her childhood.

Early in Wollstonecrafts life, she befriended Jane Gardiner, née Arden. The pair would often read the then new “Enlightenment Era” books together. They also attended lectures by Ardens father, John Arden, who was a scholar of natural philosophy and one of Wollstonecrafts early teachers.

Unhappy with her home life, Wollstonecraft decided to move. Throughout the late 1770s and early 1780s, she worked in several different jobs across England and Ireland, including as a governess, needle-worker and teacher.

Wollstonecraft became frustrated with the limited career options open to women. In the late 1780s, she embarked on a career as an author, which was seen as a radical choice for a woman at the time. In 1787, Wollstonecraft wrote her first book titled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. The book resembles an early version of a modern self-help book and offers advice on female education. It also included segments on morality, etiquette and basic child-rearing.

In 1788, Wollstonecraft was employed as translator for the publisher Joseph Johnson, who published several of her early works. Wollstonecraft had a great interest in the French Revolution. After the English philosopher Edmund Burke published a book titled Reflections on the Revolution in France, which challenged the principles of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft decided to respond.

In 1790, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which criticized the despotism of Frances Ancien Régime, welcomed revolutionary reform, and argued that humanitys natural rights must be protected by a government. In the book, Wollstonecraft also criticized the arbitrary nature of government power.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft published her best-known work titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In the book, Wollstonecraft expanded on Astells work and argued that the education system trained women to be frivolous and incapable. Wollstonecraft noted that there are no mental differences between men and women. If women were given the same educational opportunities as men, she argued, the former would be capable of doing many professions and elevating themselves in society.

Unlike Astell, Wollstonecraft believed that the betterment of women should be sought through radical political change, with reforms required in both the educational and voting system. Wollstonecraft noted that, as men and women were intellectually similar, women should also be granted the right to vote. She wrote, “Women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.”

Wollstonecraft also noted that liberty is the mother of virtue.” Conversely, if women were kept by their very constitution, slaves, and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws of nature.”

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was hugely successful and helped bolster Wollstonecrafts reputation as a writer. Later in 1792, Wollstonecraft went to Paris to observe the French Revolution. She arrived just a month before King Louis XVI was guillotined. Wollstonecraft stayed in France until 1795.

After the breakdown of a romantic relationship, Wollstonecraft was left heartbroken and twice attempted suicide. When she returned to England, Wollstonecraft became actively involved in a close-knit group of radical intellectuals, which included William Godwin, Thomas Paine, William Blake and William Wordsworth.

Mary Astell is depicted on the left side of the photograph above. Mary Wollstonecraft is on the right.

In 1797, Wollstonecraft married William Godwin and gave birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – who would go on to write Frankenstein. Just 11 days after she gave birth, Wollstonecraft died of septicemia on September 10, 1797.

Astell and Wollstonecrafts writings were unsuccessful in bringing about immediate reforms when they were published. The works of the two thinkers, however, provided the intellectual foundation for the suffragette and feminist movements, which started in the late 19th century and continue around the world to this day. Although they were considered radicals during their time, without their ideas it is unlikely that womens rights would be as extensive today as they are. For that reason, Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft are rightfully our 46th Heroes of Progress.

Brookings | Financial Market Development

Women’s Financial Inclusion Boosted in Sub-Saharan Africa

“In the 10 years leading up to 2021, the share of women in sub-Saharan Africa who owned a financial account more than doubled to reach 49%, according to data from the Global Findex.

Since 2017 alone, account ownership rates for women in the region increased 12 percentage points, driven entirely by increased adoption of mobile money accounts.”

From Brookings.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.