It can be safely assumed that most utopias are written as a form of critical commentary on the author's own society. Thus, it can hardly be surprising when a philosopher's view of the perfect community differs radically from the community in which he himself lives. However, in many ways, the author is a product of his own society, and thus his work contains biases and preconceptions ingrained in him by his cultural context. This dichotomy of similarities and differences is evident in the depiction of women's roles in both The Republic, by Plato, and Utopia, by Thomas More. Both Plato and More, in their respective works, assign to women a role that is much more progressive than the role held by women in their contemporary societies. However, even with this progressive view, the differences between the roles assigned to men, and those assigned to women clearly reflect the preconceptions regarding gender roles present in the authors' societies, as well as those of the authors themselves.
In Athenian society of the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE, women led very sheltered, cloistered lives. Athens is viewed as the earliest model of democracy, and yet fully half of its inhabitants, all of the women, were denied citizenship, and thereby an participation in the governing of the city-state. Within this context, Plato's depiction of the role of women in his utopia is startling. To make his argument, Plato first brings up the analogy of a watchdog. He argues that one would not exempt a female watchdog from her work as a guardian, simply because she gives birth to puppies. Since Plato sees the upper-class, the Guardians, as the watchdogs of the state, he similarly holds that female Guardians ought to be given the same responsibilities as men. He argues that the only difference between men and women is a physiological one -- women are able to give birth. Since in The Republic, children are raised communally, Plato does not feel that reproduction would prevent women from participating in military or Guardian roles. . In order for his society to be successful, Plato believes that all members must be productive, the women as well as the men. The Philosopher-King is assumed to be a man, but aside from that, there is no hierarchy among the Guardians based on gender. In essence, Plato assigns to women a role nearly equal to that of men. In designing this unification of genders, Plato had as a model Spartan society. In the military-oriented Spartan city-state, women were trained in physical activities alongside men, even exercising naked, as was Greek custom of the time.
Women in 15th century Europe lived lives not very different from those of women in Plato's Athens. In general, women were kept out of the public sphere, and concerned themselves with home and family. In addition to being influenced by the state of women in his society, More was also a devout Catholic who was heavily influenced by the subservient role of women dictated by his religion. Taking this into account, it is not surprising that the role of women in Utopia is not nearly as progressive as that of women in The Republic. However, there are still aspects of the life that More assigns to women in his ideal society that differ from life in Europe. Using a similar argument to that of Plato, namely that a society can only be sufficiently productive if it makes use of all of its members, not just 50%, women in Utopia learn trades and work a full day, just like men, and participate equally in farming. Wives are encouraged to fight alongside their husbands on the battlefield. Additionally, all children are educated, irregardless of sex. This is a major deviation from European society of the time, when only men, and only certain men, were educated. Marriage and family life is one sphere in which More is particularly traditional, but even so, there are indications that Utopian marriage is more equitable than European marriage. In the first place, both parties must agree to the marriage, and this is so important that they are even required to see each other naked and agree that they find the other physically attractive before the marriage may proceed. Although More stresses that divorce is rare, the rules regarding divorce are equitable regarding the sexes. Firstly, when divorce does occur, it is based on grounds of "mutual incompatibility", meaning that the wife has a say in the divorce as well as the husband. In addition, More states that a man is not allowed to divorce his wife simply because her physical appearance has deteriorated due to age or illness. In roles of leadership, men dominate, but there appears to be a partnership in governing roles such as Styward and Bishop, where the wife of the leader takes an active role in assisting in the governing of the community. Women are even allowed to be elected as priests.
Although both Plato and More can be considered progressive in their view of the role of women in an ideal society, they are still both clearly influenced by the patriarchal views of their native culture. When discussing the work that is to be assigned to women, Plato insists that women are capable of the same tasks as men, but assumes that women will necessarily be inferior in performing them. This seems to obvious to him that it is not worthy of discussion - he makes the claim, and it is immediately agreed upon. When dissolving the family and romantic relationships, Plato indicates a prejudice stemming more from his own preferences than from the status quo of his society. Plato, in his own life, did not form deep romantic or intellectual relationships with women. His conception of amiable interpersonal relationships centers on friendships and romantic companionships between men. Taking this into account, the ease with which he dismisses the importance of family and romantic pairings is clearer. He reduces sex to state-mandated mating solely for the purpose of reproduction because, taking his own life as the standard, he does not perceive it as a hardship for the men and women of his ideal society.
More, much more so than Plato, is very much a traditionalist with regard to the place of women in his Utopia. Although both men and women are expected to work, there is a fairly strict division of labor. Women do all of the cooking, and most of the domestic tasks. Both sexes share in child-rearing, but the nurseries where the younger children spend their days are clearly the domain of the women. Although women are permitted to participate in leadership in the role of priest, only elderly widows are eligible. Presumably, this is because a younger woman would be distracted by the demands of home and family in ways that a man is not. More's construction of the family is clearly based on the Christian conception of the family, in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Homes are under the control of the oldest male relative, and women go to live in their husbands' house when they marry. When women commit some offence which requires correction, they are punished by their husbands in the same paternalistic way that parents punish their children. Once a year, women "kneel down... before their husbands... to confess all their sins"; it is unclear to whom the husbands confess.
More and Plato were both visionaries, and as such, their vision of an ideal society provided for a more equitable role for women than was provided in their own contemporary societies. Because both Plato and More base their societies on the necessity for productivity from all of its members, women are expected to work as much as men. In these ideal societies, individuals are valued based on their abilities instead of their birth, women are given the opportunity to be valued outside of their traditional roles of mother and wife. However, both Plato and More were products of the paternalistic society of their times, and so it is understandable that their societies, although more equitable, still did not provide for complete equality among the sexes.