A Day Without A Woman In Ancient Greece

Today is A Day Without A Woman, a day of protest against the new government, which also coincides with International Women’s Day. The movement is designed to be: “a day of action to spotlight the economic power and value of women and their contributions to society in paid and unpaid labor” as well as highlight issues of gender violence, reproductive freedom, labor rights and environmental protections.

When I think of a women’s strike I am always reminded of the Greek play Lysistratanow those of you familiar with the play may find this connection superficially offensive, but please bear with me.

The Lysistrata is the first Old Greek Comedy I had ever really encountered. I remember being assigned it the first year of Grad school, and being a poor, struggling student, I would download free copies of texts where I could. I opened the first copy and read a couple of pages, and was shocked at the bawdy and graphic nature of the prose. My first thought was I must have downloaded a defective copy, a parody translation or the like. It wasn’t till my third copy, and I’d shelled out a couple of dollars for an Amazon kindle version, from a reputable publisher, that I realized it was authentically ribald and lewd.

The Lysistrata was written by Aristophanes, and originally performed in 411 BCE. It is set in Greece during the Peloponnesian War, and starts with a council of women from the various regions who are discussing ways to persuade their husband’s to end the war. One of the orator’s, Lysistrata, convinces the other women that they should go on strike, and withhold sex from their husband’s until they agree to a truce. As the play progresses we see the struggle between the sexes, until it finally culminates in a meeting between delegates of Athens and Sparta who agree to meet Lysistrata at the Akropolis. Both delegates arrive sporting massive erections, and Lysistrata arrives with her naked handmaiden, Peace, whose body she uses as a prop as she lectures them all on the evils of the war until they concede to her, and call a truce.

I can see how drawing parallels to today’s call to action, and this play from the past, can be seen as offensive, so it is important to remember that the play was a classical comedy. It was designed, through the vehicle of laughter, to allow a reflection upon society that may not be possible through traditional means, much in the way political satire works today. If you read the play it is actually a discourse on the many ways women in ancient Greece were taken for granted, undervalued, restricted, and mistreated – many of the same complaints we still have, 2,500 thousand years later!

I would like to think that we have progressed, that women are now holding more powerful, and societally important positions, and are establishing autonomy and economic freedom. Women are, but sadly, for many people within the establishment we are seen as nothing but walking vaginas that require regulation.

The other point I would like to make about the play is that it was performed at The Festival of the Greater Dionysia, a state run institution that was attended annually by most of those in power. The tradition of comedy allowed both the airing of minority views, and (as long as it wasn’t complete slander) a way to criticize those who were in power. The fact that these plays were an important part of the Greek calendar, and were funded by the state, demonstrates the confidence that comes with a full democracy, something we still have to defend today.

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