Gender Roles in Lysistrata and Medea

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Between 500 and 400 BC, Athens was shining light of civilization, brightening the dark world around it. Yet in this glimmering metropolis of democracy and reason, an indelible line divided the men from the women and the Athenian citizens for non-citizens. Only male citizens were able to take part in Athenian politics, and therefore able to affect change, while Athenian women were bound to the seclusion of their homes where they were allowed only to talk to their family and other women. While Greek men gained their honor and prestige from doing well in battle, and speaking well at the assembly, women seemed to acquire their honor and achieve moral excellence by birthing boys who then become men who could then gain honor in battle. Both Eripides' Medea and Aristophanes' Lysistrata focus on the role of women in ancient Athens and the struggle for power between the sexes. While in her book The Making of the West Lynn Hunt says that "Women's exclusion from politics meant that their contributions to the city-state might be overlooked by men," the text of these two plays show that at least some men understood the important contributions that women made to society, and the power that all women inherently possess.

Hunt contends, "The power and status of Athenian women came from their roles in the family." Both Lysistrata and Medea deal with the power that Athenian women posses, but the lead characters of the two plays assert their power in two very different ways. Lysistrata, the title character in Aristophanes' 410 BC play wields her power by embracing her role as an Athenian woman. On the other side of the spectrum, but just as powerful, Euripides' Medea finds her power in raging against her imposed status as a woman in a Greek city-state.

In Aristophanes play, Lysistrata was determined to put an end to the then twenty-one year old Peloponnesian war. "Our country's fortunes depend on us [women] – it is with us to undo utterly the Peloponnesians." She argued that since the Athenian men had been unable to put an end to the war, Athens' women must. After all, the war was preventing women from fulfilling their roles as Athenian women. The Athenian woman's contribution to her polis was to be a good mother and wife. But the Peloponnesian war robbed women of these contributions by stealing her husbands and sons, and shipping them off to foreign lands, often never to return. When purposing her idea to the women of Greece, Lysistrata asks of them, "Don't you feel sad and sorry because the fathers of your children are far away from you with the army? For I'll wager there is not one of you whose husband is not abroad at this moment." If an Athenian woman is not allowed to take place in politics or to study with private tutors, or to even walk freely by herself down the streets of Athens, but is only to tend to her husband's household and care for his children, but her husband and sons are away dying, what has she to occupy her days? The answer to this question, Lysistrata answered was to use their roles as wives to influence their husbands to bring peace and thereby bring their husbands back to them, bringing meaning back into Greek women's lives. Though they were only women, with limited power in Athens, Lysistrata devised a plan to use what little power they had. When asked by her friend Cleonice, "But how should women perform so wise and glorious an achievement, we women who dwell in the retirement of the household, clad in diaphanous garments of yellow silk and long flowering gowns, decked out with flowers and shot with dainty little slippers?" Lysistrata replied, "Ah, but those are the very sheet-anchors of our salvation." It was the very feminine traits of these upper-class Athenian women that they would use against the powerful, manly husbands. Her plan was simple, "if we would compel our husbands to make peace, we must refrain…" In the end, the women succeed in their endeavors for peace. The...
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