Philosophy is a discipline that has travelled through the ages, through the Greek and Roman antiquity, through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Modern Era until our days.

We can say without a doubt that those eras were not those of Gender Equality: the Athenians didn’t consider women as worthy of being citizens or having an education and responsibilities, and this tradition survived for thousands of years, only starting to truly evolve during the 20th and 21st century.

We then must ask ourselves, have philosophers followed their time’s trend on Gender Equality? Are they for or against Gender Equality? Did they even see it as a subject worth treating before the 20th century? During this month that we at LearnBlue, dedicate to Gender Equality, it is a question that needs to be treated, and which can be often forgotten while talking about Philosophy. 

Gender Equality seen by Socrates and Plato

Let’s start all this at the birth of Western Philosophy. What were the views of Socrates and Plato, the fathers of this discipline, on Gender Equality? Did they even have a view on Gender Equality? First, it is important to know that those philosophers are from the years 400 and 300 BC in Athens, which is the time of Athenian Democracy

Women in the Athenian Democracy

During this period, the inhabitants of Athens and its surroundings were citizens, they had a say in the great decisions taken for the city, they had a right to vote. But not all of those inhabitants were considered as citizens, we can rule out the slaves, the youth, the foreigners, and of course, the women.

They didn’t have any say in the decisions taken for the city, they weren’t rulers, they weren’t warriors nor sportives. Their only responsibilities surrounded the management of their household, which, in wealthier families, meant ordering around servants and slaves, as well as taking care of their children.

They didn’t have any of the proper education, balanced between arts and sports, that men had. Even in love women were considered as inferior, the perfect love was between two men, not between a man and a woman. But when do philosophers intervene in that situation? 

Socrates and the maieutic

Let’s start with Socrates, a man so influential that all those before him were considered as “Pre-socratic” philosophers. Socrates didn’t leave us any writings, the basis of his philosophy was the dialectic; to dialogue with the other with the objective of digging deep into one’s consciousness and discover the truth, a method also known as maieutic, or midwifery.

As Socrates’ mother, a midwife, helped women give birth to children, he helped men give birth to the truth. But did this expression already exclude women? It is hard to truly know his view on the subject because, as I said, he left no writings.

However, in all the dialogues that his disciple Plato recorded (or invented for all we know), Socrates is barely seen talking to a woman. It seems to us that the maieutic is a method only applied between men. But is it because he didn’t deem women worthy of giving birth to the truth, or because of the lack of education that women had?

Women’s education in Ancient Greece

In 400 BC Athens, education was provided by their parents: if they had the means, they chose to send their children to grammar schools, music schools and gymnasiums. If not, they taught them all they knew themselves. In a society where women could only be of importance in the religious field, sending your daughters to school is the least of your priorities, which means they were only taught chores such as spinning, weaving and sewing.

However, parents could also choose to educate their daughters, and sometimes they became hetairas, the most educated women of ancient Greece. Those hetairas, which we can translate to “companion” or “good friend”, were prostitutes, highly educated prostitutes who could hold a conversation with men about any subjects, should it be politics, art or philosophy, and therefore provided intellectual stimulation to their long term clients. This is why one of the few women that had a dialogue with Socrates, Theodote, was a hetaira. 

With this little knowledge, we could say that Socrates didn’t repulse in practising his science with women, but let us see Plato’s view on women’s education, on Gender Equality. As a reminder, Plato’s writings might or might not reflect Socrates’ views on the subjects he is treating. 

Gender Equality in Plato’s Republic

In his most famous dialogue, Republic, he talks, through Socrates, about the possibility of giving an education to women. While imagining his perfect republic, he starts to try and determine the role of women in society, and he brings in the discussion the fact that women could very well do more than just taking care of her children, and he has stated earlier that in his perfect society, everything should be done in common.

Therefore, it is imperative that women should get an education if she has to do chores in common with her husband, which means learning music, gymnastics, warfare and, for having similar education, being equal. The first issue he raises was that sports were done naked, and it was silly for women to be seen doing anything naked, however, it is quickly dismissed when Socrates says that a few centuries ago, a man training naked would have been the subject to mockeries.

The second issue was that men and women are different by their nature, but what is it that gives them a different nature? One of those differences is that women give birth and men don’t, but he states that there are no relations between giving birth and practising politics or any intellectual activities, therefore, this difference shouldn’t stop women from having the same occupations as men.

It is then given as a proven fact that women weren’t as good as men in intellectual activities, but Socrates then says that some women are better at music than others, some were better as gymnastics, and so on and so forth. Therefore, some women can do politics, and some can’t, as it is for men, and if the warrior’s and politician’s wife could be their equals, it would make even more outstanding citizens for the city.

Gender Equality is then stated as being possible, natural and advantageous, while not being total because women were still seen as weaker, so they would have the same education and the same occupation as men while having lighter tasks. Plato’s and Socrates’ views on Gender Equality, if not completely equalitarian, were without a doubt revolutionary for their time, but would not change anything for the situation of women. 

Women philosophers in Ancient Greece

As it was previously said, some parents chose to educate their daughters as they did with men, which inevitably means that some women at the time could become philosophers. It is then obvious for us to dig into the philosophy of those women and find out their point of view about their own status if they had one.  

Theano of Crotone, modernity and traditionalism 

One of them is Theano of Crotone, probably the wife of the renowned Pythagoras. She was a great mathematician and is believed to have written the basis of the Golden Mean, an irrational number which frequently shows up in natural objects, she is also believed to have written various other treaties. The problem we have when studying Pythagorean scholars is that they all wrote in their school and were published under the name of Pythagoras, which makes it difficult to say who wrote what, some even believe that the bright Theano of Crotone helped her husband with most of his famous writings.

According to Ian Michael Plant’s Women writers of ancient Greece and Rome, she wrote various letters, some of them which were recovered to talk about domestic concerns. Those letters state how women should raise their children, treat their servants, and how virtuously she should act with her husband.

We have here an extremely intelligent, educated woman, student and maybe wife to one of the greatest minds of Ancient Greece, which may have helped him in his writings. Therefore a true exception of her times, but also the promoter of a virtuous life as a housewife.

However, that might not be a contradiction, aren’t the hetaira educated so that they can please men? So in a sense, we could say that an educated Greek housewife such as Theano would be educated so she can help her husband in his research. Moreover, it would bring equality between husband and wife, except for the fact that she would not be educated for herself, but for her husband, which might be in coherence with her philosophy, as well as a modern thought for 500 BC, but still not true Gender Equality.

Hypatia of Alexandria, a symbol of emancipation 

The last philosopher to be treated today is by far the most influential woman of her time, the famous Hypatia of Alexandria. She might not be famous for all of us since women philosophers still have a hard time being known by a large public, but she is a very important figure for modern feminism and mathematics. What makes her so important? 

Well as we saw earlier, in the Greek world, women mostly don’t get an education if their parents don’t decide otherwise, and in the Greek-Roman world of 355 CE, it has not changed much, despite the numerous empires and religious influences that succeeded themselves since the beginning of the Classical Greek period.

As I said, we are in 355 CE, and Hypatia was born in Alexandria, daughter of a great mathematician, Theon of Alexandria, and this man gave her all the education anyone deserves. Thanks to this education and her incredible intelligence, she became the greatest mathematician of her time, a teacher sought and respected by all the Greek-Roman world.

Unfortunately, all of her writings have been lost in History. However, we do know some things about her life, the fact that she embraced a life of virginity, and that she was a tolerant pagan who wanted nothing but to transmit her knowledge in a world where Christian extremism became more and more destructive.

Her life ended in 415 CE when she was brutally murdered by a group of Christian fanatics. As we saw, she didn’t write anything about the emancipation of women, but she did, and still does, more than that, she symbolizes the emancipation of women. We could interpret her virginity as a form of emancipation from the need of men, or from a desire that could come in the way of her dedication to science and platonist philosophy, but that is just supposition.

However, we can admire how she managed to become the most respected mathematician in the western world at her time, the only woman who could claim this title, and how nothing, not religions, not patriarchy, not politics, could come between her, and her work.

As I realise how long it has taken me to talk about these cultures, these philosophies and historical figures, I have to force myself to conclude this article, even if I could’ve talked about the views and lives of Aristotle or Aspasia

The Western Antiquity is definitely not a period where women were respected and possessed high positions, but it didn’t stop some great minds to be in favour of women’s education, and some great feminine figures to rise, even if we are far from thoughts that would approach Gender Equality, even in women’s minds. 

This is where the first part of philosophy articles on Gender Equality and Philosophy ends, and in the next part, we will go further in history, to the Middle Ages.