Lucy de Masson
published on 30 January 2014
In ancient Egyptian society, women were treated differently than women of other ancient societies. Ancient Egyptian society offered women the greatest opportunities of the Mediterranean societies in relation to their economic, legal, and social positions. They enjoyed the same legal, economic and social rights as Egyptian men. Even though the primary source evidence is limited, it is still possible to use evidence found in temples, tombs on monuments, artwork and surviving texts to establish the role of women in Egyptian society.
Egyptian women enjoyed the same economic rights as men and therefore were able to make economic decisions on their own. A woman in ancient Egypt was able to own property in her own right and, if married, could own joint property with her husband . Property that a woman acquired on her own was hers to dispose of as she pleased, and any property acquired during a marriage became “joint property”. If the husband should dispose of any joint property, he was legally bound to recompense his wife with property of the same value.The property a woman could own, manage, and sell included slaves, livestock, land, goods, and servants. Women obtained this property by using goods earned from employment, by borrowing, or as gifts from inheritances.
Like other ancient civilisations, there were a range of jobs available to Egyptian women; however, these tasks saw them occupy various jobs according their social classes. Women in the lower classes not only worked within the home, attending to household chores and caring for children, but also had to work outside tending livestock and working in the fields, particularly during harvest. Occupations such as skilled weavers, mourners, musicians, stewards, composers, singers, dancers, beer brewers, and bakers were also available to women.There were professional positions available for educated women such as priestesses, administrators, or supervisors. Educated and wealthy women in some instances became judges, overseers, governors, doctors, and even prime ministers because of their ability to read and write. If a woman performed the same job as a man, she received the same rations and goods as a man received for this work, and so her wages made a valuable contribution to the family’s wealth.
The higher status of women was also reflected in women being treated equally with men in the legal system. Women could act as plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses before the court without having to go through a male representative as was the usual practice for women in other societies. Women were entitled to sue and could also enter into contracts including any legal settlements with regards to marriage, divorce, property, and employment. A woman was also responsible, and held accountable, for any transactions or contracts she entered into on her own. These equal economic and legal rights were not confined to one social class and were available at all levels of Egyptian society.
One particular contract Egyptian women entered into was a self-enslavement contract. Women entered into these contracts for different reasons such as to repay a creditor or to ensure financial security and provisions, and sometimes a woman might include her children in executing this arrangement. One such contract, in which a woman bound herself to the temple of Saknebtynis, states, “I am your servant, together with my children and my children’s children. I shall not be free in your precinct forever and ever. You will protect me; you will keep me safe, you will guard me. You will keep me sound; you will protect me from every demon, and I will pay you 1¼ Kita of copper until the completion of 99 years”. An Egyptian woman was able to freely negotiate and satisfy herself with the terms of a self-enslavement contract before she entered into this arrangement.
There is no evidence of marriage ceremonies, but contracts survive whereby the man and woman made a marriage agreement. While Egyptian women could earn some wealth, they entered into marriage contracs with their husbands to ensure that the father of their children would provide for them and their children’s material future. These contracts dealt only with economic concerns and documented how the husband would be responsible for feeding and clothing his wife and their children and the right of the children to inherit his wealth. Because this was documented as being the annual responsibility of husbands, they were known as “annuity contracts” and were entered into by the husband directly with his wife. If the marriage should end, the wife was entitled to her dowry and up to one third of the joint property accrued during the marriage plus any other divorce settlement written in the marriage contract. These contracts protected the economic and legal rights of women.
An Egyptian woman had the same legal rights as a man and this enabled her to inherit property on the same basis as a man. A woman could inherit property from her husband and family and, if her husband pre-deceased her, she inherited one third of their joint property. If her husband wanted her to inherit more or even all of his wealth he could draw up a imyt-pr “house document” which was a legal document for donating property (Tyldesley, ND). A husband could also legally adopt his wife as a “child” if he did not want to give any of his wealth to his siblings, and therefore his wife could inherit all of his wealth if there were no children or a share of the two thirds if there were children.
Because of her legal rights, an Egyptian woman could act on her own to make her will. She could also make a will and leave her property, which she had obtained independently of her husband, to her children. A will written out by a noblewoman Naunakte states, “I am a free woman of Egypt. I have raised eight children, and I have provided them with everything suitable for their station in life” (Bingham, 2007:9). She could make a will leaving property from her husband to her children and family members and, if she wanted to, she could disinherit her children but only of the property she brought to the marriage and her one third of the joint property.
The social expectations on women in ancient Egypt included their roles as wife and mother, their public behaviour, and their clothing and appearance. While a woman was legally responsible for her own actions in ancient Egyptian society, she was often seen as being dependent on her husband who was expected to take good care of her as stated in the literary text “The Instructions of the Vizier Ptahhotep”: “When you prosper and found your house and love your wife with ardor, fill her belly, clothe her back; ointment soothes her body. Gladden her heart as long as you live; she is a fertile field for her Lord” (Johnson, 2002). Egyptian society believed that a happy and contented home life should be the norm and that this could be achieved by a husband and wife loving and caring for each other in accordance with the principle of ma'at, universal harmony.
The job of managing the household was that of the woman. She cared for the children, prepared food, cleaned, and also involved herself in the business of finding food the family did not grow and swapping surplus food they had grown. In wealthy and middle class households, servants did much of the work around the house, while the women, particularly the wealthy, were ladies of leisure. As the mistresses of the household, the women of ancient Egypt, no matter their class, were seen as being responsible for the happiness of the home both in life and death. In a letter found in a tomb, a widower believed his misfortune was the result of his wife punishing him from the afterlife and he begs her to believe he is innocent of any wrongdoing: “What wicked thing have I done to thee that I should come to this evil pass…” (Nardo). In Egyptian society the wife’s importance, as mistress of the household, was such that Egyptians believed she could punish her husband from the afterlife for any offence he had hidden from her.
Egyptian women placed great value on personal appearance, grooming, and hygiene. Their status was defined by their dress, with upper class women using clothing, elaborate makeup, and jewellery to distinguish themselves from the lower classes who dressed simply. Elaborate head ornaments in particular signified a woman’s social standing. Education also distinguished the women, with upper class women being able to read and write and the middle class and wives of professional men less so, while poor women were illiterate.
Through inscriptions on walls and monuments, wall paintings, tomb paintings, statues, documents, carvings, and papyrus, the Egyptians recorded how they treated women in ancient Egypt. Inscriptions and wall paintings depicting women and men attending banquets together and hunting and fishing together are evidence of them enjoying a social life together. Tombs decorated with paintings of deceased women dressed elaborately in the latest fashion and containing perfume, cosmetics, and toiletry items for the afterlife were expressions of the men’s affection for their wives. Egyptian women were free to go alone in public either working in the fields, in estate workshops, or travelling and were not confined to the household. On an inscription, Ramses III boasts, “I enabled the woman of Egypt to go her own way, her journeys being extended where she wanted, without any person assaulting her on the road” (Picone, ND).
Egyptians believed in complete equality between women and men and, when the historian Herodotus visited ancient Egypt, he was so surprised by this equality, which was so unlike other ancient societies, that he wrote of the Egyptians, “they have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind” (Fletcher, 2011). Surviving accounts and contracts documented this equality between Egyptian men and women stating that women received the same rations as men for undertaking the same job. Papyrus showed Isis bestowing gifts on humanity giving as much power and honour to the women as she did to men. Other papyrus detailed how a woman was able to acquire wealth independent of her husband. An annuity contract found in a Ptolemaic “Family Archive” from Siut detailed how a woman, when a couple divorced, received her fair share of the couple’s property. These documents indicated how Egyptian men treated women as equals.
Egyptian women were not subservient to men in marriage or divorce. Unlike other ancient societies, Egyptian women were free to choose the men they married and they could also divorce their husbands. Marriage was very important to Egyptians, love and affection between a husband and wife was important, and to all classes of Egyptians, marriage was the norm.
Artistic representations depict men and woman as happy equals. Carvings and wall paintings and statues all expressed obvious affection between Egyptian men and women. Documentary and literary texts instructed men on how to treat their wives by giving them love and protection. Art and historical documents, found in tombs, depicted how women had the same legal and economic rights as men.
Temples, inscriptions, wall paintings, and statues representing powerful female deities indicate a society that valued males and females equally and that women were not subservient to men in ancient Egypt. Female goddesses such as Maat who gave balance and order to all things, Hathor the Mother Goddess, the goddess of love and healing, and Isis who, like Hathor, had protective powers, were some of the female deities honored equally with male deities. These female deities were as important as the male gods in Egyptian daily life as was the goddess Bastet, one of the most popular of all Egyptian deities, who presided over women's health and safety, childbirth, and the home. Men and women in ancient Egypt honored Bastet equally and this is significant in illustrating the high regard in which women were held.