Plutarch the Feminist?
In the Life of Antony, women in positions of power are an important, but secondary narrative to the main story of Antony’s character and career. Although all of Plutarch’s biographical subjects are men, he makes powerful women the primary focus in one of the Moralia, commonly called The Virtues of Women (or The Bravery of Women). The text we have is the continuation of a conversation Plutarch had with his female friend Clea on the occasion of their mutual (female) friend Leontis’ death. Clea was the dedicatee of another Plutarchan essay, On Isis and Osiris, and was a colleague of Plutarch’s at the Panhellenic sanctuary of Delphi, where he was a priest of Apollo and she a priestess of Dionysus.
The text of The Virtues of Women is a collection of 27 anecdotes, ranging as from mythological time to the middle of the first century BC, touching on most of the Mediterranean: Greece, Italy, Persia, Africa, Asia Minor, and Spain. Each tale records a moment when women -- either in a group or as individuals -- gained power in their communities and restored or protected civic order. The surprisingly modern sounding goal of the collection is to prove that “the virtue of a man and of a women are one and the same”.
In this module, we will examine:
How Plutarch claims he will make his case, and whether he follows his plan;
How Plutarch’s female protagonists gain power, what kinds of qualities and actions he praises as exemplary of women’s virtue, and what the consequences of those actions are for those women and their communities;
What kinds of men populate the stories Plutarch includes, and how their characters are used to highlight women’s virtue;
The connections between manliness, womanliness, and success as a leader;
How we should situate Plutarch in modern discussions about feminism based on his narratives.