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Was Plato the First Feminist?

The short answer is probably not! But also yes, sort of. Plato wasn’t out on the streets of Athens burning his bra, but then nor was Mary Wollstonecraft. Come to think of it nor were/are any of us. He certainly didn’t defend the rights of women as such, but he did consider equality of the sexes in his most famous work Republic. I know, it’s a low bar. Often thought of as the most influential philosopher of all time and we’re congratulating him, simply for remembering that women exist. But his discussion on the role of women in his ideal society is very interesting and not mentioned enough as a key part of his work.

In Book 5 of Plato’s Republic, he brings up the topic of women and where they fit in to his new society. Oddly, he opts to begin by making a comparison to dogs. No, it’s ok, it’s not as bad as it sounds. He compels his audience by stating “Thus.” (he starts a lot of sentences with ‘Thus’), “Do we think that the females of watch-dogs ought to guard the flock along with the males, and hunt with them, and share in all their duties..?” The Socratic response given is essentially yes, but always Plato points out that the females are weaker and the males stronger. He then goes on to make the case that females of humans (just kidding, he calls them women actually) should be employed in the same duties as men and that we should therefore give them the same instruction, by which he means education. Wow, it’s like Mary Wollstonecraft has travelled back in time! Plato’s argument isn’t as good as Wollstonecraft’s of course and has some interesting considerations given the time in which he was writing.

Now, before I get to the interesting considerations upon which Plato dwells a while, I should first tell you that during Plato’s lifetime (roughly 427 BCE – 347 BCE) it was usual in Ancient Greece to exercise naked! And so the first major consideration made by Plato about giving women the same instruction as men is the “most ridiculous” sight of their naked bodies exercising. My first thought upon reading this was that the men and women would exercise separately, privately, but clearly this did not occur to Plato or his Socratic party. My second thought was, why didn’t they consider the idea of naked women exercising at least a tiny bit sexy, but then I remembered Plato’s adoration of the male form and thought better of it. As part of his argument in favour of women joining the men in exercising, Plato reminds the reader of how ridiculous it is to see old men exercising naked, stating “just like those old men in the gymnasia who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness still keep up their fondness for active exercises?” His point being ‘ridiculous as it seems, we’ll soon get used to it’. I love that in proposing what is a very radical inclusion of women in society this is his first concern, or rather this is what he considers his readers to express as their immediate concern.

The subject of men and women being different in their nature is then considered, and given that no one had invented nurture at this point in time, it is to be expected. Plato then reasons that the natures of men and women may not necessarily be so different as to make them unsuitable for the same work. In order to be persuasive, he employs the example of bald men and long-haired men. While different, they could be suited to the same work. It’s hard not to imagine that Plato is being deliberately funny in these passages, but given that he had strong views against comedy, and laughter more broadly, he probably wasn’t.

Anyway, Plato goes on to argue that a woman could be talented in any subject, whilst carefully reminding us all the while, that within any given field, she would always be inferior to her male colleague of course. Two and a half thousand years – how far we’ve come. Having been very clear about women’s inferiority to her male peer, Plato goes on to consider women having talents in medicine or music and even in gymnastic exercise and in war. Going as far as to say that some women may possess a love of knowledge, the highest possible praise Plato could bestow. Women aren’t as good as men according to Plato, but certainly some women are better than some men. Remarkable. It turns out Plato was more classist than he was sexist, who knew?

Plato reasons “then as far as the guardianship of the state is concerned, there is no difference between the natures of the man and of the women, but only various degrees of weakness and strength.” He then explains why it is desirable to educate women for the same roles as men, supposing that if the male guardian is the best of men and the female guardian the best of women, then shouldn’t the best state have the best men and the best women? And so he concludes a huge upgrade for the women of Ancient Greece, absolutely ginormous! Women of ancient Athens were not allowed to leave the house most of the time and here they are doing star jumps naked. Go on, enjoy yourself.

Now, I must tell you what happens next. Prepare yourselves, because Plato is about to lose his fucking mind! He proposes that in his ideal state all the women are common to all the men (within their own class, obvs.),  anddddd, so are the children; “the children shall be common, and that the parent shall not know his child, nor the child his parent.” So the children will belong to the state and be raised by the state. After theoretically, taking away everyone’s children, I don’t think anyone will remember that bit about the women looking ridiculous at the gym anymore. Phew.

Plato goes on to discuss genetics, which hadn’t been invented yet, but he realises like Mendel with his peas, that when breeding animals, if you breed the best animals, with the best animals, you get the best animals. It’s not clear what he meant by ‘best’, but he is super excited about it, stating “Good heavens my dear friend!” “What very first-rate men our leaders ought to be, if the analogy hold with regard to the human race.” I think when he says men here, he means women too (fingers crossed). And then, in one fell swoop, he invents eugenics; “It follows from what has been already granted that the best of both sexes ought to be brought together as often as possible, and the worst as seldom as possible”. Ok Plato, stop there. But he doesn’t. Continuing, “and that the issue of the former unions ought to be reared, and that of the latter abandoned, if the flock is to attain to first-rate excellence” and by ‘issue’ he means baby. It doesn’t get any better, as he then concludes with, “and these proceedings ought to be kept a secret from all but the magistrates themselves, if the heard of guardians is also to be as free as possible from internal strife.” All the way up to this point, you may have, like me, been thinking ‘Oh, I wish the Ancient Greeks had listened to Plato and created his ideal society’, well not anymore.

Plato goes on in his excitement, to forget the almost-equal status he had given to women just a few pages ago and begins to offer them as prizes to the very best soldiers and others. Oh Plato, you’ve lost it mate. It’s quite odd actually, because he’s decided that throughout each class or role within his society, there will be the most talented men and the most talented women, but as soon as he gets carried away with his eugenics scheme, he forgets completely about the women. Plato starts thinking about how to reward “our young men who distinguish themselves” and his answer, of course “more liberal permission to associate with the women”. It appears in this case when Plato uses the term ‘men’ he means men.

Alright, so we probably wouldn’t want to live in Plato’s ideal society, but as to his feminist credentials, I have to give it to him, writing nearly 2500 years ago, he was something of a feminist, a relative feminist we might say. I’ll leave you with these two contradictory sentiments and you can make up your own mind. At one point Plato declares “and is it not the sign of a womanish and petty mind to regard with hostile feelings the body of a dead man”. What does Plato think of women? Well, he thinks it’s ‘womanish’ to pillage the dead. Typical Athenian women, always pillaging the dead! On the other hand he argues “the women are to be put on the same footing as the men, according to our description, in education, in bearing children and in watching over the other citizens… join with them [men] in the chase like dogs, and have everything in common with them so far as is at all possible, and that in doing so they will be following the most desirable course”.