Sex as a Means of Agency
“A woman’s harder to conquer than any beast, than fire, and no panther is quite so ferocious.” (Aristophanes 1058)
Life for an Athenian woman was marked by her daily occupation to the household and its occupants. This was the sphere of life where she was able to exert the most power and maintain a certain degree of agency. Her domestic duties included attendance to her husband, and his sexual needs. In the comic portrayal of women in Lysistrata, Aristophanes exploits this domestic power to create a scenario where “the harsh and intractable realities of life, politics and international aggression are transformed so that wives manage to overcome husbands, love conquers war, insignificant citizens manage to discredit powerful ones” (Henderson 36). Aristophanes manipulates the Athenian reality by operating on common stereotypes of women, adding to the comic element but also highlighting the gaping gender division that existed in everyday life. In this comic utopian ideal, women are able to overcome their lack of agency in the public sphere by juxtaposing their domestic (primarily sexual) power with the general polis.
It is important to note that in ancient literary portrayals of women, men depict women according to their perceptions and the common social stereotypes. Although this may, in some cases, create a certain amount of discrepancy between the depiction of women and their actual life, it can still be a beneficial tool to understand their attitudes and struggles. As Henderson writes, “…even by itself the male view is interesting: it enables us to study the rules and roles that men created for women and to glimpse the desires and fears that prompted their enforcement” (20). In Athenian society, the fear that a woman might tarnish the reputation of a man or his household would be a paramount motivating factor in the monitoring of his wife. As men created more restrictive roles for women, they came to view them as inherently deviant, and “consequently came to believe that women needed watching; women were therefore thought naturally to lack self-control and loyalty” (Henderson 23). This view of women as sex-obsessed permeates Aristophanes’ comedies, and is sometimes used as a humorous element that counteracts women’s ambitions for loftier endeavors.
The female ambition to overcome their lack of agency is illustrated in Lysistrata, as the women monopolize the men by rallying their collective domestic power, in this case, in the form of “conjugal strike.” The basis for this plot stems from the pragmatic notion that “even under the strictest patriarchies resourceful women can wield considerable power within their own families and exert influence on their husbands even on public matters…” (Henderson 27). The concept that women are each the ruler of an individual “polis” is illustrated as Lysistrata argues with the Magistrate. She explains that the wives will manage the money, to which he replies...