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THE EQUALITY OF WOMEN (451c-457c)
On one level this section is a serious attempt to provoke reform in the state by raising the status of women. Athenian women were a suppressed lot. They led lives of seclusion in the homes, were not given formal educations, and played no part in politics. On yet another level, these passages can be interpreted as a philosophic comedy. Socrates not only proposes that women should have the same educational and political opportunities as men, but says that men and women should share the same palaistra (gymnasium). To you this proposal may not seem at all preposterous, even if you know that all exercises in the palaistra were done in the nude. But to the Athenians it was a revolutionary and ridiculous notion.
Socrates argues for the equality of women. He advocates equal education and opportunity for both sexes. But he warns his audience, "we must not fear all the gibes with which the wits would greet so great a revolution." Even though Socrates 2acknowledges the inferiority of most women in terms of physical strength, he argues that sexual differences are not significant in terms of running a state. Intellectual ability and moral character are what count.
Socrates accuses Athens of being "unnatural" in its treatment of women. Women who have the "natural qualities" to be guardians must be educated in the same manner as their male counterparts. It is to the state's benefit to produce the best possible men and women.
At the end of this section, Socrates returns to the issue of naked exercising. Because the just state has thoroughly educated both sexes in good moral conduct, in the palaistra all people will be "clothed with virtue as a garment." And with this pronouncement, Socrates believes that the first "wave of paradox"- of encountering severe criticism and opposition to radical reform-has been surmounted.