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Did women object to this negative view of them in the seventeenth century?

It is difficult to see how they had much opportunity to object. Before and after Oliver Cromwell's rise to power in England, pubic entertainment and behavior were often "bawdy." By the time King William III ascended the throne in 1688, Puritanism dominated public morals, especially among the middle class. For some women, such as the successful playwright Alphra Behn, this was not good news. She wrote: "Though I the wondrous change deplore / That makes me useful and forlorn."

But even during the "wild times" of the Tory Restoration, when sexuality was freely discussed and written about, and sexual relationships and desires were acknowledged as natural and tolerated in respectable society, Behn's explicit poetry and plays had rarely gone beyond the conventional wisdom that women were the dangerous sex.

Did any of the early modern male philosophers consider the position of women in their writing?

Yes. René Descartes (1596-1650) deliberately wrote his Discourse on Method (1637) in French, in part so that women, who were not usually taught Latin, would be able to read it. Hobbes considered women to be just as strong and free as men in the original state of nature and talked about their consent being necessary to enter into marriage. He also referred to the power of women when he called them "Lord Mothers," to whom their children were obligated if they had nurtured and raised them, instead of "abandoning them to fortune."

John Locke (1632-1704) thought that the doctrine of the divine right of kings, which was based on heredity from Adam, simply left out the existence of female parents. He described marriage as a partnership for the sake of procreation and raising children and suggested that once children were grown the husband and wife could go their separate ways if they chose. In his Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), written in response to his cousin's questions about how young men should be raised, Locke wrote that girls should receive basically the same education as boys.

In her poem "The Disappointment" she relates Lysander's impotence when he is in the presence of the extremely desirable Cloris. Cloris flees, blushing with "distain and shame," and Lysander curses, "The sheppardess' charms / Whose soft bewitching influence / Had damned him to the hell of impotence."

What was Mary Astell's contribution to early modern philosophy?

Mary Astell (1666-1731) used Descartes' ideas to criticize custom, insisting that tradition itself is not a sufficient justification for the subordinate position of married women. She wrote: "That the Custom of the World, has put Women, generally speaking, into a State of Subjection, is not denied, but the Right can no more be prov'd from the Fact, than the Predominancy of Vice can justify it." This willingness to criticize custom in the service of an unpopular claim was an important intellectual innovation.

Astell was interested in the use of reason as an innate capacity of women. She argued that women could find their own religious salvation, intellectually as well as morally. The target of her argument was the prevailing practice of not offering women the same education as men. In her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) she proposed a college for upper-class women that would prepare them for intellectual activities and religious services. Her claim was that the faults attributed to women could be corrected through education.

How did Mary Astell's life affect her written work?

Astell was unmarried and spent much of her adult life in a community of women with similar backgrounds in London. She is famous for having said, "The whole World is a single Lady's family." But she never openly condemned the subordination of women in marriage because she herself believed in charitable service and the unselfish roles of women in family life. Her main objection to the nature of marriage at her time was that men chose wives mainly for material gain or temporary sexual passion; she wanted husbands and wives to have a bond of friendship.

What was distinctive about Elizabeth Elstob?

Elizabeth Elstob (c. 1683-c. 1756) was the first professional scholar to compile an Anglo-Saxon grammar. In her introduction to An English-Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St. Gregory (1709) she argued for the usefulness of educating women on the grounds that scholarly work itself was valuable.

What was An Essay in Defense of the Female Sex?

In An Essay in Defense of the Female Sex: The "Usurpation of Man; and the Tyranny of Custom (Here in England, Especially)" (1696) marriage was directly attacked. John Locke's (1632-1704) empiricist epistemology was put to use in a search for social causes of the inequality between the sexes. The writer did not argue that women were as good as men, claiming that they were actually better on account of their intellectual superiority, which resulted from differences in nature. The female (or male?) author announced that men had conspired to keep women subordinate to them by denying them education and imprisoning them in domestic labors. However, she (or he?) concluded that what women did domestically was more important than anything and everything accomplished by men!

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