The 18th century proved to be a revolutionary moment in the long history of the institution of marriage. In England, at any rate, some of the longstanding contractual and transactional conventions underwent a period of renegotiation in the public discourse. In both print and open debate, topics once considered sacrosanct were suddenly being reconsidered and a shift began to take place in the traditional subjugation of wives as chattel—legally speaking. At the dawn of the century, a real life scandal began to find its way into literature on both the fictional and non-fictional side of the spectrum that kicked off the 18th century restructuring of the terms of matrimony.
Hortense Mancini, duchess of Mazarin, escaped to England to avoid submitting to the authority of her husband whom she had abandoned on grounds that included sexual perversion. Charles II of England signed an order extending a prodigious pension to the duchess who promptly used it to launch a lifestyle every bit as debauched and depraved as the accusations she had leveled against her husband. It was less the depravity than the concepts relation to the unquestioned authority granted the husband in marriages that prompted Mary Astell to publish her controversial and groundbreaking essay “Some Reflections Upon Marriage” in 1700.
Allegedly started and completed over the course of just one single afternoon, the overriding message of the piece is that marriage under the existing framework was nothing more nor less than a trap in which women gave up all claims of equality in the partnership and, making matters worse, found themselves with no legal recourse to extricate themselves from the trap. The conventions of marriage had been built not upon any semblance of a true partnership between husband and wife, but rather as a system designed to propagate myths about gender inferiority. As long as this was so, women would do much better to look inside themselves or toward God for guidance on attaining happiness and improving their lives.
Astell practiced what she preached. She never did marry.