Study Guide

Lysistrata Women and Femininity

By Aristophanes

Women and Femininity

Lysistrata: "Now if someone had invited them to a revel for Bacchus, or to Pan's shrine, or to Genetyllis' at Colias, the streets would be impassible, what with their tambourines. But as it is, there's not a single woman here. (the far door opens) Except that my neighbor here's coming out. Good morning, Calonice!"

Calonice: "And you, Lysistrata. What's bothering you? Don't frown, child. Knitted brows don't become you."

Lysistrata: "But my heart's on fire, Calonice, and I'm terribly annoyed about us women. You know, according to the men we're capable of any sort of mischief—"

Calonice: "And so we surely are!"

Lysistrata: "But when they're told to meet us here to discuss a matter of no trifling importance, they sleep in and don't show up." (1-15)

Lysistrata is frustrated with the women of Athens; she thinks they're more interested in partying and having a good time than helping out with her cause. But she does note that women are "capable of mischief." And this isn't pulling-the-cat's-tail, or finger-painting-the-walls-style mischief. This is the kind of mischief that makes streets "impassable." This is pretty cool, and an awesomesauce statement for an Ancient Greek playwright to make: women ain't angels (they like a good party) but they do have serious power.

Lysistrata: "But if the women gather together here—the Boeotian women, the Peloponnesian women, and ourselves—together we'll be able to rescue Greece."

Calonice: "But what can mere women do that's intelligent or illustrious? We sit around the house looking pretty, wearing saffron dresses, and make-up, and Cimberic gowns, and pleasure-boat slippers."

Lysistrata: "Exactly! That's exactly what I think will rescue Greece: our fancy little dresses, our perfumes and our slippers, our rouge and our see-through underwear!" (39-48)

Let's hear it for see-through underwear. It may be sheer, but it sure isn't "mere." Despite Calonice's stuck-in-the-dark-ages approach to feminism, Lysistrata is playing to win. She's going to use women's value (as sex objects, which: vomit) to stop the war. This is peaceful protest where it hurts the most.

Lysistrata: "Oh what a low and horny race are we! No wonder tragedies get written about us: we're nothing but Poseidon and a tub. But my dear Spartan, if you alone would side with me, we might still salvage the plan; give me your vote!"

Lampito: "By the Twin Gods, it's difficult for females to sleep alone without the hard-on. But no matter, I assent; we need peace."Lysistrata: "You're an absolute dear, and the only real woman here!" (137-145)

Wow. Just wow. Who knew the Greeks were so dirty? This exchange shows Lysistrata bemoaning the fact that women are "low and horny" and can't stick out a simple sex strike. Lampito agrees: women need sex like plants need water, but peace is worth it. This leads Lysistrata to tell Lampito that she's the only "real woman" around, implying that realness and womanliness are contingent on a willingness to stop knockin' boots. Hmm. This could mean a) that women are supposed to have more sexual willpower than men (certainly a belief that's still around today) or b) that real women—as opposed to immature girls—can restrain themselves for the greater good.

Lysistrata: "Meanwhile, let's go inside with the other women on the Acropolis and help bar the gates."

Calonice: "But don't you think the men will quickly launch a concerted counterattack on us?"
Lysistrata: "I'm not worried about them. They can't come against us with enough threats or fire to get these gates open, except on the terms we've agreed on."

Calonice: "No they can't, so help me Aphrodite! Otherwise we women wouldn't deserve to be called rascals you can't win a fight with!" (245-253)

Calonice is agreeing with men's opinion of women; after all, when she suggests that women "deserve to be called rascals," who else but men could be doing the name-calling? But check it out: doesn't it seem like, on both occasions, Calonice takes what men intend as an insult and turns it into a badge of pride. The way she seems to see it, if women are annoying, that's just awesome, because it will enable them to get what they want. Can you think of any other times in history when a group that lacks power has taken a term used to insult them and turned it into a badge of pride?

Magistrate: "So the women's profligacy has flared up again, has it, the tomtoms, the steady chants of 'Sabazios,' this worship of Adonis on the rooftops? I heard it all once before while sitting in Assembly. Demostratus (bad luck to him!) was moving that we send an armada to Sicily, while his wife was dancing and yelling 'Poor young Adonis!' Then Demostratus moved that we sign up some Zakynthian infantry, but his wife up on the roof was getting drunk and crying 'Beat your breast for Adonis!' But he just went on making his motions, that godforsaken, disgusting Baron Bluster! From women, I say, you get this kind of riotous extravagance!" (386-398)

So far we've only been getting women's view of women (or women's view of men's view of women—which makes us dizzy just thinking about). Here we get a man's opinion of women, and it isn't all that flattering. The Magistrate is focusing on one detail of women's lives: the fact that, in Athens in the 5th century BCE, a bunch of weird new religions enjoyed a wave of popularity among the city's women and slaves. Basically, you can think of this as sort of like Beatlemania—except with gods like Sabazios and Adonis instead of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Magistrate: "By Poseidon the Salty, it serves us right! When we ourselves abet our wives' misbehavior and teach them profligacy, these are the sort of schemes they bring to flower! Aren't we the ones who go to the shops and say this kind of thing: 'Goldsmith, about that choker you made me: my wife was having a ball the other night, and now the prong's slipped out of the hole. Me, I've got to cruise over to Salamis, so if you've got time, by all means visit her in the evening and fit a prong in the hole.' Another husband says this to a shoemaker, a teenager sporting no boyish cock: 'Shoemaker, about my wife's tootsy: the thong is squeezing her pinky winky, where she's tender. So why don't you drop in on her sometime and loosen it up so there's more play down there?' That's the sort of thing that's led to all this, when I, a Magistrate, have lined up timber for oars and now come to get the necessary funds, and find myself standing at the gates, locked out by women!" (403-430)

These words are the Magistrate's attempt to explain how the women of Athens have suddenly gotten it into their heads to take over the Acropolis. He thinks that men are to blame for encouraging their wives to commit bad behavior. He uses the example of infidelity—his talk about "fitting prongs in holes" is pretty filthy and hilarious—and basically thinks that any female misbehavior must be a dude's idea. So wrong, Magistrate. Dead wrong.

Lysistrata: "Well, what did you expect? Did you think you were going up against a bunch of slave girls? Or did you think women lack gall?"

Magistrate: "Oh yes, they've got plenty of that, provided there's a wine bar nearby." (463-466)

Badoom-ching. The Magistrate thinks that women are only gutsy when they're boozing. He's a clever one, that Magistrate… if by "clever" we mean "misogynistic." Oooh, we'd love to punch him right in the mouth.

Women's Chorus: "Citizens of Athens, we begin
by offering the city valuable advice,
and fittingly, for she raised me in splendid luxury.
As soon as I turned seven I was an Arrephoros;
then when I was ten I was a Grinder for the Foundress;
and shedding my saffron robe I was a Bear at Brauronia;
and once, when I was a fair girl, I carried the Basket,
wearing a necklace of dried figs."

Women's Leader: "Thus I owe it to the polis to offer some good advice. And even if I was born a woman, don't hold it against me if I manage to suggest something better than what we've got now." (638-650)

Here, the Women's Chorus starts off by portraying themselves as members of the highest social class in Athens: all of the events they describe themselves as participating in were high honors for young women. The moral of this little story gets expressed by the Women's Leader: these women have always been at the forefront of the city's politics, so it only makes sense for them to make their voices heard when the city is in trouble. What do you think about the last sentence of this quotation? Does it show that the Women's Leader is, herself, a bit prejudiced toward women? Or is she just thinking ahead to the prejudices of her audience, and catching them out before they can raise any objections?

Men's Leader: "You've certainly helped me out, because that thing's been digging wells in me for a long time, and now that it's out, my eyes are streaming copious tears."

Women's Leader: "Then I'll wipe them away—though you're quite a rascal—and kiss you."

Men's Leader: "Don't kiss me!"

Women's Leader: "I'll kiss you whether you like it or not!"

Men's Leader: "The worst of luck to you! You're natural sweet-talkers, and that ancient adage is right on the mark and no mistake: 'Can't live with the pests or without the pests either.'" (1033-1039)

This short exchange shows the Women's Leader taking on a traditional female role—that of helper. Maybe she's a bit more aggressive than your average helper, like when she insists on kissing the Men's Leader "whether you like it or not," but she still wants to wipe away his tears, which is pretty dang sweet. We think this at least shows that the men and women of Athens still need each other, even if they don't always get along. This seems to be what the Men's Leader is trying to say at the end of this passage, when he gives us an Ancient Greek version of the famous saying, "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em."

Lysistrata: "Now listen to what I have to say. It's true I'm a woman, but still I've got a mind: I'm pretty intelligent in my own right, and because I've listened many a time to the conversations of my father and other elders, I'm pretty well educated too. Now that you're my captive audience I'm ready to give you the tongue-lashing you deserve—both of you." (1124-1129)

Lysistrata is as serious as a heart attack. Unfortunately, because she is a woman in male-dominated Athenian society, she has to go the extra mile to get people to listen. But here's a question: why do you think Lysistrata only mentions what she has learned from her male family members. Didn't she learn anything from her Mommy? Do you think this shows that Lysistrata has internalized some of the prejudice from her environment, or is she just speaking in terms that her male listeners will be able to relate to?