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Was Plato a Feminist?

Painting of Plato pointing upwards at the School of Athens by Raphael, ca 1511. from: PWCD - Plato on women -


Written by: Stewart Lawrence

Was Plato, in some fashion or another, a feminist?  Two schools of thought have dominated this debate.  One school, comprising structuralists like Irigaray, and others, have answered the question with a resounding no. Plato is too steeped in the masculine universe of what constitutes politics and community to honor a woman’s unabashed presence in the polis, they argue. Annas, for example, notes that Plato, even while calling for the abolition of the nuclear family, did not support this position for the same reason modern feminists do. Elsewhere, Plato appears to disparage the intellectual abilities of women relative to men, leading some to accuse him of misogyny.

Another school challenges this argument, suggesting that Plato, while not a feminist in the modern sense perhaps, was something of a closet or protofeminist, in fact.  He believed that sex differences were socially and culturally constructed, not innate.  He was not disparaging all women, just some.  He established the foundational premises and ideas that would lead to the incorporation of at least some women into civic life.  And in focusing on transformation and becoming, subscribed to what one scholar suggests was a feminist way of thinking.

The state of a society’s gender relations, so to speak, was not fundamental to his way of thinking… 

One could argue that both schools are right, in fact.  The answer actually depends on how one might define feminist, especially when applied to classical pre-feminist times.  Plato, of course, was not fundamentally concerned with the position of women per se, as a modern feminist would be.  He was philosophizing about the foundation of a just state.  So, in this sense, one could say that Plato, while not anti-feminist, was largely non-feminist.  The state of a society’s gender relations, so to speak, was not fundamental to his way of thinking    Still, it was not completely on the margins, either.

In this brief paper I review the claims and counter claims about Plato’s feminism and arrive at something of a middle position. Plato was no avowed feminist, but feminists should still take heart and hope from much of what Plato had to say.  Many classical philosophers have avoided these issues altogether.  The fact that one of the great founders of modern philosophy saw fit to discourse on them  must be judged in the final analysis as supremely validating. TURN PAGE >>

Eros - Greek Mythology Link
“In The Symposium Plato refers to a wise woman character, Diotima, and in The Republic he proposes women’s active participation in political life.” – Sena 


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