Role Of Women In Ancient Egypt

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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.

During the reign of Ra Meses II, his primary wife and queen was raised to the status of Royal Wife and Royal Mother. At Abu Simbel, we see her portrayed as an important person during the reign of the pharaoh. No other pharaoh in all of Egyptian history put his name to accomplishments forward to the extent of Ra Meses II. Often the name of his queen Auset-nefert would appear along with his own and the size of her statue at Abu Simbel would attest to the regard with which he held for his wife. For this man who had no qualms about distorting history or taking over the accomplishments of his predecessors, to give anyone else top billing would have been difficult to imagine. His queen must have been an important person during this period. It is also of interest to note that Ra Meses II restored the temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el Bahri. In so many other instances, he either destroyed evidence of the very existence of his predecessors or usurped their creations, but with this famous woman, he went to great length to acknowledge her existence and to protect her memory.

No list of important women in Egypt would be complete without naming Cleopatra VII. The very fact that she was the 7th Cleopatra indicates that there were others of importance before her. She was, as we know, the last of the Greek or Polemic rulers of Egypt. Her son, Ptolemy XV possible reigned for a few weeks after her death, but for all intense and purposes, she was the last of the Egyptian rulers. Egypt was taken over by the Romans after her death.

Again, we find a formidable person, be they men or women. She was schooled in science, in politics, in diplomacy, and in the need to wed the cultures of both Greece and Egypt. She could read and write the ancient Egyptian language.

In modern times, we have seen women of skill and importance who have made contributions in all aspects of our society. Perhaps we tend to think of an evolution, that is to say, humble roles of women rising to positions of strength and importance in the 19th and 20th centuries.

By a close observation of the Egyptian society, we find that women had even more status and acceptance that we can observe three thousand years later. The role of woman in Egyptian society at all times gave emphasis to the need to provide for the nurture and admonition of children. This is important in the extreme, Although it was as possible for them to rise, to advance, to make valid contributions as it was for their male counterparts, they were still to play the extremely important role as wife and mother.

Neither in the Greek world, the world of the Romans, the world of the Hebrews or in Persian or Arab world that followed the decline of the Egyptian culture, do we find the same high regard that the ancient Egyptians held for women. History has not been able to shed any light on this and there can be only speculation as to why such dramatic changes took place after the disappearance of the Egyptian culture. One writer, Dr. Rattery Taylor in his book, SEX IN HISTORY  presents a rational case for the belief in what he calls a “mother culture versus a father culture”.

It is his belief that when a culture worships the sun, this gives rise to more war like endeavors. With the time of lunar worship one sees evidence of “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”. The Egyptians were not war like people with long periods of peace.

The role of women in ancient Egypt has not been sufficiently explored to give a clear perspective. Although the role of modern women in the Muslim societies for which present day Egypt is included leaves very much to be desired. It indicates that historically and traditionally, the equal status of women disappeared. This was not the case in the time of the pharaohs. From the beginning, Egypt was a  class society. The was a marked line of distinction that was maintained between the different ranks of society. Although sons tended to follow the trade or profession of their fathers, this was not always the case and there were even some instances where people were also able to advance themselves regardless of their birth status. This was also true of women as well. The highest order of rank was the military and the priests which followed behind that of the royal family. From this status or rank were chosen the ministers and the confidential advisors to the king. The priests consisted of various categories, the chief priest, the prophets, the judges, the sacred scribes, those responsible for the extensive preparation for burials, the keepers of the sacred robes, those responsible for the maintenance of the temples and shrines, keepers of the holy animals, as well as what may be described as their religious duties .women were included in all levels of the duties and responsibilities.  Some also served as priestesses of the gods, of the kings and queens. They had many duties as it pertained to all aspects of religion in ancient Egypt.

There were holy women who possessed both dignity and importance, There were, like their male counterparts, ranked. The highest of them was the queen followed by the wives and daughters of the high priest and their duties were very specific and equally as important as the men. Royal women, that is to say, relatives of the royal family, performed duties much like we see today in the role of ladies in waiting to the Queen of England. The role of the woman as a teacher was very well established in ancient Egypt.

Both men and women priests had enjoyed great privileges. They were exempt from taxes, they used no part of their own income in any of the expenses related to their office, and they were permitted to own land in their own right.

The Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt around the year 450 BC and was able to give us a great deal of information about the life in Egypt during the preceding years. He had access to and knowledge of, the ancient hieroglyphics and his account of the role of women in Egypt was very informative. Later, another Greek scholar by the name of Diodorus tells us that there were no marriages contracts as such, but that customs provided for the rights and privileges for woman in ancient Egypt.

Women were granted authority to manage affairs in the absence of their husbands. They had traditional duties such as doing needle work, drawing water, spinning, weaving, attending to the animals and a variety of domestic tasks. There is evidence, says Diodorus in the pictorial evidence that he came across, showing some women were trained in making furniture, tents and in other pursuits that may have, in other cultures been reserved for men.

Both the men and women could decide whom they would marry although elders would be expected to introduce suitable males and females to each other. After the wedding, the husband and wife registered the marriage. If the marriage ended in divorce, the woman could keep her own property and the children and was free to marry again.

A man could take other women to live in his family, but the primary wife would have ultimate responsibility. Children from other wives would have equal status to those of the first wife, In the main; women were treated with a far greater deference than those of other cultures in the ancient world. It seems that women on every socioeconomic level could do pretty much what a man could do with perhaps the exception of being a part of the military.

If the husband died, women would take over and attend to what ever business or trade the husband might have been doing.

As to the priesthood, and perhaps other professions, only the women of a higher rank could be trained in these endeavors, It is possible for the peasant class to own property and women could own property that she had inherited from her family. Although most peasants were bound  to the land, so to speak, working for a master or land owner, they could own animals such as donkeys and cattle and if they were able to obtain land from their master resulting from exceptionally fine work, they could grow crops for their own use.

The ancient Egyptian period in history lasted five thousand years. Perhaps there is a great deal of logic in the role of women at this time, Perhaps it says a great deal about the maturity and the emotional stability of the men.

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.