Aristophanes’ “Assemblywomen”: A Modern Analysis
Would we know a world run by women if we saw one? A controversial 2018 article published in the Financial Times, backed by a number of research papers, suggested that the most tangible result of women’s right to vote has been the growth of the welfare state and, following this, the explosion of public debt. The study suggested that as more and more women exercised their new rights the more the size of government grew. The article went as far as quoting that “the exponential growth of welfare costs and property taxes can be traced directly to the [’60s] sexual revolution”. These are only observations, of course, and they could very well imply causation as much as correlation. But the question remains: is there something in a woman’s nature that guides her hand as she approaches the ballot box? It is fashionable today to dismiss any such notion, courtesy of modern feminism and political correctness. Those who don’t, usually search for answers within the parameters of biology and psychology. But a school of thought still exists on the dissident Right, inaugurated by one Leo Strauss, that sees the worldview of ancient Greece as a legitimate point from which to judge what is happening in the modern world. And so, in that spirit, relating to the possible outcomes of ‘women getting power’, it is worth looking at what the ancient playwright Aristophanes — master of the Old Attic Comedy — had to say on the matter.
It all starts just before dawn, in a backstreet of ancient Athens, where a woman appears dressed in her husband’s clothes and wearing a fake beard. She is holding a lamp, to which she speaks much as Hamlet did with his skull. And why not a lamp? For lamps alone know women’s secrets, the lovers they bring at night behind their husbands’ backs; their frequent stealing, their heavy drinking. And so, it is appropriate that to this lamp she will now confess women’s most daring plan ever: to use democracy and take power away from men, by going into the Assembly disguised as their husbands, and vote for a new law to be enacted — a law that would give the governance of Athens, to its women.
Her name was Praxagora, and she existed, in a sense, in the mind of Aristophanes. Praxagora is joined by the rest of her co-conspirators, and together they practice their speeches, trying to appear as masculine as possible yet constantly slipping back into their gender. One of them even brought her knitting tools to finish a job she started at home. Praxagora thus concludes that she is the only one capable of ‘pulling it off’, and practices her speech for one final time before rushing to the Assembly, the Εκκλησία: a unique institution of direct democracy. It’s in this way, that we learn of Praxagora’s grand design: that of convincing the men of Athens to democratically turn the control of their city over to its women. And why shouldn’t they, she asks? Women are already trusted to run their households, why not trust them with the city itself? After all, women are better at keeping with tradition. They work the wool as they always did; they carry and cook; they make their husbands mad and hide their love affairs, just like they always did. And so, a city run by women will remain — albeit in a strange way — conservative.
Today, it is all too easy for us to call on the sexist stereotypes that Aristophanes uses to portray women. But that would be missing the point. The works of Jules Verne, for example, also carried many of the gender stereotypes of his times, which might even have contributed to the popularity of his works. But the world he dares to imagine could have only been imagined in the context of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, and his popularity also bears witness to dreams that could have only be dreamt during the incredible progress that Europe had achieved in just a few centuries — a progress no less that in due time would abolish slavery and give the women the right to vote. Likewise, Aristophanes was not writing for the cultural critics of today, but for the citizens of Athens, the most educated audience of their times, and his popularity bears witness to the fact that this public was sophisticated enough to imagine the possible consequences of handing political power over to women.
Speaking of power, Praxagora’s plans succeed, as we soon find out following the scene whereupon her return home she is interrogated by her husband, who was forced to wear her clothes (having been robbed by his). And so husband and wife reunite, disguised as each other. Praxagora reassures him that she only had to make an early visit to a friend who was in labor. He of course believes her, totally unable to even imagine what his wife is truly capable of. He proceeds to announce what Praxagora already knows, that the citizens have voted for their city of Athens to be run by its women. She pretends surprise, invoking Aphrodite — a pun well-intended as we shall soon find out — but quickly takes the stand to wield her newfound power and announce her grand vision for the city of Athens: a Communist Utopia! From now on, Praxagora says, never again will a man own a plot of land so large that he cannot even find the time to cultivate it, while another is left with no land to bury himself. Instead, private ownership will be banned altogether, and property will from now on be shared in common. With no ownership, of course, there will be no legal disputes either, as everyone will provide according to his abilities and receive according to his needs. But most importantly, people too will be held in common, and every man will have the right to sleep with any woman he wishes and vice versa. But since everyone will want only the young and beautiful, the law shall decree that before a man earns the right to do so, he must first sleep with the eldest and ugliest! Interestingly, Praxagora’s speech detailing the ins and outs of her system of sexual equality is about twice as long as the one conceding poverty, as if natural inequalities are even harder to iron out than social ones. But whatever the case might be, her speech wins the day, and upon hearing the new laws, Praxagoras’ husband appears convinced. Still, he asks her what will become of the children, since from now on will be conceived outside of wedlock. They will take care of themselves, she says, as the oldest will look out for the youngest, while Athens will be run as women know best: as one big household.
Was Aristophanes simply mocking women? Or is there a deeper reading to his comedy? Praxagoras’ speech presents us with a series of inequalities: first in the distribution of land; then to that of wealth; and finally, to beauty — which is also unequal among people. What we are being presented with then, are inequalities that are harder and harder to explain as mere social constructs, until, by reaching the idea of sexual inequalities, those that exist between the young and the old, the ugly and the beautiful, practically force us to call them for what they are: natural inequalities. It’s those inequalities that Praxagora tries the hardest to outlaw, and through arguments that we in Western Democracies can almost recognize as our own. Because while we’ve been told that modern democracies will never reach these extremes, treating only the most obvious of economic inequalities, one is left wondering: does this first step towards forced equality imply all the others? Is liberal democracy, in other words, a system that (once set in motion) will never stop until it levels every inequality it sees even at the cost of privileging those naturally inferior against those naturally superior? And will this inevitably lead to a society that is also inferior?
The play ends with a scene between two women, one young and beautiful, while the other a little ‘passed the flower of her age’. The younger, Romeo & Juliet style, is waiting at her balcony for her lover to appear: a scene suddenly interrupted by the older woman who comes out of her balcony demanding her fair share — fair in the context of Praxagora’s radical new laws, of course. The young girl begs to disagree, stating that nature has decreed that love is for the young only, to which the older woman replies that now the law is above nature. Finally, the young man gets dragged to the older woman’s house against his will as he screens in comical agony. We all remember how the New York Times claimed in 2017 that women who lived under Western Communist regimes enjoyed sex so much more than their counterparts that they could have up to twice as many orgasms. Well, if that is true, the young man at the end of our story is in for a literal ride.
Experts on Aristophanes (so I found out) failed to see this work as anything more than a metaphor, with the ‘women in power’ theme being just an excuse to show Athens’ democracy in its decadence. One author in particular, called the introduction of communism into the women’s program “surprising”. The Spanish, however, have a saying that goes: más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo — which means that the devil knows far more for being old that for being the devil. And so we, living near the third decade of the 21st century, and having witnessed the radical changes in our own societies, might actually know something that even the great classicists of the last century did not know. If it’s true that the comedies of Aristophanes and Shakespeare, and theirs alone, bear a relation with tragedy, it comes as no surprise that this insightful play, Assemblywomen, was written during a time of great misfortune as the city of Athens was — much like Europe after its great wars — experiencing moral exhaustion that left it with no clear direction but to do what Praxagora did: redistributing evil without ever eliminating it. Maybe, two and a half thousand years is not too long of a time for history to repeat itself.