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Role Of Women In Ancient Egypt

Historic Mysteries Columnist, Alfred Jones, Ph.D

History is not completely certain regarding the social status of Egyptian women during the early dynastic period, but during the First and Second Intermediate periods and on into the New Kingdom and certainly during the Ptolemaic Period, Egyptians had a unique attitude about women.

Not only were they responsible for the nurture and admonition of children but they could also work at a trade, own and operate a business, inherit property, and come out well in a divorce proceedings.

There was no male superiority in the sense that it existed later on in history.

There were female religious leaders in the priesthood, but in this instance they were not equal to the men. Only a pharaoh could be a man until even this concept was eventually overturned.

Women were trained in medicine as well as in other highly skilled endeavors.

This diminished during the late dynastic period but reappeared during the reign of the Greek rulers, Both Ptolemy I and II put the portrait of their wives on the coins. By the time of Cleopatra VII, the queen was very powerful internationally. She did not set herself up as a pharaoh, however.

With the fall of Cleopatra, the role of woman receded markedly. It remained diminished and virtually subservient until the 20th century. It was not until the end of the Second World War that married woman in Britain could have their own passport. Prior to this time, the names of wives and children were a part of the father’s passport. We must travel back two thousand years to find equality for both men and women.

Through modern history, there were times of a strong patriarchal society when the sun was worshiped and times when there was a matriarchal society when the moon was worshiped. During much of Egyptian history there was both worship of the moon and worship of the sun as well giving rise to both matriarchal and patriarchal societies. For the most part, both the sun, Ra, and the moon, Konsu were a vital part of the religion of ancient Egypt. It might be that the objection to Amenhotep IV was to worship only the sun disk at the expense of the moon god. Much of the traditional Egyptian society rejected this new concept and wanted a balance between the sun and the moon. For whatever the reason, the high status of women in ancient Egypt has only been duplicated in the western world in the 20th century.

Bust of queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum, Berlin

In ancient Egypt, women could buy jewelry and fine linens. Some women of the working class even became prosperous. Throughout the new kingdom, and continuing on until the Greek rule of Egypt, women were often extremely important. In the middle of the 16th century BC, one of the most important people to appear on the Egyptian scene was a woman. Her name was Hatshepsut.  She came to power during a very critical time in Egyptian history. For many years Egypt was ruled by foreigners, people who conquered Egypt and attempted to destroy many aspects of Egyptian society which were considered to be of great importance. In 1633 BC, a strong leader emerged by the name of Thoth Moses I and drove out these people whom we now refer to as the Hyksos. Egypt was once more restored to its glory and like any juxtaposition  after a major over. throw, there was a scrambling for power.  Hatshepsut was caught up in this and because of her abilities, was ultimately able to become pharaoh. One can very quickly envision this as a formidable task for a woman in ancient times, but Hatshepsut was a formidable person. She was a builder, she directed expositions, she built ships, she enlarged the army, and she presented Egypt to the known world at that time as a major player.

She also utilized the services of other skilled women in various governmental capacities. At her death, Thoth Moses III was able to build on the strong foundation of Egyptian society created by Hatshepsut and to further enlarge the scope .of Egypt on the world scene.

By 1500 BC, his great grandson Amenhotep III continued to advance the cause of Egypt and to provide for its people a better life than they had ever known in the past. During this time, several women of great talent appeared and were able to make many contributions His queen, was named Tiye. She was perhaps the first in this hierarchy of counselors to the king. She is referred to as the Great Royal Wife, a title that had not been used in the past. It is believed that she molded the pharaoh’s thinking in matters of state, in matters of religion and provided him with strong support.

It was during this time that another famous and important woman appeared. Her name was Nefertiti and she became the wife of the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. The man was also known in history as Amenhotep IV. and later as Ankenaten. We are now being told that Nefertiti may have been a more powerful and influential person than her husband.

The status of women in ancient Egyptian society was of such importance that right to the crown itself passed through the royal women and not the men. The daughters of kings were all important.

About Alfred Jones

Alfred Jones has a Ph.D in psychology, advance studies in law and education. He is an Egyptian scholar having taught in the UK, USA and China. He is a former consultant to the San Jose California Egyptian Museum. Author of 7 books and over 20 articles for professional journals.
  • http://www.pilarrivett.com Pilar Rivett

    Dear Prof. Jones, what a fascinating article! I would actually add that it was impressive a woman like Cleopatra managed to keep power in the Ptolemaic era (given who started the dynasty in the first place). And given the role that Rome played in Cleopatra’s demise I would conclude that I am not surprised that put an end to the role of women in society.