It was the end of the 18th century. Wealthy British boys would go to grammar schools while girls from well off families would also attend school to learn accomplishments like embroidery and music, rather than academic subjects. Wealthy young men would go on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe taking one or two years before returning. These unfair and unequivocal opportunities and societal norms concerning the differing genders at this time set the perfect backdrop for a feminism wave to begin its development. In fact, a young woman by the name of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was a teacher at the time, would describe marriage as “legal prostitution,” in her most important rare book, Vindication of the Rights of Women. She was rightfully critical of a society that encouraged women to be “docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else.”
Wollstonecraft’s demand for justice for one-half of the British population was vastly revolutionary and caused much controversy at the time. It marked, however, the first great feminist treatise. The book was a powerful plea for a change in society’s perceptions of the function and potential of women. Since the publication of Wollstonecraft’s work, the argument that the rights of man and of woman are one and the same, once considered to be absurd, has been adopted by the majority of the civilized World. Her main argument was built on the simple principle that, “if woman be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all.”
Despite much controversy at the time, the book was a success among liberals, radicals and educated women, and succeeded in initiating a new wave of social force led by women. By 1794 it had been translated into French and German as well as published in America, and it has ever since remained a work of the greatest importance in the field of women’s rights. A second edition was published the same year, but a planned second volume was never written because Wollstonecraft’s confidence had been severely impacted by her brief relationship with American businessman, author, and diplomat Gilbert Imlay. The surviving first editions of the London: for J. Johnson, 1792 publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Man: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, are valued well over $20,000. They are extremely scarce, and they represent an important, ground-breaking manifesto on human rights.
Wollstonecraft was one of the first to question the relation between the sexes. Her philosophy dictated that women were to be more than just wives and caretakers: they were to educate children, and be companions to their husbands, instead of their “slaves.” There was indeed nothing particularly shocking about her ideas, because she did not attack the institution of marriage or the practice of religion, but only wished to ameliorate its habitual dynamics. It was, however, a very slow and painful process to change, and it took many more contributions and waves of feminism before things truly began to improve. In the early part of the 19th century, it was Jane Austen’s turn to address the restricted lives women faced at the time through her books. Austen’s Sense and Sensibility under the pseudonym ‘’A lady’’ was published in 1811, causing the outcry which ensued.
Although Vindication of the Rights of Women was technically written in Britain, it arguably represents the beginning of the first-wave in American feminism. One may only wonder what effect a completed second volume would have supplemented to the feminist movement. Instead, five years after Wollstonecraft’s affair with Gilbert Imlay, she met and married William Godwin, and in September of 1797 she died at the young age of thirty-eight right after giving birth to their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Some social activists believe that we may now be on a fourth-wave that began in 2008. Whether it will surge or ripple is still unknown. One thing we know for sure is that waves recede and gather strength and come back stronger. Unlike Mary Wollstonecraft’s deployment in the 18th century, today‘s transformations are utilizing much more powerful tools to spread their message – social media. Luckily for the book collector, the 18th century means are still more valuable.