In Lysistrata, the women of Athens give up sex to end a war. There is a version of this story that would see this as little sacrifice on women’s part. The enjoyment of sex, we’re so often told, was a male province until very recently. Aristophanes knew otherwise. His Athenian women were just as lustful as the men. When Lysistrata tells everyone her plan, after all, she’s hardly finished before she has to yell, “Why are you turning away from me? Where are you going? Why are you all pursing your lips and shaking your heads?”
I thought of that scene when fault lines quickly appeared between the women looking to organize a large-scale demonstration among Donald Trump on January 21. At first, the dispute was over taxonomy: The first name for it was the Million Women March, but there had already been a Million Woman March of women of color in Philadelphia in 1997. That problem was quickly dispensed of: The thing was rechristened the Women’s March on Washington. But then there were squabbles over the homogeneity of the leadership of the march. That, too, was quickly taken care of: There are now three women of color who are co-chairing the event with other organizers. In the meantime, though, some small amount of damage was done.
That women don’t instantly align with one another should not be surprising. If the election taught us nothing else, it was that “women” don’t have a prima facie claim on one anothers’ loyalties. Whatever the strengths and failures and, well, active sabotage waged against her campaign, Hillary Clinton did not get the majority of the votes of white women. She commanded over 90 percent of black women, but that statistic served only to exacerbate the sense that women were not in anything together. In fact, women should already know that their “solidarity” is a fragile thing: History and experience have given us reason enough to know it.
The earliest women’s protests happened spontaneously before there was a reason to even call political action “organizing.” For example, we do not know exactly how what the English historian Thomas Carlyle called the “Insurrection of Women” got started in Paris, France, on October 5, 1789. We know that a man named Stanislas-Marie Maillard marched in front of the women and called himself the march’s leader. We also know that Louis-Philippe Joseph, the scheming Duke of Orléans, was suspected of being behind several popular protests of 1789. But some historians believe he headed a spontaneous procession, seven thousand Parisian women marching on the elaborate Versailles palace because they had no bread to feed their children.
“Men know not what the pantry is, when it grows empty; only house-mothers know,” Carlyle wrote of the Versailles marchers. He was accidentally making a key distinction, there: Even back in pre-revolutionary France, there was a line to be drawn between “all women” and “house-mothers.” In bringing their complaints to Versailles the women were, in some sense, going up against another woman: Marie Antoinette, her excesses a scapegoat for every bad thing the ancien régime stood for. No one would have mistaken the queen’s interests for those of her subjects.