From Mother's Day to #SexStrike: The Obscured Roots of Global Peace Solidarity

To much attention, the actress Alyssa Milano ‏on Friday tweeted: "Our reproductive rights are being erased. Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy. JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back. I’m calling for a #SexStrike. Pass it on." Much of the reaction online focused on the alleged irony of a liberal woman advocating abstinence from sex. 

The same day, Donald and Melania Trump hosted a celebration of military mothers at the White House. Said Donal Trump: "To the active-duty moms here today: We thank you for your courage, and we applaud your noble service. You have two of the most important jobs in the world: bravely defending America from our enemies and helping to raise the next generation of American patriots."

While Trump focuses on Mother's Day, Milano hearkens back to the sex strike as depicted in the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes.

What's striking is that both of these are rooted in movements against war. In the case of Milano, it's obscured, while Trump actively opposes the antiwar roots of Mother's Day.
The original Mother's Day Proclamation, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870, states: “We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own, it says 'Disarm! Disarm!' The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. ... " (See my piece "Art Worth of Howe's Mothers Day: Maxo Vanka's Murals.") 

Julia Ward Howe actually references Lysistrata In one of her lectures: "Barring the indecencies which belong to the common taste of the time, and which are largely omitted in translations, the Greek of Aristophanes does not appear to me very damaging to our position as advocates of the rights of women. In one of these plays, Lysistrata, the women of Athens, weary of the absence of their husbands in the Peloponnesian war, take the negotiation of the peace into their own hands. Lysistrata, the leading spirit among them, has summoned together the women from various parts of Greece, with the view of wresting the management of public affairs from the hands of the men entrusted with them and of putting an end to the sinuous and devastating war. Whether intentionally or not, Aristophanes puts very sensible reasoning into the mouth of this leader among the women."

Part of the genius of Lysistrata is that she reached out to the women of other city states, including Athen's main rival, Sparta. The sex strike in Lysistrata targeted men in each of the warring states. 

At one point in the play, Lysistrata leads a group of women to seize control of the Acropolis, which stores the financial reserves of the Athenian state. She and a government magistrate are in a stand off. He asks: "Is it money that’s the cause of war?"

Lysistrata avoided arguments which are now commonplace of the government having "bungled" its way into war and instead escalates her accusations against the pro-war politicians: "Yes, and all the rest of the corruption. Peisander [a leading Athenian politician, suspected of favoring the war for selfish reasons] and our leading politicians need a chance to steal. That’s the reason they’re always stirring up disturbances. Well, let the ones who wish to do this do what they want, but from this moment on they’ll get no more money." 

Valarie Ziegler, author of of Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe, has written: “Howe, now remembered for writing the words to ‘The Battle of the Hymn Republic,’ was absolutely committed to the Civil War. … But by 1870, she began to look critically at war, particularly at war between nations. By this time, she was also very interested in the women’s movement and women’s suffrage. So, she began thinking of what might be possible for women to do on behalf of humanity. …

“She would in time hold peace conferences both in the United States and in Britain. … And so, Mother’s Day originally was not a day when dad cooked and you went to church, and the ladies got applause and everything. It was really a day for women to come together and to call men and the world to see the necessity for living in peace, rather than giving into the ravages and aggressions of war.”

That origin of Mother's Day has largely been obscured, helping to pave the way for Trump's pronouncements, which simultaneously attempt to embrace women as warriors -- and also of women raising "the next generation of American patriots," with almost a hint of the Nazi "Mother's Cross."  

Milano recently tweeted out a 2017 article: "History shows that sex strikes are a surprisingly effective strategy for political change," published soon after the Women's March the day after Trump was inaugurated. The piece states: "Calls to end misogyny and sexism will always be necessary -- especially while we have a self-admitted 'pussy grabber' in the Oval Office. But in order for a sex strike to succeed in the U.S., it must be inclusive, with a specific goal in mind. Otherwise, we’ll just be treading water."

But treading water seems to be a specialty of many political operatives. The goal of much of the political establishment is to keep the partisan hatred at a sufficiently high level. Among other things, it facilitates lesser-evilism, the dominant tactic of ensuring the bases of each of the major political parties ask preciously little from their party, since the other is deemed so awful. And it usually is. 

Interestingly, Milano had just recently made headlines for defending Joe Biden from charges of sexual harassment. Her focusing now on reproductive rights may be more useful to her friend Biden, though into the 1980's, Biden voted to let states overturn Roe v. Wade. But that may seem as long ago as ancient Greece to some. 

Certainly, both Mother's Day and Lysistrata can be criticized in that they seem to depict women as wombs or vessels of pleasure. But they are largely about women asserting themselves in terms of how the society is formed. A refrain in Lysistrata is the dumbfounded reaction by males: How dare you women assert yourselves on this serious man's business of war? The Mother's Day Proclamation outright challenges the legitimacy of institutions that enable war. 

In both cases, women, who themselves are denied rights, are effectively attempting largely to save men. Selflessness is -- perhaps stereotypically -- associated with women. Part of Milano's call seems an attempt to utilize a sex strike, not so that women can do something "on behalf of humanity," but for themselves specifically. One would hope that men's presumed selfishness would not be deemed normative. That is, if women in these cases have been exceedingly selfless, that should be a trait than more men should adopt rather than fewer women. 

Part of the power of both Mother's Day and Lysistrata are in their global nature. They are remarkable universal in their appeal and have a connection to the Feb. 15, 2003 global protests against the Iraq invasion -- when the peace movement was viewed as the "second super power." Indeed, I recall Lysistrata being preformed widely during the buildup to the 2003 invasion. The peace movement lost its power in the following years largely part because it didn't build on those global protests; see my 2006 piece "Pick Your Global Protests". Likewise, the peace message of Mother's Day is somewhat diminished since it's not celebrated on the same day globally. 

The U.S. is currently at war in so many countries -- AfghanistanYemen, Libya, SomaliaSyria and Iraq, et al. And it is placing deadly sanctions on Venezuela and Iran while continuously backing Israel's ceaseless aggressions. It's difficult to keep track, especially when news reports on the realities of war are the exception and excuse-making is the default.  

It's like fish in water. You want to know about U.S. and war? You're swimming in it. You might not realized it since Trump still poses as an isolationist on alternate Thursdays -- as Obama posed as a peace candidate -- but that's the reality. 

Traditions which might help lead us out of it -- like Mother's Day and, if it will now catch on, Lysistrata -- are being obscured by those who would control the culture and, consciously or not, ensure the perpetuation of these wars.