Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt

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The Greek historian Herodotus commented on how they; “attended market and took part in trading whereas men sat and home and did the weaving”, he went on to say the Egyptians “have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind”.

Rather than being seen as the weaker sex, women were often portrayed as being just as capable of violence as men.  Queens are shown crushing their enemies, executing prisoners and firing arrows at male opponents in battle and non-royal women have been depicted stabbing male soldiers.  According to Dr Joann Fletcher, the literary and archaeological evidence suggests that these were more than just illustrations of fictional or ritual events as traditionally believed.

Many royal women under took military campaigns and some were commended for their active role in conflict.  Some women were regarded as enough of a threat to be called ‘enemies of the state’ and female graves spanning three thousand years of Egyptian history have been found containing weapons.  Women were also treated the same under criminal law and would suffer the same punishments as men for their crimes, including being executed if convicted of a capital offence.  However if it was found the offender was pregnant then her execution was delayed until after the birth.

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Hetpheres II  Image source

Although most official posts were given to men, women were known to hold high office.  There were female overseers, governors and judges and at least one, Queen Hetepheres II, ran the civil service.  Two women were given the role of vizier (prime minister), the highest administrative position and six even achieved the title of pharaoh.

Women from poorer families were also free to find work and were often employed in traditional female roles such as maids, nannies and midwives.  However in ancient Egypt, they also played a part in other areas of society generally seen as male dominated arenas such as co-ordinating ritual events and doing manual labour.

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According to Joseph Perkins of Minnesota State University, some are known to have started small businesses out of their homes often considerably increasing the family income through  making and selling products such as linen or perfume.  Professional opportunities were also available to some women, such as director of dance and even physicians.  Female doctors are known to have been skilled enough to perform caesarean sections and to surgically remove cancerous breasts.

The suffrage awarded to women allowed them to enjoy a high level of financial freedom.  A body of surviving accounts and contracts show that they received the same rewards as men for the same work and both royal and non-royal female citizens could own property and make wills.  Possessions, property and debt acquired by a woman through labour or inheritance was seen as separate from her husband and if she became a widow, she was entitled to inherit one third of the property they jointly owned, with the rest divided between the late husband’s children and siblings.

Despite their freedoms, Egyptian women were most commonly bestowed with the title of ‘Lady of the House’ and were expected to run the home and bear children.  For poorer families, large numbers of offspring were necessary to provide extra sources of labour and income but for the wealthy few, this was less of an obstacle.  With both male and female servants to tend to daily chores and child rearing, richer women spent much of their time in leisure pursuits like listening to music, taking care of their pets, playing board games, eating good food and drinking fine wines.

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It is as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters to pharaohs, that royal women were most influential to the state.  This is reflected in the scale of monuments they had put up in their name and the fact that they were often buried within pyramid complexes Dr Fletcher argues.  Pharaohs also had a host of ‘minor wives’, who often were able to wield some influence and as succession did not necessarily go to the eldest son, they had the opportunity to become mother to a pharaoh.

Pharaohs would often have a host of women known as ‘Ornaments of the King’ who were chosen for their beauty and employed to entertain with singing and dancing.  Although this seems more in keeping with treatment of women elsewhere, in Egypt, they were important participants in court life and were active in royal functions, state events and religious ceremonies.

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Women often played a key role in the priesthood with royal women holding the title ‘God’s Wife’, a position of great political significance second only to the pharaoh, for whom they sometimes stood in.  Female priestesses also played a significant role in the religious life of ancient Egypt, participating alongside men in rituals, earning a living as professional mourners and sometimes acting as funerary priests.

As warriors, intellectuals, priestesses, political figures and even rulers, the women of ancient Egypt enjoyed a large degree of suffrage.  Many had the opportunity to advance themselves to an extent that was not achieved again until the twentieth century and a financial equality that many women still fight for to this day.

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