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Bodies of Knowledge: Women’s Reproductive Expertise in Plato

Edith G. Nally

University of Missouri-Kansas City

It is widely recognized that Plato holds radical views about women’s intellectual abilities (Annas 1976, Okin 1979, Tuana 1994, etc.). Republic V declares that men and women have the same natures (455d5-6), and that the best women might rule alongside the best men (456a5). Similarly, the standard reading of the Symposium attributes Plato’s own views to Diotima, affirming that some women are as intellectually capable as men. This stands in stark contrast to other works from roughly the same period, which cast women as inferior and reinforce ultra-restrictive norms prohibiting their participation in the public sphere (cf. Oeconomicus, Ecclesiazusae, Lysistrata). 

This paper investigates another of Plato’s views about women that has received considerably less attention: he portrays women as experienced, expert even, in matters of reproduction. For instance, the central metaphor of the Theaetetus compares philosophy to childbirth (149a-151d). Socrates even fashions his own expertise after the midwife (151c1-2). The Symposium employs the same metaphor, depicting souls as pregnant (κυοσιν) (206c1) and philosophical activity as a desire to birth beautiful ideas (209a2-212c2). The centrality of the birth metaphor also serves as a persuasive answer to the age-old puzzle about why Diotima, a woman, appears in the dialogue and speaks for Plato; as a woman, she alone has authority about procreation (Belfiore 2012). 

This paper asks whether Plato’s views about women’s expertise in reproduction ought also to be counted among his feminist or protofeminist views. The most prominent challenge is that reproduction is a deeply bodily act; yet, for Plato, embodiment consistently stands in the way of knowledge. Embodiment prevents knowing in the Phaedo, causes mental conflict in the Republic, and threatens to derail the charioteer in the Phaedrus (cf. Moss 2006). Perhaps more damning is that heterosexual sex in the Symposium is a lower form of erōs preciesly because it aims at physical reproduction (Symp. 208e3), whereas the highest form is pederastic and aims solely at propagating ideas (210a1-212c3). The fact that Plato casts women as experts in procreation might, therefore, be as much criticism as endorsement.

Ultimately, this paper reaches a very different conclusion. It is tempting to think Plato is, like others before and after him, associating women with the body and, thereby, devaluing their experience. But this is simply not the case. Plato’s women are experts both in physical reproduction (i.e. the midwife of the Theaetetus) and the immaterial form of reproduction that leads to the good life. To see this, we need only look to Diotima, who schools Socrates about reproducing beautiful ideas (210a). Her expertise is clearly not limited to the physical realm; she alone knows the route to virtue (212a6-7). For this reason, then, Plato is perhaps even more of a radical than has previously been understood. Not only does he think that women are the intellectual equals of men, but also that women’s experience provides privileged access to understanding how the essential human drive–love, or the desire to propagate beauty–can fuel a truly valuable existence.

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Believing Ancient Women: A Feminist Epistemology for Greece and Rome

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