“Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by providence to attain a greater degree of virtue.” (Vindication, p. 92). Does Wollstonecraft really think this? If so, how far does it compromise her feminism?

The quotation suggests that Wollstonecraft believes that men “seem to be designed” by higher powers to attain a “greater degree of virtue” insinuating that women are at a natural disadvantage. By exploring the following subjects, we could show how the statement would not compromise her stance as a feminist. First we will look at the importance of virtue and how it relates to the mind. Then, we will consider why men “seem to be designed by providence” to be advantaged in gaining a higher degree of virtue. Finally we will study why Wollstonecraft could agree with this statement if it meant men merely “seem” to be at an advantage, but would disagree if the statement is to mean that men are truly designed to be naturally advantaged.

At the start of “The Vindication of the Rights of Women”, Wollstonecraft clarifies a few core points upon which she builds her latter arguments about women. She distinguishes humans from other creatures through Reason, Virtue and Experience. She first looks at humans in comparison to other creatures and writes that “man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation” is in “Reason” (76). She follows by directing our attention to within the human race, and explains that “Virtue” is the acquirement, which “exalts one being above another” (76). She then explains the role, which “Experience” plays, where in our struggles and passions, we might “attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes”, which separates us from the “brutes” as, unlike humans, they do not reflect upon battling their desires (76). She uses her explanations of Reason, Virtue and Experience to conclude that if the “perfection of our nature and capability of happiness” is measured by the “degree of reason, virtue and knowledge” in an individual and that from reason, “knowledge and virtue naturally flow”(76). Although she does not explicitly deny that women are naturally disadvantaged at gaining a higher degree of virtue, she does suggest that women have the ability to attain virtue when writing “Every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason” (86). According to this claim, should the tools to reason be equally available to both sexes, both men and women can be equally virtuous.

When Wollstonecraft uses the word “constitution,” she seems to mean not only the physical state of the body, but also a sound mind. She uses the example that “People of genius” have been known to have “impaired their constitutions by study or careless inattention to their health” and that the “violence of their passions” is partly due to the “vigour of their intellects”. Thus, observers have inferred from this that “men of genius have commonly weak…delicate constitutions” (105). Here, “delicate constitutions” means delicate physical makeup. Wollstonecraft explains that she believes the opposite, that “strength of mind has…been accompanied by superior strength of body” (105). She describes her understanding of strength to also include the “natural soundness of constitution”, which is not the “robust tone of nerves and vigour of muscles, which arise from bodily labour, when the mind is quiescent” (105). This suggests that when Wollstonecraft speaks of a sound constitution, she assumes the mind is in use, and rather than limiting sound constitution to only mean physical strength, it also includes the soundness of the mind. If we suppose a sound mind includes the ability to reason well, then a sound constitution would include the ability to reason well. Since the definition of constitution of the body incorporates both physical strength and mind, the quotation would suggest that men are created as stronger not only in physical strength, but also in the mind and are created by God in a way that puts them at an advantage over women in attaining virtue.

Wollstonecraft could agree that men “seem” at an advantage because although the constitution of a body can mean both physical strength and mind, physical strength is visible but the mind is not. Men have a “natural pre-eminence” in physical strength compared to women, so this could have caused the unjustified assumption that this means they are stronger in the mind too (72). Wollstonecraft goes on to explain another reason why the assumption of women being weaker in mind exists. She discusses the misconception of Eve being created from “one of Adam’s ribs” and explains that very few actually understood this to be the literal truth. If this was indeed a metaphorical way of explaining the creation of woman, then suggesting that men and women differ in their designs by providence, would be a moot point, since the literal origins of their designs is unknown. The idea of Eve being created from Adam itself is enough to plant the idea in society that “woman was created for man” (92). Thus, it is possible that Wollstonecraft agrees with the statement if it means that men “seem” at an advantage.

However, should the statement mean that men are at a natural advantage, it would be more likely for Wollstonecraft to disagree. Wollstonecraft explores sources other than nature and providence as the causes of women’s apparent disadvantage and focuses on men and society. She puts a certain level of blame on both sexes as men see it as advantageous to lower women, and women do not contest this as they are “intoxicated by the adoration” (72). She suspects men carry some responsibility as even with “natural pre-eminence” in physical strength and apparent providential advantage, “men endeavor to sink [women] still lower” (72). Also, men were the ones who invented and propagated the concept of women being created “for [man’s] convenience or pleasure” as it was a method for the male gender to “exert his strength to subjugate his companion” (92). Wollstonecraft explains the idea that women are deemed weaker in reasoning than men only because they have not been given the opportunity in their surrounding society to reason on an equal level with them. In her explanation, she drew similarities between women and children, pointing out how for a child, “dependence is called natural” because the child has not been given “a moment to its own direction” and thus “rendered dependent” (109). Using both men and society to explain the possible causes of women’s apparent weaker abilities in attaining higher levels of virtue show that she does not think it a given situation by nature or God and does think it is possible that it was caused by the surrounding social environment instead.

Furthermore, she would not agree with the statement if it meant that men “are” created at an advantage by providence because she explains that the nature of reason should be the same in both sexes if all is created by God. The nature of reason is an “emanation of divinity” that “connects the creature with the Creator” as that soul cannot be “stamped with the heavenly image” if it is not “perfected by the exercise of its own reason” (122). Yet women have been “neglected education” and not given the opportunities to exercise their abilities to reason (107). It was commonly understood in her society that girls did get excited by dolls and played with them, yet she writes, “the doll will never excite attention unless confinement allows her no alternative” (110). This must mean that Wollstonecraft’s current society is one in which girls are indeed offered no alternative. In addition to this, she observes that “most women…who have acted like rational creatures” and have shown “intellect” are those who “have accidently been allowed to run wild”, which suggests that females in her society are confined to a certain lifestyle and are inhibited from the freedom of running “wild” to develop themselves the way they were born naturally (110-1). Women have not been given the chance to develop their reasoning abilities to attain the higher levels of virtue, thus they cannot be automatically categorized as being created less able than men. As a result of these statements, Wollstonecraft most likely thinks that women should not be considered less able than men naturally in attaining those levels of virtue.

Wollstonecraft goes to great lengths to explain the current situation of women and how they seem to be at a disadvantaged situation in comparison to men. However, she does not explicitly deny that men are created by providence at an advantage. This could potentially be because she does not have any evidence that women could have been created equal since the history of women has only shown women to be the weakest sex and also the “most oppressed half of the species” (101). This does not mean that she agrees women are born with a natural disadvantage. It seems incorrect to judge a sex when they are in an oppressed state. Wollstonecraft might agree that men “seem” to be created by providence with the ability to gain a higher level of virtue, but she doesn’t believe that they are actually so. Knowing that, the quote would not compromise her feminist stance as she offers this resulting situation of women as a consequence of the environment society has created, rather than the society becoming this way due to how women were created initially.


Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Janet Todd. A Vindication of the Rights of Men ; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ; An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.