The view Plato and Socrates hold about the role of women in society is at times easy to confuse with a more modern sense of gender equality because he advocates a mostly equal upbringing, but closer examination reveals that this is only the illusion of modern gender equality. Still, as suggested in “The Republic” by Plato, he does believe that women and men should receive equal training and education, this is not because of some inherent sense of equality per se, but rather it is because women have a function to fulfill within society and it is only right that they be given ample opportunity to learn alongside men.
When performing an analysis of “The Republic” by Plato, It should also be noted that Plato and Socrates is not saying that men and women are equal, since in fact, he believes that women are physically and mentally inferior to men and that they have different “natures.” Despite this, he still feels that women serve a vital function and because of this somewhat utilitarian idea, they must be raised alongside men. He notes that in the group of women, classes and leaders will emerge and that this is important to both men and women, thus it is important to society as a whole.
In “The Republic” Plato / Socrates views on the marriage and mating rituals are quite striking in their break with traditional marriages and notions of romantic encounters or indeed, love. Instead of allowing free-will based courtships and marriages (which of course involve spontaneous intercourse) he believes that marriage/mating festivals should occur during only a small time during the year. During these festivals couples will be assigned to one another with those who would produce the most desirable offspring gaining the most marriages. After these festivals, sex will be off-limits with all of the children going to the whole community and being held in common. In effect, no parent would ever really know which child belonged to him or her and this would produce a community rather than selfish notions of ownership and kinship.
There are several reasons for the mating festivals, but most of them boil down to eliminating the selfishness and excesses he believes are part of society. For instance, without traditional marriages and family structures, there is no inherent ownership. Raising children in common is best for the community and society in general with marriages and family bonds in the way, this task of raising ideal children is less complicated. Furthermore, it regulates the breeding patterns of the citizenry, which produces those who are desired. In general, this is something of a eugenics-based approach to society building and Plato and Socrates is trying to instill his sense equality and the ideal community and society by suggesting it.
It is quite difficult to think that Socrates/Plato’s views about society, especially as they relate to kinship, women, and marriage, would create a just society. Most of the reason one could easily think this is because we are endowed with the modern western democratic tradition which espouses values such as freedom of choice, especially in terms of whom we marry and where we have the potential to go in life. Plato’s views are limiting since he believes everyone to have a function and fill a class role and do not allow for many exceptions, except in the case where male bravery is shown during war. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Plato overlooks basic human desire and nature by denying the possibility for romantic encounters for purposes other than a kind of forced or ritualized reproduction and this as well as other aspects makes his proposals about women and marriage unjust and unsuitable for any society.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Essay Comparing The Republic and Leviathan • A Rewrite of “The Apology” by Plato in the Voice of Socrates • The Definition of Virtue in Plato’s Meno • Explanation of the Theory of Moral Virtue by Aristotle