Is Plato a Feminist?
Plato was no feminist nor did he ever intend to be one. Some of his positions might seem to substantiate the claim made by many that he was indeed the first to think of women being equal to men. However, I will argue in this essay that his seemingly feminist stance is but the expression of misogynistic thought.
At first glance to say that we must teach women and men the same things to make them usable for the same purposes might tempt us to speak of the ‘liberation’ of women. Yet it is the exact opposite: As Annas argues in Plato’s ideal city there is no room for women – what is in Plato’s time identified as the ‘female’ identity is not only repressed in the Kallipolis , it is simply nonexistent. (Annas, 2003, p.49)
Here, feminist interpretations diverge: on the one hand one might applaud Plato for the eradication of traditional sexist stereotypes. Hence in the ideal polis women are free to do whatever men are free to do. They receive the same education, can occupy any ‘office’ and are not regarded as inferior just because they are women. (Plato, 1892, v.456)
Yet at the same time blatantly sexist remarks by Plato make him taking such a position implausible: [...] the better principle in a man masters the worse. There are in cities whole classes— women, slaves and the like— who correspond to the worse [...] (Plato, 1892, v.431). His sexist comments are however mostly implicit in nature: His opinion that women should be able to do as men do, does not mean that he values femininity to such an extent that he is eager to ‘allow’ them to participate in the discourse of the guardians and the production of goods. Plato instead aims at rooting out the female ‘gender’ from society – women are still part of the Kallipolis, their gender however is not. Sex as an intrinsic part of nature persists; the cultural identity of women is denied and abolished. Implicitly Plato is denying emotional closeness, as the main feature of women he names, its value. If the role of the woman and her value is degraded then surely we should say that Plato has nothing in mind but creating a male world within which women are free to assume the role of men. (Reeve, 2009, p.73)
So the analysis in terms of sex and gender has successfully overturned interpretations that asserted Plato a positive role in the plight for women liberation. (Lovibond, 2000, p.16) Indeed as we have seen Plato does not only not take a feminist perspective, he is all too concerned with ‘male’ gender to even consider the relevance of attributes of the ‘female’ gender – his solution then equals the exclusion of certain characteristics of being from the just life. It is without doubt then that Plato was not a feminist.
Plato. (1892). The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected. [Online] Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=767&chapter=93795&layout=html&Itemid=27 [Accessed: 5 November 2008]
Reeve, C.D.C. (2009) Chapter 4: Plato. In D. Boucher & P. Kelly, eds. Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.62-81
Annas, J. (2003) Plato: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Lovibond, S. (2000) Feminism in ancient philosophy: The feminist stake in Greek rationalism. In M. Fricker & J. Hornsby, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.10-28