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The battle for women's rights has been a long fought struggle that continues to this day; the right of citizens of the United States to vote being allowed to both women as well as men wasn't proposed by Congress until 1919 (US Const. Amend. [XIX]. Sec. 1). However, long before women were considered equal citizens in the western world, a Greek philosopher by the name of Plato made suggestions that women should be treated equally. Many have noted that Plato, particularly in his work, Republic, vies for women's right to an equal education as well as holding the highest positions. Such a suggestion is a complete anomaly when juxtaposed with the relevant ancient cultures in which he was living. Although Plato took an extremely progressive stance on women's rights, it would be a rash assumption to label him as a feminist purely from his view that women should be allowed an equal education. Despite Plato developing many possibly feminist fronts, his incentives were for the betterment of the state rather than for the gain of the woman population. This basis, coupled with the implications that Plato still does not consider women as men's equal, undermines any possible feminist label one attempts to apply to Plato.

Plato was born in Athens around 427 B.C. (Laërtius, 1853). His education was "like any other Athenian boy's , would be physical as well as mental" (Guthrie, 1975). As was typical in Greek cities, a well rounded education was given to the young philosopher. Plato, upon maturing into a young man, "like most Athenians of his class... would go straight into politics, but his early twenties coincided with the defeat of Athens and the oligarchic revolution leading to the government of the Thirty" (Guthrie, 1975). This lead to Plato avoided the realm of politics, and upon the execution of Socrates, Plato's teacher whom Plato described as 'the most righteous man then living', Plato further questioned the government system and the type of men who held the political power and left to Italy and Sicily (Guthrie, 1975). These early encounters with politics lead to Plato becoming a philosopher and incidentally forming one of the earliest known organized schools in Western Civilization.

Plato, still appalled with the state of politics, decided that seeing both what was right for the state as well as what was right for the individual was only possible through scrupulous education and "an unbiased search for truth, conducted apart from the confusion and prejudices of active politics - in other words it was only possible for philosophers, 'lovers of wisdom'" (Guthrie, 1975). Thus Plato founded The Academy, "a large enclosure of ground that was once the property of a citizen at Athens named Academus... some, however say that it received its name from an ancient hero." (Jowett, 2008). The aim of this Academy was certainly to produce political pundits and as Plato adopted the role of teacher rather than as an administrator, "the primary aim of education for statesmanship never left his thoughts" (Guthrie, 1975). We may see the foundation and purpose of The Academy as derivative of Plato's wish to correct the governmental systems in place as well as the politicians running them. But fitting to Plato's thoughts that the ideal ruler would be a philosopher, "The Academy was primarily a school of philosophy. Not that Plato was blinkered. He encouraged other men's research in other subjects, and he gathered about him the most talented minds of Greece" (Barnes, 1982). So while Plato was focusing upon producing philosopher rulers, he also stayed true to the Greek way of life in offering a well rounded education for the future politicians enrolled in The Academy.

If we wish to evaluate Plato's attitude towards women, we must first analyze the general Athenian cultural attitude towards women at the time to offer a fair comparison. However, when we consider the historical evidence of attitudes towards women, "... there exists a considerable body of evidence, mainly in the form of law-court speeches... The fact remains that for all practical purposes there is nothing which represents the authentic voice of women themselves... and when we look to determine the position of women in Athens we can claim to be determining only what Athenian men thought about women..." (Just, 1989). So we must consider that any writings will not be a perfect representation of the culture in that the writings themselves are possibly biased due to the fact that they purely represent the voice of men.

Although it is quite evident that women, in many facets, were quite essential to the existence of Athenian society, if not purely for obvious biological necessities for a demographic to possess females. However, Aristotle, one of Plato's students, wrote in his Politics, "We do not for a moment accept the idea that we must call citizens all persons whose presence is necessary for the existence of the state" (Aristotle, 1885). Here we see that women are not even considered citizens in the Greek definition of the word. Women could not possess any administrative or executive role in the government and were essentially politically deprived. Although women were not allowed to directly participate in politics, "There are enough indications to be certain that some women at least were aware of public issues, and that in Athens men might, in the privacy of the home, discuss with their wives and daughters what had taken place in the courts or in the assembly. It is also conceivable that some women influenced their husbands' political decisions..." (Just, 1989). Hence we see that women are not being barred from politics on the grounds of being incompetent upon political matters; on the contrary, we see that at least some women were well versed in the happenings of politics.

In addition to being forcibly politically withdrawn, women were, throughout their entire life, supervised by a guardian or kyrios; "[women] were not considered [as] legally competent, autonomous individual[s] responsible for [their] own actions or capable of determining [their] own interests" (Just, 1989). We see that, contrary to the evidence that some women were likely indirectly involved in the political system by influencing men's decisions, they are legally considered as incompetent of acting as an individual in any matters of law. However, we must not consider a woman's kyrios as possessing her in a manner similar to a master, but rather as her protector, officially required to look after her welfare. "It would thus be possible to see a woman's kyrios simply as the male relative who at any particular time was required to provide her with domestic support and representation in a society in which women had little role in the extra-domestic world..." (Just, 1989). Although women are not purely unrepresented in the political world, they possess little to no direct political influence.

Despite the fact that women were prohibited from direct political participation, they were not completely disregarded and disrespected. The Greeks, ever nationalistic, considered that a woman's best role for the state was child bearing and producing more Greeks. "The social role which woman had always played, that of wives and mothers, was now legally established as their right as well as duty, and was recognized, through various festivals, as a vital and honored contribution to the state" (Peradotto, 1984). Women were obviously not considered as useless or a burden to society, but were rather restricted to the typical societal role of baby makers. "A woman's place was within the home, within the family; and though she may not have been physically constrained to remain there, that was her realm of competence" (Just, 1989). The training of women is highly reflective of this attitude of Athenian society. "Girls' training was in all likelihood entrusted to their mothers, who instructed them in the domestic arts and 'womanly wisdom'; and their education was completed by their husbands..." (Katz, 2001). Hence we may see that even the "education" of women in ancient Greek society was one of keeping women in their place, at home.

Not only was the family to be considered as a woman's place but, that was considered to be her most important contribution to Greek society. "The death of a young girl often elicited lamentations specifically over her failure to fulfill her intended role as a wife. Epitaphs express this feeling, and... the dead maiden is portrayed as a bride on [the] memorial loutrophoroi vases" (Pomeroy, 1975). Although women are clearly respected as contributors to society, we see that nothing they accomplish is even considered a comparison to their role as wife and mother. This is essentially the only realm in which women are considered useful to the state. To summarize women's political place and power, "Athenian women were most certainly subordinate to men. They were consigned to the background of events to be protected, controlled, and manipulated by those who held the monopoly of authority in a society which was, by definition, a society of men" (Just, 1989). We now see that women played an extremely secondary role in society, literally not citizens by the Greek definition, but rather, baby factories to be controlled and used by the male populace of Athens.

Additionally, apart from the general lack of political power or societal equality, we may consider the general attitude towards women and the traits associated with them as a whole. "If men hold the monopoly of power then it might be expected that they should appropriate the monopoly of virtue. Thus women are not only 'naturally' different; they are also 'naturally' inferior" (Just, 1989). We find these labels of inferiority abundantly amongst Greek writings by those such as Aristotle, who in his Politics, claimed that "A man would seem a coward if he had only the courage of a woman: a woman a chatterer if she were no more reticent than a good man" (Aristotle, 1885). Here, women are stereotyped as cowardly and loudmouthed; Aristotle is displaying his belief that no woman could possibly possess positive traits such as courage or restraint.

Plato, in stark contrast with these convictions held by most Athenians, argues in his Republic that it is conceivable for women have a place in society other than reproductive purposes. He first poses a hypothetical question of, "whether bald people and long-haired people have the same nature or opposite ones; and when we agree that they are opposite, to forbid the long-haired to be cobblers, if that is what the bald are to be or vice versa. But that would be ridiculous!" (Plato, 1993). This argument leads us towards Plato's idea that although women have a different nature than men overall, society shouldn't reject individual women from positions for which they are qualified merely on the grounds that women, as a whole, are not normally associated with such a position. This may readily be considered as a feminist ideal in that women should have the right to fill positions that they are qualified for rather than being dismissed into the traditional female role.

Plato goes on to query, "So shall we assign everything to men, and nothing to a woman? How could we? No, because, as we'll agree, one woman has a natural ability for medicine, and another not, and one for music, another not[.] So there is also a woman equipped to be a Guardian, and another who isn't. Isn't that sort of natural potential that we selected in our male guardians too?" (Plato, 1993). One should note here that the Guardian position which Plato refers to is one of a military position that "represents the highest type of citizen" (Guthrie, 1975). Plato not only avoids resigning women to a singular role of the house maker, but contends that women are equally capable of possessing the highest status of citizens. This is a humongous juxtaposition with the rest of Greek society if we consider the sentiments previously mentioned that women were not even considered citizens by the Greek definition of the word. Again, we may easily contend that we are witnessing feminist sentiments from Plato in that he states that women should be able to hold the highest position a citizen may obtain.

Furthermore, Plato argues that if some women are capable of filling the coveted role of Guardian, "it won't be two different kinds of education that will produce our men and our women for us, especially since it will be entrusted with people of the same nature? It must be the same education" (Plato, 1993). This is obviously a significantly progressive thought and a great step towards the argument supporting education of women. Plato is seen to believe that at least some women deserve an equal right to education in stating that, in reference to the possibility of female Guardians, "if we intend to employ the women for the same tasks as the men, we must also teach them the same things" (Plato, 1993). So not only is Plato arguing for the education of women, but he is saying that it must be the exact same education as men, which is again quite contrary to the popular beliefs of Athenian society that we have previously discussed. Yet again, it would be impossible to argue that Plato striving for equal education for both sexes is not consistent with feminist ideals.

Despite the fact that Plato is seen arguing for equal treatment of women his attitude towards them is hardly one of equality. Plato can be found expressing such sentiments in stating, "[The Guardians] should share all activities - except that we employ the females as weaker animals, the males as stronger" (Plato, 1993). Although Plato feels that certain females are more qualified for the job of Guardian than other women and even some males, he still affirms the established societal stereotype that women are of inferior strength as a whole demographic. Plato even goes so far to ask, "...are you aware of any practice cultivated by humans in which the male sex is not superior to the female in all... ways...? Or do we have to spend time discussing weaving and the preparation of cakes and vegetables..." and continues to state that, "It's true that the one sex is greatly surpassed by the other in virtually everything" (Plato 1993). We see that Plato, while reaffirming well established stereotypes of the female sex, acknowledges that there are a few exceptions where, "... there are many women who are better at many things than many men" (Plato, 1993). Plato's distinguishing feature here is that he does not completely dismiss women as a whole, which seems like a much less noble stance than we previously observed from his rhetoric. But even this stance seems to be brought into question when Plato makes statements such as, "...a woman and a man can possess the same natures for Guardianship of a city, except in so far as the former is weaker, the latter is stronger" (Plato 1993). Plato seemingly oscillates between the two arguments that at least some women are equal to men in certain areas and that women are overall inferior in several fields. Although Plato contends that women should be able to hold the position of Guardian and receive equal training, he seems to believe that their duties should, paradoxically be unequal. We can note this conflicting ideology when Plato states that the Guardians, "...[should] not be given different activities; but within [the areas of warfare and civic duties], the women must be allotted lighter tasks than the men, because of the weakness of their sex" (Plato 1993). While the contentions of women lacking physical strength are generally still in place in modern society, Plato's other claims of inferiority are not as easily dismissed by the feminist ideal. His argument that the only activities in which women consistently excel in over men involve homemaking, which, perhaps true for the time, is hardly a feminist attitude.

Apart from the obvious fact that Plato still considers women to be the overall inferior sex, yet capable of producing individuals who defy the stereotypes, Plato's incentives to offer women the position of Guardianship can be considered to be inconsistent with a feminist ideology (although not necessarily opposing the feminist ideology). Plato acknowledges that the position of Guardian is one of sacrifice in that, " [is] the city that we [are] making as happy as possible" (Plato 1993). Rather than endorsing purely moral reasons for allowing females to become guardians, Plato is adopting a nationalistic argument. Essentially, Plato can be considered to be arguing that women should be considered for the position of Guardian not for the purpose of equality and justice; no that comes as a byproduct of the real goal, which is the betterment of the state. Plato, in a traditionally Greek nationalistic view, wants women to become Guardians not for their own achievement, but in order to fulfill the common good and the greater unity of the state overall. While this doesn't directly oppose feminism, such sentiments definitely do not further paint Plato as a feminist. Although he is seen to disregard the wants of the female Guardians, we may note that he is also disregarding male Guardians equally. But still, this disregard for the rights and wants of the upper occupations of women, definitely opposes feminist principles.

Although Plato seems quite progressive in his ideology for advocating in favor of women gaining positions in society other than home makers, his stance upon women stereotypes as well as his incentives behind offering equality undermine the label of feminist some are quick to stick on him. Plato proved to be far before his time in the argument that women (at least some women that is) not only have a right to an education, but have a right to an education equal to one offered to men. But Plato's incentives for this education were for the betterment of the state in that he considered it a waste of potential to have capable women restricted to the home front. Such an attitude, while not directly opposing feminist thought, does imply that he was more concerned with the state than women's rights. Plato's stance on the general 'nature' of women still conforms with the ideas of Athenian society, which is a far greater concern to those who wish to consider Plato as a feminist. Plato's beliefs, can therefore, be considered to align entirely with the attitude of most Athenians that women are not only naturally different, but naturally subsidiary. While Plato does acknowledge that some women transcend these stereotypes, it is still evident that he finds truth in such assumptions. Nonetheless, Plato was far before his time in the suggestion that women should receive an equal education, and his writings gave hope to the woman population for the chance of attending academy's and schools. But despite Plato's advant-garde attitude towards women's right to equal education, one could hardly classify the man as consistent with modern feminist principles.





Plato on Women: Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game


Page Author: Kerry E. Olivier

Saturday, 11-Feb-2012 14:19


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US Const. Amend. [XIX]. Sec. 1


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