Although we commonly think of the Greek culture of Athens as “the first democracy”, women had no rights, and were the property of their fathers or husbands. While male slaves had the opportunity to buy their freedom, there was no freedom for women10. Yet, many of the works of the famous playwrights of Greek theater focus on women’s power and women’s issues, particularly Antigone, by Sophocles, and many plays of Euripides, including Iphigenia at Aulis, The Trojan Women, Medea, Electra, Helen and Hecuba.
Before the Golden Age of theater, Athens suffered a terrible plague through the years 430-427 BCE, in the midst of the second Peloponnesian War. According to the historian Thucydides, the plague was a catalyst for Sparta’s victory. The death of 25 percent of the population in Athens resulted in social collapse, lawlessness, and corruption11. In many plays there are common themes revealing that the damage done by masculine aggression, hubris, lack of compromise, and violence – particularly against women and family – led to the destruction of Greek dynasties, and eventually, empire. These events might be failure to propitiation female goddesses, such as the theft of the Palladium, or Agamemnon’s soldiers killing an animal sacred to Artemis. But they are also depicted as male acts of violence against human fictional women: Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Hecuba, Leda, Cassandra, Andromache, Polyxena, and Medea. Did the breakdown of society and lawlessness that resulted from war and the plague place new value on “feminine” traits of family, unity, compromise, and peace, fibers necessary to weave together a strong human society?
A noteworthy play from this era is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, where women in Athens unite with the women of Sparta to organize a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. In the play, the women’s strike makes it clear that without a balance of power between adversaries – Athens and Sparta, men and women – civilization will end. People will either not be born, or die as a result of conflict. Lysistrata, whose name means “dissolver of armies”, points out that the war is already causing losses for women whose husbands are fighting, losses for civilization in goods and trade, and losses in the lives of partners and sons. The women, despite their differences, find strength in unity. While giving up sex proves a serious challenge for them, they agree that given the choice between making love and making war, between having sex or getting slaughtered – men will choose sex. An easy choice, no?
Symbolically, this option is choosing family unity rather than political strife, and in effect, choosing political cooperation, rather than political conflict. In the center of the play, Lysistrata uses an elaborate metaphor comparing carding wool and weaving cloth to good governance. She illustrates that building cooperation is something women excel at. In the end, the sex strike works, and in this fiction, the destruction of the Greek civilization stops as the men slaver in compromise over a representational character called “Peace” – a woman with the map of Greece on her naked body. Then everyone goes off happily to copulate.
In 2015, Spike Lee released the film Chi-Raq, a modern version of Lysistrata depicting women in Chicago going on a sex strike to end gang violence. Lysistrata is a sexual farce, with all the warts, and possibly not a play that can be taught in all high schools. But in many other works, women embody reproduction, peace, civilization, home, family, community, cooperation, and any other plays listed might be equally suitable.
Student Activities: Discussion and Essay
After reading and thematic discussion, students will focus their analytical essays by looking at the works not through a feminist lens, but a humanist one: Which actions lead to civilization building? Which lead to destruction?
One wonders what kind of civilization might have developed had peaceable values ruled, rather than warrior ones. It is interesting to note that the founding Celtic culture of England was a place where women and men were equals.