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Women in Plato’s Political Philosophy

The Right of Women in Plato’s Political Philosophy, as a Challenge to Nigerian Social-Political Situation: a Critical Investigation




The plight of woman in our society is one that calls for an urgent attention. For many years of existence, women were considered to be inferior to men. This inferior state of women is usually brought to limelight in the cultural preference of sons to daughters. Thus, in the parental homes, girls are treated as only temporary members. In many cases, this amounts to their being denied equal access to educational training as boys since this is regarded as unwise investment. In spite of the constitutional guarantee of equality, the inferior status and unequal treatment of women remained. Most people consciously or unconsciously have taken some of these injustices and ill–treatments leveled against women to be normal. Going through the history of mankind, one observes that women have been facing a lot of societal problems, restrictions and discriminations in the society, of which their male counterparts did not have to face. These restrictions and discriminations are nothing but egoistic plans of their male counterparts.

The conceptualized dichotomy that women work is in the private sphere and that of men in the public sphere limits women’s participation in the developmental processes of our society. Thus, some positions are strictly reserved for men due to their perceived gender superiority. In traditional African society, for instance, Igbo land, women were not allowed to eat a part of chicken called gizzard. A most familiar example is that women are not allowed to officiate in the blessing and breaking of Kolanut. Acholonu observes that “the ritual of the kolanut embodies the discriminatory custom which excludes women from the whole process.”[1] Hence, the kolanut ritual is said to be taboo for women, even though they are expected to buy it and keep a supply in the house and make it available to their husband when needed to present to visitors. Also, restrictions were placed on women with regard to performing some functions, namely, planting of yam, climbing of palm tree and other determining functions in the society. The male monopoly of these rituals and the implication of the presumed inferiority of the female to the male are preserved in this way. [2] The out-come of this state of affairs is that whenever a male fails to perform up to expectation, he is likened cynically or pejoratively to a woman. This is why we normally hear people say, “so, if men are asked to stand up and be counted, you too will come out” or “you talk or behave like a woman”. This goes a long way to buttress the fact that women are symbolically and culturally “non – persons” in most culture, especially in Africa.

This is also a possible parallel to Medieval European custom, which formerly treated women as legal non – persons. During this period, women had less educational and employment opportunities than men and earned only about one quarter as much as men for the same work.

Down through the ages, there have arisen people who expressed hatred for the women folk, relegating them to the background and thereby making them second class citizens, lower animals and in fact inferior beings. It was in an attempt to correct and eliminate these misogynistic contentions that it crystallized into an ideology known as feminism. It became the abiding intention of the agitators to seek for equality, relatedness, and inclusiveness in disfavour of hierarchy, separation and patriarchal power dominance. [3]

Nevertheless, Plato whose stance on the subjugation and subordination of women remains controversial is one of those who advocated for right of women. The controversial nature of Plato’s stance lies in the fact that his thoughts varied in his “Republic” and his “Timaeus”. In the “Republic”, Plato tried to stand the women on the same standard with men. He dedicated the whole of book five to prove the natural and necessary worth of women in any profession. According to him, all that is needed is ultimate happiness and absolute goodness. “And can there be anything better for the interests of the state than that men and women of a state should be as good as possible? There can be nothing better”.[4] Therefore, we can acquire such good women and men in the state if and only if women are together with men philosophers and philosophers are kings of the states. Alternatively, kings or other rulers have both the spirit and power of philosophy.[5]

On the other hand, Plato, in his “Timaeus”, advanced a theory of “Creationism” that formed the philosophical basis for gender inequality. All souls, according to him, were originally implanted in male bodies and given volition, sensation, and emotion. However, the soul of a man who conquered his emotions and developed his intellect would be blessed after his death and reborn as a man. In contrast, a man who failed to master his irrational, emotional instincts was considered incapable reason and would be reborn as a woman. This not withstanding, Plato should be praised for empowering women and for being the voice of the women in a society like his, which gave no fertile ground for self actualization of women; a society that has little or no regard for the well–being of women. This incidentally made him the first known Feminist Philosopher in Western thought.

With the collective feminist consciousness, there arose different women movements with various aims but all geared towards uplifting women’s course and women empowerment at all levels: in the family, in the church and civil government and in the society.[6] This struggle led to what is known today as the “Feminist movement,” “Women Liberation” or “Women struggle”. The movement pivots around every effort to demolish every divided between spirit and body, humanity and nature, transcendence and immanence, and above all, femininity and masculinity.[7] Thus, it is a struggle to uproot and destroy these misogynistic contentions of people.


The complementary difference between men and women has often been distorted and given the shape of gender inequality or superiority and inferiority complex. This, in effect, has continued to spawn discrimination, injustices, exploitation and oppression of women. Following from this, therefore, the off shoot of feminism or feminist movement is profoundly linked to this sub–human feminine existence and animosities towards women. People with such oppressive attitude do not see anything positive about women. Those who belong to this group often oppress, restrain, subjugate, use, abuse and even exploit women and still maintain that women are inferior human beings. Hence, they are called misogynists. Down through the ages, starting from ancient Greek period to contemporary period, many people had argued against the empowerment of women.

One of the most influential defenses of male supremacy is to be found in the writings of Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher. Aristotle raised a controversial argument on the women that later formed the thought of the medieval and modern thinkers. He holds a misogynous opinion that “the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior, and the one rules and other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind.”[8] He went as far as saying that a woman is a defaced human nature and that the female is a “mutilated male”. Also he claimed that the reason, which characterized the essential nature of humans operational only in males. In his biology, Aristotle held women as inferior because they provide the matter in their menstrual fluid while the men are superior because they give the semen, which contains the “form or soul”. [9] For him, only men ought to be born and women if born at all must be seen as failures and defects, maimed men of a sort.

As for Hegel, women lacked the universal faculty needed for the study of philosophy and higher sciences and should they be at the helm of affairs, the state is at once in jeopardy because women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality but by arbitrary inclination and opinion.[10] In other words, women are political spoilers and therefore responsible governance is not meant for them.

In his “Emile” Jean – Jacques Rousseau wrote disparagingly of women. He mapped out men – oriented education for women. The core of such selective pedagogism is to teach women how to please and be useful to men, how to educate men when young and take care of men when grown up, how to advise and console men in order to render men’s lives easy and agreeable. These, he prescribed, are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy. [11]

The history of Western thought, whether the religious tradition of Judeo – Christianity or the secular tradition of profane philosophy, has often been blamed for laying the foundations of subordination of women. While philosophers from Plato to Rousseau expounded on the natural inferiority of the female gender, Judeo – Christian doctrine, from the Old Testament (OT) to the fathers of the church and beyond, has received the worst criticism for sowing the seed of misogyny. [12]

Jesus ben Sirach warned: “Do not look upon any [woman] for beauty, and do not sit in the midst of woman for from the garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness. Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace”. (Sir. 42:12 – 14)

Josephus, the historian, also subjugated the women by saying that women should be inferior to their husbands in all things, and that women should not be tried in court due to their moral weakness.

For St. Paul, “woman is and ought to be subject to man and he adduces theological arguments to show that the subjection should be maintained. Hear him as he writes in 1Cor. 14: 34 – 35:


Women are to remain quiet in the assemblies, since they have no permission to speak: theirs is a subordinate part as the Law itself says. If there is any thing they want to know they should ask their husband at home. It is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.

St Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas made some of the most scathing remarks about women in their writings. St Augustine even denied that women are made in the image of God. With regard to “women’s subordination as slavery”, Augustine is credited with saying: “it is also the natural order among humans that the women serve men and the children their parents; for there too it is right that the weaker intellect serve the stronger.”[13] However, he maintained that slavery was as a result of sin and its appropriate punishment must go to women, the descendants of Eve.

St Thomas Aquinas, on his own side, argued that a woman is a “defective and misbegotten, for the active force in male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex”.[14] For him, women are nothing but the products of environmental pollution. They are less intelligent than men who have more perfect reason and stronger virtue.

St Gregory the Great made a misogynist comment such as this: “woman is slow in understanding and her unstable and naïve mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her use is two fold: animal sex and motherhood.”[15]

Nevertheless, the disparagement of women did not end with classical misogyny; it continued to be present in the utterances and writings of later century’s thinkers, even among the best of philosophical minds.

Arthur Schopenhauer carried the campaign to discredit women’s intelligence to a very high degree. His anti – women statements were popular till the twentieth century. In his view, nature has assigned women to position of weaker sex. As a result, they are defective in powers of reasoning and deliberation and posses no sense of justice. What women lack in physical strength, Schopenhauer went on to say, they make up for in ‘craft’ and ‘instinctive’ capacity for cunning.[16]

John Locke also asserts that only the male person is capable of establishing, managing and controlling democracy because it rests on rationality, a quality which the female lack.[17] In this way, he used rationality as a criterion to exclude women from participating in public life.

For Immanuel Kant, he denied women of their independence, which for him is the only qualification for citizenship. According to him, “all women are without civil personality, and their existence is only as it were, incidentally included in the state”.[18]

For Freud, the absence of male external genitals- the penis and the testicles in women suggested that women are inferior to men. According to him, women are mutilated males and inferior to men and less powerful. Freud held that women had a smaller vanity, a constitutional passivity, a weaker sexuality and a greater disposition to neurosis.

From these, one observer that prejudice against women is a universal phenomenon experienced in almost all cultures. Discussions on the subjugation of women have been in vogue right from the earliest years of philosophy. What women suffer in most cultures is unimaginable. Yet, there are indications that women are endowed with potentialities for making greater positive contributions in our societies as well as actualizing their being. Consequently, the feminist struggle emerged as a result of these ill – treatments and oppressions meted against women in the society. In response to the misogynist’s views on women, we shall now see the reactions of the feminists in attempt to get what they are demanding for.


The struggle for rights of women has gained enormous momentum during the past two decades, combining analysis and activism and giving birth to new organizations and coalitions, new laws, new learning, and new levels of political activism, particularly in the legal arena.[19]

Feminism as a movement opposed to discrimination and subordination of women, was said to have started in the West as early as in the 16th century. It placed emphasis on issues like the women’s body and intellect at the expense of everything else. Also, earlier waves of feminism sometimes have been charges with reflecting primarily the experience of white middle – and upper – class women.

Today, the new feminist reality and struggle which became pronounced around the 20th century no longer have placed in the radical Western type of feminism. Rather, its emphasis is on the fact that men and women should have mutual appreciation and respect of freedom, dignity and fundamental rights of persons. It is a situation devoid of suppression, based on biological difference of sex, subjugation, discrimination, and subordination. Contemporary workers for women’s right object to the connotation that what they are striving for is something that belongs to women as feminine rather than to women as human beings. The current political goals of the women’s movement also indicate how the earlier, split vision of bourgeois patriarchal society is fading. These goals are neither to participate as equals in a man’s world nor to restore to woman’s realm and values their dignity and worth. Conceptions such as these are superceded in the present will to extirpate gender and sex hierarchy altogether, and with them all forms of domination.[20]

Consequently there has been a recent feminist strive to implement a plan to put an end to the oppressions of women. Women workers were beginning to organize movements demanding better working conditions, political rights for women, especially the right to vote and to be voted for. On a more serious note, the greatest demand of all recent feminist movements is the equality of all genders. Hence, their feminist position demands social conditions that support women’s full self–respecting rights.

Beginning with the 1975 International Women’s Year (I.W.Y) world conference and I.W.Y Tribune in Mexico city, continuing through the women’s world conferences and Non – Governmental Organization (NGO) forums of 1980 (Copenhagen), 1985 (Nairobi) and the series of agenda setting the U.N (United Nations) world conference and NGO forums of the 1990’s that culminated in the 1995 fourth world conference on women in Beijing, women have developed and discovered new skills and tools that they are now using to leverage for change on behalf of women’s rights at global, country and community levels.[21]

The campaign for women’s human rights has gained much strength since the U.N’s fourth world conference on women in Beijing, 1995, 58 countries have adopted legislation or policies to address women’s rights. They have capitalized not only on their new skills and new connections, but also on their new confidence in being able to influence policy, to lobby government and to engage in public sector activism. In fact, they have transformed the Beijing platform for action into a tool for community action. They have also placed international machineries whose work it is to monitor the progress of implementation of the outcomes of the 1995 Beijing conference and the follow up conferences. Now, recent feminists are going further: they are reaching beyond the policy documents of the global conferences and taking hold of other international agreements. Indeed, their efforts have continued to attract the attentions of the international bodies, such as the United Nations human rights conventions, to press for change.


When viewed closely and critically, what is really at stake is women’s humanity. Are women really human, the same human race or another race seeking admission to full membership? Over the centuries, women have been socialized to accept the inferior state of life of a patriarchal nature of most societies accorded to them. On this point, the United Nations 2000 statistics states that:

Women make up half the world’s population, yet they account for only 5 to 10 percent of formal political leadership positions worldwide. Women contribute up to 70 percent of their local and national economies, yet receive less than one – tenth of the world’s income. Two – third of the world’s 960 million illiterate people are women.[22]

However, this urgly situation of women has attracted global concern and action which aim at resolving the injustices. Women’s rights activist throughout the world have increasingly turned to human rights law and forged connections with mainstream human rights groups, the exclusion of women from international human rights norms and laws, as well as the possibility of using those norms and laws to advance women’s rights.[23] The United Nations has been at the forefront of the global movement for women rights. The interest in and commitment to the promotion and protection of women began with the United Nations Charter (1945). The preamble reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person in the equal rights of men and women and of nations, large and small. Article of the charter includes as one of the purposes and principles of the United Nations duty of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex language, and religion.[24]

In furtherance of this purpose, another major step in the society was taken by the United Nations General Assembly on 10th December, 1948, when it adopted what is known today as the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” It was the first international instrument to protect human rights. It reiterated the fact that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms set forth in the declaration without “distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. [25]

The two subsequent United Nations instruments: The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (I.C.C.P.R) and The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (I.C.E.S.C.R) 1966 did not fail to embody the principle of equality enunciated in the United Nations charter.

A major step taken by United Nations to concretize its recognition and promotion of women human rights was the establishment of the commission on the status of women, and adoption of the first specific convention in 1953. This commission very soon helped to put women on the global agenda. Also, it was instrumental to a number of conventions of concern to women. Notable among them are: the equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value, convention on consent to marriage, minimum age of marriage and registration of marriages (1964).

In addition to many United Nations resolutions of concern to women, the commission played a major role in the adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Landmark Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1979.[26]

The particular focus on women first led to the United Nations decision to organize world conference to celebrate 1975 as the international women year. The first intergovernmental conference on women was convened in Mexico City in 1975. Ever since Mexico and the declaration of women decade 1976-1985, numerous international conferences have been increasingly used to advance women rights. These conferences provided an occasion for governments to discuss and perhaps ultimately agree to common strategies of action to resolve issues of global concern.

By 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action were moved to action by the need to uphold the rights of women and the girl-child.

The 1995 fourth world conference on women held in Beijing, China was another forum to address women human rights. The conference which can be regarded as the mother of all women’s conferences reaffirmed the principles of “Equality”, “Development” and “Peace”, which had been adopted in Nairobi ten years earlier. Indeed, the fourth world conference of women in Beijing really assessed the progress of gender equality so far, more and more women are now making up gradually to the demands of all the declarations in favour of women’s rights.[27]

In all these world conferences on human rights and social development reflect the general agreement of the international community that women, as key agents and beneficiaries, are central to the development process. Hence they are geared towards realizing a genuine women empowerment in its social, economic, political, cultural, religious, moral and spiritual dimensions.


The sub-title “Women Empowerment” is a global term. It connotes all that needed to be redressed in women and men relationship. Empowerment means a genuine and non-violent capacity and struggle to overcome discrimination and injustice based on gender differences or related issues. It is a sort of peaceful demonstration and the expression by feminists pertaining the inequality and subjugation of women. It is the idea of authorizing one to have adequate control of a place or thing.

Women empowerment is defined as the genuine efforts being made by women to be given equal opportunity.[28] It is a match by women activities and feminists to regain certain position, dignity, justice and right in various aspects of life. As Iyidobi C. articulates, women ask to be allowed to play their role as individuals and in the society to release the very strings entangling the influence of womanhood on the society. In other words, they simply request a fecund environment to play their roles according to their God-given abilities for balance and progress in the society.[29] To a large extent, this project has been successful in many fronts, especially in our social-political arena. Thus, the women folk have provided the political space with such leaders like the legendary Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, Queen Amina of Zaira, Queen mothers of Ashanti, Margarent Thatcher of the UK (United Kingdom), Golda Meir of Israel, Indira Gandhi of India, to mention but the very few. It is also very good to note that those women leaders did not disappoint as leaders. As rightly claimed by most feminist, historically, women possess abundant dignity only that it needed to be kindled. In other words, the worth of women is beyond any price. In sum, we can arrive at the restoration of the dignity of women through adequate and authentic education at every level of development .This is to ensure equality in participation between women and men. Hence, the struggle for women empowerment is that of justice or giving them their own due.

—This article is incomplete———–This article is incomplete———— It was extracted from a well articulated quality Project, Research Work/Material

Project Topic: The Right of Women in Plato’s Political Philosophy, as a Challenge to Nigerian Social-Political Situation: a Critical Investigation


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1 R. Acholonu, “ Women and the Kolanut Saga in Igbo Culture: A Human Right Issue”, in R. Uchem, ed, Women and the Kolanut, Enugu: Snaap Press, 2006, p.3.

[2] R. Uchem, Overcoming Women’s Subordination, Enugu: Snaap Press, 2001, p. 61.

[3] I. Oraegbunam, “Women Empowerment and participation in Politics: An Important Index of Nigerian Democracy”, in N. Obi, ed, Koinonia; Vol.1, No 3, June 2002, p.40.

[4] Plato, “The Republic” in M. J. Adler, ed, Great Books of the Western World, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005, p. 360.

[5]   Ibid., p.369.

[6] U. Ugweze, “The challenges of the Gender Question for the Nigerian Women Today”, in Torch Magazine, No130 Dec. 2005 – June 2006, p. 51

[7] I. Oraegbunam,. Op.Cit. , p. 41

[8] R. Mckeon ed, The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York: Random House, 2001, p.1132.

[9] J. Grimshaw, Feminist Philosophers Women’s Perspective on Philosophical Traditions, Britain: White Sheaf Books Limited, 1986, p.37.

[10] P. Eboh, “Philosophy, Women and Responsible Leadership in Africa”, in J.O Oguejiofor, ed, Philosophy, Democracy and Responsible Governance in Africa, Enugu : Delta Publishers, 2004,   p. 496 .

[11] 1bid. , p. 49.

[12] D. Igwe, “Classical Misogynists in Greco-Jewish Traditrion”, in Thinkers Magazine, 2007-2008,  p. 17

[13] R. Uchem, Op.Cit. , p.146

[14] T. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol. 1, trans, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, New Vol. 1, trans, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, New York: Benziger Bros, 1948, Q. 92, Pt.1, p.466.

[15] A. Nnamani, “Gender Equality in the Church and in the Society: Our Obligation Towards Change”, in R. Uchem, Gender Equality from Christian Perspective, Enugu: S naap Press, 2005, p.26.

[16] Ibid., p.27.

[17] M .P. Eboh, Philosophical Criticisms: Anthology of Gender Issues, Port Harcourt: Pearl Publishers, 2000, p. 174.

[18] D. Igwe, Op. Cit., p. 17

[19]   V. J. Semler, et al, ed.., Rights of Women, New York: International women’s Tribune Centre, 1998, p.1.

[20] A. M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983, p .147 .

[21] V. J. Semler, et al, ed., Op. Cit., p.1.

[22]   1bid., p .20.

[23] J . Peters, et al, ed., Women Rights Human Rights : International Feminist Perspective, New York : Routledge, 1995, p.27.

[24] O. Olakanmi, ed, Handbook on Human Rights, Abuja: Panaf press, 2007, p. 3.

[25] Ibid; p. 5

[26] J. Ezeilo, Women and Children’s Rights in Nigeria, Enugu : Women’s Aid Collective, 2001, p.5.

[27]   A .Nnamani, Op.Cit., p.35.

[28]   B . Eboh, “Women’s Empowerment as a Struggle for Justice in Democratic Processes”, in J. Obi . Oguejiofor, ed, Op. cit., p. 514.

[29] 1bid;


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