Plato: Sexist or Feminist?

What Plato thought about women has been a popular area of discussion within The Republic in particular. He has been lauded as a very early feminist (while that term is a modern one) in some circles, although this view has quickly been argued against effectively by most scholars who have studied Plato. It is possible, however, that he had a more favourable outlook on the merits and abilities of the ‘fairer’ sex than other men of his time and standing.

I think it a mistake to state that he thought of them favourably in the context of Ancient Rome. The result of his opinions was one that would be considered ‘good’ today – as in, he concluded that women be put to work and educated as equally as men, as well as that they had no significant difference in value other than a biological difference of performing childbirth. However, his rationale for this judgment, while the judgment by itself is one approved in the modern era, was far in similarity to the modern rationale.

I believe that Plato was neither sexist nor feminist. Plato questions whether ‘female watchdogs [should] perform the same guard-duties as male’, concluding that ‘they should share all duties’, and applies this to the guardianship of the ‘philosopher kings’ to society. He also states that ‘it is natural for women to take part in all occupations as well as men’, meaning that everybody should be considered equally for the role of a governor, or ‘philosopher king’ – the individuals with far superior minds, and therefore would be, in Plato’s ideal state, the best of the best. On the other hand, Plato’s intentions are clearly not directed towards the promotion of female virtues. He consistently stresses that men are superior to women; it can be assumed that if a man and a woman presented with equal skill at a certain discipline, the man would be chosen in favour of the woman. He considers women as a social resource not exploited adequately and that they should be considered among functioning citizens to achieve a perfect society – his main concern is to maximise product and create justice and unity for his ideal state. Therefore, he is not feminist, as I believe to be feminist is to act with the intention of promoting the female sex and ending anti-female oppression, which is not his fundamental drive; he is not sexist, as he does not suppress the rights of women although he does believe in their mainly physical inferiority to men – I believe being sexist has some significance in what society you have lived in, and therefore, as the societal norm was of women being denied rights, the fact that he disagrees makes him not sexist. It is interesting that he emphasises that the only difference between women and men, other than sex, is their physiology of ‘one begets, the other bears children’ – this belief must have been extremely unusual in Ancient Athens as women were simply assumed to be the ‘fairer’, weaker sex suited for homely tasks.

In conclusion, I believe that, most significantly, every ideal Plato suggests is for his pursuit of a perfect state. Every one of his opinions adheres to this quest; meritocracy is never challenged, even when discussing childrearing; every individual has a specific set of skills that must be exploited and eventually, when unified, create his ideal state; the guardians are the superior beings, and must lead austere lives to devote themselves fully to the leadership of society. Women are allowed a range of roles (but would likely not be considered for anything remotely physical) and are held, for the most part, in equal mental estimation as men. Plato states that there is certainly a distinction between the two sexes, mainly physical, but emphasises that he does not consider it to be an impediment or determining factor of their role in society. However, his intention is not to promote women as their sex as he still firmly believes in male superiority. Therefore, I believe he is certainly not feminist, but equally not sexist, as he has no aim of dismissing women completely in his society; to him, sex is simply not the most valid basis of distinguishing skill.

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