Monday, February 13, 2012

Vindication, squashed

Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which turns 220 years old this month, can be tough going if you are not used to eighteenth century prose. Fortunately, it has been interpreted and condensed (and not just my paragraph-long attempt). Last week we looked at a recap of resources and some new ones too. Today, we offer you a version which "reduces the original 85,000 words by nearly 90%, but, as Wollstonecraft is an unusually repetitive writer, no great amount of her sense has been lost." It promises to deliver in 50 minutes.

It's the most radical shrinking I've yet presented (though stay tuned for next time). Squashed Philosophers exists to condense " ...the big books, the ones which defined the way The West thinks now, in their original words, neatly abridged down into little afternoons reads." It is all the work of one man, on such a shoestring he doesn't even have a domain name. Three cheers for Glyn Hughes of Lancashire, and here's to the power of the amateur! I love his generous and clear copyright waiver, "so that anyone anywhere (who hasn't been told not to) may reproduce these pages for any non-commercial purpose". I like the way he invites readers to get in touch: "Complaints are especially welcome." Worryingly, weirdly, he claims his website "has repeatedly been subject to serious, targeted, cyber attack. Are mad fundamentalists or wicked States attempting to destroy this grand disseminator of truth and enquiry? Or just geeks with too much spare time?"

So here is the task he has set himself:
For more than a decade Squashed Philosophers has been here to provide a way of making some sort of sense of the writings of The Western Philosophers. It lets you get to grips with a great idea in an hour or so, whether that's to prepare yourself for something bigger, or just for the joy of discovery. These versions are not complete and they're not perfect, but they do let you do something the originals can't - get for yourself a sort of grand overview of the whole universe of ideas, without having to just take other people's word for it. You'll love them.
He starts with a biography, to put her magnum opus in context:
At the heart of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, are the twin virtues of freedom of thought and devotion to family. Few people have so well combined the two as Mary herself, the presiding matriarch of one of the most remarkable families of free-thinkers the West has ever seen. A self-taught London teacher, Mary and her sister Eliza became convinced that the girls they attempted to enlighten were already enslaved by a social training that subordinated them to men....  Mary Wollstonecraft may be the "mother of feminism", yet, for all that she was called a "hyena in petticoats", by today's standards she seems somewhat prudish and more than modest in her aims. She does not lay any claim to equal opportunity for women, but rather allows for the sort of variation in the roles of the sexes which her sucessors might now call 'difference feminism'.
It promises to deliver in 50 minutes. "This condensed edition reduces the original 85,000 words by nearly 90%, but, as Wollstonecraft is an unusually repetitive writer, no great amount of her sense has been lost." However, if you don't have time for almost 10, 000 words, try this distillation:

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792
A Vindication of the Rights of Women
"I do not wish them to have power over men;
but over themselves."
I have a profound conviction that women are rendered weak and wretched, especially by a false system of education, gathered from books written by men who have been more anxious to make of women alluring mistresses than rational wives. The DIVINE RIGHT of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger. Men, in their youth, are prepared for professions, but women can only look to marriage to sharpen their faculties. Yet, novels, music, poetry and gallantry all tend to make women creatures of sensation. 
"Educate women like men," says Rousseau, "and the less power will they have over us." This is my point. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves. Rousseau holds that women ought to be weak and passive. Dr. Fordyce and Dr. Gregory's advice to women are full of old prejudices. Modesty is a great virtue, O my sisters, but modesty is incompatible with ignorance and vanity! 
Though I consider that women in the common walks of life are called to be wives and mothers, I lament that women of a superior cast have no way to pursue usefulness and independence. I really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without any share in the deliberations of government. Taxes on the very necessaries of life support an endless tribe of idle princes. Women might study medicine, politics and business. Women would not then marry for a support. 
Parental affection is often but a pretext to tyrannize. Children cannot be taught too early to submit to reason; but it is unreasoned parental authority that first injures the mind. I think that schools are now hot-beds of vice and folly. Day schools should be established by government, in which boys and girls might be educated together. Humanity to animals should be particularly inculcated. 
Belief in horoscopes is one of the worst affectations of women. Stupid, sentimental novels are another, as is an immoderate savage-like fondness for dress, for pleasure and sway. The majority of mothers leave their children entirely to the care of servants: or treat them as if they were demi-gods, yet such women seldom show common humanity to servants. Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man.


  1. I am currently reading Vindications, and according to my kindle, I have read 30% thus far. Even though I would consider myself a snoob, I do prefere to battle my way to the end of Vindications, the whole version. However, this was useful because Mary tends to repeat helself and I lose her train of thought, sometimes.

  2. MW is repetitive, it's true. I don't know of any squashed versions, or perhaps we should say modern interpretations, of her first polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). That's a project worth considering...