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Oct 31, 2019

Ever since Mary Astell was introduced as the "First English Feminist" in 1986, scholars have been perplexed by her dual commitments to natural equality and social, political, and ecclesiastical hierarchy. But any supposed "paradox" in her though is the product of a modernist conceit that treats equality and hierarchy as antonyms, assuming the former must be prior, normative, and hostile to the latter. Seeing this, two other crucial features of Astell's thought emerge: her ethics of ascent and the psychology of superiority. These, in turn, illuminate her lifelong fascination with ambition as a feminine virtue, as well as her curious embrace of Machiavelli. Astell's politics and ethics are thus doubly worthy of recovery, both as the product of a singularly brilliant early modern mind and as a fascinating but forgotten vision of "equality before egalitarianism" that sheds light on the persistent complexities of equality and hierarchy to this day.