Throughout written history, women have experienced status subservient to
the men they lived with. Generally, most cultures known to modern historians
followed a standard pattern of males assigned the role of protector and provider
while women were assigned roles of domestic servitude. Scholars speculate
endlessly at the cause: biology, religion, social custom. Nevertheless, the
women were always subordinated to the men in their culture. Through their
artwork, tomb inscriptions, and papyrus and leather scrolls, preserved in the
dry, desert air, Ancient Egyptians left evidence for scholars suggesting that
Egypt was once a peculiar exception to this pattern. Anthropological evidence
suggests that unusual circumstances in Ancient Egyptian culture provided for
women to be given equal status to their male counterparts: notably, matrilineal
inheritance and emphasis on the joy of family life over maintaining ethnic
Legally, women in Ancient Egypt held the same legal rights as men. A
woman could own property and manage it as she saw fit. One example of this, the
Inscription of Mes, provided scholars with proof that women could manage
property, institute litigation, and could act as a witness before a court of law.
Surviving court documents not only showed that women were free to take action
with the court, but the documents also show that they frequently won their cases.
They could also enter contracts and travel freely, unescorted, throughout the
state. This is a great contrast to women in Greece, who were required to act
through a male representative. Interestingly, property and its administration
was passed from mother to daughter, matrilineally. The Egyptians relied on
matrilineal heritage, based on the assumption that maternal ancestors are less
disputable than paternal ones. The effect of legal equality in writing and
practice coupled with the ownership and administration of property led to an
The rights and egalitarian conditions enjoyed by Egyptian women shocked
the conquering Greeks. In 450 BC, Greek historian Herodotus noted:
They Egyptians, in their manners and customs, seem to have reversed the
ordinary practices of mankind. For instance, women attend market and are
employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving. Athenian Democracy
mandated that the female’s role in the domestic economy was the production of
heirs and service of the family. The Egyptian state took no direct part in
either marriage nor divorce and made no efforts to regulate the family. The
purpose of the Egyptian family was apparently not the production of heirs for
the patriarchal head of household, but the shared life and the pleasures and
comfort it had to offer.
The legal subjugation of women in other societies seems to have been
designed to ensure that women were denied sexual freedom to prevent them from
indiscriminate breeding. Often, this was a direct result of the need to provide
a pure ruling elite and to restrict the dispersal of family assets within a
caste. The unique position of the god-king and the absence of a strictly
defined “citizen” class made similar considerations irrelevant in Egypt. Modern
Scholars are thoroughly aware that Egypt was greatly mixed, racially, and that
no written evidence exists of racial tensions or bias. This was most likely the
cause of lax sexual restrictions. The Egyptians simply did not care about
maintaining racial purity.
With the exception of the Pharaoh, all marriages were monogamous and
women had the right to arrange the terms of the marriage contract.
Realistically, marriages were not polygamous. Many records survive of men
raising children born to them of the household servants. Social stigma against
married men having affairs was mild, yet married women were socially obligated
to be faithful to their husbands. Unlike most societies, however, men having
sex with married women were persecuted more severely than their partners.
Egyptian Art tells us the primarily of the women in the upper castes.
Grave murals and reliefs depict wives standing next to their husbands.
Archaeologist have yet to discover any evidence of domestic constriction.
Daughters and Wives were free to live independently of male dominance of
influence. It is believed from various murals, however, that women were also
“put on a pedestal” by their culture. Egyptian art was reflective of their
conservative culture where art was Artistic convention of Egyptian and Aegean
art depicts women as fairer skinned than their male companions. Generally, art
historians have concluded that this was a both and artistic convention
expressing the social ideals of the vigorous male with a more refined female and
representation of the fact that women were often relieved of working out in the
hot, Egyptian sun.
Unfortunately, the privilege of Ancient Egyptian women does not
constitute the modern connotation of true freedom. Women were officially denied
positions of public office although surviving records indicated that many women
help low-profile positions during time of need in Middle Kingdom. Also,
positions in business and government were patrilineally passed from father to
son because of the domestic role expected of the woman. The population of
Ancient Egypt was frequently in decline due to disease and periodic famines.
The life expectancy for the average Egyptian was a little higher than 40 years.
Such a low life-expectancy coupled with a high infant mortality rate ingrained a
notion of the transience of life in the mind of the Egyptian. Childbirth was
such a national priority that Pharaohs, such as Akhenaton, began representing
scenes of their domestic life as acts of royal propaganda to increase the birth
rate (Tansey, 91)
Fertility was a prime obsession in the Ancient Egyptian mind. A fertile
woman was a successful woman. The low life-expectancy and mortality rate for
pregnancies made childbearing the most attractive trait a women could offer.
However, unlike their Greek and Roman successors, the Egyptians conceived
children for the joys of parenthood, not the continuity of male lineage. The
expectant mother was greeted with desire from men and envy from other women.
Upon proving her fertility, the Egyptian also enjoyed an elevation in status to
the highly esteemed level of “mother.” Mothers had an important and respected
role within the family, and were frequently represented in positions of honor in
the tombs of both their husband and sons. Parenthood is so stressed in Egyptian
culture that parents would take the name of their eldest son (father/mother
of….). Fertility obsession was equally stressed on the males. Ancient
Egyptian men were sometimes known to commit suicide, rather than admit to being
unable to conceive a child. Joyce Tyldesley expresses it best in her book ,
Daughters of Isis:
Both husband and wife appear to have loved their offspring dearly, and
Egyptian men had no misplaced macho feelings that made them embarrassed or
ashamed of showing affection towards their progeny. (Tyldesley, 47)
Understandably, not every Egyptologist shares Tydeslesy’s idealistic view of
ancient Egyptian culture.
The reliability of surviving records from Ancient Egypt is frequently
questioned by most Egyptologists. With such a complex writing system, the
majority of the population was illiterate. All presently discovered surviving
scrolls were written by professional male scribes. While the legal documents
accurately reflect the legal status of women, the more personal writing and
historical documents are more likely to carry a male-bias. Much of the poetry
and musical lyrics describe women as lustful, loyal, yet beautiful. They often
reflect male fantasies of helplessly love-stricken beauties and are only
marginally used to build an understanding of the Egyptian culture. Egyptian
secular literature typically views women in a less positive light. Written for
an all-male audience, women play secondary or antagonistic parts to a male hero
in every surviving tale but one. The one exception involves a helpless man
continuously saved by his wife’s swift thinking. Mythological literature,
considering the greater expanse of its audience, portrays women in a more
egalitarian light. Collected Egyptian mythology, with a greater variety of
characters than Greek and Roman combined, portrays many goddesses in every role
imaginable. The most popular goddess, Isis, personified the ideal wife and
mother in her never-ending love for her family and resourcefulness in protecting
her son from her husband’s murderer. Contemporary Christian iconography is
believed to be derived from images of Isis, holding her son, Horus, in her lap.
In conclusion, the woman of Ancient Egypt held rights and maintained
liberties enviable to many women today. Legal equality and land ownership gave
women political power and financial independence while the devastation of
disease and high mortality rates made motherhood a respected and appreciated
institution. Domestic subjugation was avoided by the absence of a notion of
racial purity, freeing the woman’s sexuality and preventing external
interference of the family. Although few of the records left are accurate
enough to give us an undisputable perception of Ancient Egyptian culture,
historians generally agree that the Egyptian woman had much more freedom than
her contemporaries. The necessity for children locked many women in full-time
motherhood, yet records indicated that they were appreciated for the happiness
they brought to the home and the children they brought into the family. The
study of Ancient Egypt takes relevance today in modern life because it provides
suggestions towards the origins of modern patriarchy by providing scholars with
an examples of conditions that brought about a particularly benign development
of male-dominance in Ancient Egypt.
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Tyldesley, Joyce. Daughters of Isis. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1994.
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Lesko, Barbara S. Women’s Earliest Records. Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1989.
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