Assemblywomen (Greek: Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι Ekklesiazousai; also translated as, Congresswomen, Women in Parliament, Women in Power, and A Parliament of Women) is a comedy written by the Greek playwright Aristophanes in 391 BCE. The play invents an unlikely scenario where the women of Athens assume control of the government and instate pseudo-communist reforms that ban private wealth and enforce sexual equality for the old and unattractive. In addition to Aristophanes' political and social satire, Assemblywomen derives its comedy through sexual and scatological humor. It is important to note that the play's central concepts of women in government and communism were not legitimate suggestions from Aristophanes, but rather an outlandish premise that aimed to criticize the Athenian government at the time.
The play begins with Praxagora emerging from a house on an Athenian street before daybreak. She is wearing a false beard, men's clothing, and is carrying a walking stick and a lit lantern. The chorus of Athenian women enter one by one, all dressed in similar costume. In order to be more convincing, some women developed tans and stopped shaving their armpits to appear more masculine. One woman brings a basket full of yarn in order to get some work done as the assembly fills up, to which Praxagora chastises her for this decision as it will ruin their cover.
The women are wary of the plan and Praxagora attempts to rally them as they practice speaking as men before the assembly. Praxagora is frustrated by the women's ability to pretend to be men, as they swear to Demeter and Persephone rather than Apollo, address the assembled women as ladies, and complain about the discomfort of their disguises and their thirst. Praxagora decides that she alone is capable of speaking to the assembly and practices a speech decrying the corrupt leaders of the city as selfish and unpatriotic through their acts of war and personal enrichment through public funds. She proposes that the men turn control of the government over to the women because "after all, we employ them as stewards and treasurers in our own households." She further explains that women are superior to men because they are harder workers, devoted to tradition and do not bother with useless innovations. As mothers, they will better protect the soldiers and feed them extra rations, as shrewd negotiators, they will secure more funds for the city. Praxagora impresses the women with her rhetorical skills, and explains that it was learned from listening to orators while living with her husband on the Pnyx, where the Athenian assembly was held. They discuss how they plan to handle opposition and practice how to raise their hands to vote before leaving to attend the assembly by dawn in order to receive pay and a complimentary meal. The chorus of women reiterate their intentions before exiting the stage.
Praxagora's husband Blepyrus emerges from their house wearing Praxagora's nightgown and slippers. He is old and desperately had to relieve himself but could not find his clothing in the dark. As he squats in the street lamenting his constipation, his neighbor arrives and both men realize that their wives and clothing are missing from their homes. Chremes, returning from the assembly, comes upon Blepyrus and his neighbor and explains that he was not paid because of the unprecedented turn-out of pale faced, shoe-makers (referring to the women in disguise.) He relayed the events of the assembly and Praxagora's speech. Believing she was a "good-looking young man," Chremes explains how he argued women were better at keeping secrets, returning borrowed items without cheating, that they don’t sue or inform on people or try to overthrow the democracy, all points that Blepyrus agreed upon. Now free of attending the assembly, the men are pleased to finally sleep in, but are not excited about having to provide sex to receive their breakfast.
The chorus enters, still in disguise and on their way home from the assembly, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Blepyrus accuses Praxagora of sneaking off with a lover when he finds her returning his cloak. She explains that she was only helping a friend in labor and had to wear his cloak for warmth. She feigns surprise when he explains to her the decision from the morning's assembly, but immediately begins listing the reasons the decision was wise. Praxagora then goes on to explain the details of the new government to Blepyrus. She proposes banning all ownership of private wealth and establishing equal pay for all and a unified standard of living. She further explains that people will no longer have a need for personal wealth as all basic needs will be met by the common fund. She further adds that men and women will be free to sleep with anyone they want, so long as they first sleep with the uglier members of the opposite sex. Parental responsibilities will be shared by the community as children will no longer know their fathers. Slaves will work the fields and new clothes will be made when they are needed. Praxagora elaborates that there will be no more lawsuits, since there can be no debt in a society without private wealth. Punishments for assault will come out of the offender's bread ration and theft will be obsolete as all men will be given their fair share. Walls within homes will be knocked down and all will live in a common living space, courthouses and porticos will be turned into communal dining halls. Prostitutes will be put out of business, but slaves will be banned from sleeping with free men.
In the next scene, Blepyrus’ neighbor is laying his household objects out in front of his house to be contributed to the common fund as the Selfish Man enters. The Selfish Man calls the neighbor a fool for following the new laws. He plans on waiting to see if everyone else gives up their property before he does it himself, citing failed decrees from the assembly in the past. The town Herald enters and announces a lavish feast for all to attend. The Selfish Man acts entitled to the feast, but the neighbor points out his reluctance to donate possessions to the common fund disqualifies him from communal events. After the neighbor leaves to donate his possessions, the selfish man explains that he intends to keep his belongings and enjoy the free dinner at the same time.
In a different scene, a young girl waits for her boyfriend Epigenes to arrive as an old woman is out looking for a date. They exchange vulgar insults and go inside their homes as Epigenes enters the scene, lamenting the new laws governing sex. He and the girl both speak of their desire for one another, but are interrupted by the old woman. Citing the new law, the old woman attempts to force Epigenes to sleep with her first. As the young girl and the old woman fight over the boy, two more old women enter and drag him away against his will.
In the final scene, a drunken maid enters praising Thasian wine and the new laws. She is looking to bring Blepyrus to dinner at Praxagora's request. She finds Blepyrus passing by, already on his way to dinner with two girls in his arms. They all go to dinner together while the chorus sings of the lavish feast they are about to have.
In the early 4th century BCE, Athens was reeling from the Peloponnesian War and remained in the midst of continuing battles with Sparta. Athens and its allies, Thebes, Corinth and Argos experienced over two years struggling to rid the Spartans with many successes and failures along the way. While Athens was in a position to regain naval authority in the Aegean Sea thanks to alliances forged with Persia and King Evagoras of Cyprus, the people of Athens were impoverished. For this reason, the poor favored war as it ensured future employment while the wealthy favored peace, as war required disbursements. Continuation the Corinthian War inevitably led to increased confiscations and forced contributions from wealthy Athenians. This atmosphere resulted in a material and moral anxiety that was illustrated in the Athens represented by Aristophanes.
Even though the idea of a female-led government was a fantasy at the time, it was not unfamiliar to the people of Athens. The comic tradition of women in politics was in fact common, as seen through Aristophanes' plays Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae. The idea of women surpassing their Athenian social order is also seen in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone.
Reading the play as a genuine exploration of communism and female power is incorrect. If follows Aristophanes’ conflict structure of the republic in trouble, a solution suggested and that solution ultimately failing. Aristophanes’ plays mostly derive their narratives on absurd political and social innovations derived from the evolution of the state towards empowering effeminate men while displacing traditionally strong and masculine leadership. The ascent of women in political power in Assemblywomen is yet another commentary on what Aristophanes saw as the shameful femininity of the men currently in power in Athens. The fact that women in this instance could enter the assembly and successfully pass as men was a commentary on politicians being undistinguishable from women in costume, and adds to the absurdity that real women are the only solution for saving an effeminate government from itself.
Assemblywomen does not fall neatly within the confines old or new comedy and is generally considered "middle comedy." While the play follows the plot structure of earlier works by Aristophanes, the formal structure shows new developments, specifically in the function of the chorus. Through prominent in the first and last scenes of the play, the chorus’ lack of involvement throughout the central scenes is more similar to the style of Greek Tragedies. The play lacks a parabasis and has an undeveloped agon, the choral songs between episodes are not included in the script and the lacuna is often indicated by the note choru ("place for a chorus") which is more characteristic of Menander and New Comedy.
The play contains the longest word in Greek, transliterated as:
or, in the Greek alphabet:
Jeffrey Henderson translated the word as a stew of "limpets and saltfish and sharksteak and dogfish and mullets and oddfish with savory pickle sauce and thrushes with blackbirds and various pigeons and roosters and pan-roasted wagtails and larks and nice chunks of hare marinated in mulled wine and all of it drizzled with honey and silphium and vinegar, oil and spices galore." The Greek word contains 171 letters, which far surpasses that of Shakespeare's 27-letter long word, "honorificabilitudinitatibus" in his Love's Labour's Lost V.I.