Jason L. Mallory

Plato, Feminism and Semantics[*]

     The disparate conclusions in the literature regarding Plato’s status as a feminist is owed largely, I shall maintain, to the varied criteria employed by commentators.  The different conclusions on this subject, to my knowledge, have not yet been analyzed in terms of the varying touchstones of feminism promulgated by the commentators themselves.  As I will try to show, for a true assessment of Plato’s putative link to feminism, it is crucial that one explicitly define what one means when one refers to a theory or individual as “feminist.”  Without clearly outlining the boundaries of feminism, one’s engagement with others on the subject will be little more than minds talking past each another.  This paper will, by considering land-mark pieces in the secondary literature, provide an explanation why consensus still has not been reached on this issue.  After laying bare two definitions of feminism that are employed in the literature, I will also offer reasons why we ought to deem one as holding preeminence.    


The Two Definitions

    Scholars who write on the subject of Plato and feminism largely derive their conclusions from employing one of two salient, but significantly differing, standards or definitions of “feminism.”  (1) According to the first definition, a feminist is one who believes that women can, in principle, undertake any activity—including political, moral, and intellectual—as well as men, and thus one should not discriminate against women in virtue of their womanhood.  (2) According to the second definition, a feminist is one who not only accepts the criteria included in (1), but also believes that all persons should be viewed as moral equals, which entails an anti-oppression, liberationist philosophy toward all people.

    Those who subscribe to the first definition, such as Gregory Vlastos, adopt a decidedly minimalist and conservative sense of the feminist project.[1]  The second definition, on the other hand, is much more expansive to include consideration for all oppressed individuals (e.g., slaves, the under-classes), and those who proffer this definition, such as Julia Annas and Elizabeth Spelman, are much less satisfied with a feminist ethic or politic that would leave any woman—or any other human being—encumbered by sexism or similar forms of inequality, such as classism and racism.[2]  Which definition of “feminism” one takes to hold hegemony over the other is of vital importance, as we will see, for answering the question of Plato’s purported ties to feminism. 

    To begin, it will be useful to analyze in closer detail the differences between the two definitions just elucidated.  The first definition sets forth criteria for feminism that places strong emphasis upon a liberal conception of personal rights[3], freedom, and equality.  As Vlastos says, it must include the belief that, “Equality in the rights of persons shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex” (1994, 12).  It is very important to note that Vlastos says “on account of sex” rather than “to anyone within either sex,” since the latter definition would exclude those who have totalitarian or undemocratic values and agendas.  In other words, a feminist can, on the first rendering of the term, believe that discrimination on the basis of sex is morally reprobate but also hold corollary beliefs that may involve denying others rights and equality for political rationales.

    Vlastos, moreover, is certain that Plato will be able to be claimed as a feminist, if “his ideas, sentiments, and proposals for social policy are in line with this norm” (1994, 12).  Upon setting the standard that Plato must meet, Vlastos lists seven rights that are granted to female guardians but denied to Plato’s fourth-century Athenian female contemporaries.  These rights consist of the following: right to an education; right to vocational opportunity; right to unimpeded social intercourse; legal rights; sexual choice; right to own property (both male and female guardians are denied this); and political rights (these, too, are not gender-specific) (1994, 12-14).  It seems clear that granting these rights for females, albeit only for female guardians, was indeed a very progressive decision considering the status of women in Athens at that time.[4]

    However, in other places, Plato makes comments that seem to contradict the equality he provides for guardian women.  He seems to exhibit a contempt for women when, for example, in the Republic, he characterizes those who desecrate the dead of one’s enemy as possessing the “mark of a womanish and small intellect” (1966, 469d).  There are numerous passages scattered throughout the Platonic corpus that paint a similarly unflattering picture regarding women’s abilities.  Furthermore, there are passages that connote a rather disparaging attitude toward those of the mediocre mass, in general—be they females, slaves,[5] or others who lack sophisticated intellectual and moral virtues.

    How are we to reconcile Vlastos’s account of Plato as a feminist with these apparently disparaging remarks against women and others with low social status?  Vlastos argues that Plato’s reproachful remarks against women are illustrative of his elitist mind, one that is contemptuous of the current corrupt politics of his time.  Vlastos stresses that Plato is not  inconsistent when he makes the apparently belittling and pro-women comments in the same breath:

“He could do so [that is, present an incongruous attitude towards women] because the ‘womanish’ traits he denigrates are those of the great mass of women, not of those brilliant exceptions from whom the guardians would be recruited; and, moreover, they are the traits common to women now, under conditions now prevailing which do not foster the development of energetic minds and resolute characters” (1994, 18). 

    Thus, Vlastos’s response to our question is this.  Plato’s hostility towards women was not directed at women as such, but simply as humans who have fallen short of their potential.  Is this a convincing reply?  Spelman answers negatively and offers a different interpretation.  She insists that, “Although Plato objects to certain types of men—sophists, tyrants, and so forth—his disdain for women is always expressed as disdain for women in general and not for any subgroup of women” (1994, 107).  Perhaps one could meet Spelman’s criticism by appealing to the fact that Plato, as any other affluent Greek male at that time, rarely came into contact with women who even approximated his standards, but he surely had witnessed intelligent and capable men—of all subgroups.  Therefore, he had very good reason to think there could be praiseworthy as well as depraved sophists, tyrants, and the like, but nearly all women, in Plato’s experience, fell far from the moral mark.  It seems reasonable that when one lives in a society that not only discourages—but proscribes—women (except some priestesses and courtesans) from exercising their moral and intellectual capacities, one could easily arrive at the conclusion that women are incapable of these endeavors.  This objection, then, need not defeat Vlastos’s argument.

    In all events, let us return to our discussion of the first definition.  Vlastos considers it an unnecessary requirement, as a feminist, to label oneself as a women’s liberationist.  He continues: “[T]o think of Plato as an advocate of women’s liberation would be perverse. Liberation Plato advocates for no one, man or woman.  Excellence, not liberty, is his goal, and he rejects liberty as the enemy of excellence” (1994, 22).  Here, Vlastos’s own idiosyncratic definition of “feminism” is coming through very clearly.  He is adhering to definition (1) with its minimalist conception of feminism, and this largely explains why he finds no difficulty in classifying Plato as a proponent of such an ethic.  Although his definition will seem surprisingly inadequate to many, this clarification is pivotal if we are to understand the different conclusions found in the literature.

    How does Vlastos arrive at his definition?  In Plato’s utopia, the highest rung of the political ladder is the guardian class; and for Vlastos, it is enough that Plato invokes standards of ability—without regard to gender—as the only relevant criterion when deciding who populates this aspect of the social strata.  This explains why the first definition could also be characterized as minimalist: One can be a feminist, yet deem insignificant those who had the misfortune to be “naturally born” as slaves, prostitutes, or servants.  In addition, as has already been mentioned, it is not inconsistent to claim to be a feminist, on this definition, while arguing, as Plato ostensibly did, that women should take positions of political power because they would help enrich and maintain the power of the state.     

    All are not satisfied, however, with Vlastos’s vision of feminism.  Annas disagrees with Vlastos’s analysis and labels this and similar arguments as “utilitarian,” and thus seemingly contrary to an ethic that values women’s preferences and needs for their own sake[6] (1996, 10). In particular, she is dissatisfied contemplating the possibility, which follows from Plato’s political system, that women could just as easily be relegated to the lower ranks—if doing so served greater political utility.  Thus, we are introduced to the second definition, which demands a more stringent and encompassing feminist ethic and, by extension, demands much more from Plato.

    Annas’s definition of “feminism” can be assembled from the strong objections she sets forth against the claim that Plato was the “first feminist” (1996, 3).  Annas concedes that Plato did in fact believe that the best-suited women should be included within the guardian class; however, she emphasizes the importance of not only considering Plato’s motivation for proposing a supposedly woman-friendly politic (viz., that including women would benefit the state), but also remembering the multitude—many of whom would be women— who fell outside the ruling elite and, thus, would inevitably suffer from oppression and exploitation. 

    Plato’s political allowances to women, according to Annas, are simply irrelevant to the contemporary feminist movement.  For, according to definition (2), one’s commitment to feminism extends beyond the mere consignment of rights to women—to the amelioration of all social inequities regardless of one’s sex.  It is simply inconsistent, in other words, to oppress some groups—denying their moral equality as persons—and yet claim ties to feminism.  However, if we recall Vlastos’s definition of feminism, which excludes a commitment to women’s liberation, then we can see why Annas’s definition, which includes this commitment, results in differing evaluations of Plato.  Judged by differing touchstones, Plato is seen in two different lights.  

    Annas voices another objection, similar to the one we considered by Spelman, that she believes jeopardizes Plato’s status as a feminist: Why is there an inundating undercurrent of sexism that permeates virtually all of Plato’s work?  For example, what is one to make of the following assertion in the Republic?: “The one sex is, so to speak, far and away beaten in every field by the other” (1966, 455d2-3).  One response to her criticism is that Plato was referring to women’s average lower stature and lesser physical prowess—not their “nature” or mental or moral worth.  Another possibility is that Plato was implying that women were globally inferior, but that they were in this predicament due only to the educationally impoverished Athenian political environment and thus not placed in an irremediable situation.  So, it may turn out that what could be taken as a misogynist comment is much more accurately described as a slight against the political conditions of the time.  Even if this charitable interpretation is persuasive, however, it still remains uncontroversial that Plato denies that all persons are moral equals, and, hence, he does not meet the criteria given in the second definition.

    Spelman mentions another concern that further highlights the distinction between the two definitions: “If [women] are educated as Plato imagines, then in a sense they will be free to do what they want, but only because their desires will be constructed in such a way that they’ll want to do exactly what they are supposed to do” (1994, 104).  Spelman seems to be saying that Plato would condone the propagation of “false consciousness” in the women and other citizens of his state, and that this practice is incompatible with an ethic of equal moral regard for all persons. That is, one cannot steadfastly dictate to others what fundamental values are suitable for their adoption while respecting their abilities to choose for themselves what basic values to adopt. This observation seems accurate.  If so, then the “right to an education” (one of the seven rights, according to Vlastos, given to female guardians) is, indeed, a privilege if one wishes to live the particular lifestyle for which one is best equipped.  If, however, one is adequately suited for guardianship, yet does not wish to become a guardian, then Plato would have little in the way of recourse but to resort to coercive measures.  This type of “right” may satisfy the criteria of the first definition, but, surely, it is eschewed by the principles encapsulated in the second.  

    What do the defenders of the second definition have to say about class inequities?  Spelman, voicing a common sentiment, objects to Plato’s proposal not to dismantle the hierarchical class system of Athenian society:

“Surely, we ought to ask: what kind of feminism is it that would gladly argue for a kind of equality between men and women of a certain class and at the same time for radical inequality between some women and some men, some women and some other women, and some men and other men?” (1994, 105). 

Since Plato, in the eyes of Annas and Spelman, does not develop a strong egalitarian ethic towards all people, he cannot be considered a feminist.  Vlastos, on the other hand, who defines feminism in accordance with definition (1), does not require a feminist to hold these beliefs, and Plato is thus characterized as a feminist.

What Is a Feminist?

    Thus far, I have tried to bring to light two different definitions of “feminism” that are tacitly employed in the literature by those who have written on Plato and feminism (viz., Vlastos, Annas, and Spelman), and I attempted to show how elucidating these definitions can be of use when we are evaluating Plato’s status in this regard.  Vlastos concludes that Plato counts as a feminist because a somewhat lax and minimalist definition of the term is utilized.  Annas and Spelman, on the other hand, do not consider Plato to be a feminist because they reject Vlastos’s definition as inadequate; rather, they employ a more stringent definition, which demands ideological commitments (e.g., to women’s liberation) from Plato, which he does not possess.  Now that the reason for the principle point of disagreement in the literature has been explicated, we have discovered that the commentators agree, on the whole, with what Plato thought in regards to women.  However, this discussion has shown that there clearly seems to be a semantic confusion concerning the meaning of “feminism.”  

    We must confront, then, the following inquiry: Which definition rightly represents what it is to be a feminist?  Or, in other words: What is a feminist?  Working toward an answer to this question is vital if we are to finally determine if Plato was deserving of the label.  Moreover, our discussion should shed light on the more generally-perceived need, among those who work and write on the topic, for a defensible and satisfying definition.  Although this is undoubtedly an ambitious project, since the term means many things to many people, I will provide reasons why I take the second, more stringent, definition to be the most appropriate characterization of feminism. 

    What reasons can be amassed to defend my choice of definitions?  To my mind, there are two reasons why we ought to consider definition (2) to be superior to definition (1). The first reason is historical, and the second reason is intuitive.  Firstly, contrary to what we see in the first definition, there is a continuity of thought that courses through both the first and second “waves” of feminism that is sympathetic to the liberation of all people—not simply some women.  Consider the following passage from John Stuart Mill:

“That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other” (1970, 3; my emphasis). 

From this excerpt, which was written during the early stages of organized feminism, we can see that Mill endorses an ethic of moral equality without regard to sex and, hence, moral equality for all people. 

 Similarly, the second “wave” of feminism appears replete with analogous sympathies.  Consider the following quote from Alice Walker, where she says that a feminist, or what she calls a “womanist,” takes a “pro-human” stance, which is "committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female" (1983, xi).  Consider also these thoughts from Betty Friedan:

“We may now begin to glimpse the new human possibilities when women and men are finally free to be themselves, know each other for who they really are, and define the terms and measures of success, failure, joy, triumph, power, and the common good, together” (1997, xxviii; my emphasis). 

It seems, then, that both of the major stages of feminism include an irreducible element of antipathy toward the oppression of any person, whether male or female.  If this is correct, then this presents one reason why we should endorse the second definition of feminism as a more accurate portrayal.

    Secondly, there is another reason why the second definition should be preferred: A feminism that fails to speak out against all manifestations of oppression fails to be consonant with our intuitions concerning the spirit of feminism.  Capturing this sentiment well, bell hooks observes:

“Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression.  Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women.  It does not privilege women over men.  It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives” (1997, 26). 

This “transformation” has the propensity to call our attention not only to the oppression of some groups of women, but also to all women and, moreover, to all people.[7]  Likewise, the “struggle to end sexist oppression,” if it is to be fully consistent, must be motivated by an aversion to all unfair discrimination and, thus, is necessarily in tandem with freeing people of all sexes from the shackles of oppression.  That is, it seems counter-intuitive to argue for improved opportunities and treatment for women, yet simultaneously to deny these benefits to men.  Indeed, it seems probable that most feminists would not be satisfied with a society that respected women’s moral equality but failed to recognize men’s; and insofar as one’s intuitions concur, this is another reason why the second definition holds greater plausibility.

    The following question, however, could be posed to one who endorses the second definition: Why should feminists, even supposing that the stronger definition is supported by the foregoing reasons, feel obliged to concern themselves with oppressed men?  After all, one could argue, since men have traditionally acted as oppressors, they deserve little in the way of protection and moral concern.  Although perhaps initially appealing when one takes into account the degree of oppression that women have historically suffered at the hands of men, this sentiment of retribution should be rejected for two reasons.  In the first case, as Martin Luther King, Jr. succinctly noted: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and thus injustice, which often follows from oppressive ideologies, for any group, jeopardizes the justice, or liberation, of all people (1963, 3).  For as long as another group remains oppressed, we cannot be certain of our own group’s immunity to the same oppression that dominates others.  We, therefore, ought to censure oppression, in all its manifestations, wherever it exists and to whomever it affects—if we are serious about ensuring women’s liberation.

    The second reason is this: The essential motivation behind feminists’s advocacy on behalf of women does not seem to be drawn along sexual lines.  Although perhaps most self-described feminists are women, and thus naturally more sympathetic to the plight of other members of their own sex, there seems to be no reason why one should be constrained by one’s initial, perhaps partly self-interested, sympathies to defend those who are most akin to oneself.  Furthermore, it seems plausible that one would discover, upon reflection, that, although one may be, quite justifiably, currently occupied with concern for the plight of women, the chief, fundamental rationale for feminist advocacy is the desire to end moral inequality and the injustice that follows.  It seems likely that feminists, in other words, are compelled to improve the conditions and status of women because they consider the treatment of women to be objectionable; and what is deemed “objectionable”, whether consciously reflected upon or not, is largely the ill-treatment and subjugation of persons who have their moral equality denied or ignored.  To the extent that this is an accurate assessment of the motivation of feminists, it is not difficult to see how this concern can be appropriately applied, in practice, to all persons who are oppressed.  Thus, the central motivation, I contend, behind feminist advocacy is for the elimination of oppression in general, and not simply an aversion to the oppression of women alone.  If we are to endorse feminism, then, we ought to consciously promote a type of feminism that embraces the moral equality of women and men, since doing so is consistent with the history of feminism, our intuitions, what we know about oppression, and our deepest motivations.             

    Now, let us return to our original question.  Supposing that I have successfully argued for the preeminance of definition (2), are we in a better position to judge Plato’s beliefs in regard to feminism?  I believe we are, and, regrettably, we must concede, with Annas and Spelman, that Plato does not meet the touchstone set by the second definition.  To be sure, Plato deserves some credit for having the realization that sexual differences do not determine social roles and for arguing that some women (i.e. the guardians) should enjoy the same rights as men.  However, Plato does not seem to believe that women, let alone all people, should enjoy the benefits of liberation; and, hence, he is not accurately labeled a feminist.    

    In sum, I have argued that, in regards to Plato’s supposed ties to feminism, there are two contrasting definitions that play important roles in the secondary literature.  Drawing out this distinction helps both in exegetical analysis of the literature and brings us closer to answering the heavily-contested question: Was Plato a feminist?  In addition, I have concluded, with the aid of two arguments, that the stronger definition of feminism, that is, the one that is committed to liberating all persons from oppression, is the correct definition.




 Annas, Julia. 1996. Plato’s Republic and Feminism. In Feminism and Ancient Philosophy. Julie K. Ward, ed. New York: Routledge.

 Canto, Monique. 1994. The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Reflections on Plato. Arthur Goldhammer, trans. In Feminist Interpretations of Plato. Nancy Tuana, ed. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

 Fridan, Betty. 1997. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

hooks, bell. 1997. Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression. In Feminisms. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1963. The Letter From Birmingham Jail. American Friends Service Committee Pamphlet.

 Lucas, J. R. 1973. Because You Are a Woman. Philosophy 48:161-71.

 Mill, John Stuart. 1970. The Subjection of Women. London: M. I. T. Press.

 Plato. 1966. The Republic. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, trans. New York: Random House.

 Rosenthal, A. 1973. Feminism Without Contradictions. Monist 57: 28-42.

 Saxonhouse, Arlene W. 1994. The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato.  In Feminist Interpretations of Plato. Nancy Tuana, ed. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

 Shaw, William H. 1999. Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

 Smith, Janet Farrell. 1994. Plato, Irony, and Equality. In Feminist Interpretations of Plato. Nancy Tuana, ed. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

 Spelman, Elizabeth V. 1994. Hairy Cobblers and Philosopher-Queens. In Feminist Interpretations of Plato. Nancy Tuana, ed. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

 Vlastos, Gregory. 1994. Was Plato a Feminist? In Feminist Interpretations of Plato. Nancy Tuana, ed. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

  Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

 Warren, Karen J., ed. 1996. Ecological Feminist Philosophies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.



 [*] An earlier draft of this essay, entitled Was Plato a Feminist?: Why Definitions Matter, was presented in San Marcos, Texas at the Third Annual Southwest Texas State University Philosophy Symposium 31 March 2000, and in Springfield, Missouri at the 22nd Annual Meeting of The Society for Social and Political Philosophy 5-6 May 2000.  I would like to thank those who offered their suggestions and comments at these events.  Also, I am indebted to three very kind colleagues: Linda Radzik, Scott Austin and Jesse Rester each offered much-appreciated encouragement and helpful criticism on early drafts of this paper.

[1] Other commentators who have written in defense of Plato’s connection to feminism are Lucas (1973), Canto (1994), and Rosenthal (1973).

[2] In addition to Annas’s and Spelman’s critiques, Smith (1994) and Saxonhouse (1994) also take the position that Plato fails as a feminist.  

[3] Although it is not entirely clear whether Plato was indeed a rights theorist, it would be tangential for our purposes to investigate this matter here.

[4] Annas, describing the abysmal situation for ancient Greek women, says that they “led lives that compare rather closely to the lives of women in present-day Saudi Arabia” (1996, 7).

[5] For Plato’s thoughts on slavery, see Laws 776b-778a.

[6] Many proponents of utilitarianism, to be sure, maintain that feminist concerns are fully accommodated within their normative theory (Shaw 1999, 249).  

[7] The work of ecofeminists, who interpret “oppression” similarly, but even more broadly to include non-human entities, will not be broached in this paper.  I am well aware, however, that some version of ecofeminism very well might turn out to be the logical extension of the expansive definition of feminism I outline here.  More work must be done, though, to show that this would in fact be the case.  For an excellent collection of essays on this interesting subject, see Warren (1996).