January 25, 2018 | By Tim Pratt
In the centuries since Plato wrote The Republic, Socrates’ views on the role of women in society have been debated extensively.
Now, St. John’s College alumna Mary Townsend (A04) is weighing in with the book The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic, published in August by Lexington Books.
In it, Townsend argues that, contrary to popular belief, Socrates does not set out to prove the weakness of women. Instead, she relies on the words of Socrates, Glaucon and others in the dialogue to uncover what’s at stake for them as they argue for and against women’s education.
The 240-page book—Townsend’s first—is the result of years of research.
“It feels good,” she says. “I’ve been working on it so long; it’s been written and rewritten so many times. It’s a nice feeling … but I’m still thinking about some of the same questions.”
In The Republic, Glaucon, a young aristocrat, worries that women might be too different to share in the same education as men. Socrates persuades him that they are similar enough by allowing Glaucon’s initial idea, that men are stronger than women in simply everything, to prevail; this allows the audience to witness Glaucon’s own weaknesses in this debate.
Socrates then is able to successfully argue for women’s inclusion at the highest levels of government, warfare and philosophy, Townsend says.
Plato presents an incisive psychological portrayal of some pitfalls in the battle between the sexes, while giving careful thought to the desires of women themselves. The Republic stands as an appeal to women to take up philosophy, regardless of the regime they inhabit.
Townsend, a visiting assistant professor of classical studies at Loyola University of New Orleans, says her interest in Plato dates back to high school. She grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and her father was a philosophy major.
When it came time for Townsend to consider colleges, she wanted to find a place that took a slightly different approach to education. She found that at St. John’s, with its discussion-based classroom model.
Townsend recalls arriving in Annapolis in the fall of 1999 and reading The Republic during freshman seminar with Eva Brann, the longest-serving tutor at the college.
“It was the first time I fully realized how complex a book could be,” she says.
Townsend’s interest in writing grew at St. John’s. She wrote for The Gadfly student newspaper, served on the waltz committee and Student Committee on Instruction, and helped start Primum Mobile—the student-faculty singing group. She still sings these days in New Orleans.
Townsend says her time at St. John’s had a “strong” effect on her. She went on to obtain her master’s in philosophy from Catholic University in 2010 and her PhD in philosophy from Tulane University in 2015.
Her master’s thesis focused on The Republic, and her dissertation was titled The Problem of Women and Philosophy in Republic V. That work laid the foundation for her new book.
The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic engages with academic scholarship, but is also accessible to anyone with an interest in the Republic. Townsend has written extensively for a variety of audiences over the years, including essays on education and culture. She has received fellowships and grants, too, and participated in discussions, panels and presentations.
Townsend has held a variety of teaching jobs since graduating from St. John’s. Most recently, she arrived at Loyola in New Orleans in 2016 and served as a visiting assistant professor of philosophy; this year she’s teaching classical studies. She employs the St. John’s learning approach in her classroom.
“It’s not about learning and memorizing prepackaged information,” she says. “It’s about walking through the text and taking it on its own terms.”
When asked if she prefers writing or teaching, Townsend says that’s a difficult question to answer.
“It would be hard to picture doing one without the other,” she says.