The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

City of Ladies

The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic

Mary Townsend

Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

Reviewed by Emily Wilson

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

In Book 5 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates makes a series of radical proposals about the roles of women in the “guardians,” or leadership class, of his semi-idealized fantasy city, Kallipolis (“Beautiful City-State”). The elite guardian women must join their male peers in all activities, including naked exercise. The guardians will also be bred like animals, using a rigged lottery system to ensure that nobody except the ultra-elite (the rulers among the guardians) will know whose child is whose. This will, Socrates implies, allow the best women to play an equal part in the running of government, and will prevent any of the ruling class from putting the interests of family before the interests of the state.

Socrates says he fears these suggestions will drown him in laughter—and indeed, readers have often been quite unclear about how seriously to take them. As Mary Townsend argues in her incisive new study, this area of the Republic has rarely been addressed as an integral element in Plato’s analysis of political and ethical life. In the fifteenth century, the humanist Leonardo Bruni found the idea of naked female athletes “repugnant.” Few recent commentators have felt that Plato’s account of the role of female guardians is of any particular philosophical interest, or that it could teach modern readers anything important about politics or gender.

Another major stumbling block is the assertion (made first by Glaucon, but then taken up by Socrates) that women tend to be worse than men at everything. Women, Socrates suggests, can do the same things as men, but they generally do them less well—with occasional rare exceptions. To many contemporary readers, it has felt disappointing that Plato would argue for the possibility of female philosopher-rulers without offering a more extensive and sustained argument for gender equality. But Townsend shows quite convincingly that Book 5 has been misunderstood and wrongly neglected; her work provides a deeply thought-provoking account not only of Plato (drawing on both Republic and Laws) but also of gender roles in contemporary societies.

Townsend avoids offering a succinct definition of what she understands “the woman question” to be, let alone a definitive answer—a reticence that feels at times too cautious. But it turns out that there are quite a lot of distinct but interrelated “woman questions” at stake in her book and in Plato’s. What is the proper place of women in public life? Are men and women different, and if so, do those differences matter? What, if anything, do women have to do with philosophy—and why does Plato juxtapose the two? Are women to be seen as objects (the people “held in common” by the elite guardian men), or as agents (the people who, like the men, hold all things in common)? Why does Plato’s Socrates imply both? Why does he discuss women at all? Are any women good enough, at leadership or at philosophy, to participate in government? What does “femininity” or “being a woman” connote for Plato, and how is that different from what it might mean for us (if at all)? Are childbirth and childrearing purely private matters—or, if children are necessary for the continuation of the state, are children also a political problem?

Not every approach Townsend takes on these questions is a winner. I was not convinced, for example, that when the Athenian Stranger in the Laws speaks of the female sex as “weak,” asthenes, we should read that word to mean “lack of public face,” rather than “lack of strength” (which is its etymological connotation and usual sense); she gives no good philological argument for the assertion. But in general, Townsend picks up on details that have been neglected, even in such an ultra-canonical and endlessly studied text as the Republic.

For instance, scholars have suggested that Plato associates women with philosophy in an allegorizing mode, picturing the search for wisdom as somehow feminine (as with Boethius’s Lady Philosophy). Thus “the feminine” suggests “gentleness, musicality, or eros plain and simple.” Townsend challenges these ideas persuasively, arguing that, in fact, Plato is not so much interested in femininity as in women, and that his interest lies not in women’s supposed gentleness or weakness, or their value as sexual objects, but in their agency and in their straddling of two worlds: the public and the private.

Public, civic communities depend on the idea that individuals, male or female, should be tied to a single profession or role; for this reason, in the Republic, the “just” city as well as the “just” person is defined as one where each part performs its proper function, no more, no less. But for women, Townsend says, it is “simply more obvious” that the attempt to “pin one human being to one single profession or place within the city, is in an important sense artificial.” It was even more obvious to Plato, since in Athens during his lifetime, elite women were expected to live fundamentally private lives, taking care of their homes, families, and religious duties.

But even in contemporary western societies, the problem of work-life balance usually has a greater impact on women than on men, since women spend much more time than men on childcare and domestic labor—and women are still the humans in whose ostensibly private bodies new humans grow, to replenish the public body of the state. What Townsend calls “the woman question” is really a question about whether a public, civic community can allow for private or family life; or conversely, whether the community must “break apart humans in order to form its own wholeness.” For Townsend’s Plato, being a woman and being a philosopher are both private roles that must somehow be made part of the just city. The central issue is the place of nonpublic desires and actions in the public sphere.

Few readers of the Republic have taken seriously the premise of the dialogue, which takes place during a festival to Bendis, the Thracian goddess of hunting. Townsend argues that this frame, as well as the repeated imagery of hunting in Book 5, points to an essential quality that women and philosophers share with hunters: They are only partly “tame,” only partly contained within civic society. Through the image of hunting, Plato is pointing to the problem of how a public, political community can include private interests, family life, and individual desires. Townsend reads in Plato a complex meditation on what would become the mantra of Second Wave Feminism: “The personal is political.”

So those naked female athletes, it turns out, are a serious intervention against keeping private and public spheres distinct. These naked women are to be clothed in the “robes of virtue,” a metaphor that Townsend reads as a challenge to the male gaze: Only if men can “regard the virtue of women as true virtue, not laughable but admirable, even when they are naked, only then will the miseries of mankind be solved.” This is, she argues, Plato’s response to the dangers posed to the human community as a whole, both by women’s (supposed) desire to keep out of the public eye, and by men’s tendency to rape or abuse women (both of which Plato recognizes as serious problems for the community).

If there’s a central flaw in this book, it’s that while the problems are well articulated, the solution feels frustratingly gestural and metaphorical. Townsend (and Plato) have little to say about how the male gaze might be restrained and retrained, or about how exactly a woman can get herself dressed in the robes of virtue. I was also unconvinced that there is Platonic “gallantry” in the shift from young female athletes to women who are “shriveled and not a pleasant sight,” and indeed the switch from naked girls to naked grandmas is a problem for Townsend’s argument, since the bodies of older women are not challenging in the same way to the heteronormative male gaze. Older ladies tend to be seen as either invisible or absurd, regardless of what they are wearing, even when it’s virtue…or a pantsuit.

But even if we do not quite agree that Plato’s Republic is “one of the most profound liberators of human women our reading selves have ever seen,” Townsend’s book should be required reading not only for classicists and ancient philosophy scholars but also for political theorists and people interested in gender studies more broadly. She demonstrates entirely persuasively that Plato is grappling with some central and still unresolved questions about gender roles and about the relationship of private to public life. In 2018, we have again been shockingly reminded that women are often perceived by powerful men as naked and available to be harassed, bothered, abused, or raped, even when they are fully clothed. The 2016 election also provided frightening evidence of how many people in this country mistrust women’s ability to take on leadership positions. In this context, the work of both Townsend and Plato deserves careful and repeated rereading.

Emily Wilson is Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She recently published a verse translation of the Odyssey.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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