Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
This is the definition of feminist that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie provides in her TED Talk (which was sampled in Beyoncè’s “***Flawless”), asserting that feminism is not a dirty word; rather it is an identifier of people who strive for gender equality in all aspects of their lives. I strongly identify as a feminist, so I was understandably very interested in this text. The world that Aristophanes paints in Lysistrata is one where it seems it would be very difficult to be a feminist. It opens with Lysistrata waiting impatiently for the women she has invited to arrive so she can deliver an important message. Her friend Kalonike tells her to be patient, reminding Lysistrata, “We’re always busy servicing our men,/ waking up servants,/ putting the baby off to sleep,/ or washing or feeding it” (55). This brief statement gives us a picture of a normal day for a Greek woman, one that, as expected, solely involves tending to the house, the children, and the sexual needs of her husband. While this seems very unjust and oppressive to the modern reader, it is not the issue that Lysistrata is concerned with. Her goal is to bring a long war to an end so all the men can come back home. She tells the assembled women the way to achieve this: “we must give up the prick” (59). The women respond with horror. Kalonike says to her friend, “If I have to,/ I’ll walk through fire. But not the prick./ There’s nothing like it, dearest Lysistrata,” to which Lysistrata responds in exasperation “We’re all nymphomaniacs!” (59, 60). Lampito, however, has a different view, saying, “it’s pretty hard/ for us to sleep without an erect prick,/ but still, I’ll do it. We really need peace” (60). Lysistrata calls Lampito “marvelous – the only real woman here,” showing that in this context, womanhood means being willing to give up one’s sexuality in order to accomplish a goal.
Control over one’s body is exactly what Lysistrata believes is necessary to put an end to the war. She says to the women, “we wont go to them; we will hold off/ and they’ll make peace pretty damned fast, I’m sure” (60). Here it is clear that Lysistrata knows the power of sex and her body and the control she has over both. It is clear also that the women take pride in their bodies, as they talk extensively about their attractive features and personal grooming. The women exercise their power when they take hold of the city. They easily defeat the men with their words and a few strategically thrown buckets of water, and Lysistrata berates one of the men saying, “don’t you realize women can be courageous?” (71). It is clear that this type of female power is unprecedented, as one old man compares the women to “animals” because of their betrayal (72). When a bureaucrat asks Lysistrata why she and the women took over the citadel, she responds, “for a long time we suffered in silence; because we knew our place, we let you do just anything you wanted” (73). This is a typical complaint of early (and some modern) feminists, women who are so oppressed by the patriarchal system that they have no recourse but to suffer through the mistreatment, until an opportunity presents itself to escape that oppression. For Lysistrata and the other women, the lack of men due to the war is what allows them to take power in hopes of ending that war.
As the rebellion presses on, the men get more and more inpatient and bewildered. Lysistrata and her followers use the power of their bodies to tantalize the men and make it very difficult for them to think of anything else but sex. The power of the feminine becomes more and more apparent, shown when Lysistrata attacks the bureaucrat saying, “you bastard, we do more than double what you do,” acknowledging the importance of the female role and the power they have despite being second class citizens (77). One of my favorite lines of the whole play comes from an old woman who warns an aggressive man, “I’m so enraged […] I will crush your nuts,” terrifying him by threatening to destroy his manhood (80).
There are, however, some places where Lysistrata falls short of being a feminist work. During a negotiation with the men, Lysistrata declares, “I am a woman, but I have a brain” (97). Lysistrata recognizes that being a woman is an impediment and says she has a brain despite her gender. This is very different from the modern idea of a feminist woman. Another problem is the way in which the issue is resolved. Although the women technically succeed by fulfilling their goal to end the war, they quickly return to their former gender roles. Lysistrata tells every man to take his wife home, reestablishing the ownership men have over women. This is very similar to the Rosie the Riveter movement, which, while it empowered women socially and economically, ended with many women returning to their lives at home as men came back from World War II. Overall, Lysistrata does not advocate gender equality, rather, it advocates the use of the female body with the goal of ending war.
I say none of this to criticize Lysistrata. It is a play that embraces the power of sex and the female body, something that was most probably not typical of the time. Lysistrata was able to unite a large group of women for the singular cause of ending a war that was detrimental for them and their society as a whole. This play also normalizes sexual desire, speaking without shame of the necessity of sex for enjoyment in both male and female lives. Just as Beyoncè does in ***Flawless, the women in Lysistrata revel in the power of their own bodies. While it doesn’t meet the feminist standards of the 21st century, Lysistrata makes many statements that reveal the power of the feminine. It is important to remember that in 411 B.C. women didn’t have power over anything. They didn’t have social or economic independence, they didn’t have an education, they didn’t have a concept of human rights. So no, these women can't meet our modern definition of feminists, but for their time they are revolutionary (and pretty flawless).
I highly recommend reading/listening to Adichie’s full TED Talk:
Also, here is the ***Flawless music video: