The idea of women autonomy is highly debated today, as shown by the differing opinions on the passing of Georgia’s “heartbeat bill,” an anti-abortion law passed in May 2019. The bill will punish those who get an abortion after a “‘fetal heartbeat in the womb’” is detected in pregnant women.1 An article written by Lindsey Bever for The Washington Post describes the outcry that the bill faced from activists such as actress Alyssa Milano. Backlash against the bill resulted in around 50 celebrities signing a letter to the governor that promotes against the bill1; Alyssa Milano proposed the idea of a sex-strike.2 This idea that Milano proposed is not a new one; it has been derived from themes in Ancient Greek plays. The play Lysistrata by Aristophanes was written in 410 B.C.E. and deals with the power women can hold over patriarchal society and men. To bring peace to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, a woman named Lysistrata brought women together from both sides to engage in a sex-strike, cutting off their men’s source of pleasure and power and forcing them to reach a peace agreement. However, Milano was not as successful. Ancient Greek culture is obviously very different to modern society, though modern influences from the past still exist. Ancient Greek plays have contributed to the way women can solve modern-day problems regarding women’s rights; however, the response to these ancient ideas has changed tremendously due to the differences in women’s rights today and how social media has influenced feminism movements. There are also flaws with looking at Lysistrata as a voice for feminism, as Aristophanes wrote the play as a comedic satire and not as an empowering tool for the women of that society.
In order to understand how the context for Lysistrata and Alyssa Milano’s protests differ, an insight into Ancient Greek culture should be done. Ancient Greece was a thriving civilization made up of autonomous city-states around the 8000 – 30 B.C.E. time period. The mountainous terrain helped keep city-states isolated, while the ocean surrounding Greece provided valuable trade and naval war opportunities. War was a constant part of Greek life, as is indicated by the formation of the Olympic Games, which helped keep men in shape for war. Threats came in the form of the Persian empire, other city-states (as shown by the tensions between Athens and Sparta), and the Roman empire. The shift from monarchies to either democracies (as in the case of Athens) or oligarchies (as in Sparta) occurred in Greece as well. Free men were in the top class, while women and slaves made up the bottom classes. In this highly patriarchal and misogynistic society, women did not have as many rights as today. Due to the loss of history, only the life of women in Athens can be described in detail; some facts also exist about Spartan women, where they had slightly more rights than their Athenian counterparts. Athenian women generally did not own land, did not vote, and did not even leave the house unless to visit other women or attend a funeral. Spartan women trained for war and could own land, but still were considered less important than men.
While women in the U.S. today have more rights, such as voting, owning land, and ideally travelling whenever they want, inequalities still exist; the difference in job wages between men and women is simply one example of an inequality faced today. Thus, the women portrayed in Lysistrata could relate to each other; they all had similar rights (or lack of rights), allowing them to band together based on a shared common experience. Furthermore, city-states were designed so that everyone knew each other. As a result, the Greek women had a stronger connection between them. Lindsey Bever’s article about Milano’s posts mentions that reactions towards the modern sex-strike varied, with “some applauding the idea but many others arguing that it only serves to perpetuate the stereotype that ‘women are providers and men are consumers of sex.’”2 This shows that unity regarding this topic is not easily done. In modern society, most people interact through social media, which allows for many opinions to take shape and can lead to a movement not being as united or taken as seriously. As indicated by the fall of Greece after Alexander the Great’s death, it’s extremely hard to manage a large group of people with differing values and cultures and no unifying leader. This situation can be analogous to the role of social media in the current era. While it is easier for movements such as feminism and women’s rights to gain traction, real change in policy or society is harder to achieve.
Problems also exist in reading the play Lysistrata through a modern viewpoint, where people might assume that it represents early ideas of feminism. Lysistrata’s goal is to attain peace for Greece, not to change the way that women are portrayed in society. On the other hand, Alyssa Milano’s goal is to shine “‘light on the Republican war against women and our bodily autonomy.’”2 Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata as a comedic satire about the role of women in society and how the Peloponnesian War could have been resolved quickly. The role of women in Aristophanes society is one of domestic power; it can be summed up when Lysistrata says: “May gentle Love and the sweet Cyprian Queen shower seductive charms on our breasts and our thighs. If only we may stir so amorous a feeling among the men that they stand as firm as sticks, we shall indeed deserve the name of peacemakers among the Greeks.” The only power that the Greek women can employ is the power of seduction; they cannot use political or social power to obtain peace, and as a result are often mocked for it, especially by the Magistrate, who says: “And is it with your yarn, and your skeins, and your spools, you think to appease so many bitter enmities, you silly women?”.5 The fact that the Aristophanes portrayed women as having essentially no power except in the bedroom does not support current feminist thinking that men and women are equal and should be treated as such; it puts them in an inferior light as they are inherently weaker due to their lack of power. Currently, women in the U.S. are able to have political and social power as well as domestic abilities; comparing current situations to those of Ancient Greek women can be considered offensive to women today, and a step backwards. In fact, Bever’s article highlights much of the criticism from other women that Milano’s sex-strike gained. One such critique was that Milano was trying to control women’s choice and bodies by advocating for this sex-strike, which ironically was created for the exact opposite purpose: “‘Isn’t telling women to not have sex also a form of YOU denying them control over their bodies? Doesn’t this also presume that all women are straight and [cisgender]?’”.2 In fact, controlling women and their sexuality is promoted in Lysistrata: “So, here’s another trying to escape to go home and strip her flax! …You wicked women, have done with your falsehoods!.”5 Lysistrata prevents the women from going back to their husbands and having the choice to take part in the sex-strike; she binds them by oath and oracle. The criticism Milano has faced in enacting a Lysistrata-type sex ban shows how much society has changed; the rights of people who are LGBTQ+ and identify as non-cis are being considered in the criticism, as well as what it means to have freedom to choose about your body. These ideas were not even considered in Aristophanes’ play, and highlight how using an ancient notion without modifying it to fit current standards will result in a failed movement because the audience is not considered.
While Alyssa Milano’s sex-strike method might have worked in a society with a smaller population size and where women don’t have any power except domestically, modern day women face different circumstances that change how they respond to women’s rights issues today. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata emphasizes the misogynistic qualities of Greek society that are often interpreted as being modernly feministic, as Alyssa Milano incorrectly did. While Milano’s intentions were in the right place, as she wanted to protect “‘the women most at risk, the women from low-income communities of color’” and use her platform to advocate for women autonomy, her method failed to adapt to modern times. This resulted in Milano failing in a mission that Lysistrata was able to complete; however, we can always learn from the past, and Ancient Greek civilization will always be integrated in modern culture.