By: Mary Townsend and Political Animal

In the era of women’s marches and #metoo movements, the role of women in society is being challenged from many quarters. To better understand the controversy, it is worth recalling that the fundamental question is one that human beings have had to wrestle with in every age and in every regime.

With this in mind, the editors of Political Animal Magazine spoke to Mary Townsend, the author of The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic. Her book examines how Plato dealt with the role of women in his Republic. We asked Townsend to tell us a little about the “Woman Question” and Plato’s thoughts on the matter. The following is what she had to say.

Political Animal: The title of your book refers to “The Woman Question” – what is “The Woman Question”, and how does Plato deal with it in the Republic?

Mary Townsend: The “Woman Question” is the open, living, and perennially fraught question of what women’s nature, role, and political position in the human community is or ought to be. Plato’s Socrates’ answer is without parallel: he pulls apart the polis in search of the women who will be educated in philosophy and rule as philosopher-queens. The solution is notoriously unsatisfying, and most readers across time and space have found reasons to quarrel with it, whether by attempting to explain that Plato did not mean women to study philosophy after all, or by considering that the caveat of women’s relative weakness undermines the whole of the text’s treatment of women.

PA: So you find that Plato’s actual position is contrary to the two views that you describe?

MT: Yes, Plato’s awareness of this inevitable resistance from both directions and his attempt to ameliorate each reaction is built into the rhetorical fabric of the Republic. The linchpin is the way Socrates successfully persuades the youthful Glaucon that women should be educated and have a share in rule (540c) under philosophy’s guardianship. Glaucon is initially willing enough to grant education to women, but Socrates goes out of his way to point out an internal contradiction in Glaucon’s opinions: Glaucon also believes women might as well be wholly other than men, which would disqualify them from similar education. The argument grinds to a halt in aporia (the first really dramatic aporia since the beginning of the book), and Socrates asks Glaucon for an apology, noting that only a wondrous rescue will save the argument. The rescue is effected by the re-introduction of Glaucon’s very first response to Socrates’ initial plans for complete, non-hierarchical partnership, that everything can be shared but women will be taken as weaker. After this is adopted, Glaucon is happy to concede the partnership, and Socrates’ initial plan to educate the women remains on the books; the action of Socrates’ argument remains the same.

Our attempts to speak to the woman question are inevitably shaped by our relation to our own regime, and our hopes and fears for women living in it. By dramatizing the difficulties surrounding the attempt to give women a public role, and by observing Socrates’ own willingness to sacrifice much of ordinary human life in the service of the regime change to where male and female philosophers rule, Plato offers a keen psychological and political glimpse into the battle between the sexes, and allows the reader to witness what it would take to allow the woman question to become a living one for themselves.

PA: What else does your book deal with, in relation to all of this?

MT: One thing I look at is the notorious question of naked exercise and its proposed Socratic solution of “robes of virtue,” that speaks to the way men and women behold each other in public, and how this interacts with the hope we’d let reason govern our actions. I also trace the constant theme in the Republic of hunting as an image of philosophy, connecting it to the dialogues Sophist and Symposium and to the goddess that opens the Republic, the Thracian hunting goddess, Bendis.

The book also discusses Aristotle’s famous critique of Socrates’ provisions for women, arguing that the beginning of an investigation into whatever share in the natural women have has to begin with their status as political animals, and the contradictions that the division of labor draws out in all human beings.

And, finally, I argue for Plato’s expectation of female readers of the Republic. I look at what hopes Plato may have had for the effect of Socratic rhetoric on women themselves, and for the Republic’s rhetorical place in the world as a book that argues for women’s education and rule. Reflecting on that, I also examine the pre-20th century reception history of the book among women in many different regimes.

PA: How would you say that Plato’s treatment of this question helps us deal with the same question in the present day?

MT: I think it’s particularly helpful right now, because it reimagines our current debates, manifested in everything from opinion pages to social media to public marches, in an entirely different political context, while laying our underlying interest in these questions—a perfectly just society—on the line.

I guess I’d say that it’s not enough to give women a public role in an otherwise unchanged regime; you have to rewrite many other political things too, including work, eros, family, how the sexes conceive of each other, etc., and that’s part of the reason for the turbulence we’re seeing these days. It’s what that kind of radical difference would mean that Plato is so helpful with.

Platonic dialogue exists to force us to be articulate in our response to often quite amusingly hyperbolic arguments, allowing us to uncover our prejudices as we revolt against the text, while setting a kind of dialectical bar for just how complex any thoroughly philosophic answer would have to be.

Mary Townsend is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at Loyola University New Orleans; she also has written for The Hedgehog Review and Education and Culture.

Image: Votive stele of the goddess Bendis and her followers, maybe athletes taking part in the torch relay race in honor of the goddess. Marble votive relief, made in Athens, ca. 400-375 BC. British Museum, via Wikipedia