Aphra Behn was the courageous and talented woman in question. I'm glad to say, her works ARE still in print - though she's not precisely a household name. Her plays, once so popular, are rarely performed now, though they did stay in the theatre repetoire for over a hundred years.
Aphra Behn, born Aphra Johnson in 1640, is a shady and fascinating character. Little is known about her except that it's thought she lived for a spell in Surinam and was widowed after only a short marriage. In 1667 Behn served as a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp. This seems a daring and unusual thing for a woman to have done at that time. Unfortunately, it seems she discovered little of much use for the King. In the way of kings, he therefore considered it beneath him to actually pay her for her loyalty to the crown. This led to her being imprisoned in 1668 for the debts she'd incurred in his service.
In Aphra Behn's day, women had very few choices for earning money. Marriage or becoming some man's mistress were the two main choices for a woman of birth and education. Behn chose neither, opting instead to write her way out of debt. She wrote plays, stories and poems and became both highly regarded and successful. She was not the only woman playwright of the time, but she was the first and the most successful.
The era being the Restoration, the Comedy of Manners was the vogue. In the hands of Congreve, Wycherly and the like, these were bawdy, rather heartless romps of intrigues and betrayals. Aphra Behn turned the genre into something different. She was subversive and addressed the dire situation of women; both nobly born and courtesans.
In The Rover, arguably Behn's best known play, Hellena is a young girl ordered by her father and brother to marry an elderly man. She has plenty to say on the subject of young girls marrying old men; so much so that when the play was performed in the Georgian era, some of her best speeches were cut short, because they were considered too outspoken and shocking.
But Behn didn't restrict her concerns for women to the wealthy classes: the tragedy of the courtesan who gives her heart to a roving soldier only to be utterly betrayed is a moving part of the play. No wonder Behn is considered a feminist. Her life and her works shrug off the conventional, call for choice and openly criticize the restricted role of women.
I rediscovered Behn and her fabulous play whilst researching what kind of reading material my narrator might have had access to in 1715. Given that The Girl in the Mask contains both spies and girls who won't accept their place in society, it was simply too good to resist. Behn, her life and her play all have an important part to play in my own character's rebellion against social norms. She is quite simply an inspiration.