Were Women Equal in Ancient Egypt?

Updated on June 12, 2018
Allorah Rayne profile image

Allorah loves to write about the humanities and spirituality. She is majoring in History with minors in Anthropology & English.

Pyramid of Giza
Pyramid of Giza

Were Women Equal to Men in Ancient Egypt?

Stories relating to women in their struggle for social, political, and economic equality monopolize much of women’s history. From tales of ancient cultures in the east to colonial America, women have traditionally been considered as no more than personal property. Among all these historical accounts of striving to obtain rights and equality, one civilization featured greater latitude for women—ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt fascinates modern scholars as a paradox among a wide range of cultures and eras regarding the history of female equality. Women in ancient Egypt enjoyed a wide berth of freedom, a multitude of roles within society, and far greater responsibility than women in later eras and differing cultures.

Definitions

Royal women include women surrounding or born into the king’s family. Elite women include women whose husbands were employed in state occupations and/or who were literate. Classifications of common women include any woman who married an illiterate, or common man. Common women encompass women who were classified just below elite women and also include slaves. Because common women’s husbands were illiterate, fewer records of their experience within society survives today.

Worthy to note is that ancient Egyptian class stratification was one of mobility, allowing individuals to rise in social status through marriage.

This report concludes that females in ancient Egypt experienced a multitude of roles within their society and achieved near equal status to that of their male counterparts.

Dynastic Timeline of Ancient Egypt

Chronological timeline of dynasty's and time periods in ancient Egypt
Chronological timeline of dynasty's and time periods in ancient Egypt | Source

Authority and Legal Status

All classes of women in ancient Egypt experienced relatively unparalleled equal authority and legal status with men. This fact is especially significant considering that ancient Egyptian civilization spans more than three-thousand years and bore witness to vast social changes over time. Further, the legal status and authority exhibited by women in ancient Egypt surpassed the legal status and authority of women in more modern periods.

Royal Women

Royal women, including the queen and the king’s mother, had access to the king who was supreme authority (Alameen 28). However, actual instances wherein royal women exercised their power to influence events remain unclear. However, royal women held important political positions related to the line of succession. Ancient Egyptian records suggest that the succession of kings was both matrilineal and patrilineal with each princess potentially becoming an heiress to the throne (Hamar 4). This possibility made royal women a commodity for royal men and they were often sought after in marriage.

Divine Queenship

The queen and the king’s mother shared the role of divine queenship. The concept of divine queenship links back to the fact that the king was divine and both were related to him. Divine queenship was nothing more than a title with no religious responsibility unless bestowed upon them by the king. Together, the wife of the king and his mother oversaw the management of the royal household. A handful of royal women such as Amhose-Nefertari and Nefertiti, both from the eighteenth dynasty, made names for themselves in ruling by influence the king or ruling in their husband’s stead.

Women as Pharaohs

In the case of Hatshepsut and Cleopatra during the eighteenth dynasty and Greco-Roman periods respectively, royal women even took on the role of king and claimed the title of Pharaoh. Various sources have identified more than eleven female rulers in ancient Egypt between the first and nineteenth dynasties.Hatshepsut, one of the most famous, dressed in the regalia of a male Pharaoh, suggesting that even though royal women had near equality, they were still perceived as occupying a lower social position than royal men, at least by the common people.

Elite Women

Elite women in ancient Egypt maintained legal equality with their male counterparts (Lesko 6). Women of the elite social class could divorce their husbands, use the court system, possess property, and engage in commerce.

Common Women

Common women enjoyed legal equality on par to men (Lesko 6). Rights, including those afforded to the elite class, were not exclusively reserved for the wealthy. Common women did not need a man to sign off on purchases, could initiate divorce at will, and could even act as the executor of their own estate.


Ancient Egyptian women were equal under the law and enjoyed rights given in pre-nuptial agreements and could divorce at will.

Occupational and Religious Roles

Women of royal, elite, and common birth engaged in domestic duties. However, women of all classes could also hold occupations in the public sphere, including occupations that were both economically remunerative and spiritually important. Royal women fulfilled high ranking spiritual positions just as the king, providing a direct and divine connection between society and the Gods.

Common and elite women held religious positions within society as well as positions of economic gain for the sake of their families and individual economic independence. Ancient Egyptian women considered domestic responsibility their main priority but work outside the home was common. Women of royal, elite, and common birth ordered their priorities by their devotion to their Gods first, home second, and economic occupation last.

Royal Women, God’s Wives

The king’s principle wife, and in later eras his daughter, held the title of ‘God’s Wife’ (Alameen 85). The title and responsibilities of the ‘God’s Wife’ were both secular and spiritual. The position of ‘God’s Wife’ entrusted the king’s principal wife or daughter with the ritual position of spiritual authority for the whole of society. This ritual position assigned power and divinity to those who were fortunate enough to hold the ritual position of ‘God’s Wife.’

Elite Women

Though only royal women were priestesses, elite women were one step below them as temple chantress (Alameen 85). Religious belief was the center of life in ancient Egypt. Occupations within the temples were an honor. Elite women held positions within the economic sphere of manager, merchant, and boat captain (Lesko 5). An elite woman filled economic occupations equivalent to her elevated social status which equated to managerial status.

Common Women

Common women also filled religious positions as temple singers, dancers, and professional mourners (Alameen 85). In the economic sphere, common women worked as harvesters and bird catchers for the palace (Lesko 5). Highly sought after occupations by common women pertained to the palace as they were an honor to work directly for the king. Among the positions of the palace, the most sought after was that of a wet-nurse.


Marriage, Reproduction, and Divorce

Marriage in ancient Egypt commenced at will generally at the time a woman first received her menstrual cycle. Reproduction to grow Egyptian populous was paramount to the survival of the Egyptian culture. Marriage signaled the start of a new family and a time of great responsibility for women. Marriage would hopefully lead to motherhood and, if it did not, could cause a divorce. Divorce was also at will and could be initiated for any reason. The state maintained its uninvolved status where marriage, reproduction, and family were concerned except to prosecute those who committed adultery.

Marriage

Within a marriage, different gender expectations existed, but husband and wife shared responsibilities. Marriage was a private affair involving families of those marrying and was free of state interference (Alameen 114). Marriage heralded the start of a family with the woman moving into her husband’s home. Women became eligible for marriage when they began to menstruate, generally around the age of fourteen (Tyldesley 20).

Ancient Egyptian civilization’s class stratification was mobile, allowing women to gain status through marriage and procreation. This situation made marriage a significant issue in the lives of Egyptian women. Upon marriage, the husband took over the father’s role of protection but not guardian. Even in marriage, women remained in control of themselves both physically and legally.

Royal Women

Royal marriages were arranged, often incestuously, to keep the blood lines as closed as possible (Alameen 62). Polygamy existed in ancient Egypt, most prominently among royal marriages, though most marriages were monogamous (Alameen 115). Most elite and all common women enjoyed the freedom to choose their partners. Elite and Common WomenAfter marriage, elite and common women became the mistress of the house, taking on the domestic responsibilities of looking after the home, caring for and trading domestic cattle, spinning, weaving and trading textiles, brewing, and preparing food (Koltsida 125). Outside of these responsibilities, women were also responsible for raising children.

Reproduction

To ancient Egyptians, a woman’s menstrual cycle cleansed her womb making her pure each month. During menstruation, women were sent into seclusion out of the village. Childbirth was so important that domestic spaces in ancient Egypt contained rooms dedicated to fertility rituals, the celebration of a successful birth, and a birthing room for new arrivals (Koltsida 124,127). Female fertility was of the utmost importance to women of ancient Egypt. During the birthing process, husbands made themselves invisible while midwives and family members attended to the wife. The women facilitated the birthing process in every facet imaginable. Motherhood was an identity sought by women of every class. When a woman could not give birth, she gave her husband possible cause for divorce as marriage could be terminated for any reason (Tyldesley 20).

Royal Women

Royal women often passed the maternal baton to nannies and wet nurses. Though they believed bearing children was of great importance, royal women had other pressing duties to fulfill within the royal home such as tending to their spiritual duties as ‘God’s Wife’ or overseeing the king’s harem.

Royal Wet-Nurse

For a non-royal woman, the job of wet-nurse was one of the most coveted and honorable positions (Tyldesley 20). These positions lasted three years. Breast-feeding was common for the first three years of a child’s life and wet-nurses were under contracts with strict rules regarding their sexual conduct. More specifically, a wet-nurse was forbidden to engage in intercourse for the duration of her employment.

Elite and Common Women

Elite and common women saw motherhood as a obligation they were to fulfill themselves (Koltsida 225). Women’s power within their household and community directly correlated to the number of successful births of kids since the mortality rate for both mother and child was high (Alameen 115).

Common women had children in order to acquire not only power, but also helpful hands for the many projects around the house.

Divorce

Divorce among ancient Egyptians was common. In marriage, all classes of women had the privilege of initiating a divorce through the court, just as her husband could, for any reason (Alameen 115). Upon divorce, the wife retained one-third of the marital property and all property belonging to her prior to the marriage. The remaining two-thirds of the property belonged to her husband and children. Divorce was just as much a private affair as marriage with regards to the state with one exception.

Adultery

Adultery committed by women was considered the gravest sin a married woman could commit. While adultery was frowned upon in the case of men, women caught in an adulterous act suffered punishment and could be subject to the death penalty (Tyldesley 20). However, the punishment of death for adultery in ancient Egypt was rare. Typically, public shame followed by divorce was punishment enough.

Pre-nuptial Agreements and Remarriage

Couples rarely sought divorce through the courts and simply came to their own terms. Written papyrus scrolls give evidence that pre-nuptial agreements were fairly common for women of literate classes. After divorce, remarriage often occurred. Women, and men, might also take multiple spouses throughout their lifetimes due to divorce or death.


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Death

Death in ancient Egyptian culture was hermaphroditic. In death both feminine and masculine required representation and synergy. Spells and rituals combined the masculine phallus and feminine form (Cooney 236). To synergize the feminine into the masculine, and ensure entry into the afterlife, certain rituals proved critical. Per ancient religious beliefs, every person in death became Osiris (Cooney 228). To accomplish this feat, rituals and burial procedures were of the utmost importance.

Masculine Symbolism

All classes of women were buried with masculine symbols. One example, the erect penis, allowed the female to regenerate in the next life (Hamar 17). Yet, to achieve rebirth, one must also incorporate feminine aspects into burial. Feminine qualities were achieved through coffin decoration as well in color, form, and symbolism (Cooney 229-232). The coffin expressed the flexibility, or hermaphroditic nature, of Egyptians in death.

Rituals of death and burial for women equated to those undertaken in the death of men of the same classes, thus, achieving gender equality.

Royal and Elite Women

Often for royal and elite women, many coffins were used in burial. The outer coffin was a display of masculinity while the inner coffins were symbolic of the feminine womb (Cooney 228, 233). Coffins were placed one inside another to marry the feminine and masculine.Feminine words and symbols were also applied to decorate coffins. Although this was true for all women, only the elite and royal women were buried in elaborate tombs (Alameen 67). Some of the royal female tombs in existence rivaled only the king’s in size. Ensuring rebirth in the afterlife was paramount.

Common Women

Common women were buried in accordance with their socioeconomic status (Alameen 67). No elaborate ceremonies or coffin decoration occurred upon their death as compared to those of higher birth.

Common stillborn children, and children who died soon after being born, were not afforded full funerary rights as they may have been viewed in a superstitious manner (Tyldesley 20). Corpses of infants have been found buried under village homes while infants of royals have been found in gilded coffins within tombs.



Henettawy Mummy Cases

Henettawy was a Third Intermediate Period Priestess. Her burial coffins display her socioeconomic status and transition in death. The outer coffin is the embodiment of male characteristics while the inner coffin is the feminine characteristics.
Henettawy was a Third Intermediate Period Priestess. Her burial coffins display her socioeconomic status and transition in death. The outer coffin is the embodiment of male characteristics while the inner coffin is the feminine characteristics. | Source

Conclusion

Women of all classes within ancient Egyptian society experienced some aspects of gender equality unparalleled to later societies.

Royal, elite, and common women had legal equality with their male counterparts concerning marriage and divorce. Since marriage and childbirth were paramount in ancient Egyptian society, all women’s lives focused on domestic roles and responsibilities, although non-royal women could also work outside the home for money. Women of all classes were the authority of the home and responsible for successful childbirth. The birthing process was strictly a female ritual.

Women of all classes held religious occupations. Death of women in ancient Egypt demanded the transformation from feminine to hermaphroditic qualities to ensure rebirth in the afterlife.

Royal and Elite Women

Royal and elite women obtained further responsibility outside the home in positions of religious and economic authority. Royal women influenced the king, ruled without the title of Pharaoh, and in some cases like Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, assumed the official title and ruling power of Pharaoh. Royal women were God’s Wives, a position which provided direct divinity for the queen.

Elite women held the important temple position of chantress, a title just below priestess. Royal and elite women filled grand tombs and were buried according to elaborate burial ceremonies.

Common Women

Common women assumed smaller roles within society though they were no less vital to ancient Egypt. Common women provided children and manual labor within and outside of the home. Common women held lower, though equally important, temple positions of singers, ritual dancers and mourners.

Upon their death, common women were buried in a fashion more appropriate to their lower social position. Common women were not given elaborate tombs or numerous coffins.

While women in other cultures, then and later, had little or no authority or presence in economic and public life, women in ancient Egypt participated alongside men in many aspects.

Works Cited

Alameen, Antwanisha V. "Women's Access to Political Power in Ancient Egypt and Igboland: A Critical Study." Thesis. Temple University, 2013. digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p245801coll10/id/214768. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Cooney, Kathlyn M. “Gender Transformation in Death: A Case Study of Coffins from Ramesside Period Egypt.” Near Eastern Archeology, vol. 73, no. 4, 2010, pp. 224-237. https://ezproxy.mtsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aft&AN=505375685&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 9 Sept. 2015.

Hamar, Rachel V. The Queens of Egypt: The Complexities of Female Rule in the First through the Nineteenth Dynasty. MA Thesis. Washington State University Research Exchange. Washington State University, 2006. hdl.handle.net/2376/1101. Accessed 9 Oct. 2015.

Koltsida, Aikaterini. "Domestic Space and Gender Roles in Ancient Egyptian Village Households: A View from Amarna Workmen's Village near Deir el-Medina." British School at Athens Studies, vol. 15, 2007, pp. 121-27. ezproxy.mtsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.41103940&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 9 Sept. 2015.

Lesko, Barbara S. “Women’s Monumental Mark on Ancient Egypt.” The Biblical Archeologist vol. 54, no. 1, 1991, pp. 4-15. jstor.org.ezproxy.mtsu.edu/stable/3210327?&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Accessed 15 Oct. 2016.

Tyldesley, Joyce. "Marriage And Motherhood In Ancient Egypt." History Today vol. 44, no. 4, 1994, pp. 20. https://ezproxy.mtsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.15135779&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 15 Oct. 2016.

© 2018 Allorah

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