GENDER NEUTRALITY IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY
Paulette H. Resling
B.A., Judson College, 1968
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
This thesis for the Master of Humanities
Paulette H. Resling
has been approved
Resling, Paulette H. (M.H.)
Modem Mythology: Gender Neutrality in Western Philosophy
Thesis directed by Professor Mark Tanzer
One gender has dominated Western philosophy for two thousand
years. When one attempts to understand and perhaps correct
women's position today, one must examine the philosophies to
ascertain just how much, if any, those philosophies contribute to
the transhistorical denigration of women. However, many present-
day philosophers debunk such an examination, claiming that
philosophy addresses universal questions, and that philosophy is
gender-neutral. Even a cursory analysis of philosophy's major
works reveals that such is not the case.
When one juxtaposes two such diametrically opposed philosophers
as Plato and Jean-Paul Sartre, separated by centuries and cultural
conditions, one detects a distinctly gender-biased point of view in
each philosopher. Both men's philosophies ultimately degrade
women, exposing the fallacy that Western philosophy is gender-
neutral. Plato's Theory of Forms leaves him no recourse but to
devalue women, placing them squarely in the Sensible world.
Though he claims that existence precedes essence, Jean-Paul Sartre
also clearly equates women with a given nature, determined by
their anatomy. One can only conclude that Western Philosophy is
not gender-neutral, and this bias harms all readers of the
philosophies, men as well as women.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's
thesis. I recommend its publication.
Laura, Amy, Emily
This one's for you.
I am most grateful to Professors Mark Tanzer, Susan Linville, and
Kent Casper for their guidance, critical reading, and patience with
me over the course of writing this paper. Their ideas and
reflections, combined with their high degree of professionalism,
gave me the inspiration and motivation to see this project through
to the end. My heartfelt thanks also to Dan Chabas for his help and
generous gift of time.
I am also indebted to my own students, who cheered me on, and
who celebrated with me as I completed each section of this paper.
Plato's Cultural/Ideological Context.....6
Plato's Concept of Women................23
3. JEAN-PAUL SARTRE..........................43
One is not born a woman, one becomes one.
Simone de Beauvoir
From Plato to the present day, Western philosophers have struggled
with the idea of essences: for human beings, does essence precede
existence, as Plato argued, or does existence precede essence, as Jean-
Paul Sartre claimed to argue? Plato claimed that mennot women
have the ability to strive for complete Goodness, accessible to them
through actualizing knowledge of the Forms, or essences, such as
Justice, Virtue, Goodness. These Forms are universal, unchanging
essences, which souls embodied in men know implicitly, not explicitly.
Knowledge through 'recall' of the Forms leads men to ultimate
Goodness, lack of knowledge to evil, which is a quality Plato attributes
to women since, for him, women lack the capacity for knowledge.
Sartre, conversely, argued that humans are bom as a blank slate, upon
which we will create our own individual natures; no universal
essences, or Forms, or values exist in us implicitly, or determine a
priori what we can be. The 'essence question' is of central concern for
women and men alike, since both genders have been molded by
cultural, political, scientific, medical, and religious viewpoints on the
issue. Even up to this very day, scarcely any area of human activity
lies outside of the discussion, especially where women are concerned:
Should women attend male military schools? Can women both work
and be mothers? Is something wrong with the woman who chooses
not to have children? Does a woman have the sole right to make
choices about her own body? Does something in woman's nature
make her more suited or less suited to be a national leader? Should
the Catholic church allow women to be church leaders? Are men from
Mars, and women from Venus? And so on, ad infinitum.
The feminist movement has struggled with the essence question and,
consequently, with women's status in the world, ever since de
Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949. Feminists of both
genders have combed through all fields of study to uncover those
patriarchal and misogynist mind-sets which marginalize women in
the social and political order. One field of study is particularly ripe for
such an examination-philosophy. For over two thousand years,
philosophy has been monopolized by one gender. Because of this male
monopoly, some people today believe that all of Western philosophy
needs to be scrutinized anew, from a multiplicity of perspectives. The
idea of points of view in philosophy, however, raises academic hackles,
and has been a source of vigorous debate. A significant number of
philosophers do not see how central philosophical issues could
possibly have a point of view, since those issues, hypothetically,
concern all human beings.
I take exception to that claim. Using Plato and Jean-Paul Sartre to
illustrate the male points of view inherent in philosophy, my paper
will argue that philosophies are not gender-neutral. Philosophical
thinking strongly influences Western culture; indeed, one could argue
plausibly that we are virtually a Platonist society. Since philosophy
influences all aspects of our existence, we should care what
philosophers say, and about the ramifications of their claims. If I can
take two such diametrically opposed philosophers as Plato and Sartre,
who are separated by two thousand years, located in different cultural
contexts, and demonstrate specifically male points of view in both, I
can raise legitimate doubts about other philosophies' gender-neutrality.
Regardless of gender, anyone reading philosophy must be aware of this
lack of neutrality, and, consequently, philosophy's complicity in
marginalizing women. As a woman and as a mother of three other
young women, I of course have a vested interest in at least exposing
philosophy's apparently transhistorical denigration of women. But we
all have another interest also. We are humans, struggling to
understand our personal being-in-the-world, as well as our being-for-
others. When the philosophies we encounter do not reflect our own
experiences, we must analyze them to see why. As I gain greater
personal knowledge through analysis, my admittedly narrow hope is
that I can articulate that knowledge to my three daughters, aiding each
in her own quest for personal definition.
Others before me have studied areas similar to this investigation.
Women interested in the genesis of patriarchy and the modem concept
of woman have studied mythological, cultural, and ideological
influences in ancient Greece (Allen, Arthur, Beauvoir, Code,
Dickason). To varying degrees, some of these authors also analyze
how these influences affect, or are manifested in, Plato's philosophy.
Such a plethora of sources exists about women's status in the ancient
world, and about Plato's philosophy as it concerns women, that my
main contribution in the Plato section of this paper is to distill the
information and weave together the various parts; however, I did not,
during the course of my research, find any one source which ties Plato's
philosophy directly into all of the cultural and ideological influences
that this paper will. I will also argue, as does Irigaray, that Plato
manifests a distinctly male point of view, to the detriment of women.
In using Irigaray's analysis of Plato's allegory of the cave, I will add
direct connections to the cosmology of generation in currency during
Plato's times, as well as parallelism with the Table of Opposites, and a
discussion of Plato's radical mind/body dualism, to illustrate how his
philosophy interlaces with and gives credence to the cultural and
ideological devaluation of women.
During the course of my directed readings, I read over four thousand
pages by and about Sartre. Nowhere did I find a discussion of how the
personal is philosophical to Sartre, and rarely did I find anyone
juxtaposing his personal life with his philosophy, with the exception of
Ron Aronson. Even in Aronson, one cannot find a discussion of
Sartre's disgust with sex, or of how this personal disgust must have
influenced his philosophy. Examinations of Sartre's personal life
along with his philosophy usually center around his childhood or his
political activity. The two biographers, Cohen-Salal and Gerassi, skim
over Sartre's sexual proclivities, but without assessing their
ramifications for his philosophy. Some authors do spend a significant
amount of time analyzing Sartre's philosophy of sexof being-for-
othersbut none make the connections I will make regarding sex and
other central components of his philosophy. Such an absence makes
this paper's argument concerning Sartre original, and, I think,
important for readers of Sartre's philosophy.
One must first understand the cultural/ideological context in which
Plato wrote before a fair criticism of his works can be leveled. Any
study of a gender bias in Plato's philosophy must also look at his theory
of eros, particularly as expounded in the Symposium and Phaedrus.
Luce Irigaray's reading of his allegory of the cave, when juxtaposed
with Plato's reliance on the Table of Opposites as well as with his
cosmology of generation, also reveals a point-of-view that is decidedly
not gender neutral. Finally, when one studies Plato's Theory of Forms,
and then reads his Timaeus, the picture is complete: In Plato's
philosophy, the mind-body dualism he argues for respects one sex
Plato's Cultural/Ideological Context
When Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, people in a
myriad of fields began to study seriously the concept of sex identity. As
her detailed examination of mythology shows, the sources for such a
study exist in plenitude, from the earliest of times. Now these
neglected historical sources have become a focus in disambiguating the
question concerning the 'concept of woman'. 1 These sources can help
to answer how the "concept of woman emerged, developed, and
influenced Western philosophy." 2 When Plato wrote, he became the
first person to lay out a complete foundation for the philosophical
study of sex identity. 3 But long before Plato waded into the murky
waters of sexual identity, a cultural tradition of misogyny and
subjugation of women existed, a culture which Plato inherited. 4 Our
first records of early Greek religious, political, military, and domestic
systems come from Homer and Hesiod. Because what they wrote
influenced Plato and his contemporaries, we should look at what we
can glean from them.
Homer was still recited aloud in Plato's Athens and regarded as
legitimate Greek history. We learn from his stories that a 1 2 3 4
1 Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution. 750 BC-Ad 1250 (Montreal:
Eden Press, 1985), 2.
4 Diana H. Coole, Women in Political Theory: From Ancient Misogyny to Contemporary Feminism
(Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1988), 10.
differentiation between males and females existed from at least the
Dark Ages, but this differentiation was based on a value system
different from that which became entrenched in Athens. The Homeric
cultural context in which men and women played out their roles was
one of kinship; the polis had not yet replaced the oik os (household) as
the central structure for survival. People in eighth century B.C. lived
in a tribal monarchy, centered in the king's palace. 5 No formalized
legal system existed. This was an age of great battles and constant wars,
emphasizing an extended family, with the men as warriors: brave,
'manly1, celebrating victory for the honor of personal victory rather
than for the honor of the state. Property was returned to the clan when
the head of the extended family died. Women had no contribution to
make to the art of defense save providing children and a comfortable
'place to come home to.' A comfortable, well-run home was, however,
highly valued. Though Penelope's role in The Odyssey is more
complex than this generalization, only males in Homer's world dealt
with the issues relevant to all of society, mostly, making war. So here,
in Homers time and before, we have a society shaped exclusively by 5
5 Marilyn B. Arthur, "The Origins of the Western Attitude Toward Women," in Women in the
Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers, eds. John Peradotto and J.P. Sullivan (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1984), 9.
one gendermale. In fairness, however, we must note that nowhere in
Homer do we find the pervasive misogyny which informs later Greek
literature. 6 Homer seems to have lauded woman's role," and
celebrated marriage as a union of partners, each with different but
complementary roles, as in the story of Penelope and Odysseus. How
ironic, then, that this celebration of difference is later turned on its
head, and institutionalized as the different-and-unequal philosophy
which has shaped Western thinking to this day.
By Hesiod's time in sixth century BC, all state institutions religious,
military, and politicalwere controlled by an hereditary aristocracy.
Clan ties were still strong for the upper class, but a middle class was fast
gaining strength with the rise of prosperous farmers and craftsmen. ^
Consequently, the duty of the wife to provide a legitimate heir reached
new importance in Hesiod's time because of restrictive availability of
land, continuance of property rights, and the need of the ruling class to
pass power down to succeeding generations. Women in sixth century
BC had no stake in any particular family, since they were constantly 6 *
6 Arthur, 13.
^ Arthur, 20.
transferred between families. The male-ordered political arena further
isolated women from affiliation of any kind. Thus, men viewed
women's sexuality with more fear than ever; since woman
(apparently) could have no loyalty to either family or polity, her
sexuality became a threat which had to be regulated. 8 Hesiods
cosmology added to the intrinsic mistrust of women. Through his
writings, particularly Theogony.the standard Greek work on creation,
and Works and Days. Hesiod grafted a paternal theology onto an
already patriarchal domestic and political culture. 9 One must keep in
mind that mythology was pervasive in Plato's Greek culture as a
whole; one cannot draw a clear line between what was historical and
what was mythic for them. 10
Even before Hesiod, an antagonism between males and females existed
in Greek mythology. Though earliest mythology has original
generation springing from Mother Earth when she creates Father Sky
(who thus becomes simultaneously her son and her lover), this 9 10
9 Peradotto and Sullivan, 3.
10 Coole, 14.
maternal ordering of generation is soon overturned, according to
Hesiod's Theogonv. Feuding erupts between the sexes when Mother
Earth and her progeny conspire to overthrow Father Sky. To make a
long story short, Father Sky triumphs. So now, on the first
cosmological level, the male alone reigns. In Hesiods account of
cosmic generation, we find a "vivid account of polarization and
hostility between male and female. H On the second cosmological
level, Father Sky's fourth-generation son Zeus is given supreme power
over the earth. Through Zeus, patriarchy is established on Olympus.
(Ironically, Mother Earth willingly surrenders her power to Zeus.)
Though Zeus does like his women, and even fathers little gods and
goddesses with them, feuding inevitably erupts on this level, too.
Warned by a Muse that one of his children will rise up to defeat him,
Zeus swallows the pregnant Metis, goddess of wisdom, subsequently
giving birth to Athena, who springs forth fully grown from his head.
Athena was of particular importance to Athens, even in Plato's times,
since she was the goddess of wisdom as well as the protectress of the
11 Allen, 12.
More subtly, patriarchy is firmly entrenched among the gods with this
male swallowing of reason and the parthenogenetic birth of Athena.
Athena has no mother with whom to identify. And since Zeus has
assimilated the feminine,'The reproductive capacity is transferred
from the womb to the head, suggesting that the male version is of a
superior kind, rooted in reason rather than in the recesses of the
flesh." 12 (We shall return to this myth later, when I discuss the
Symposium.) Wisdom is now regarded as a male virtue only. When
Zeus assimilates the feminine, he can give birth without resorting to a
Hesiod devalues women even more fundamentally in Works and
Days. Like the Christian Bible, Works blames all evil in the world on a
woman. Hesiod writes that Pandora is created to punish man for
stealing fire. "She is given 'stinging desire and limb-gnawing passion,'
'the mind of a bitch,' and a 'thievish nature.' She is made 'full of lies'
and 'coaxing words. 13 Positive qualities for women are also 12 13
12 Coole, 16.
13 Coole, 15, quoting Theosonv. Works and Davs. Shield, trans. A.N. Athanausakis
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), Works lines 56-105.
enumerated in Works --beauty, weavingand Hesiod also states that an
open mind in woman is a negative quality. 14 As Coole notes, four
themes regarding females can be summarized from Hesiod's works:
The overthrow of the old fertility goddesses by
the rational, patriarchal Olympian deities; the
explanation of men's woes as a function of
woman's creation; the myth of male generation
and the more prosaic anecdotes concerning women's
generally amoral and unpleasant nature. 15
Since no one writes in a vacuum, uninfluenced by her/his times, one
must assume that Hesiods writings reflect antagonism between the
males and females of his times. We shall see more of Hesiod's
influence on Plato's times later in this paper, when we look at fifth
century Greek drama.
Hesiod thus contributes to patriarchy by grafting a theological 14 15
14 Arthur, 25.
15 Coole, 17 (Italics mine: Plato argued that a human can only live the Good life
when one performs his proper function in society).
legitimacy onto the already established cultural and domestic
patriarchy. I submit that he also reinforces misogyny with his
description of woman in Works. Shortly after Hesiod, the rule by
aristocracy had ended, with the rise of the middle class and a
consequent new emphasis on different economic needs dictated by
commerce and industry. By now Greek mythology informed
patriarchal authoritywomen were good when subjugated. The oikos
was now freed from having to be returned to the clan, so attention
turned to having the individual property protected through a
legitimate heir of the father (either the husband or, his lacking a male
heir, the woman's father). The great legislator Solon now entered the
picture, and further sealed the fate of women in ancient Greece. That
fate echoes hauntingly through Western jurisprudence even today.
When the oikos replaced the clan as the central domestic entity, it
became the basis for the city-state. In Homeric times, male and female
were regarded as separate but important entities; in the city-state,
resulting from Solon's laws, being the head of an oikos became
the requisite for incorporation into citizenship, and thus to full
humanity. 16 For the Greeks, the state was of primary importance:
their way of life could last only as long as the state lasted. Each (male)
citizen was expected to expend all of his mental and physical energies
protecting the state. Since women were relegated to the household
alone, they became, by law, sub-species of the state, and thus, of
humanity. 17 The domestic, cultural, theological and legislative
ideologies now coalesced to ensure womens subjugation. Under
Solon's laws, women were not seen as existents in their own right, but
as an aspect of man's existence. 18 The centuries-long implication of
women's inferiority now became explicit under the law. Solon created
a system to maintain private property which "required slaves to run it
and women to perpetuate it." 19 This perpetuation of legitimate male
heirs to inherit property and citizenship made woman's role crucial,
yet her rights were minimal. Her sexuality and the inherited beliefs
from Hesiod about it made her the object of fear for the individual
male head of the household, and for the polis as a whole. By Plato's 17 19
1 Arthur, 36.
17 Arthur, 36.
IS Arthur, 37.
19 Arthur, 37.
time, we had a legacy of revering woman's role in the household,
combined with the dichotomous deploring of her for her sexuality.
What, exactly were these laws which so undermined woman's status
in the Greek city-state? Solon intended to create laws which would
forever prevent the amassing of great fortune by the few at the
expense of the many. Inheritance laws were the answer, as he saw it.
He created for the first time the right to make a will. He kept in mind
always, however, that the state was the aggregation of individual
oikoi, which included husband, wife, children, slaves, and the
property to support them. The inheritance laws he created seemed at
first glance to give woman, at long last, some deliverance from
dependence on males. Such was not the case. In actuality, women
were not allowed to inherit much of anything. The bulk of the
property had be returned to her father's family if there was no male
heir (and this could not be an adopted son) to inherit the property. 20
She then had to be married off by, or married to, an uncle on her
father's side. 20
20 Arthur, 38.
Solon further legislated what private property a woman could bring to
a marriage, 21 and, to put it mildly, that would be no more than one
could fit in a handbag. He even legislated the right of the husband to
"have sexual intercourse with her (his wife) at least three times a
month. "22 Solons laws regulated what a woman must wear when
going out-of-doors: She was to carry signifiers which would alert
anyone who saw her to the fact that she was a married woman (the
modern day moniker, Mrs.?) Additionally, she was not allowed to
wear more than three layers of clothing; one would assume that this
particular piece of legislation was to keep her from running away
from an unhappy household, should she so desire (though where she
would run to remains a mystery to me). All of Solons laws regarding
family matters emphasized that the oikos was the basis for the city-
state. His laws made clear that woman's role was relegated to the
perpetuation of the oikos, either her husbands or her father's. Going
beyond convention, a principle of law now required that woman's
role be reduced to being a mere provider of heirs 21 22
21 Arthur, 32.
22 Arthur, 33, quoting Solon, 20.3.
Along with the cosmology, theology, and legislation, drama played no
small part in reinforcing woman's subjugation in ancient Greece.
During the fifth century BC, three great playwrights, Aeschylus,
Sophocles, and Euripides, all were producing plays, many of which
focused on the antagonism between males and females. 23 Though
the three playwrights' tragedies also focused on other themes as well,
and, indeed, seemed at times to be questioning the order of things as
they were, clearly, the inherited mythological beliefs about women
inform some of the plays. Aeschylus' Oresteia offers the most
resonant account of sexual contradiction..." 24 This trilogy also draws
directly from Hesiod's Theogony. In Agamemnon. Clytemnestra kills
Agamemnon for a new lover, her husbands political rival, and to
revenge Agamemnon's sacrifice/murder of their daughter. One
might argue that Clytemnestra also murders Agamemnon out of
jealousy over his new mistress Cassandra, though she and Aegisthus
plan the homicide before Clytemnestra learns of Cassandra's existence.
The play ends with Clytemnestra's justification for the murder, 23 24
which, interestingly, centers around only one of the three motives--
Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter to appease the gods. In the
second play of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers. Clytemnestra's son
Orestes kills her to avenge his father and to reestablish his (male)
authority. The final play, The Eumenides. settles the question of
Orestes' guilt or innocence And this is the play which draws directly
from Hesiod's cosmology.
At the trial where he is accused of matricide, Orestes is found not
guilty, with the deciding vote being cast by the goddess Athene. When
the Furies (the underworld beings who punish murderers of kin and
who are responsible for fertility on earth) complain, Apollo points to
Athene as proof that one can be bom without a mother. "I will show
you the proof of what I have explained. There can be a father without
any mother. There she stands [Athene], the living witness..she who
was never fostered in the dark of the womb." 25 Apollo points out
that Athene was not bom from the dark recesses of the womb, but
sprang from reason and light (the male head). In casting her deciding 25
25 Aeschylus, Oresteia: Agamemnon. The Libation Bearers. The Eumenides. trans.
Richard Lattimore (New York: Washington Square Press, 1971), lines 661-665.
vote in Orestes' favor, Athene concurs with Apollo that she has
neither a mother nor allegiance to women: "There is no mother
anywhere who gave me birth, and, but for marriage, I am always for
the male with all my heart...So, in a case where the wife has killed her
husband...her death shall not mean most to me." (736-740) To placate
the Furies, who are after all in charge of fertility, Athene offers them a
cult in Athens if they promise not to prevent fertility as revenge.
Hesiod's theology entwined with Aeschylus's drama, played out
before a large, appreciative male audience in ancient Greece, and
woman's subjugation was further woven into the tapestry of everyday
life and thought.
Two more pieces to the cultural/ideological puzzle which informed
Plato's times remain to be examinedPythagoras and Hippocrates. A
Pythagorean school of philosophy was established in Greece around
the middle of the sixth century BC. Though only fragments of
Pythagoras' writings are extant, it is generally accepted that he
developed the famous Table of Opposites. 26 Most of the sources I
have consulted state that Plato draws on this table for much of his 26
26 Allen, 19.
ontology and metaphysics, so a brief look at its claims is in order. The
Table sets up the following pairs of antitheses:
limit and absence of limit
one and many
male and female
straight and curved
good and bad
One will notice immediately, in the center of the table, male is aligned
with good, female with bad; furthermore, the table begins with the
categories, limit and absence of limit. (For Plato, limit was necessary
to ensure order and reason within the human, thus within the state.)
Strains of this recur in Plato's Sophist and Timaeus. among other
Hippocrates, too, influenced Plato. Hippocrates accepted the
Pythagorean Table of Opposites in his Aphorisms, when he ascribes
the good to male and the bad to female. 27 in Airs, Waters. Places.
Regimen, and On Generation. Hippocrates highlights the importance *
77 Allen,47, quoting Hippocrates. W.H.S. Jones, ed. (London: Wm. Heinemann and
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1923), Vol IV, Aphorisms V, pp. 167, 171.
of hot/cold and dry/moist to the development of the fetus. These
same works argue for the superiority of the male fetus over the
female, and for the higher intelligence of the male over the female. 28
His works, too, redound in Plato's dialogues.
We have examined some of the domestic, military, political, religious,
legal, literary, philosophical, and medical customs/ideologies which
are precursors to Plato's time. Certainly others exist, but I have
selected those which my research indicates were still influential for
Plato and his contemporaries. In the eight categories listed above, one
attitude or belief informs all of themmen are superior to women.
Thus, each category interlaces with and gives credence to the other.
The implications are astounding. Nowhere could woman turn for
validation as a valued human being for anything other than
reproduction. Though some bright spots existed occasionally, and in
isolation, Plato was bom into a climate of ubiquitous disparagement of
women. Plato, unwittingly or not, cultivated this denigration through
his male-only oriented philosophy. 28
28 Allen, 48-52.
Plato's Concept of Woman
My interest in the topic I have chosen for research originated in an
obscure footnote in the Cambridge Companion to Plato.29 After
reading this footnote, I was on the alert for any mention of women
Plato makes in the Dialogues. Though I found some mention of
women in the Meno. it was in the Republic. Book V that I became
fully engaged, and so, too, as I have discovered, have scores of others,
men included. In this famous (or infamous, depending on one's
view) book, Plato suggests that women be trained the same as men to
take over leadership of an ideal state. Plato argues that only
philosophers are fit to rule the state. He maintains that men and
women have the same virtues; therefore, it only makes sense that
women receive the same education and physical training as men. He
admits that women are generally weaker than men, but he argues that
some women will be stronger and smarter than some men. He argues
for communal living arrangements and communal mating, strictly 29
29 The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Richard Kraut, ed. ( Cambridge: University
Press, 1992), Introduction, 44. I was intrigued by endnote #49 on this page, which
refers to Plato's plans to enlarge the political role played by women in the ideal
city-state, and which suggests several readings on the subject.
regulated by the state. The women will not be burdened by the
vicissitudes of child-rearing. They are to share equally with the male
guardians all defensive responsibilities, so they are to exercise naked
along with the men in the gymnasium. While he asserts that women
will serve equally with men as guardians of the state, he never makes
explicit whether they will also ascend to the highest level of
guardianshipthe position of philosopher kings.
If Plato's assertions caused an uproar among his contemporaries, he
should see the one going on twenty centuries later among mine. At
the time he made his arguments, women were not citizens, and they
lived a life of isolation/subjugation resulting from the inherited
ideologies described above. As far as we can tell, Plato was the first
man to call for what appeared to be full emancipation of some
women, which must have been received as radical indeed by his
contemporaries. Today's uproar stems from a different cause. As
Plato's texts were translated and made available to the Western world
(around the time of the Renaissance), women were beginning to assert
their rights to full humanity. Naturally, then, the Platonic canon
became feminist fodder. And what we have found in Plato is
confusing. As Dorothea Wender puts it, emanating from his works,
we have /' Anti-Platon chez Platon. 30
Because of the paradoxical view of women Plato presents throughout
his works, one will find today's commentaries running the gamut
from apologist for him to outright condemnation (Bluestone, Okin,
Elshtain, etc.) My own position is just as complicated. I will present
some of the various readings, then I will maintain the following: Like
Wender, I believe Plato does argue legitimately for the emancipation
of some women, but I also believe, as does most everyone, that Plato
finds no redeeming qualities in women. I will further complicate my
own reading of Plato by asserting that his mind-body dualism leaves
room only for what Plato perceives as male qualities, which is why he
We find feminist standings (apparently) in the Republic: Book Five.
of course, but they exist elsewhere as well. In the Meno Plato argues 30
30 Dorothea Wender, "Plato: Misogynist, Paedophile, and Feminist," quoted in
Peradotto & Sullivan, 244.
that men and women have the same virtues, and some brief, positive
comments appear in the Menexenus. Critias, and Politicus. 31 The
Laws restores marriage and property to individual guardians, but it
still maintains the call for equal education:
And mind you, my law will apply in all respects to girls as
much as to boys;... it is pure folly that men and women do not
unite to follow the same pursuits with all their energies.32
One need not look so hard for disparaging comments. In the Phaedo
at 60a Socrates has Xanthippe removed from his deathbed for weeping
and at 117d he exhorts his friends not to weep like a woman. Women
are repeatedly put in the same class as children and slaves, as in
Gorgias 502. Women do not escape even in the Republic. At 395d
Socrates states the following:
We will not then allow our charges, whom we expect to prove
good men, being men, to play the parts of women and imitate
women young or old wrangling with her husband, defying 32
For a summary of what these passages say, see Wender, 216.
32 Laws. Book II, 804e-805a.
heaven, loudly boasting, fortunate in her own conceit, or
involved in misfortune- and possessed by grief and
lamentation-still less a woman that is sick, in love, or in labor.
Many other censorious remarks about women exist in this feminist
treatise. The Timaeus. as Wender says, is also replete with male
chauvinistic comments. At 42 woman is depicted as being bom
inferior to man; additionally, here we learn that a man who does not
live rightly is punished by being reincarnated as a woman. In Laws at
944 cowards are wished the fate of turning into women; at 781 Plato
says women are inferior and inclined to stealth and secretiveness
(shades of Hesiod). Those who find no redeeming qualities in Plato
also cite the Symposium as ultimate proof of his disdain for females, as
we shall see when I discuss that book.
During the course of my research, I found Bluestone to be the most
sympathetic to Plato. 33 She spends nearly the entire book refuting
other critics, accusing them of anti-female bias in their readings of
Plato, and with some justification. She finds several categories of this 33
33 Natalie h. Bluestone, Women and the Ideal Society: Plato's Republic and Modem
Mvths of Gender. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987).
chooses to 'stay at home' makes, and by extension, men, too, though
Bluestone herself does not recognize that she does so.
Prudence Allen adds another dimension to feminist Platonic criticism.
She applauds Plato for initiating the sex unity theory on a systematic
basis. (Sex unity argues that humans qua humans are equal in nature.)
She finds only one problem: the devaluation of materiality that any
sex unity theory embraces. "However, from the perspective of the
concept of woman, it would seem that Plato's articulation is not that
unusual...[sex unity theories] nearly always involve a devaluation of
the materiality of human existence, and in particular, of male and
female bodies." 35 I agree with her that Plato is ultimately interested in
the state of the soul over that of the body, but she gives him too much
credit here. For in discounting materiality, Plato is only interested in
devaluing those traits he considers feminine. Indeed, the virtuous
soul consists of 'manly' bravery, temperance, love of knowledge, and
Plato's own theory of cosmic generation added to his belief that the
embodied female is inferior, and that the soul itself is male-gendered.
35 Allen, 81.
bias: neglect of the proposals Plato makes in the Republic (Popper), the
proposals as unnatural (Bloom, Barker, Jowett, Frank, Strauss), the
proposals as undesirable( Nettleship), as unintentional (Bloom,
Strauss,Wilamowitz, Nohle), and as okay as long as they don't go too
far' (Wright). 34 My own reading of Bluestone finds her relying too
heavily on Plato's call for "masculine" rationality. She stereotypes by
assuming, one, that only women can choose to 'stay at home,' and,
two, by implying that anyone who does stay in the home lacks
rationality, which she explicitly denotes as a male quality. She utters a
clarion call for women not to make the mistake of over-emphasizing
those "separate virtues practiced in a private sphere (home)" over
rationality, and she returns to this theme again and again, as though
one could take a carving knife and separate reason from one's other
faculties. Because she addresses her argument to women exclusively, I
find her stand not only condescending, but perilously close to Plato's
own mistake of devaluing woman qua woman. She says repeatedly
that we must be committed passionately to the uses of reason. I agree
with her, but I find the general context in which she makes this
statement to be one of devaluing the contribution that a woman who
34 Bluestone, 23-63.
In the Timaeus. Socrates asserts that when men do not live goodly
lives, they are reincarnated as women, implying strongly that the
female body is only an empty shell used to house sinful male souls. In
fact, nowhere does he state what happens to the female who does not
live a virtuous life. He states further in the Timaeus that those
'manly' souls condemned to come back as a woman, who still do not
live a virtuous life, are then reincarnated as beasts or brutes, and so on
down the chain. Again, the implication is clearsouls for Plato are
male. The female body is a shell, used to punish wayward male souls.
Additionally, in the Timaeus we read that on the cosmic level, the
mother is an empty receptacle. She is formless, for if she had a form,
she would impress it on the conceived fetus:
Wherefore that which is to receive all forms should have
no form 36
Here Plato takes Hesiod's theory of cosmic generation and inverts it
Mother Earth is relegated to a completely passive, formless 'petri dish.'
If the female on the cosmic level has no form, how can her
36 Timaeus. 50e.
manifestation on the human level have one? This is another reason I
believe that for Plato, souls are male only; the female body is used only
to house reincarnated male souls who have not earned the right to live
an embodied life as a male. Plato's Theory of Forms demands that he
invert Hesiod's mythic account of cosmic generation: for Plato, Forms
have an essential, unchanging, ethical nature: they are essence. Forms
are bodiless, assuring that the essential nature of any given thing does
not change. When he asserts in the Timaeus that women can have no
form, and equates women with pure matter, Plato denies women
Goodness. Plato claims that what all good things have in common is
the timeless Idea, Form, or Essence of Goodness~and women do not
possess it. Essence does precede existence for Plato, but only men have
access to essences.
Though Plato inverts Hesiod's cosmology, he is not able to shed
himself of Hesiod's mythic rendition of why woman is created in the
first place: it is her function to punish man. Woman serves this
function by being an empty shell, materiality only, so erring male souls
may be recycled, but punished for the deficiencies of their former lives
by having the ascent to Goodness made more difficult because they are
housed in a cowardly woman's body. Woman's materiality serves
another function as wellshe is an incubator for souls. Here we have a
curious combining of gynecology with philosophy. The female must
bear and birth the child, but she cannot impress herself on it, so,
therefore, she herself must be formless. For Plato, one measures a
thing's goodness by how close to the Form that thing is. Because she is
formless, she has no male virtues in her embodied statecourage,
justice, intelligence, temperance, limitshe is the antithesis to form.
Because she cannot possess these qualities, she is weak, given to rule by
the body rather than that of the soul. For Plato, one achieves virtue by
subjugating the body, the material, to essences (Forms); since women
have no essence, they cannot be virtuous. Plato's Theory of Forms
leaves no recourse for him but to deprecate the embodied female. Her
task in life is to house wayward male souls, and to give birth; if she
births a son, then some lucky male soul lived the Good life previously
and has earned the right to be reincarnated as a man. If she births a
daughter, another sinful male soul now must try once again to live a
life of virtue.
We saw earlier in this paper how pervasive patriarchy and misogyny
were by Plato's time. No single area of human activity was left to
chance, as far as the woman question goes. For at least five hundred
years, women had been consigned to the house, to bear children, to
weave, and to cook. The various kinds of rule, from clan, to
aristocracy, to rule by law, all ensured that woman's role was to
produce legitimate heirs. Because of mythology and inherited beliefs
about cosmic generation, men viewed women's sexuality with fear and
loathing. If she was endowed by nature with 'limb-gnawing passion'
plus 'secretiveness, she could not be trusted to remain monogamous,
so she had to be strictly regulated, treated as a child who could not
think for herself. Additionally, it was man who had the gift of
wisdom, primarily because he could overcome the base passions of the
body, as we saw when Zeus assimilated the feminine so he could give
birth without resorting to a female body. Also, Hippocrates further
sealed woman's fate by detailing medically how the female fetus is
weaker and less intelligent than the male fetus:
It is like this: if the strongest seed comes from both partners,
the embryo is male; if it is the weakest, it is female... 37
^7 Allen, 49, quoting Hippocrates, "De la Generation," in Hippcrate. Tome XI
(Paris: Societe 1 edition 'les belles lettres," 1970), vi, 48, trans. Odile Heilman.
Now if the bodies secreted from both happen to be male, they
grow up to the limit of available matter, and the babies become
brilliant men in soul and strong in body... the degree of
manliness depends upon... education and habits. 38
By the time Socrates and Plato began to philosophize, some things had
progressed. Philosophers were trying to throw out the old myths as
explanation for everything in the world, and and tried to use
observation of the senses plus reason for explanations instead. But as
the observation of their senses must surely have shown them, one key
thing had not changedwomen were still subjugated. I submit that it is
not surprising that Plato could not think any more clearly of women
than he did. They had not been educated. Participation in the polis
was denied them, so no one had any reason to believe that they could
participate in rational political debate. Athenian women had not
engaged with the male citizens in warfare against the enemy, so they
had not endured an auto da fe, at least as the males viewed it. While
38 Allen, 49, quoting Hippocrates, Vol.IV, op.cit., Regimen I. xxxv, 281.
medicine, laws, type of rule, and science had evolved, woman had been
left to stay the course indoors.
Indeed, the latest word in medicine and Solon's laws ensured that
there she would stay. As modem experience has demonstrated, 'tell
the people a lie often enough and they will believe it to be true.' We
need only look at the phenomenal success North Korea had in
brainwashing American prisoners of war, or Hitler's success in
brainwashing an entire nation of 'civilized' people, to see how
effective such tactics are. Fifth century Athens was no different,
peopled as it was by humans. If everything around Plato suggested that
women were inferior, and if he had no evidence otherwise, how could
he think anything but? Philosophy arises out of the conditions of its
times, and in a dialectical exchange, philosophy and the conditions of
the times then act on each other. One would like to believe that Plato
could think a priori principles beyond the empirical world, but on the
other hand, even for Plato, philosophy began in the sensible, empirical
world. Moreover, as Irigaray's analysis of the myth of the cave later in
this paper will exemplify, Plato located women firmly in the Sensible
world, a world vastly inferior to that of his Intelligible world.
The Symposium adds yet another piece to the Platonic puzzle. Here
Plato has Socrates speak as a woman, Diotima, in discoursing on eros,
passionate love. In this discourse, I see two things happening: one,
Plato calls on Hesiod's lesson of Zeus assimilating the feminine to give
birth, and at the same time he calls on his theory of reflection to
demonstrate how the lover can use eros to achieve the Beautiful.
Some of my sources use the Symposium as proof that Plato believes
women as well as men can use their bodies to achieve the Beautiful. I
do not agree. Hesiod's myth, Plato's invocation of Hesiod, and essays
by David Halperin 39 and Caroline Pierce 40 all reinforce my stand. As
Halperin states, "Diotima's instruction...does not consist in
enlightening men about women...On the contrary, what Diotima
propounds to Socrates is an ethic of 'correct pedaeresty [sic].'" 41
Halperin concludes that Diotima is a trope, through whom Socrates
instructs men on creative male intercourse in philosophy, not in
sexual intercourse. I believe Plato uses this tactic as an echo of Hesiod: 39 40 41
39 David Halperin, "Why is Diotima a Woman?". One Hundred Years of
40 Caroline Pierce, "Eros and Epistemology," pp. 25-39, quoted in Engenderim
41 Halperin, 113.
Men can give birth. But Plato is interested only in the birth of ideas, of
knowledge. In the Theaetetus. at 150b-d, Socrates likens himself to a
midwife, only he is giving birth to ideas. Because of his belief in
reincarnation, and his radical mind-body dualism, the pleasures of the
flesh do not interest Plato.
Caroline Pierce uses her article to analyze the Symposium in
homoerotic terms. She contends that Plato concedes passionate love so
that like reflecting like (through the body) can come to an
understanding, and then perhaps to the truth, about the Beautiful. I
was reminded when reading her article about the divided line of
knowledge explicated in the allegory of the cave, and the upward
progression of thinking necessary if one is to achieve Knowledge (I will
say more about the cave later in the paper). At the mid-way point of
the progression, one is out of the 'cave,' and at the point where one can
study the reflection of the actual objects themselves. One must spend
some time in this reflection before one can progress. At first I was
puzzled by Pierce's contention that homoeroticism is necessary to
ascend to a better understanding of the Form of the Beautiful.
However, reading Simone de Beauvoir clarifies what Pierce later
When alone she does not succeed in creating her own double;
if she caresses her own bosom, she still does not know how her
own breasts seem to a strange hand, nor how they are felt to
react under a strange hand; a man can reveal to her the
existence of her flesh for herselfthat is to say, as she herself
perceives it, but not what it is to others. It is only when her
fingers trace the body of a woman whose fingers in turn trace
her body that the miracle of the mirror is accomplished...
separateness is abolished...42
De Beauvoir means, I believe, that like reflecting upon its own
likeness yields truth. Plato, in the Phaedrus at 255d, also refers to
homosexual love as a mirror:
So he loves, yet knows not what he loves; he does not
understand, he cannot tell what has come upon him; like one
that has caught a disease of the eye from another, he cannot
account for it, not realizing that his lover is as it were a mirror
in which he beholds himself.
Plato does not like sex for anything other than procreation (of ideas).
But he is willing to use sex to his advantage when philosophizing. In
Plato's bisexual world, he concedes that homosexual love between men
can lead them to contemplate a higher good. Diotima urges the men in
her audience (no women are present) to employ sex as a first step on
the hierarchy of ascending knowledge, and, like women, to conceive
then and give birth from their sexual union-only this birth is to ideas.
She is a trope, a metaphor, speaking through a man's mouth. Even
with sex, Plato is true to his Theory of Forms, believing that only men
possess the virtues necessary to make the ascension to Knowledge.
One can also use Plato's myth of the cave to underscore how his
philosophy as such elides women, for Plato weaves within that myth
much of his metaphysics. Irigaray points out that the cave is a
quintessential representation of a womb.43 This womb, however, will
give birth only to ideas. (As we have already seen in the Theaetetus
and in the Symposium. Plato's only interest is in giving birth to ideas.)
Irigaray argues that in the myth we find an imaginary copulation
between a mother and a father, with the mother's role as engenderer
elided: "The fact that the woman also engenders has been obliterated
from the scene of representation by cutting off the Sensible from the 43
43 Margaret Whitford, Luce Iriaarav: Philosophy in the Feminine (London: Roust Publishing, 1991)
106. Whitford is noted as an expert in translating Irigaray and in rendering Irigaray's philosophy
intelligible to the reader.
Intelligible."44 Once again, the myth of Zeus ingesting the maternal,
and giving birth to Athena comes to mindall true birth springs from
reason, not flesh. By the time one reads to the end of the myth, Plato
has the Form/Sim/Light spawning an unlimited number of copies-
reflections--of its pure self. The further one gets from the 'real,' the
Form, the further one gets from the Good. Since the materiality of the
woman is represented in the cave, in darkness, shadows,
approximations of truth, she is as far removed from goodness as one
can get. The woman is relegated to the specular world, the world of the
visible. We have already seen that Plato incorporates the Table of
Opposites when he assigns men limit (form) and women no limits (no
form). Formlessness aligns with darkness, both inform woman's
materiality, and she is consigned to the cave of ignorance ad infinitum.
"Truth has come to mean the leaving behind of the Mother (cavern)
and her role in reproduction.'^
When Plato sets out to establish his just state in the Republic, he
concedes a point: Women may perhaps reach a virtuous state. I 44 45
44 Whitford, 106.
45 Whitford, 110.
believe that he is not arguing that woman qua woman may be
virtuous, but that a woman who has been educated to assimilate male
virtues can achieve a virtuous male soul. The passages cited earlier in
the paper, where Plato denigrates women, saying the guardians must
not exhibit any womanly qualities, prove my point. Add to that his
numerous other negative statements about women peppered
throughout the Dialogues, and one has the complete Platonic view on
the woman question: A woman's body must be formless so that she
will not impress herself on that Form which she is to receive. Since
she has no Form, she is not simply far away from Goodness, but
devoid of it. Additionally, a woman's body is used to punish male
souls who did not live a virtuous life the previous time around. A
woman's (male) soul may yet be redeemed, though it will be more
difficult to redeem than a male's soul embodied in a male form.
However, woman as such has no redeeming virtues.
Plato's philosophy is suffused with a paternal genealogy. When he
uses metaphors to explicate his claims, those metaphors have fairly
general interpretations: Light=Reason, Cave=Womb,
Darkness=Ignorance, Diotima=Trope, Birth=Ideas, Sensible=Woman,
Intelligible=Man. Any reader of Plato's philosophy, regardless of
gender, incorporates these metaphors into her/his symbolic expression
through language. These same metaphors now permeate our
literature, songs, movies, daily conversations, and thoughts. When
people argue that a woman can not lead a country effectively because
she has 'mood swings,' they hearken directly to Plato's depiction of
women. When others argue that only men should serve on the front
lines in the military, they graft Plato's burden of guardianship onto the
male psyche, and woe be unto the man who is a pacifist. Plato's
philosophy, read uncritically, is harmful to us all. Therefore, we must
expose the lack of gender-neutrality in the Dialogues, not to exacerbate
an opposition between men and women, but to contribute to a
philosophy which delineates reality for both sexes.
Two millennia and numerous cultural shifts separate Plato and Sartre,
whose philosophies also differ vastly. One could consider Plato and
Sartre polar opposites in most key tenets of their philosophies. Despite
the cultural changes, however, Sartre was surrounded by some
conditions strikingly similar to Plato's. Like the city-state, ancient
Athens' defense against a hostile world, France, too, was surrounded by
threats from without. Two world wars bracket Sartre's era, as well as
Stalinist communism and the upsurge of the United Nations, which
many French citizens viewed as threatening, because they wished to
control their own destiny after World War II. Germany occupied
France in 1940, a source of shame and humiliation for the French.
During the occupation, the communist party lent support to the French
underground, consequently becoming the favored party in France
immediately after the war. French intellectuals, influenced by the
Hegelian and Marxist dialectic as well as Nietzschean declarations of
God's death, espoused Absurdist Existentialism, saw the motive force
of history as the struggle between master and slave, and used this
philosophical claim to justify Russia's communist party, including its
excessive trampling on human rights. Sartre adopted the master-slave
philosophical stance with a vengeance, as key sections of his treatise
Being and Nothingness illustrate.
Though women by Sartre's time had won the right to attend the
university, the inherited myths continued to determine how much
individual freedom and value women held in Sartre's society. For
example, France embraced Simone de Beauvoir and the brilliant work
she accomplished, but, because of her gender, she was not allowed to
vote. Women were still denied the right to reproductive choices.
Indeed, women's plight not just in France but around the world had
improved so little by the mid-1900s that de Beauvoir was prompted to
write a treatise on womens subjugation, The Second Sex. The
unstable political situation, the harshness of historical necessity, and
the age-old inherited beliefs about and fears of women all inform
Sartre's philosophy and literature. We shall see that, although his
philosophy appears to assert fundamental freedom to all human
beings, denying, on the face of it, essences, Sartre's philosophy does not
escape a distinctly gender-biased metaphysics or ontology.
Sartre was bom in 1905 into a bourgeois family. We learn from his
autobiography The Words that he was raised by a girl-mother, who
made Poulou' (Sartre's nickname) more her pet than her child. Sartre
even shared a bedroom with her for many years. His grandfather,
Charles Schweitzer, insisted that Sartre immerse himself in books,
which Sartre did, until he was ten. So for the first decade of his life,
Sartre lived an isolated life, indoors, with no childhood friends. Sartre
tells us in The Words that his isolated childhood infused in him a life-
long tendency to withdraw from the world.46 Throughout The
Words. Sartre returns again and again to the traumatizing moment
when he realized that he was no longer the center of the universe for
the adults with whom he lived. As an adult, Sartre had to work
continuously against the proclivity which arose in him resulting from
that trauma, both in his daily life and in his writings. He needed to be
the center of his universe. One can see the resulting tensions in nearly
all of his lifes projects: Sartre wrote from an apartment high above
Paris streets; he surrounded himself with acolytes who constantly
discussed correct action, but never argued against Sartres claims, with
the possible exception of de Beauvoir, and even de Beauvoir ultimately 46
46 The Words, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: G. Braziller, 1964): 49.
acceded to Sartre whenever they disagreed about philosophical matters.
So as an adult, still affected by that early childhood trauma, Sartre once
again narrowed the boundaries of his world. One must wonder, just
how much did such self-imposed isolation for most of his life affect
Sartre received formal schooling focusing on philosophy at the 'Ecole
Normale Superieure. Here, Descartes, who was the most dominant
force in French education at the time, served as an intellectual starting
point for Sartre, though Sartre, unlike Descartes, refused to dissolve all
reality into consciousnessSartre established a dual reality of both the
outside world and of consciousness (unlike Plato as well, for whom the
outside world is merely a reflection, a shadow, of the Intelligible
world's reality. For Sartre, the outside world does not reside in my idea
of itit is what it is.)
From the beginning and through his later works, Sartre insisted on
consciousness' complete spontaneity and self-determination.
Consciousness spontaneously breaks from the world given to it,
escaping determining forces by doing so. Even when it appears that we
have no choice open to us, we can choose how we will react to that
limitation. Choice is a key tenet of Sartre's philosophy, as is action.
We are free to choose to act or to choose not to act ( which is a type of
action ). Either choice leads to self-determination. The most well-
known phrase of Sartre's existentialism is perhaps "Existence precedes
essence. Outside forces do not determine who or what we are. No
teleological end determines us. We do that for ourselves, by virtue of
the choices we make. Through these choices, we make our own
Sartre also claims that we strive constantly for authenticity but never
get there because we can never be fixed in any one role, due to the
spontaneity of consciousness. One's consciousness does, however,
'exist one's body,' which grants a subtle form of materiality to
consciousness. As Aronson states, early Sarte set up a dilemma when
he invested consciousness with such radical freedom from the world:
There is a decisive difference between saying we are in the
world, and are conscious of it, and saying consciousness is in
the world. We are materially, socially, historically
conditioned: we can never be absolutely undetermined... But
consciousness as Sartrederives it from Husserlian
epistemology, is hardly substantive enough to be part of such
Though later in his life Sartre attempted to correct his profound
separation of consciousness and world, he continued to insist on our
freedom to transcend the given circumstances and create ourselves.
Sartre's major philosophical claims appeal to anyone who has felt the
sting of oppression. He appears to grant everyone with essential
integrity of self. But when one examines his work more critically, as
with Plato, legitimate doubts can be raised about whether Sartre writes
from a gender-neutral perspective, or from a biased point of view. Any
reader of Sartre's works has access to his point of view, because he was
such a prolific author. We have extant works authored by him in
several genresshort stories, novels, personal letters, autobiographies,
and philosophical treatises. For Sartre, philosophy arose out of the
conditions of his times and proposed truths for those times. Hazel
Barnes states in her introduction to Being and Nothingness that
47 Ron Aronson, Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (London: NLB and Verso, 1980), 102.
Sartre's stories and plays are rife with his philosophy.48 Sartre
himself states when discussing literary criticism, "That's because I have
come to realize that all techniquesincluding those of the American
novelare tricks. We always manage to say what we think to the
readerthe author is always present."48 49 Taking Sartre at his own word,
I will juxtapose a few of his works to reveal Sartre's view of womena
detrimental oneand to assess whether Sartre wrote his treatise with
only one gender in mindthe male gender. I will first look at Sartre's
view of the embodied human (especially the female) in various
writings, then I will return to his fundamental treatise, Being and
Nothingness (BN), to assess Sartres philosophy as it pertains
One first needs to understand Sartre's theories of the For-itself and the
In-itself, which are the 'entities' he uses to set up a dual reality of world
and consciousness. World is the In-itself, objects without
consciousness, and to this world our material bodies belong.
48 Hazel Bames, trans., introduction to Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre (New York:
Citadel Press, 1965) xvi.
49 John Gerassi, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1989), 148.
The For-itself is consciousness transcending the In-itself--consdousness
spontaneously breaking from the world in which it finds itself, moving
ever forward in a vain attempt to achieve itself. But such a status
consciousness can never reach, for it can never be aware of itself;
therefore, no essence can be attributed to a For-itself, for it always and
forever is what it is notthe In-itself, which exists independently of the
transcending For-itself. However, if the In-itself did not exist, as with
our bodies, the For-itself would not exist, either. So Sartre's concept of
consciousness differs dramatically from Plato's, who argued that our
consciousness has from birth innate knowledge of eternal Forms, of
which we strive to gain explicit knowledge. Sartre's consciousness is
an empty nothingness, existing only by recognizing what it is not.
Because consciousness is nothing but the awareness of that which it is
not, consciousness can never be its own object of awareness, for
nothing has no content of which to be aware. Consciousness's
inability to be its own object, this inability to catch itself in the act of
being consciousness, sets up the need for the Other: in a Hegelian
master-slave encounter, one needs the Other in order to know that one
exists. My consciousness recognizes the Other's consciousness when
she looks at me, makes me an object of her gaze. I recognize that I am
an object, an In-itself, for the Other, and also that I am not the Other
looking at my body; therefore, my facticity is revealed to me through
the Other. In this encounter with the Other, each engages in an
unending struggle to be the subject through the power of the gaze,
reducing, according to Sartre, the Other to a permanent state of being
Sartre also equates the In-itself with nature, from which he totally
separates consciousness. He further claims that when one attempts to
derive values from nature rather than from one's own free choices,
one lives in 'bad faith' or inauthenticity. Yet, as Collins and Pierce
note, "both in his philosophy and his literary works he [Sartre]
associates a fixed nature with the female."50 Readers of Sartre's
philosophy are familiar with his astounding description of female sex
organs, which he characterizes as devouring, obscene holes.
The For-itself is suddenly compromised. I open my hands, I
want to let go of the slimy and it sticks to me, it draws me, it
sucks at me... It is a soft, yielding action, a moist and feminine
sucking... I cannot slide on this slime, all its suction cups hold
50 Margery Collins and Christine Pierce, "Holes and Slime: Sexism in Sartre's Psychoanalysis,"
112, in Women and Philosophy: Towards a Theory of Liberation, eds. Carol Gould and Marx
Wartofsky (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976), 112-127.
me back...it is a trap... Slime is a revenge of the In-itself.
A sickly-sweet feminine revenge which may be symbolized on
another level by the quality sugary... It symbolizes the sugary
death of the For-itself (like that of the wasp which sinks into
the jam and drowns in it).51
Sartre leaves no doubt that the feminine anatomy is an enemy to be
avoided: "The obscenity of the feminine sex is that of everything
which gapes open...Beyond any doubt her sex is a mouth and a
voracious mouth which devours the penis... "52 In letters to de
Beauvoir, personal interviews on camera, and in his biography by
Gerassi, Sartre states time and again that he does not like to have
sexual intercourse, that he prefers caressing. Because Sartre equates a
devouring quality with the female body, he, by extension, equates the
female with (a) nature, denying her a free, self-creating consciousness,
since Sartre's consciousness is separated totally from any nature.
Like Plato, who emphasizes the soul over the body, Sartre emphasizes
consciousness over the body, though he does grant the body more
51 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Washington Square
Press, 1972), 776-777, quoted by Collins and Pierce, 117.
52 Sartre, BN. 781-782.
importance than Plato does when Sartre claims that consciousness, the
For-itself, exists only so long as the body it occupies exists. And flesh is
entirely contingent~we are here by accident rather than by design. The
awareness of our contingency causes nausea when we contemplate the
In-itself. In BN. Sartre makes clear just how de trop the flesh is: if any
part of the body cannot justify its existence through action, that body
part is obscene, such as 'the rump'. "This is because then it is only the
legs which are acting for the walker, and the rump is like an isolated
cushion which is carried by the legs."53 When we look at some of
Sarte's literature, we shall see that he also classifies a woman's breasts
as obscene, and even a pregnant woman's body. Sartre, in one of his
letters to de Beauvoir, makes a comment about his penis which I
And I understood and wholeheartedly endorsed Andre Breton's phrase
"I'd be ashamed to appear naked before a woman unless I had an
erection." No question about it, it's a matter of good taste. True, it may
not be any prettier erect. But at least it's justifying its existence.54
53 Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Special Abridged Edition, Trans., Hazel Barnes (New York:
Citadel Pressl965), 377.
54 Sartre, Witness to Mv Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Simone
de Beauvoir, trans. Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
This comment implies that the male sex organ is superior to the
vagina, since the vagina is passive, a hole that can only wait, as Sartre
puts it, to be filled. Like Plato, Sartre characterizes the female as an
empty, passive receptacle. When one acts freely as opposed to acting in
bad faith, one is not an In-itself. Further, to be an In-itself is to have an
essence. An In-itself is passive because the essence ascribed to it
delineates the role the In-itself must fulfill: Sartre assigns the female a
nature. No action is possible for this passive In-itself. However, the
man can and does act to justify his sex organ when he has an erection.
Though the male body still qualifies as an In-itself, the flesh is no
longer de troy. Sartre grants that flesh which can act justification, the
only positive quality an In-itself can possess, and women do not have
Remembering Sartre's statement quoted earlier in this paper, that the
author always manages to get across what he thinks in everything he
writes, let us examine a few pieces of Sartre's other literary works.
How do the women in these works fare? As Champigney says, rather
mildly I think, Sartre is not fond of female heroines.^ Sartre's most
55 Robert Champigney, Sartre and Drama. (United States of America: French Literature
Publications Company, 1982), 46.
famous play, No Exit, features three characters, one man and two
women, Inez and Estelle. Each of the women is interested only in
erotic seduction, Estelle in seducing Garcin, Inez in seducing Estelle.
Though they are dead, now residing in perpetual hell, the two women
spend no time thinking about justifying their past livesthat is left to
the man. Sartre portrays the women in stereotypical roles which "may
strike one as a cliche. The play could have exposed this stereotype.
Instead of that, it relies upon its acceptance by spectators or readers. "56
Sartre takes it for granted, in other words, that these stereotypical roles
are natural for the women, and the spectator/reader will see them as
At one point in the play, when Estelle tries to hug Garcin, he screams at
her, "I won't let myself get bogged in your eyes. Youre soft and slimy.
Ugh! Like an octopus. Like a quagmire."57 Qne immediately recalls
Sartre's description of the vagina as a slimy, passive hole, a threat to
the For-itself. As in Plato's times, philosophy entwines with drama
once again, reinforcing mythological beliefs about a woman's body and
56 Champigney, 56.
57 Sartre, No Exit (New York)Vintage Books, 1989), 41.
about her motives. Sartre weaves his philosophy into his plays, using
the stage as a venue to spread his doctrines.
I think that today philosophy is dramatic... It is concerned with
man, who is both an agent and an actor, who produces and
plays his drama, as he lives the contradictions of his situation...
This is why the theatre is philosophical and philosophy
Sartre draws a direct parallel between his plays and his philosophy:
one must take him at his word.
Nausea. Sartre's most famous novel, has an even more disgusting
portrayal of a woman. In this novel, the hero Roquentin experiences a
strange sort of walking vertigo as he realizes that his body and all other
In-itselfs (physical things) are contingent. While everything physical
nauseates him, his most repellent reaction occurs while he is having
sex with a woman:
58 Sartre, quoted in Champigney, 15.
I played distractedly with her sex under the cover... Ants were
running everywhere, centipedes and ringworm. There were
even more horrible animals..they walked sideways with legs
like a crab. The large leaves were black with beasts..."This park
smells of vomit," I shouted.^
One can find Sartre's offensive, vulgar descriptions of women in play
after play, book after book. When he does not denigrate women with
his physical descriptions, he does so by not having any women take
decisive action (for Sartre, we are only what we do, how we act) or by
placing women, as Plato does, squarely in the sensible world (nature, or
the In-itself). In book after book, he uses flowers in conjunction with
women, comparing the sickly-sweet odor of decaying flowers to
women. He describes pregnant women as passively just watching
what nature is doing to their swelling bodies, with no conscious
activity involved: they are merely at one with the processes of nature.
No action on the women's part is necessary for the pregnancy to
proceed. The women in the pages of his novels also passively accept
their lots in life, or scheme to 'get a man,' the only justification they
can find for their lives. In his play Dead Without Burial, one man says
59 Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (N.P.: New Directions Publishing, 1964), 59.
to another who has just been tortured, "You screamed like a woman."
(Shades of Plato's exhortation to male guardians not to behave like a
woman). In Witness to My Life he writes to de Beauvoir in one of his
letters that he shouted to a fellow soldier. "Shut up, you are reasoning
like a woman, you're an ass!" (359) For Sartre, when one does not live
authenticallyhonestlyone lives in bad faith. I submit that because of
the chasm between what Sartre asserts about consciousness in BN and
statements like the one above, Sartre himself lives in bad faith
regarding his view of women.
The letters to de Beauvoir also show a Sartre who is a user and a
manipulator of women. He and de Beauvoir had an 'open'
relationship; each was free to see others and engage in romantic
liaisons with them, as long as they told each other everything. In
scores of letters, Sartre writes about how he manipulated some woman
or other, about how he would rather talk to a woman than a man
because women talk about small things rather than weighty matters,
about how he pressed one young girl into giving up her virginity to
himthe thrill of active conquest having triumphed over his fear and
loathing of the female body. With evidence from a myriad of sources,
one can conclude that, for Sartre as for Plato, woman as such has no
If one follows Sartre's stated position in BN to its logical conclusion,
that position holds woman responsible for her actions, her choices, no
matter what her oppressive external circumstances may be. For Sartre,
there is no middle ground: either freedom (For-itself) exists whatever
the circumstances, or else it just does not exist. And this is precisely
where Sartre's philosophy fails to take into account the transhistorical,
collective denigration of women. Though he tried to correct some
deficiencies in his claims for total individual freedom later in his life,
when he embraced Marxism, he continued to insist that we always
transcend the given circumstances. Sartre could not take into account
collectives or generalities.^ For him, the individual freely chooses
each and every action, no matter what external pressures or restrictions
exist. Because of his philosophical claims in BN. Sartre was unable to
accept that an entrenched, generalized system of misogyny or
patriarchy might severely limit the free choices a woman can make.
60 Sonia Kruks, Simone de Beauvoir: Teaching Sartre About Freedom, in Sartre Alive.
291 ,eds. Ron Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven (Detroit: Wayne State University
Press, 1991) 285-300.
When he denies a general condition which affects women's freedom to
choose or to act, for all intents and purposes, Sartre fails to incorporate
women's conscious experiences into his philosophy. He sees a woman
as an In-itself, mired down in her body, a constant threat to the freely
choosing, always transcending For-itself.
Centuries and situations separate Plato and Sartre, but both
philosophers argue their claims from a gender-biased point of view.
Plato, because of his Theory of Forms, denies women a soul, relegating
them to the transitory, sensible world. Sartre, because of his theory of
the For-itself and the In-itself, winds up doing essentially the same
thing to women. Though Plato argues for an immortal soul and Sartre
denies the existence of a soul or anything immortal, Sartre's equating
of consciousness with freedom also relegates women to the sensible
world. Both philosophers combine gynecology with philosophy, to a
woman's detriment. Both philosophers exhibit sex disgust, disgust in
general with the incarnated body, and Sartre does so more explicitly,
though he does find some room for a man's body to justify its existence
through action. Plato's thought is clearly teleological; Sartres clearly is
not. Plato attributes essences to humans; Sartre claims not to. I submit,
however, that he does attribute essencesall of the evidence presented
about his pervasive, consistent denigration of the female body shows
that Sartre equates women with nature, just as Plato does.
The questions Sartres philosophy raises seem at first glance to promise
gender neutrality, but he fails to rise above his own perceptions of
woman qua woman.
Any event has repercussions, even such an event as reading a text of
philosophy. My intent in researching and writing this paper has been
to uncover significant philosophical claims which, by virtue of their
being written in the philosophies, or conspicuous by their absence, do
not reflect women's experiences. "Let the reader beware," and let the
reader be free to question what s/he finds in even the most lauded
philosophical tomes. We need not start from scratch, nor throw out
everything, but we can add correctives, and we can instate a balance of
perspectives. Western philosophy has consistently placed the woman
close to her feelings, her body, and nature; the man to reason, freedom,
and action. The unaware reader stands in danger, therefore, of
assimilating the view of a woman as less than fully human, and a
man, too. For women possess the capacity to reason, and men, too,
have strong feelings. Both genders think about what they feel; both
feel deeply about their profound thoughts. Western philosophy does
need a corrective reading, a reading which grants both genders the
integrity of full humanity.
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