Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of all ages and countries. Alphabetically arranged. By Mary Hays. In Six Volumes. Vol. I [-VI]. London, Richard Phillips, 1803.
First Edition. Six volumes, 12mo (175 x 95 mm), pp. xxvi, 238, *169-*238, 239-316; [ii], 404; [ii], 444; [ii], 504; [ii], 527; [ii], 476,  advertisments, tear on II, 135, against text but with no loss, in contemporary half calf over marbled boards, spines and corners ruled in gilt, spines lettered and numbered in gilt, a little wear to extremities and surface of boards but generally a sound and attractive set.
First edition of this impressive work of early female biography, written by Mary Hays, radical novelist, friend of Mary Wollstonecraft and important early feminist. Hays includes biographies of 294 women across different countries and from different centuries. Her preface is notable as an early call to arms for for women’s education and emancipation, putting a persuasive case for the superiority of women.
‘My pen has been taken up in the cause and for the benefit of my own sex. For their improvement, and to their entertainment, my labours have been devote... I have at heart the happiness of my sex, and their advancement in the grand scale of rational and social existence. I perceive, with mingled concern and indignation, the follies and vices by which they suffer themselves to be degraded. If, through prudence or policy, the generous contention between the sexes for intellectual equality must be waved, be not, my amiable country-women, poorly content with the destination of the slave of an Eastern haram, with whom the season of youth forms the whole life! A woman who to the graces and gentleness of her own sex, adds the knowledge and fortitude of the other, exhibits the most perfect combination of human excellence. Let not the cold sarcasms of the pedant stifle your generous ardour in pursuit of what is praise-worthy: substitute, as they fade, for the evanescent graces of youth, the more durable attractions of a cultivated mind; that, to the intoxicating homage of admiration and love, may succeed the calmer and not less gratifying tribute of friendship and esteem. To her who, sacrificing at the shrine of fashion, wastes her bloom in frivolity; who, trained but for the purposes of vanity and voluptuousness, and contemning the characteristic delicacy of her sex, dauntless obtrudes her charms on the public eye, the jest of the licentious, and the contempt of the severe; dreadful must be the approach of age, that season of collected thought and of repose to the passions, that will rob her of her only claim to distinction and regard. To excite a worthier emulation, the following memorial of those women, whose endowments, or whose conduct, have reflected lustre upon the sex, is presented more especially to the rising generation, who have not grown old in folly, whose hearts have not been seared by fashion, and whose minds prejudice has not yet warped’ (Preface, pp. iii-vi).
Mary Hays wrote several novels: her most famous, Memoirs of Emma Courtney, London 1796, included letters from William Godwin, this was followed by the overtly feminist The Victim of Prejudice, London 1799 and later by Harry Clinton, London 1804 and Family Annals, London 1817. The reception of her first novel, with its notorious approval of sexual freedom, and the radical stance of her later novels did much to limit critical approval of Hay’s works in her lifetime and, although the present work brought her some financial stability, it was not until the twentieth century that she saw real acclaim.