Though Athens was a democracy, male citizens held all of the political power, and women enjoyed relatively few rights and privileges. Athenian women could not hold political office, for example, or participate in democratic elections, votes, or debates, nor could they serve on juries or bring lawsuits. Furthermore, the economic activity of Athenian women was also limited (although they did budget the household accounts, as Lysistrata says), and so was their freedom of movement. Their education and responsibilities centered on domesticities like weaving cloth and raising children. The most powerful women in Athens tended to be the priestesses of the tutelary wisdom goddess Athena, as well as the hetairai, courtesans or prostitutes who were of a lower social status than citizens’ wives but who were compensated with more privileges.
We must have some understanding of these cultural features in Classical Athens to understand what Aristophanes is up to in Lysistrata, because it is a play that both reflects and plays with the gender roles of its time and place. On the one hand, the women in the play, other than Lysistrata herself, tend to be stereotypes: superficial, flighty, and coy. Even they themselves are skeptical about their power to effect peace in Greece: women are lazy, they say, unwise, and talented only in glamorously painting their faces and primping. The Athenian men, both in and out of the play, perhaps, would agree: women are unfit for rational discourse, they say, deceptive, sly, and immoral as they are. The men of Athens, however, are stubborn, paranoid, and so entangled in their mismanagement of the state that they have lost sight of basic human needs.
Consequently, the grand, intelligent, and alluring Lysistrata—whose character, scholars argue, Aristophanes modeled after both a contemporary priestess of Athena named Lysimache as well as the figure of the courtesan—arrives at the conclusion that a reversal of gender roles is necessary if Athens is to be at peace. So it is that she and her women storm the Acropolis—a great citadel that served as the political and religious center of Athens, and also home to the Athenian war treasury—thereby usurping, albeit temporarily, their men’s political power. The women justify their loving plot with unanswerable simplicity: the Female Koryphaios announces, “I hold stock in Athens—stock I paid for in sons.” In place of political madness, the women propose common sense. Indeed, Lysistrata suggests that women’s domestic work cultivates in them a common sense that men tend to problematically lack, particularly in the world of the play, where the male characters are presented as hopelessly inept. This point is eloquently made when Lysistrata compares Athens to “fleece, recently shorn,” and gives her solution to political problems by extending this metaphor of domestic work. As fleece needs to be scrubbed, beaten so as to rid it of vermin, combed of its lumps and knots and snarls, and expertly woven, so too does Athens need to be cleansed of filth, rid of incompetent parasites, and politically reunified if it is to properly fit the Athenian spirit. This is homespun political sanity at its best.
Still, Aristophanes is no feminist, and Lysistrata is no proto-feminist tract. The women take control only to restore their men to sanity, after which, the play suggests, the men will and should once again pilot the ship of state. To complicate the matter even more, only men performed on the Classical Athenian stage, a fact which Aristophanes milks by giving some of his female characters masculine qualities, like the brawny Spartan Lampito as well as the take-charge and severe Lysistrata herself. Moreover, scholars are not in agreement as to whether or not women in Classical Athens would have attended dramatic festivals at all—Lysistrata may well be a play written by a man, performed by men, and performed for men alone.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in Lysistrata
Announce a debauch in honor of Bacchos,
a spree for Pan, some footling fertility fieldday,
and traffic stops—the streets are absolutely clogged
with frantic female banging on tambourines. No urging
for an orgy!
But today—there’s not one woman here.
I’m positively ashamed to be a woman—a member
of a sex which can’t even live up to male slanders!
To hear our husbands talk, we’re sly: deceitful,
always plotting, monsters of intrigue…
Us? Be practical. Wisdom for women? There’s nothing
cosmic about cosmetics—and Glamor is our only talent.
All we can do is sit, primped and painted,
made up and dressed up.
What a catastrophe—
They’ve brought Athene’s statue to heel,
they’ve put the Akropolis under a seal,
they’ve copped the whole damned commonweal…
What is there left for them to steal?
Koryphaios of Women:
I’ll crop your lungs and reap your bowels, bite by bite,
and leave no balls on the body for other bitches to
Koryphaios of Men:
Can’t beat Euripides for insight. And I quote:
No creature’s found
so lost to shame as Woman.
Talk about realist playwrights!
A tally of [these girls’] talents
convinces me they’re giants
of excellence. To commence:
there’s Beauty, Duty, Prudence, Science,
Self-Reliance, Compliance, Defiance,
and Love of Athens in balanced alliance
with Common Sense!
It’s rather like yarn. When a hank’s in a tangle,
we lift it—so—and work out the snarls by winding it up
on spindles, now this way, now that way.
That’s how we’ll wind up the War.
I admit to being a woman—
but don’t sell my contribution short on that account.
It’s better than the present panic. And my word is as
good as my bond, because I hold stock in Athens—
stock I paid for in sons.
Your duty is clear.
Pop him on the griddle, twist
the spit, braize him, baste him, stew him in his own
juice, do him to a turn. Sear him with kisses,
coyness, caresses, everything—
but stop where Our Oath
—Life is a husk. She left our home, and happiness
went with her. Now pain is the tenant. Oh, to enter
that wifeless house, to sense that awful emptiness,
to eat that tasteless, joyless food—it makes
it hard, I tell you.
The most unnerving work of nature,
the pride of applied immorality,
is the common female human.
No fire can match, no beast can best her.
thy name—worse luck—is Woman.
I can’t dispute the truth or logic of the pithy old proverb:
Life with women is hell.
Life without women is hell, too.
And so we conclude a truce with you, on the following terms:
in future, a mutual moratorium on mischief in all its forms.
Each man stand by his wife, each wife
by her husband. Dance to the gods’ glory, and thank
them for the happy ending. And, from now on, please be
careful. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.