Ancient Egypt was a hierarchical society. Every person had a strictly defined place in the order of things, and only rarely did one transcend those boundaries. The women of ancient Egypt occupied a space that was clearly subordinate to that of men, as was generally typical in the cultures of the ancient Near East. What is remarkable about Egyptian society in contrast to the other civilizations of the Near East is the degree to which women approached men in dignity and in legal standing.
From the highest to the lowest strata of society, women generally occupied a domestic role. In large measure this was based on the woman’s role in childbearing and in early childhood nurturance. As advanced as Egypt was in so many respects, including in medicine, it was still clearly a premodern society, and child mortality rates were still frighteningly high. In order to ensure that some children survived until adulthood, couples needed to have as many children as they could manage.
At the same time, there was too much work that needed to be done in other aspects of life for women to focus solely on raising children; even the women of the royal household had tasks of an economic character, such as the weaving of linen. It seems that the Egyptians evolved a sexual division of labor very early on, keeping women in or near the household while men took on the tasks that led them further afield. As early Egyptian society became more complex and assumed a greater regional scale, this differentiation of sphere took on the character of domestic for the women, and public for the men. This division of labor continued to make sense to the Egyptians even in the context of the civil service, which to modern minds seems like a very sedentary profession. While scribes did not need to work as hard as farmers or artisans, they did not remain sequestered indoors all day copying texts; scribes served as overseers in all walks of life, from the management of agricultural estates and of all architectural work to the oversight of the military. Egyptian men did most of their work outdoors, while Egyptian women did most of theirs indoors; hence, the artistic tradition of depicting men with red skins and women with yellow.
Most Egyptian women, of course, were farmers – or at least were married to them. Their lives are poorly documented in contrast with those of the scribal class, but their duties included the production and maintenance of clothing and certain aspects of food preparation, such as the grinding of grain into flour, the baking of bread and the brewing of beer. Not all aspects of food preparation were necessarily feminine, however; the butchery of cattle was definitively masculine, and at least among the higher classes, including that of the artisans, the cooking of meat was also generally done by men. Among the peasantry, women would assist with farming under limited circumstances, such as in the harvest. Under such circumstances, however, women were limited to work such as the collection of sheaves of grain; by custom they did not perform the reaping itself.
Life among the class of artisans is better understood, if for no other reason than that we have several good sources for life on that level of society, most notably the workmen’s communities of Deir el Medina and Tell el Amarna, both of which have extensively been excavated. The domestic tasks of peasant women would in large measure have been shared by these women, but at least in the case of prosperous artisans, such as the tomb builders of Deir el Medina, they had access to the assistance of slaves on a timeshare basis, which would have freed the Mistresses of the House (a proper title that begins to have meaning on this stratum of society) from some of the more menial tasks and elevated her instead to a supervisory role, at least part of the time.
The same observations apply to women of the scribal class. Here the range of status and prosperity is extraordinarily wide, beginning with the level of assistant clerks in provincial estates and rising to that of the viziers who handled day-to-day governance on behalf of the pharaoh. The wives of petty scribes would have experienced life in generally the same way as the wives of artisans. The wives of greater scribes, however, were noblewomen in their own right. Apart from the bearing of their children, they did little physical work, but instead spent most of their time overseeing the servants who carried out household tasks. Women, incidentally, had female servants, while men had male servants.
The scribal class was the elite of Egyptian society – only the Pharaoh and his closest kin stood above it, while the rest of the royal family blended into it – and accordingly, it was a closed system. The women who became the wives of scribes had previously been the daughters of scribes. They did not, however, follow their brothers to the schools where reading and writing were taught; women are believed generally to have been illiterate in Egypt. It is quite conceivable, however, that some women learned at least the rudiments of literacy, as it was so useful in the governance of the large estates. There is even reported to be a female vizier in the late Old Kingdom, although it is not known whether her title was honorific or functional.
While women did not have the opportunity to pursue bureaucratic careers, some forms of specialization do occur. There were, for example, female doctors; after all, women were generally treated by fellow women, and not by men. The practice would have been a combination of observed anatomical knowledge, holistic medicine and outright magic; the ability to read and write had its uses among male doctors, but would not have been necessary for a female doctor to perform her tasks. Women could also participate in religious life, at least on a part-time basis. In the Old Kingdom, women could actually become priestesses, at least in the cults of goddesses; they were particularly in known in the service of goddesses like Hathor, Sekhmet and Neith. This practice declined in the Middle Kingdom, and by the New Kingdom, it was replaced by the opportunity to sing, dance or play music in the temple.
There were also some professional opportunities that did not fit clearly into the social structure. Women could become professional musicians, dancers, and even mourners; furthermore, prostitution was also a possibility. It would seem that these ranks were filled by women of the artisan class and the lower rungs of the scribal class. Similarly, such women could become the servants employed by greater nobles.
At the apex of the pyramid stood the Pharaoh and his immediate family. Strictly speaking, this was an extension of the upper echelons of the scribal class, and not a new category; only the Pharaoh himself truly stood above all human classes. His wife or wives were often the daughters or sisters of greater nobles, and therefore fully a part of the scribal elite. Any wives and young children the Pharaoh had lived in the domestic zones of the palace, mistakenly called the harem, along with their servants under the guidance of the Great Royal Wife. This was not a place of leisure; real work was often done, such as the weaving of linen.
With only a handful of exceptions (Nitokris, Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut and Tawosret), women could not become the Pharaoh herself. The idea itself was difficult for the Egyptians to conceive on these rare occasions when they had to deal with it. Kingship was both grammatically and conceptually masculine, and female Pharaohs seemed to have been very aware of the fact that they were entering a male sphere. The King was a living Horus, and a son of Ra or Amun or both. However, in precisely the same terms, the principal wife and the mother of a Pharaoh exercised an extremely important role as the goddesses who surrounded the aforementioned gods. By taking on a quasi-divine role of their own, these two women helped to reinforce, validate, and complete the Pharaoh’s divine nature. By the New Kingdom, the role of the Great Royal Wife would be formulated as the God’s Wife, and as such it would survive the decline of the New Kingdom, being transferred to the priesthood of Amun, which was henceforth to be led by a supreme priestess rather than a high priest.
Despite the opportunities for some level of advancement, Egyptian women did live in rigidly defined boundaries; but then, so too did the men, even the Pharaoh himself. While women were not accorded a full equality with men, they were more nearly equal in dignity than were the women elsewhere in the Near East; even the Greeks expressed surprise at the independence shown by Egyptian women, who for example were free to move about in public at will without a chaperone.
In the realm of law, women actually enjoyed full equality. Before the magistrate, a woman could do anything a man could do. She could inherit and alienate property, she could sue or be sued, and she could initiate divorce proceedings. Egypt was governed more by custom than by explicit law, but the corpus of case study makes clear that a woman who divorces her husband had the right to take back her own property.
There is much yet to be learned about women in ancient Egypt. They did not leave records of their own, and their husbands have related to us less of their wives’ lives than they have of their own. There is enough evidence, however, to show that women were able to participate in a meaningful way in their society, and that their contributions were valued.
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