Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Aristophanes’ Flirtation with Feminism
In Lysistrata, Assemblywomen, and Thesmophoriazousai Aristophanes anticipated some aspects of the modern belief in women’s equality.
Like his contemporary Euripides, Aristophanes takes an intense interest in the status of women in Athenian society. Three of his plays – Lysistrata, Assemblywomen, and Thesmophoriazousai – are specifically devoted to the grievances of women as a class, and the first two offer seemingly sympathetic portrayals of a seizure of political power by the women of the city.
Let’s stick our necks out and sing the praise Of ourselves as women because the tribe of males Has nothing good to say about the female race .… 1
Given Aristophanes’ comedic intentions, we cannot be sure to what extent he agrees with the grievances he allows his female protagonists to air – and it would be particularly rash to assume he favored literal extension of political rights to women. (Though on the other hand this possibility should not be rejected as unthinkable either; after all, serious advocates of political equality between the sexes – such as Plato, the Cynics, and the early Stoics – would emerge in the next few generations.) But whatever his real sympathies, in the three plays mentioned Aristophanes offers important explorations of the justice or otherwise of women’s status, and gives voice to some intriguing feminist arguments.
In Lysistrata, the women’s seizure of power is temporary, its purpose being solely to pressure the men to call off the Peloponnesian War; in the Assemblywomen the seizure is permanent (and the women’s goal is to replace male rulers rather than sharing power with them on a basis of equality). But in both cases women’s financial role within the household is offered as evidence of their qualification to take over the finances of the city as a whole. Lysistrata, leader of the women’s revolt in the play that bears her name, has the following exchange with the leader of the male magistrates:
— We’ll take charge of the funds for you. — You’ll take charge of the funds? — What’s so odd about that? Don’t we look after the household budget as it is? … — It’s not the same. — Why not?2
Likewise Praxagora,3 the analogous leader of the women’s revolt in Assemblywomen, argues:
My proposal is that the management of the city be handed over to us women. After all, it’s we women who already look after our households and finances.4
Aristophanes here anticipates the Socratic philosopher Xenophon, who would later argue in his Economicus that women were the true administrators of the household, that the expertise needed to run a household was the same as that needed to rule a state, and that men and women were equal in respect of intellect and virtue.5 The clear implication is that women are likewise qualified to rule the state.6 (And it’s surely no coincidence that Plato, who defends women’s political capacity in his Republic,7 agrees with Xenophon that political rule and household management are the same skill,8 while Aristotle, who defends the political subordination of women, also insists that the two skills are different.)9
Historically, a common argument against the extension of political rights to women is that women do not share men’s liability to military conscription.10 Herbert Spencer, for example, despite having defended equal political rights for both sexes in his early work Social Statics,11 reversed his position forty years later in his Principles of Ethics:
Citizenship does not include only the giving of votes, joined now and again with the fulfillment of representative functions. It includes also certain serious responsibilities. But if so, there cannot be equality of citizenship unless along with the share of good there goes the share of evil. To call that equality of citizenship under which some have their powers gratis while others pay for their powers by undertaking risks, is absurd. Now men, whatever political powers they may in any case possess, are at the same time severally liable to the loss of liberty, to the privation, and occasionally to the death, consequent on having to defend the country; and if women, along with the same political powers, have not the same liabilities, their position is not one of equality but one of supremacy.
Unless, therefore, women furnish contingents to the army and navy such as men furnish, it is manifest that, ethically considered, the question of the equal “political rights,” so‐called, of women, cannot be entertained until there is reached a state of permanent peace.12
When the male Athenian magistrates in Lysistrata likewise argue that women are not entitled to political rights, since they’ve been “doing not a thing for the war,” the protagonist replies:
We do more than our share – far more. We produce the sons, for a start, and off we send them to fight. … On top of that, when we are in our prime and ought to be enjoying life, we sleep alone because of the war.13
(Lysistrata doesn’t mention, but could, that the women of defeated cities frequently faced, in addition. the prospect of enslavement – so one could hardly describe them as enjoying an exemption from the risks involved in warfare.)
Aristophanes also describes the ways in which women’s concerns were silenced, both in the political sphere and within the home. Lysistrata complains:
Before today and long before then we women went along in meek silence with everything done by you men. We weren’t allowed to speak back, though … we knew pretty well what was going on. Many a time at home we heard of some idiotic blunder you’d made in a major political issue, and we’d smother our anguish, put on a demure smile, and say, “Hubby, I wish you’d tell me how you got on in Parliament today. …” and Hubby would snap: “Stick to your job, Wife, and shut your gob. … Stick to your embroidery, woman, or you’ll get a thick ear. ‘War is the business of men.’” … how could it be right, you nit, when we weren’t allowed to speak at all even when you were making a mess of things?14
In addition to political disabilities, Lysistrata points to the ways in which social mores impact men and women differently:
When a man comes home, even if he’s old and gray, he can find a girl to marry in no time, but a woman enjoys a very short‐lived prime, and once that’s gone, she won’t be wed by anyone. She mopes at home full of thwarted dreams.15
And in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousai, the women’s chorus points out the inconsistencies within prevailing patriarchal values: if women really are “a pest to all humanity,” then why do men “shut the door” on their wives and “[f]orbid us to poke a nose outside or roam,” thus perversely “[w]anting to keep a pest at home”?16
Aristophanes also directs our attention to the influence of cultural depictions of women. His Thesmophoriazousai concerns an assembly of women who meet to bring Euripides to trial for his negative depictions of the female sex. As we’ve seen previously,17 while modern readers tend to find proto‐feminist themes in Euripides’ plays, in antiquity his work was widely regarded as misogynist – perhaps in part for the same reasons (assertive female protagonists defying traditional gender roles and familial expectations).
Wherever there’s a theater, audience, tragic actors, and choruses has he [= Euripides] not slammed us with his vilifications, making out we’re … procuresses, whiners, traitors, gossips, lost in machinations, essentially sick, and mankind’s greatest curse? So, of course, men come home from the theater and immediately start casting suspicious eyes at us, and looking into cupboards for a hidden lover. In no way can we behave the natural way we ought, so thoroughly has this fellow poisoned our men’s thoughts.18
While it’s unclear whether Aristophanes shares his characters’ interpretation of Euripides, he certainly raises issues that anticipate modern debates about the harmful effects of works in popular media that promulgate sexist stereotypes. While some of his characters make a case for the stereotypes’ being unfair, other characters make a case for the stereotypes’ being accurate – leaving Aristophanes’ own perspective enigmatic.
1. Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai 826–828; in Aristophanes, The Complete Plays: The New Translations, trans. Paul Roche (New York: New American Library, 2005), p. 515.
2. Aristophanes, Lysistrata 493–496; Roche translation, op. cit., p. 441.
3. The names of Aristophanes’ feminist heroines are well‐chosen; “Lysistrata” means “dissolver of armies” (and Lysistrata leads a sex strike to force the men of Greece to abandon the war), while “Praxagora” means “active in the public square” (and Praxagora leads a female takeover of the Athenian democratic assembly).
4. Assemblywomen 209–212; Roche translation, p. 623.
6. For this implication being deliberate rather than inadvertent on Xenophon’s part, see Roderick T. Long, “The Classical Roots of Radical Individualism,” pp. 272–273; in Social Philosophy and Policy 24.2 (2007), pp. 262–297.
10. One could of course avoid this objection either by conscripting both sexes (as Plato advocates) or (O idéal lointain!) by conscripting neither.
11. Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (London: John Chapman, 1851), p. 169.
12. Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 (London: Williams and Norgate, 1900), pp. 165–166. The assumption that military defense is impossible without conscription is incongruous in so libertarian a thinker as Spencer; and as T. S. Gray notes, “[t]he fact that men were not liable to military conscription when Spencer was writing … makes his argument even more puzzling.” (T. S. Gray, “Herbert Spencer on Women: A Study in Personal and Political Disillusionment,” p. 221; International Journal of Women’s Studies 7.3 (1984), pp. 217–231.)
13. Lysistrata 587–591; Roche translation, p. 446.
14. Lysistrata 507–524; Roche translation, pp. 442–443.
15. Lysistrata 593–597; Roche translation, p. 446.
16. Thesmophoriazousai 828–838; Roche translation, p. 515.