Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.
In this lesson, we will study ancient Egyptian women. We will focus especially on the rights and privileges they enjoyed in the legal, economic, and social realms, and we will meet Egypt's most famous female ruler.
Ahead of Their Time
Ancient Egyptian women were ahead of their time in many ways. Unlike other women in the ancient world, Egyptian females were considered equal to Egyptian males. They enjoyed many legal and economic rights, held a special social status in marriage and family life, and could even attain the high rank of supreme ruler of Egypt. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the unique position of the ancient Egyptian women.
Egyptian women possessed legal rights that their sisters around the world longed for in vain. Egyptian women did not need a male representative to create and sign contracts, make a will, adopt a child, or manage, inherit, and transfer property. They could even bring lawsuits before Egyptian courts, even the highest courts. They could testify as witnesses in court cases, and they could even be sued, for just like men, they were held legally responsible for their actions. Egyptian judges didn't seem to be particularly prejudiced against women either. Just like their male counterparts, women could win or lose their lawsuits, or be convicted or acquitted, based on the evidence available to the court.
In the economic realm, Egyptian women were free to own and control their own property, including personal items, livestock, household goods, land, and even slaves. An Egyptian woman could leave her property to whomever she wished and even disinherit her children if they displeased her.
Married women kept control of any property they brought into their marriages, including their dowries (the land, animals, and/or goods given to them by their families at marriage). Further, wives had a right to keep at least one-third of any joint property acquired during a marriage should that marriage end in divorce or the death of the husband. Many husbands actually took legal action through wills or other documents to ensure that their wives received more than the minimum one-third, and if they sold any joint property during the marriage, they were required to make sure their wives shared in the profits.
Both married and single women could increase their property by working at a profession. Many women chose not to, preferring to work at home caring for their families and households. Others, however, were employed as weavers, bakers, beer brewers, stewards, musicians, dancers, or composers. Women with a higher level of education could be supervisors, administrators, priestesses, judges, doctors, and governors. One woman, Nebet, even served as the vizier, the primary adviser to the Pharaoh. Women doing the same jobs as men received the same pay for their work, and sometimes women even started their own businesses and became their own bosses.
Marriage and Family
Most Egyptian women embraced their special status as wives and mothers of families. Even in this social realm, they had more rights than most women of the ancient world, for they received the important title of Mistress of the Household.
Egyptian women had the choice of whether or not to marry. They could refuse proposals if they didn't like the fellow asking, and they often married for love, although status, convenience, and economic considerations also contributed to marriage decisions. Egyptian culture lacked marriage rites or ceremonies. A couple was considered married as soon as the woman left her father's house and went to live with her husband. Many couples also created a pre-marriage agreement that stated what would happen in case of a divorce.
Married women were responsible for managing their children and households. They did all the domestic chores that women have done for centuries, like cooking, cleaning, making clothes, gardening, and taking care of children. Wealthier women could afford to hire servants or buy slaves to do the work for them, but they still supervised to make sure things were done correctly and efficiently. If a married woman wished to work in a profession, she could do so, but she was still responsible for making sure that her household ran smoothly.
Most married women had several children, for the more children they had, the more respect they received in a society that valued fertility and descendants. Couples who couldn't have children of their own often chose to adopt orphaned children.
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If a marriage wasn't working out, either the husband or wife could ask for and receive a divorce. Divorces were often settled privately, following traditional customs and any pre-marriage agreement that might exist. The wife kept her personal property, including her dowry, any other property she brought to the marriage, and anything she had inherited, and in addition, she received one-third of the marriage's joint property. She could also gain custody of her children. Both parties were then free to remarry if they chose.
Rulers of Their People
Some women even found themselves at the very highest pinnacle of Egypt's social scale as Pharaoh, or supreme ruler. Neithikret, for instance, reined from about 2148-2144 BCE, Sobeknefru from about 1787-1783 BCE, Nefertiti after her husband's death about 1336 BCE, and Tawosret after her husband's death in 1194 BCE.
One of Egypt's most famous female Pharaohs, however, was Hatshepsut, who reigned for over 20 years. Born about 1508 BCE, Hatshepsut first ruled as queen in conjunction with her Pharaoh husband, Thutmose II, but after he died, she claimed Egypt's highest throne for herself even though she was only supposed to serve as a regent for her little stepson. Under her rule, Egypt's trade expanded and flourished, and Hatshepsut supported major building projects, including the great temple at Deir el-Bahri. Hatshepsut died about 1458 BCE, and her stepson, Thutmose III, rose to power. Apparently angry at his stepmother's control, he obliterated nearly all trace of her in Egypt's written and artistic record. It wasn't until 1822 that scholars rediscovered Hatshepsut, the female Pharaoh, when they translated the hieroglyphs (picture writing) in her tomb.
Ancient Egyptian women were ahead of their time in many ways. They enjoyed many legal and economic rights, held a special social status in marriage and family life, and could even attain the high rank of supreme ruler of Egypt. Legally, women could create and sign contracts; make wills; adopt children; manage, inherit, and transfer property; and bring lawsuits before Egyptian courts.
Economically, women were free to own and control their own property. Even married women kept control of any property they brought into their marriages, including their dowries. Further, wives had a right to keep at least one-third of any joint property acquired during a marriage, and single or married women could work at a profession.
Most Egyptian women embraced their special status as wives and mothers of families. Even in this social realm, they had more rights than most women of the ancient world, for they received the important title of Mistress of the Household. Women were free to marry or not as they chose. Those who did marry were responsible for managing their children and households. If a marriage wasn't working out, either the husband or wife could ask for and receive a divorce, and in such a case, a woman kept her personal property and received one-third of the marriage's joint property.
Some women even found themselves at the very highest pinnacle of Egypt's social scale as Pharaoh, or supreme ruler. One of the most famous of these female Pharaohs was Hatshepsut, who reigned for over 20 years and proved to be a case in point of the special privileges of the women of ancient Egypt.
This lesson on Egyptian women can provide you with the knowledge required to:
Expound upon the legal, social and economic rights of women in ancient Egypt
Identify several female Egyptian Pharaohs
Discuss the life and contributions of Hatshepsut, Egypt's most famous female Pharaoh
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