Aristophanes was a "craft" comedy poet in the fourth century B.C. during the
time of the Peloponnesian War. Aristophanes' usual style was to be too satirical,
and suggesting the outlandish. He shows little mercy when mocking Socrates and
his "new-fangled ideas" which were most likely designed to destroy the cohesiveness
of society and lead to anarchy, in his play " The Clouds".
The most absurd and humorous of Aristophanes' comedies are those in which the main characters, the heroes of the story, are
women; smart women.
One of the most famous of Aristophanes' comedies depicting powerful, effectual women is
Lysistrata, named after the female lead character of the play. It portrays Athenian Lysistrata and the women of Athens teaming up with the women of Sparta to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War.
To make the men agree to a peace treaty, the women seized the Acropolis, where Athens' financial reserves are kept, and prevented the men from squandering them further on the war. They then beat back an attack on their position by the old men who have remained in Athens while the younger men are out on campaign. When their husbands return from battle, the women refuse to have sex with them. This sex strike, which is portrayed in a series of (badly) exaggerated and blatant sexual innuendoes, finally convinces the men of Athens and Sparta to agree to a peace treaty.
The play, Lysistrata, shows women acting bravely and even aggressively against men who seem resolved on ruining the city-state by prolonging a pointless war and excessively expending reserves stored in the Acropolis. This in turn added to the destruction of their family life by staying away from home for long stretches while on military campaign. The men would come home when they could, sexually relieve themselves, and then leave again to continue a senseless war.
The women challenge the masculine role model to preserve the traditional way of life of the community. When the women become challenged themselves, they take on the masculine characteristics and attitudes and defeat the men physically, mentally but most of all strategically. Proving that neither side benefits from it, just that one side loses more than the other side.
It's easy to see why fourth century B.C. Athenian women would get tired of their men leaving. Most Athenian women married in their teens and never had to be on their own, and probably wouldn't know what to do if they
were ever on their own. The men leave for war and some don't return because of death or whatever reasons, so now a widow finds herself on her own, probably with children, and no one to take care of her or her children. She might be able to enter her male children as a journeyman/ward to a wealthy family (who either have no male children, or most likely lost their
son(s) in one of the wars) and they will raise him. The widow has few prospects. If she's young and attractive enough with the right domestic skills she might be able to remarry. But her lot isn't too promising. After all, why would you want a widow, when you could get a "fresh" wife to "break-in" the way you want and start a family from your own seed?
According to Lysistrata it is easier to untangle multinational politics, stop wars and fighting than the women's work of sorting out wool. If you just stop war, it's settled, but with wool all tangles must be physically labored out by hand. Women's work is never done.
Lysistrata insists that women have the intelligence and judgment to make political decisions. She came by her knowledge, she says, in the traditional way:
"I am a woman, and, yes, I have brains. And I'm not badly off for judgment. Nor has my education been bad, coming as it has from my listening often to the conversations of my father and the elders among the men."
Lysistrata was schooled in the traditional fashion, by learning from older men. Her old-fashioned training and good sense allowed her to see what needed to be done to protect the community. Like the heroines of tragedy, Lysistrata wants to put things back to the way they were. To do that, however, she has to become a revolutionary.
Aristophanes is telling Athenian men that ending the war would be so easy that even women could do it.
He is also saying that Athenians should concern themselves with preserving the old ways, lest they be lost.
Aristophanes (through the eyes of the women) mocks man's inclination for fighting. His catalyst was
Lysistrata, feminist champion over war through peace. The idea of role reversal was as funny to the Athenians as the movie Tootsie is to modern America. Their culture was such that each gender had very defined roles, and there really wasn't any room for leeway.
Women were property, "Something beautiful to own, to gaze upon, to fulfill your sexual needs and desires and to bear and raise your children in the appropriate cultural
aspect". Except for sex and the family element, women really didn't have any redeeming social values. To even consider putting a woman into any position where she would be required to think, or to make decisions outside of the home was laughable. This is the root of their humor. Role reversal was true humor because to imagine a one-dimensional woman in a multifaceted role was just insane. The
" sky would fall first".
Whether a Lysistrata could have existed is really mute. The point is that it never would have happened.
In the opening scenes of the play, Lysistrata says "I'm furious with women and womankind. Don't all of our husbands say we are not to be relied upon... Don't they think we are such clever villains?" The women don't like the fact that the only power women have had over men from the dawn of time (and until the end of time) is to withhold sex. By some accounts, women seemed little more than walking sperm receptacles. That is their one-dimensional world, to please men, no more or less.
Again this is illustrated at the start of Act Two. Holding-out started to become a serious internal conflict. The women started to mutiny. They started making up all sorts of reasons and excuses to leave the Acropolis. All through the play there is a heavy sexual connotation, but here the excuses are as phony as any pick up line in any modern singles social scene.
Woman #1: "I must go home and spread my fleece out onto the bed!"
Woman #2: "I need to go home, I forgot to strip (my bark from the flax!)
Modern Frat-Boy #1: "If I told you that you have a GREAT body, would you
hold it against me?"
Modern Frat-Boy #2: "Your hair would look so good...on my
The underlining notion of returning home is also not specifically because of their "sex-starvation," but from the burden of guilt for being away from their family, their chores and their domestic responsibilities. They are after all not just defying their husbands but ultimately the whole Greek culture of the times in which they lived. They had a place, and status-quo demanded they assume it.