Sophie’s World

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Women and Sexism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder Theme Icon
The Nature of Reality Theme Icon
Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sophie’s World, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women and Sexism Theme Icon

It’s important to keep in mind that Sophie Amundsen isn’t just a young philosophy student—she’s also a young woman. Because of her gender, Sophie has to contend with various expectations about how she should behave—for example, that she should have a boyfriend, should enjoy hosting parties, etc. Because Sophie faces sexism so often in the novel, it’s strongly implied from the beginning that philosophy might be a way for her to escape this sexism, or to find ways around it.

As Sophie proceeds with her studies of philosophy, however, she finds that Western philosophy is full of sexism. There are dozens of important philosophers—Aristotle is a good example—who had backwards ideas of what women were capable of and what they should do with their lives. Even philosophers like Plato, who argued for some form of equality between the sexes, believed that women were usually inferior to men.

But even if the history of philosophy is strewn with sexist reasoning—i.e., reasoning that assumes without proof that women are less important than men—Sophie finds that philosophy in itself can still be a powerful tool for fighting sexism. As she proceeds with her studies, she learns to reject the sexist aspects of philosophers’ thinking while embracing other components of their ideas. In this way, Sophie learns to use philosophers’ own ideas against them. This becomes especially clear toward the end of the novel when Sophie learns about Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that the supposed differences between the sexes were social constructs—illusions caused by society’s mistaken assumptions about the relationship between existence and essence. Sophie understands and embraces de Beauvoir’s ideas about gender and essence precisely because she hasn’t entirely rejected the ideas of de Beauvoir’s sexist predecessors. Like de Beauvoir herself, she uses philosophical reasoning to undermine what might be called a traditional tenet of Western philosophy—the inferiority of women.

In general, Sophie learns that philosophy is an important feminist weapon, in the sense that it teaches her to question things that some people take for granted—like sexist views on women. It’s important to contrast Sophie’s attitude with her Mom’s. Sophie’s mother seems to have little patience for philosophy; when her daughter sneaks out of the house to continue her lessons, she assumes that Sophie is meeting a boyfriend, not educating her mind. The implication is that Sophie’s mother’s unconscious sexism (assuming that her daughter is more interested in romance than knowledge) is somehow the product of her general lack of curiosity about the world—precisely the kind of curiosity that philosophy tries to generate. While there isn’t much explicit talk about the feminist uses of philosophy, Sophie’s World makes it clear that Sophie, a young woman, uses philosophy to find freedom, confidence, and maturity—and this makes her education a feminist endeavor as well as a philosophical one.

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Women and Sexism Quotes in Sophie’s World

Below you will find the important quotes in Sophie’s World related to the theme of Women and Sexism.
Chapter 9 Quotes

The thought of the “young girl” led Sophie to the last question: Are women and men equally sensible? She was not so sure about that. It depended on what Plato meant by sensible. Something the philosopher had said about Socrates came into her mind. Socrates had pointed out that everyone could understand philosophical truths if they just used their common sense. He had also said that a slave had the same common sense as a nobleman. Sophie was sure that he would also have said that women had the same common sense as men.

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen, Socrates , Plato
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Sophie considers a question Alberto Knox has presented her with: are women and men equally sensible? Sophie believes that women and men are equal on an intellectual level; indeed, she cites aspects of Socrates' thought (the theory of forms, for example) to prove her point.

The quotation shows Sophie synthesizing the knowledge she's learned from Knox's lessons. Instead of just memorizing some facts about Socrates, Sophie is applying Socrates' teachings to her own life. In doing so, Sophie proves that she isn't just a passive student, absorbing lessons from a teacher in a classroom—instead, she's actively participating in her own education, flexing her intellectual muscles. Moreover, Sophie's deduction about Socrates and women's rights shows that it's possible to apply philosophers' ideas to one's own life: philosophy might seem like an outdated subject, but in fact it's a very relevant discipline.

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Chapter 11 Quotes

Finally, let us look at Aristotle’s views on women. His was unfortunately not as uplifting as Plato’s. Aristotle was more inclined to believe that women were incomplete in some way. A woman was an “unfinished man.” In reproduction, woman is passive and receptive whilst man is active and productive; for the child inherits only the male characteristics, claimed Aristotle. He believed that all the child’s characteristics lay complete in the male sperm. The woman was the soil, receiving and bringing forth the seed, whilst the man was the “sower.” Or, in Aristotelian language, the man provides the “form” and the woman contributes the “substance.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Plato , Aristotle
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sophie learns about Aristotle, a philosopher who was arguably even more influential than Plato, but whose philosophy wasn't as friendly to women. Aristotle disagreed with Plato in arguing that women were intellectually and physically inferior to men.

And yet even if Sophie (or we, the readers) disagrees with Aristotle on women's rights, it's important to study his ideas. Aristotle was an intelligent man, and yet he allowed the sexist culture of his era to influence his thinking: he used philosophy to rationalize the subjugation of women that he saw all around him. By studying Aristotle, Sophie learns how to take great philosopher's ideas with a grain of salt: to accept some of their ideas while rejecting others as the products of ignorance or bigotry.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“It’s interesting to note that the eggs of mammals were not discovered until 1827. It was therefore perhaps not so surprising that people thought it was the man who was the creative and lifegiving force in reproduction. We can moreover note that, according to Aquinas, it is only as nature-being that woman is inferior to man. Woman’s soul is equal to man’s soul. In Heaven there is complete equality of the sexes because all physical gender differences cease to exist.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Alberto Knox educates Sophie about the history of Western philosophy in the late Middle Ages. Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the key Christian philosophers, believed that women were inferior to men physically, and yet equal spiritually. On Earth, women were weaker than men, and yet in Heaven, their souls were the same.

It's possible to criticize Aquinas for his sexism—for arguing that women were inferior to men during the course of their natural lives. But it's also possible to praise him for being progressive, at least by the standards of the late Middle Ages, on women's rights. When studying the history of Western philosophy in general, it's important to refrain from criticizing every philosopher for sexism and racism, even if such critiques are easy to make. Even if Aquinas isn't totally "PC" by 21st century standards, he pushed philosophy in the right direction—toward gender equality—and he deserves some credit for doing so.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“One of those who fought hardest for the rights of women during the French Revolution was Olympe de Gouges. In 1791—two years after the revolution—she published a declaration on the rights of women. The declaration on the rights of the citizen had not included any article on women’s natural rights. Olympe de Gouges now demanded all the same rights for women as for men.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Olympe de Gouges
Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

 As Sophie moves on with her history of philosophy, she’s delighted to finally encounter some female philosophers. Olympe de Gouges, a figure of the French Revolution, was executed for demanding equal rights for men and women—a clear sign of the radicalism of her ideas. De Gouges’s execution further demonstrates the deep sexism of Western society—it’s telling that after thousands of years with no prominent female philosophers, the first such female philosopher was murdered. It’s also no coincidence that de Gouges emerged at the same time as the French Revolution: at a time when people were questioning the most basic assumptions about how society should work (that there should be a monarchy, for example), de Gouges rode the wave of radicalism to write her own declaration of gender equality.

Chapter 29 Quotes

“That society would be a just society. It would have arisen among equals.”
“Men and women!”
“That goes without saying. None of them knew whether they would wake up as men or women. Since the odds are fifty-fifty, society would be just as attractive for women as for men.”
“It sounds promising.”
“So tell me, was the Europe of Karl Marx a society like that?”
“Absolutely not!”
“But do you by any chance know of such a society today?”
“Hm ... that’s a good question.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox (speaker), Karl Marx
Page Number: 398
Explanation and Analysis:

Alberto tells Sophie about a thought experiment designed by the famous political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls argued that the only truly “equitable” society would be one in which the planners would be randomly assigned a place in the society they just invented (so that the creators/leaders of the society couldn't give themselves preferential treatment to others). Such a scenario is, of course, hard to enact in real life. Sophie and Alberto’s discussion ties in with Alberto’s lessons on Karl Marx, the political philosopher who argued that society is always designed to help the powerful and the wealthy maintain their control of the “means of production” (i.e., the tools and resources that produce goods and allow the wealthy to stay wealthy).

Alberto’s rhetorical question to Sophie (“But do you by any chance …”) raises another interesting point—perhaps one of the goals of philosophy should be to make society more equitable. Up to now, philosophy has generally seemed abstract, loose, and metaphysical—with Marx, philosophy becomes a concrete, economic subject, aiming to change the world instead of simply describing it.