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Women's Political Equality with Men

In: Philosophy and Psychology

Submitted By atarderj
Words 1914
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PHI 2301-01
Fall 2015

PHI 2301-01
Fall 2015

Atar Derj Critically evaluate Plato’s defense of women’s political equality with men.
Atar Derj Critically evaluate Plato’s defense of women’s political equality with men.
Women’s Political Equality with Men
Women’s Political Equality with Men

Plato’s defence of women’s political equality with men

What is “Equality”?
Equality is very hard to define since people disagree on its real meaning, as stated Dworkin: “People who praise it or disparage it disagree about what they are praising or disparaging” (2000, p. 2). So before going into the argumentation about women’s political equality with men, the term equality should be defined first to avoid any misconception.

Equality means the correspondence between persons or circumstances which have the same qualities in at least one feature. However, equality is different from the term similarity that refers to the approximate correspondence. Thus, when they say men are equal, it doesn’t mean that they are identical or the same, but it rather mean that they are similar in some points.

When a judgment of equality is made, it is more about the difference between the compared things. Whenever equality is implied in a topic, the question “equal in respect to what?” follows (Rae 1981, p.132 f.).

Equality is often related to morality, and considered as a feature of justice in general. But how equality and justice can be connected? What is the role of equality in justice?
To define the role of equality in justice is a very difficult philosophical issue itself, because each philosopher came with his or her own equality principle. As it is the case of Plato who defended women’s political equality with men in his book The Republic.

In the part IV of the book V of The Republic, Socrates faces the crucial question of whether men and women should have the same education and activities: “Is the female of the human species naturally capable of taking part in all the occupations of the male, or in none, or in some only?” (453a).

This question is raised for two main reasons; the first one is the principle of justice in state and individual (part V, book IV) that does not approach the women situation in any case: an individual is fair when the reason leads the spirit, the nature carries out the reason’s commandments, and that the appetite obeys. No reference is made about gender differences, neither in the justice in state nor the elements in mental conflict.

The second reason is Plato’s contemporary ideas about the fact that men and women should have different activities, which was the case in that period of time. Men’s responsibility was the state affairs, while women’s responsibility was home tasks. Those responsibilities’ attributions are stated in Meno (71e):
“First of all, if you take the virtue of a man, it is easily stated that a man's virtue is this—that he be competent to manage the affairs of his city, and to manage them so as to benefit his friends and harm his enemies, and to take care to avoid suffering harm himself. Or take a woman's virtue: there is no difficulty in describing it as the duty of ordering the house well, looking after the property indoors, and obeying her husband. And the child has another virtue—one for the female, and one for the male; and there is another for elderly men—one, if you like, for freemen […]”
From Meno sayings, it is clearly defined that due to the fact that men and women have different activities means that they do have different virtues and each gender should stick to their tasks for the sake of the community.

The conjunction between these two circumstances takes part on the one hand in the justice of the state, and on the other hand in the opinion about the role of women. This conjunction has given rise to Socrates question about the activities and education of women; this question could not be ignored because it completes the platonic theory concerning the justice in state and the ideal constitution.

Socrates begins with the question of whether women and men should have similar education. He offers a meaningful principle stating that: people should have similar education if they have similar activities in life, and vice versa, different education in case they have different activities. There is nothing to understand here, except that it is a real fact, for instance architects must have a higher education, while doctors and architects must have different education because architecture and medicine are different activities and thus require a different knowledge.

The issue of education depends on the type of activities. Should men and women then have the same or different activities? The activities in question are social tasks that consist of defending and governing the polis (Book V). Those tasks are known to be performed exclusively by men.

Socrates approached this question from the opposite side using his own vision of a fair state (453 b,c) :
“Isn’t there a very great natural difference between men and women? […] He will ask us whether we ought not to give them different roles to match these natural differences. When we say yes, he will ask, “Then aren’t you making a mistake and contradicting yourselves, when you go on to stay that men and women should follow the same occupations, in spite of the great natural differences between them?””
Plato perceived that the answer to this argument depends on what are actually the natural differences between men and women, and the question of whether these differences determine the social division of work based on natural talents and abilities.

Plato noted that there are only two natural differences between men and women, considered as a group: first of all, the male begets and the female bears, and second, men are generally (not always) stronger than women (454e) :
“Then is men or women as a sex, appear to be qualified for different skills or occupations, I said, we shall assign these to each accordingly; but if the only difference apparent between them is that the female bears and the male begets, we shall not admit that this is a difference relevant for our purpose, but shall still maintain that our male and female Guardians ought to follow the same occupations.”

Plato pointed out that the physical difference should not be a reference to assign employments; he gives the example of bald and long-haired men to clarify his point (454 c):
“On this principle, ask ourselves whether bald men and long-haired men are of the same or opposite natures, and, having agreed that they are opposite allow bald men to be cobblers and forbid long-haired men to be, or vice versa.”
But what are the relevant differences based on which people are assigned different activities? These are differences in the ability of different social tasks, as manifested by differences in learning how to accomplish these tasks. The difference between a man who is naturally capable of something, and one that is not, is that each one of them learns in a different way; one with a little instruction may discover a lot by himself, while the other, after long instruction and practice, could can’t even remember what he learned (455c).

The related problem concerning physical strength is considered as an important criterion. However, it is not a universal quality since some women are physically stronger than some men.
The natural differences used by Plato to assign -government, defense and supply of the city- are namely high intelligence, strong character and ability of producing and trading. Those criteria are not systematically assigned to men or women. Some women are smarter and more productive than some men, while some men are better in other tasks than women (455 c, d):
“Then is there any human activity at which men aren’t far better in all these respects then women? […] There is therefore no administrative occupation which is peculiar to women as women or man as man; natural capacities are similarly distributed in each sex, and its natural for women to take part in all occupations as well as men…”

Therefore, given the justice principle and these facts, it results that in a fair city following Plato’s perspective, men and women will be assigned to the same social tasks and activities, on exactly the same basis. Some men and women will be leaders, others soldiers, and another category producers and traders.
And since those who share the same activities must share the same education, it means that men and women of the same activities must have the same education, and men and women of different activities must have different education; like men who have different activities must have different education, and women who share the same activities must have the same.

Plato's argumentation in favor of women's equality in society is built on the principle of justice in state. The principle itself selects what are the relevant facts, namely certain natural abilities and talents that make a difference in the performance of the main social functions. The beauty of this deduction is that it clearly shows that Plato’s principle of a fair city is exactly true and relevant with our actual society.

From my point of view, using men physical strength as a pretext to have the legitimate right to control women submission and obedience is a relic of barbarism. Barbarism is indeed based on the law of the strongest. Women are able to do the same activities as men. There is no stronger sex; it all depends on the person. If a person –male or female- is dedicated to do something they want, they are supposed to give their best in order to achieve it. It is true that education is one of the masterpieces that will conduct to the achievement of any job wanted as long as there is dedication.

Our early ancestors made a distinction between men and women activities; men used to hunt animals, while women used to pick fruits and nuts. Nowadays, the situation has changed, but in theory, men are the dominant sex. Maybe it's normal to have differences because nature has created us like that.
There are still stereotypes that prevent women from doing what they want. "Women should keep the children, they are weaker than men, it is the job of women to take care of the household chores" are beliefs that destroy the image and opportunities of women. When the media and advertisements portray women in a way, the public is forced to think the same way.

Since the nineteenth century, the law started to raise the women issue and stated that women are equal to men. Unfortunately, there are still differences in treatment of women, especially in the office. It's no secret that most women are paid less than men. Discrimination is present, especially at work. It is more difficult to have a successful career for women, mainly because the female stereotype exists.
However, we do find female minsters, military, police… which means that women are able to do the same function as men if she is willing to do so, it is all about the will.


* Dworkin, Ronald, 1977, Taking Rights Seriously, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

* Rae, Douglas, et al., 1981, Equalities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

* Plato. (1997). Complete Works: The Republic. (J.M. Cooper & D. L. Hutchinson, Eds.).

* Day, Jane M. Plato's Meno in Focus. London, New York: Routledge, 1994

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