U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Julia Ward Howe Speaks on the Equality of Women in Plato’s Republic

ill_julia_ward_howeA few years ago, while looking into the uses (and abuses?) American intellectuals have made of Plato’s Republic since the first copy arrived in the New World in 1670, I stumbled upon a curious document. Julia Ward Howe– abolitionist, women’s rights activist, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and creator of Mother’s Day– delivered a speech on the equality of women in the Republic. She was asked to give this speech at a women’s rights convention in 1887, and a newspaper printed the text of the speech the next day. What follows is my close reading of Howe’s speech, aided by work on classicism and women in nineteenth century America, diverse interpretations of Plato, and liberal feminist theory. Howe’s text represents a fascinating moment in American history, and expresses an astute liberal feminist critique of liberalism.

In Plato’s Republic,written around 380BC,Socrates created an ideal city by attacking the very institutions that happen to be most cherished in American culture, such as the family and representative democracy. Because of the disparity between American values and Socrates’ just city, any use of the Republic in American political discourse may at first seem oddly out of place. Yet when social activist Julia Ward Howe took the podium to deliver a speech on Plato’s Republic at a women’s rights convention in 1887, her use of this book represented a particular moment in American history when Americans sought the security of tradition while experiencing rapid social change, when women believed their best opportunity to claim an equal position in society lay in education and the life of the mind, and when, according to historian Caroline Winterer, they “found in classicism’s many literary and material forms a way to imagine and articulate new roles for themselves.”1

Full of admiration for Plato and Socrates, Howe tells her audience that Socrates, Politeia_beginning._Codex_Parisinus_graecus_1807“like a skillful advocate,anticipates the objections sure to be brought forward by the adversaries of his plan” for the equality of the sexes. She refers to the objection that to be according to justice everything must be according to nature and that, by nature, men and women are not the same. This was a familiar argument for a nineteenth century women’s rights activist to hear, and Howe recognizes it as “the first serious objection likely to be argued” by those opposed to women’s equality anywhere.2 She then demonstrates how Socrates argues that “the intellectual capacities of women are as various as those of men, and that physical unlikeness among men does not necessarily imply unlikeness of capacity and pursuit.”3 Thus, Howe declares approvingly, Socrates demands that women receive education equal to men and that the best women be allowed to participate, alongside the best men, in guarding the city.

Throughout her speech, Howe connects Plato’s ancient text to her present experiences. “I remember when propositions like these,” she says of Socrates’ call for equality of education, “unknown or forgotten in the neglect of centuries, were taken up and unfolded before a wondering public, to which they appeared as extraordinary innovations.” Recalling the abolitionists who preached the injustice of slavery, risking death at the hands of violent mobs, she says, “I hear Garrison and Phillips and Lucy Stone, asking those very questions” about justice, nature, and equality. By linking Socrates with abolitionists, once dismissed as radical agitators and later admired as crusaders for justice, Howe seeks to achieve a unity of past and present with Socrates, William Llyod Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lucy Stone, and herself, all engaged in a conversation, across the ages, about justice. In addition, connecting Socrates to abolitionists suggests that just as the abolition of slavery came to pass, the radical views about equality Socrates articulates in the Republic will also become reality in the American republic.

Howe’s belief that the just society is possible reflects this late-nineteenth century optimism and stands in stark contrast to twentieth century thinkers such as Karl Popper, who saw the horror of totalitarianism in Plato’s attempt to construct a perfect society, and scholars such as Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and Arlene W. Saxonhouse, who argued that Plato intended to demonstrate the impossibility of building a just society.

While the idea of equal education at least conformed to general American principles of equality and universality, Socrates’ views on marriage and children are completely opposed to the most cherished American values of individual freedom and the sanctity of the family. In her essay, “The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato,” Arlene W. Saxonhouse argues that in destroying the family and establishing communism of wives and children, Socrates must . . .de-sex the female, make her void of any special erotic attraction or function. In doing so he must disregard the principle that had guided his original search for justice, namely the principle of nature.”4 Saxonhouse believes that a woman deprived of motherhood is an unnatural woman, or not a woman at all, but “de-sexed.” Conceding that Socrates does acknowledge that ‘the female bears, while the male covers’ (454d-e),” Saxonhouse asserts that “rather than consider the implications of this distinction he chooses to undermine it.”5

In fact, Socrates does consider the implications of this distinction; he simply comes to the conclusion that there are none. “Following the name alone,” Socrates tells Glaucon, “we . . . insist that a nature that is not the same must not have the same practices. But we didn’t make any sort of consideration of what form of different and same nature, and applying to what, we were distinguishing.”6 In other words, as Howe points out, “the intellectual capacities of women are as various as those of men,” and both a woman and a man may be fitted for a certain profession just as a bald man and a hairy man may both be fitted for the same profession.7

Because Howe lived in the nineteenth century and constantly preached the virtue of motherhood, moving that the United States adopt a national holiday honoring mothers, one might expect that she would take the same view as Saxonhouse, and reject Socrates’ communism of wives and children as an unnatural de-sexing of woman, depriving her of her excellence. Indeed, Howe expresses shock that our Plato, whose reasonings sometimes anticipate the very phraseology of the New Testament, could have held, on the momentous subject of marriage and family life, a creed so opposed to its teachings.” She also muses that “sweet even to a philosopher, even to a Greek, must have been the memory of his mother’s arms, of his mother’s knee.” Leaving aside the problem of claiming Plato as “ours” and associating him with Christian theology, and ignoring the inaccuracy of the idea that children in ancient Athens grew up close to their mothers, it is clear that Howe did expresses some initial hesitation at Socrates’ destruction of the family.

Ultimately, however, she fully endorses Socrates’ program as correct in theory, if unlikely to work in practice. For Howe insightfully understands Socrates’ program as de-gendering, rather than de-sexing women. It is the slavish aspect of sex against which Plato would make war, as inconsistent with true progress,” she explains.8 In the just city in speech, Howe tells her audience approvingly, “all are to share [family] duties, the women as co-workers with the men.”9 Unlike Saxonhouse, Howe understood that a woman’s gender, not her sex, is a result of her role as a mother and, despite her high esteem for motherhood, Howe, like Plato, understood that motherhood could become “the slavish aspect of sex” and subjugate women through prescribing a specific gender role. Women in Plato’s Republic are not de-sexed, as Saxonhouse suggests, because the female still “bears and the male covers,” but they are de-gendered because Socrates’ city creates no gendered division of labor.

By treating the structure of the family and the labor of raising children as inseparable from the general topic of women’s equality in education and the ruling of the city, Plato shows that equality for women in one sphere of life—education and politics—is impossible without a significant restructuring of the other sphere—the family. By recognizing this, Julia Ward Howe anticipated the arguments of feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin. In her book, Justice, Gender, and the Family, Okin seeks to deconstruct what she believes to be the myth of separate political and domestic spheres. “Once we admit the idea that significant differences between women and men are created by the existing division of labor within the family,” argues Okin, “it becomes increasingly obvious just how political an institution the family is.”10 Claiming that the division of labor in family life raises “practical” and “psychological” barriers to women’s equality in other areas of life, Okin calls for the demolition of gender in its most entrenched bastion”—the family.11 Okin criticizes those who have worked for women’s equality in the public sphere yet have remained unwilling to cross the fictional barrier and establish justice in the domestic sphere. Like Plato, as well as Howe, she recognizes that the equality of women in public life depends upon their equality in domestic life. Unless the unpaid and largely unrecognized work of the household is shared equally by its adult members, women will not have equal opportunities with men either within the family or in any of the other spheres of distribution,” she declares.12

Although it may seem that Howe would find no issues on which to disagree with “our Plato,” she in fact does dissent from one of Socrates’ prescriptions in the Republic, and one that would have been the least controversial in Plato’s time: the exposure of deformed or sick infants. Arguing that Plato makes “an important omission” here, she insists that “the robust and healthy infant may be born with the elements of a moral deformity more dangerous to society than any bodily failure or infirmity.” “Physical weakness and deformity are sometimes accompanied by great excellence of mind and heart,” Howe says.13 Exhibiting the Enlightenment values that separate this liberal republican woman from the Athenian aristocrat, Howe proclaims with a coloring of nineteenth-century progressive history: Here we see something that the world has gained since Plato’s time, viz.: the sense of the sacredness of the individual as well as of it the state.” “The state is an aggregate of individual souls, the guardian of individual rights,” she continues, asserting that, “while each should be willing to sacrifice himself for the good of all, the all or whole cannot make light of the person of any, since each and all stands to it in the same vital relation.”14

Howe accepts Socrates’ anti-individual rejection of the family and communism of wives and children on the ground that it is a necessary attack on gender, which is responsible for the subjugation of women. At the same time, however, she defends the sanctity of the individual and justifies the existence of the state only on the grounds that it protects individuals. Howe thus reveals herself as a liberal feminist in the mold of Okin. Despite her celebration of motherhood, she does not, like Saxonhouse, see this as the root of women’s unique excellence; on the contrary, she acknowledges it as a source of injustice.

Yet neither does Howe, like some Marxist feminists, reject the principles of liberalism. Sounding almost like a milder version of Karl Popper, she declares that the exclusion of corrupting influences, by which Plato assures the permanence and safety of his state, would be possible only under a spiritual despotism which would sap the energies of society by anticipating and restraining the will power of individuals.”15

Howe’s interpretation of Plato suggests that it is possible to accept Socrates’ proposal for the communism of wives and children on the grounds that it reveals the impossibility of creating equality in the realm of politics and education without organizing equality in the realm of domestic life, while at the same time endorsing the values of privacy and the individual that lie at the heart of liberalism. Indeed, as Susan Moller Okin explains, “challenging the dichotomy does not mean denying the usefulness of a concept or the value of privacy in human life. Nor does it mean denying that there are any reasonable distinctions to be made between the public and domestic spheres.”16 Okin does not want to destroy the family. She and Julia Ward Howe combine Plato’s insights about the origin of gender and its use as a tool of subjugation with the values of liberalism foreign to Plato’s time. Howe seems to have perceived this in her speech, as she stated that “the great problem is, how to retain both the unity and the variety, and how to reconcile and harmonize these opposites.”17

“When I hear that the mothers of Wyoming and of Washington Territory [where women could vote] take their young children with them to the polls,” Howe concludes her speech, “I see a partial realization of Plato’s vision.”18 At first, this statement appears ridiculous, because Plato was hostile to democracy and nowhere in the Republic do citizens get to vote for their philosopher-rulers; they do not even get to choose their sexual partners. Voting is in no way a realization of any vision of Plato’s, even if he was genuinely committed to women’s equality, which, as several scholars argue, is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, there is more to Howe’s seemingly ridiculous statement. It represents a moment in American history when great change—women going to the polls in the west, as well as industrialization, urbanization, immigration, expansion, and new inventions—was accompanied by a longing for tradition, particularly an intellectual tradition that would connect the ideals of the United States with an older, broader western tradition.

Caroline Winterer has written that in the early days of the republic, another period of great social and political upheaval, Americans turned to ancient Greece and Rome to find models for their experiences and to claim the mantle of a venerable tradition for their actions. Although Winterer does not mention Julia Ward Howe’s use of Plato or her work on women in Greek drama, she was clearly engaged in a similar project as Winterer’s eighteenth century subjects.

Furthermore, it is possible that Howe did not mean to suggest that the literal political act of giving consent through the vote fulfilled Plato’s vision, but rather that women at the polls in America produced a similarly shocking image as women at the palaestra would have in Plato’s time. Indeed, the most significant aspect of Howe’s speech on Plato’s Republic is not her interpretation of the book but rather simply the fact that she gave a speech on Plato’s Republic.

In her essay, “‘Supposing Truth Were a Woman…’: Plato’s Subversion of Masculine Discourse,” Wendy Brown writes that Plato’saim is to reduce the distance between [male and female, politics and philosophy] and thereby subvert the conventional standing of masculinity, politics, and political discourse, a standing predicated upon distance from qualities identified with women and femininity.” By speaking on a public platform about politics, justice, and philosophy, Howe participated in a similar project as Plato. Plato’s goal, Brown writes, was to relocate knowledge, knowing, and philosophy to a sphere less soaked by masculinity political power than the one it currently inhabits.”19

Howe, too, sought to relocate knowledge, knowing, and philosophy by physically showing her presence as a woman delivering a public discourse on those issues. Whereas Socrates often appropriates the female capacities of pregnancy and giving birth, comparing his role to that of a midwife and speaking of giving birth to ideas rather than children, Howe, though never dismissing the woman’s role of giving birth to children, sought to re-appropriate the capacity to give birth to ideas as well.

According to the scholar Natalie Harris Bluestone, for centuries commentators on Plato’s Republic either completely ignored his section on women’s equality, or assumed that it was not intended seriously. “By downplaying or disregarding Plato’s provocative proposals for women rulers,” Bluestone argues, “philosophers, whose task it is to question the dominant assumptions, instead reinforced the tendency of the ‘educated gentleman’ to ignore the matter of sexual equality as an important element of justice.”20 Howe was consciously fighting against these male scholars who ignored Plato’s discussion of women. Referring to calls in her own day for equality of education and leadership between the sexes, Howe says mockingly: When I reflect that to the American public, and perhaps especially to the public of college-bred men, these propositions appeared to embody a novel and dangerous heresy, I must wonder.” She then continues to explain that “those who should have been students of Plato, Bachelors and Masters of Arts, if cognizant of these statements as made by him, have often failed to perceive their deep significance.”21

By perceiving the deep significance of Plato’s discussion of women—namely, that the issue of women cannot be separate from the issues that concern the just society as a whole—Howe not only claimed philosophical discourse and political speech for women, she also restored the centrality of women to the question of justice, in her own society as well as in Plato’s ancient text.

Political philosopher Jacque Ranciere has written about the importance of political speech in defining people’s identity as political beings. For all time,” he claims, “the refusal to consider certain categories of people as political beings, has proceeded by means of a refusal to hear the words exiting their mouths as a discourse.” To achieve equality as political beings, women in America had “to render visible what had not been, and to make heard as speakers those who had been perceived as mere noisy animals.”22 Howe attempted this by speaking not only about politics and justice, but also about Plato, respected as the foundation on the western philosophical tradition.

Asking how certain types of people are excluded from the political, Ranciere answers that it is “in the simple observation of their material incapacity to occupy the space-time of political things.” “As Plato put it,” explains Ranciere, “artisans have time for nothing but their work. Of course this ‘nothing,’ which they have no time to do, is to be at the people’s assembly. Their ‘absence of time’ is actually a naturalized prohibition written into the very forms of sensory experience.”23 Similarly, Okin speaks of motherhood as a “practical” and “psychological” barrier to female participation in the public sphere. Ranciere explains that radical, transformative “politics occurs when those who ‘have no’ time take the time necessary to front up as inhabitants of a common space and demonstrate that their mouths really do emit speech capable of making pronouncements on the common.” This is precisely what Howe achieved by speaking about Plato’s Republic.

Before beginning his discussion of women, Socrates states that “having completely finished the male drama” it would be right “to complete the female.”24 Some scholars, such as Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, have used this line to suggest that Plato intends a comedy similar to the comedies of Aristophanes in which women, somewhat ridiculously, take control in politics.

It is also possible, however, to interpret this line as acknowledging the connection between the assembly and the theatre, a connection that Ranciere points out throughout his work. Plato acknowledges this connection by having Socrates banish politically dangerous poetry and stories from his just city. The “female drama” in the Republic puts women metaphorically on stage, by allow them to exercise naked in the palaestra with men, to be educated along side them, and to serve in war. In ancient Greece, women were not allowed to be seen on stage, and Ranciere suggests that the mere presence of actual women performing in a play would radically alter political consciousness by altering the conventional ideas about who belongs in what space. Thus, by occupying political space and speaking about justice, politics, philosophy, and women, Howe helped to subvert conventions that relegated women to a sphere outside of political life and to reproduction only in the physical, rather than Socrates’ ideal, sense. By restoring to women their important role in Plato’s Republic, she also insisted upon their centrality to the American republic.

There is no way to know for sure the extent of Plato’s sincerity in erasing gender distinctions in the Republic. What is certain, however, is that by participating in the conversation about justice, as a woman and in a public space, Julia Ward Howe continued Plato’s work of challenging conventions and opinions by her presence and activity in role usually denied to her. By placing Socrates, a philosopher, belonging to the private and the ideal, in the public and material life of the agora, and by making philosophers, inherently opposed to politics, the political rulers in his just city, Plato challenged conventional notions of the just and the good. Similarly, he sought to overturn opinions about justice and nature by forcing women, naked, into the palaestra with men and setting them up as philosopher queens as well.

By her presence in the public sphere and her engagement with matters of politics and philosophy, Howe challenged conventional notions of nature and justice, just as Plato would have had her go about it. She claimed not only political speech and political action for women, but the life of the mind as well. Finally, she claimed a central role for women in conversations about constructing a just society, putting women back in the center of questions about justice in Plato’s Republic. Howe serves as a reminder to scholars, whether they study Plato, the ancient world, or nineteenth century America, that women are not a separate, tangential issue. On the contrary, to study the position of women is to reveal the most important assumptions and ideas of a society about justice, nature, and the good.

1 Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 2-3.

2 Howe, 4.

3 Ibid.

4 Arlene W. Saxonhouse, “The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato,” in Nancy Tuana, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 70.

5 Saxonhouse, 72.

6 Allan Bloom, trans. Plato, Republic (United States: Basic Books, 1968), 454b-c.

7 Howe, 4.

8 Howe, 7.

9 Howe, 8.

10 Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (United States of America: Basic Books, 1989), 132.

11 Okin, 111, 116.

12 Okin, 116.

13 Howe, 8.

14 Ibid.

15 Howe, 10.

16 Okin, 127.

17 Howe, 12.

18 Howe, 13.

19 Wendy Brown, “‘Supposing Truth Were a Woman…’: Plato’s Subversion of Masculine Discourse,” in Nancy Tuana, ed. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 162.

20 Natalie Harris Bluestone, “Why Women Can’t Rule: Sexism in Plato Scholarship,” in Nancy Tuana, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 111.

21 Howe, 4-5.

22 Gabriel Rockhill, trans. Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2004), 24.

23 Ranciere, 25.

24 Plato, 451c.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Would like permission to link a page of our site to this wonderful article about Julia Ward Howe. We’re a group of mostly philosophy professors working to restore lost works by women to the canon of philosophy. Many thanks for this lovely piece!

  2. Thank you for your kind words and for your work with that web site! I’d be very happy to help contribute with this piece!


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