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LYSISTRATA RISING

(originally published in Iowa Woman, 1983)

 

 

        In the 1970s a lot of women, including myself, had feminist ideas somewhere in the back of the closet, together with the few exquisite articles of clothing which were also hidden away.  I mention those two in one breath because the judgment concerning both was identical: frivolous.  Consciousness raising groups.  Women’s studies.  “Ahem,” the academic circles cleared their throats.  Women marching for the Equal Rights Amendment in white.  How corny, some thought.  And how could those among us bred on the masculine alphabets of the patriarchal cultures of the last millennia not cringe under external or internalized censure?  All of the respectable histories were written by men, and – surprise! – men emerged from them as the respectable gender. 

        Early in the twentieth century a German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, made a remarkable prediction in his Letters to a Young Poet, namely that he saw a powerful feminine human being come into existence who would take everyone by surprise with her strength of humanity.  Rilke also predicted that there would be a phase where women’s ways would, in passing, be imitations of masculine ways. 

        I think as women we are in one wave of this imitative transition now.  Some of us are past the stage of imitating men, while some of us are still just only about to approach it.  This wave was, is, and will be the crowning achievement of patriarchal culture—that men were finally envisioned as such admirable creatures that the best we could do was strive to emulate their glory.  But like a wave’s crest breaks close to the shore while the water just briefly touches it and then returns to the depth of the sea or evaporates into the air, this crowning achievement of patriarchal culture, women imitating men, is its shortest phase, and its last. 

        Many of us have seen the inside now, what it is like to lead the kind of life that was advertised in glorious colors as a meaningful and fulfilling existence.  Some of us know what it is like to gain financial independence by typing the correspondence of men conducting business far less interesting than anything we might dream up while musing over cooking utensils in a spare or “idle” moment.  Some of us know what it is like to cure by sterilization and mutilation as doctors, instead of healing through the wisdom of more ancient way that keep surviving. 

        Some of us know what it is like to lead groups in worship of nothingness under such illustrious names as nirvana, god, transcendental reality or the like, while on occasions taking insult in addition to injury by being informed that the feminine is the negative energy of the universe which, it is quickly pointed out, is not to be taken as a derogative judgment (particularly, one might console oneself, since the universe is to be transcended and life on Earth made obsolete anyhow).  Some of us even know what it is like to be part of armed services, or the politics or sciences behind them, in the service of using all of our positive energies to manipulate, compete with, and finally destroy other human beings, other inhuman beings, and finally, if we don’t change course soon, the Earth herself who happens to be the only material and spiritual home that truly concerns us.  Some of us have asked, are asking:  “Why ruin life by living it in the service of death or dead things?”  War.  Money.  Nirvana.  At least the question is becoming louder, and the number of those asking is growing. 

        Women are creatures of peace, and creatures who want to live and let live.  We know this so fervently that no further reasons why or arguments, historical, psychological, environmental or behavioral are needed.  We know this when, after having unflinchingly struck a padded brick twenty times in a row with our fist in a self-defense class, we suddenly turn nauseous when required to make impact with the same perfect fist on the belt of another woman while looking into her eyes.  We know this when we choose not to enter certain brilliant careers that would entail making statistics out of life and living creatures and then shuffle those around with budgets, legal debates and weapons.  Some women even know this when they regrettably but understandably argue with passion against the Equal Rights Amendment, terrified lest their daughters should be subject to the draft, to becoming soldiers, murderers and otherwise perverted in the company of men.  Should their daughters suddenly be like their sons, capable of gloating over death-adventures, carcasses of hunted animals or human beings, trained to kill and trained to triumph over the defeat of nations, people, the alleged enemies?

        For a long time I have heard this argument with great unease because of the sympathy I cannot help but feel for its sentiment – is it not better to eke out a living wrapped into an apron than die in a uniform?  I still do not have an answer to that question that would necessarily convince a genuinely frightened questioner.  I only know that what we want with ERA is but one way of, legally, exerting half of the power in the world, which we already easily have, but which we too often have to wield against enormous social obstacles instead of using it for useful causes.  Once those social obstacles are removed, we can use our power to show mankind how we want to live on earth.  With peace.  With beauty.  And with love. 

        The obstacles are wearing down too slowly for some of our passionate beliefs.  Many of us are turning away from the patriarchy by turning away from men and their masculine problems.  We no longer greet the soldiers with compassion as they come home from their wars.  We no longer stand behind men when they are going through crises caused by their competitive, power-over attitudes.  If we turn towards someone at all, we find, with relief, that she is a woman.  She is one of us who knows that there are no enemies in the worlds except fear, and worse, the fear of fear.  She is one of us who knows that nature provides her deaths in accordance with her own unwritten and incontestable laws, and that we are not called upon to spend our energies in helping her to organize and administer it.  We are leaving the society that demands this from us as best as we can. 

        I keep seeing Lysistrata everywhere, the woman who, in Aristophanes’ play, organized the Athenian women and the women of Athens’ alleged enemies, into putting an end to war by turning away from the men who were conducting the war.  Lysistrata, in the play, does this with wit, with provocation, and the an awesome seriousness and success.  Unfortunately we are not a Greek play in which it takes a few nights of abandoned and frustrated men to bring two warring city-states to their senses.  But we are Lysistrata rising – we do not need to hate men in order to leave them alone in their patriarchal insanity.  We are Lysistrata rising – we are learning to say no to them, unless and until they agree to conduct themselves according to the convictions and life-dreams of women. 

        We are Lysistrata rising – and I believe we are here because Earth is not inclined to commit suicide, not for god, democracy, or any other such myth.  It will take longer than the few nights of a Greek play, but I believe we will manage to turn the Earth into a planet of peace, beauty and joy, if it takes a life-time or longer.  I think we will often get discouraged, but I also believe that, together, women will not give up, especially now that we are learning or have learned to trust each other again, after all that incredible time of being isolated from one another and from all human beings except the one man into whose service and ownership the laws of society had placed us. 

        There are women now who have struggled for a decade or more and who speak of being tired, since not enough seems to have been accomplished, and anti-feminist sentiments areas rampant as ever.  It is those women whom I want to thank especially, for being there, writing their books and marching their marches and risking their lives and reputations, unafraid to be visible or to be considered fools, left-over spinsters, hysterical bitches and other such endearments, while I was still slinking around the temple gates of feminism, arriving late and full of doubt and afraid to be seen, so I could still drop out in case I lost my guts.  Sometimes I feel I tag along at the end of a powerful wave of learning, but I do not think coming late is a matter for shame.  It will be a long, ongoing struggle for women to return to the positions they deserve on an Earth that will be once again in the shape that we will work for and that we will also deserve.  Therefore, the timing of our arrival in the struggle is less important than that the work to be accomplished is there, and that it will be kept alive by those who are currently involved in it. 

        I believe that the Earth wants to survive, in peace, in beauty, and in joy. It will be up to women and the feminine sensibility on Earth to bring this about.  We will manage, however long it takes.  We can do what we want.  I can end an essay the way I want to by writing this:  I love you, women of the Earth.