In Plato’s Republic, Plato advances a case for the equal opportunity of both men and women. The ethical principle that underscores this case is the principle of specialization, which is the notion that each person is inherently suited for a particular job in society and they should only do that job, thus ensuring a maximally efficient society. Given this, the aim of Plato’s argument is to demonstrate that affording equal opportunities to women (via education and upbringing) does not contradict this principle of specialization. Plato argues that different natures need to be relevant to the occupation for women to be excluded from equal education and that nothing about gender qualifies or disqualifies an individual from a particular occupation.
Plato begins with a commonly accepted counter-argument to equal opportunity, stating the position that women have wildly different natures than men and so treating them equally would contradict the principle of specialization. In the dialogue, one of Socrates’ interlocutors states that women are of significantly different nature than men and, because occupations should be afforded according to a person’s nature, the principle of specialization is bound to be contradicted if equal treatment occurs (453b-c). If one individual were more intelligent than another, it would make little sense under this principle to give both equal responsibilities or educations which focused on enhancing this intelligence. Rather, a person should do what they are best suited for, or so Plato contends. The charge made against equal opportunity is that, due to the different nature of the genders, they must be suited for different work, so it is contradictory to afford them the same opportunity for work or education.
At this point, Plato, through Socrates, presents the image of the hairy-headed cobbler and the bald-headed cobbler (454b-c). Are different natures enough to warrant different treatment? Surely the hairy-headed cobbler is of a different nature (whose nature is a hairy head) than a bald-headed cobbler (whose nature is a bald head). If it is such that mere difference is enough to warrant different treatment, then it must follow that either the bald-headed cobbler or the hairy-headed cobbler are more suited for this work and one should be disqualified from this occupation. Plato contends that this “would be absurd,” establishing that different treatment is warranted insofar as the difference is relevant to the particular specialization, and then only so much as the difference affects the specialization (454c). After establishing that different treatment is only warranted by differences relevant to the specialization, it is then up to Plato to argue that gender is irrelevant to a person’s specialization.
Using an argument about the discovery of one’s nature, the identification of individuals by their nature and not their gender, and the current contradiction between believing men are superior at all tasks but subsequently delegating some tasks largely to women, Plato argues that women should have the opportunity for their abilities to be discovered through education. Plato points to the way that a person’s nature is revealed through their opportunities to succeed at particular tasks, stating that “some find it easy to learn [a] subject, while others find it hard … some people’s bodies are sufficiently subservient to their minds, while others’ are obstructive,” and so on the examples are stated (455b). It can be seen already that Plato believes that, when given the opportunity to achieve a goal, some people will naturally be better at it while other people will be worse. Thus, opportunity becomes a means for discovering an individual’s nature. He speaks additionally of how a person is defined by their nature, not by their identity: “a man with a medical mind and a woman with a medical mind have the same nature … whereas a male doctor and a male joiner have different natures” (445d). Thus, it is by merit of the person’s inherent suitability (e.g. doctor, joiner) rather than by the merit of their identity (e.g. man, woman) that they are distinguished. This is what bears relevance on the equality of opportunity. It is on this basis that Plato argues that women should at least have the opportunity for their abilities to be discovered. The consensus of the day was that women were far inferior than men, and Plato does express this perspective, but he additionally uses this to highlight a contradiction posed by that perspective and the current state of affairs: it is believed that men are better at all tasks and yet some tasks (e.g. sewing, cooking) are delegated largely to women (555c). It is not enough for men to be better at certain tasks for women to be excluded from them. Thus, while Plato expresses reservations about the possibility of women exceeding male abilities, he argues that they should be afforded equal opportunities so that they may contribute to a society according to their nature.
Plato argues the position that females should be afforded an equal opportunity for their inherent abilities to be nurtured and put to use within society based largely upon that fact that gender does not bear relevance on a person’s nature. It should be remembered, however, that Plato advances this argument only within the framework of an ideal society once property has been abolished. Females were viewed as managers of household affairs and temporary holders of property for males in ancient Greece. Property for the ruling class is abolished and it is only within this framework that Plato then asserts his argument for equal opportunity. In his book, Laws, where he examines a less than ideal society, females resume their role as property-holders and no longer, for Plato, have equal opportunity. With that said, the argument may well be taken from its original context and applied elsewhere, and it is at least interesting to note the presence of this argument as far back as a few millennia.
Plato. Republic. Trans. Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.