In Book 5 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates makes a series of radical proposals about the roles of women in the “guardians,” or leadership class, of his semi-idealized fantasy city, Kallipolis (“Beautiful City-State”). The elite guardian women must join their male peers in all activities, including naked exercise. The guardians will also be bred like animals, using a rigged lottery system to ensure that nobody except the ultra-elite (the rulers among the guardians) will know whose child is whose. This will, Socrates implies, allow the best women to play an equal part in the running of government, and will prevent any of the ruling class from putting the interests of family before the interests of the state.
Socrates says he fears these suggestions will drown him in laughter—and indeed, readers have often been quite unclear about how seriously to take them. As Mary Townsend argues in her incisive new study, this area of the Republic has rarely been addressed as an integral element in Plato’s analysis of political and ethical life. In the fifteenth century, the humanist Leonardo Bruni found the idea of naked female athletes “repugnant.” Few recent commentators have felt that Plato’s account of the role of female guardians is of any particular philosophical interest, or that it could teach modern readers anything important about politics or gender.