As a modern feminist, it’s difficult to truly envisage how different my life would have been centuries ago. I am a firm believer that books, and more importantly the voices within them, have the power to shape the world and society that surrounds us.
At times, proto-feminist icons would have been pushing for a world that would have seemed a mere ideal dystopian for their time. However, it is these (among many, many others) proto-feminist books and ideas that I believe have been crucial towards forming the better society we live in today.
1. A Serious Proposal To The Ladies, Mary Astell (1694).
Often coined ‘The First English Feminist’, Mary Astell didn’t hold back in her advocation towards better rights and treatment for women. Following the death of her last close relatives, it might have been expected that Astell would have sought a traditional life of domesticity and financial security with a husband. This was not to be the case. Moving to London and surrounding herself with fellow strong-minded women, she published several works fighting for equality, debated freely amongst both men and women and opened a school aiming to provide girls with better education than was generally permitted.
A Serious Proposal To The Ladies was her first work arguing that women were just as rational and capable as men. Its primary purpose was to advance women’s incredibly limited education and extend work opportunities available to them. Astell makes a case that as better educated and productive members of society, women would be far more useful, respected and liked.
“For since God has given women as well as men intelligent souls, why should they be forbidden to use them?”
2. A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792).
Wollstonecraft had very little time for traditional gender conformity. Boldly engaging in political discussions, publishing revolutionary works while living and sleeping freely with men out of wedlock, she was a hot topic of controversy for her time. Even when she did decide to marry, she refused to conform to traditional expectations and maintained her own domain for work.
A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, much like Astell’s work, is a fierce and logical reasoning of why women should be afforded the same rights as men. Wollstonecraft argues that women should receive fair education; be treated as companions and equals over mere domestic slaves; and be viewed as human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men rather than ornaments and marital trading property.
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë (1848).
The more obvious choice would have been Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and while it is certainly an empowering and proto-feminist novel for its time, it’s time for Anne to be granted some long overdue credit. I think that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is often swept under her sisters’ more famous works because it tends to focus less on an absorbing and fantastical whirlwind romance (generally a reader’s pick), and more on the escape from a terrible, yet unfortunately realistic marriage for a woman in that period.
Anne’s protagonist’s passion in this novel is not invested in some brooding anti-hero, but rather pursuing her love of art and making a life for herself. The book unashamedly highlights some of the dreadful abuse and limitations that women are often exposed to and advocates for better opportunities for women to live independent of men.
“In spite of earth and hell I should have strength for all my trials, and win a glorious rest at last!”
4. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (1860).
This novel is deserving of its place on this list for two reasons. Firstly, the general subject matter of the narrative is based around women’s limited social and legal rights as wives. Collins highlights the manipulation and abuse that was often inflicted upon Victorian women, including being falsely incarcerated when they stopped being convenient towards the needs of men.
Secondly, The Woman in White is brilliant for challenging gendered ideals of the period. We are introduced to a typical Victorian damsel; beautiful, feminine and for the main, submissive. Yet it is the true heroine of the novel, Marian Halcombe, whose opinionated and intelligent nature overrides any of her visual qualities, that won over its contemporary audience over the former. Hence, successfully showcasing and glorifying a very modern and feminist view of women.
“No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. […] They take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain a dog to a kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?”
5. The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill (1869).
When we think of the fight for a woman’s right to vote, John Stuart Mill may not be the first person to jump to your mind. However, he was the first person in the history of parliament to call for the vote to be granted. While unsuccessful in that field, he vigorously championed the women’s cause alongside his wife and daughter – ensuring they received credit for their input.
The Subjection of Women is a logically reasoned argument advocating for complete equality amongst the sexes; politically, socially and legally. The work added plenty of fuel to the feminist agenda and kick-started the intense suffrage battle for voting rights.
“Marriage is the only actual bondage known to our law. There remain no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house.”
6. A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen (1879).
This play explores the mundane life of a typical wife and mother of the Victorian period, highlighting the often sexist and condescending treatment a husband will often issue to her. While I found the plot to be generally lacklustre for most of the play, it is the ending alone that singles it out as a work worthy of this list.
After realising that she has been seriously let down by the society she lives in, the central character, Nora, makes the incredibly controversial decision to withdraw from her duties as a wife and mother in order to value and find herself. It argued a view that women were entitled to a far better and more enriching life than the one they were expected to live. While most contemporary theatres refused to showcase this ending, Ibsen remained true to his intended message and stood by his original idea.
“I have another duty, just as sacred. My duty to myself.”