Women In Ancient Egypt - Suprisingly Powerful

By Suzanne Onstine


What we know of ancient Egypt is shaped largely by the nature of the evidence " and the evidence is mostly masculine, namely administrative documents and religious, state and funerary art forms that were produced by and for a male-dominated state bureaucracy. So histories often oversimplify or completely ignore the roles of Egyptian women. Finding and examining the scarce evidence concerning women can be difficult, but careful analysis produces a surprising conclusion: Women in ancient Egypt, and in some other cultures of the Near East, had the same legal rights as men and participated in the same economic activities. While hardly "liberated" in the modern sense, women in ancient Egypt were free to conduct themselves as they saw fit, whether as a "Mistress of the House" or as a businesswoman in the marketplace.
The writings of the ancient Egyptians emphasize the woman´s role as a mother, daughter, wife and "domestic engineer." Tomb paintings and statuary emphasize her relationship to the family. A woman´s most important title was nebet per, "Mistress of the House," indicating she was in charge of household affairs.
Yet an ancient saying from The Instructions of Any, a Middle Kingdom wisdom text, goes: "Rank creates its rules: A woman is asked about her husband, a man is asked about his rank." Women clearly were not supposed to have rank or title that placed them in the hierarchical system of state power in which men could distinguish themselves.
This, however, does not mean women did not contribute to the economic well-being of their families and of society. The work expected of women was primarily indoor household activity. This is reflected in art: Women are regularly depicted with a lighter skin color than men, presumably due to less exposure to the sun. Men were painted in a deeper red color, while women received a lighter, yellowish tint. A woman´s usual household activities would have included grinding grain, preparing food, cleaning, looking after children and weaving linen for clothing and bedding.
Women and girls are usually represented in few outdoor agricultural activities. They were primarily responsible for gleaning the fields during the grain harvest, which meant following the men who cut the grain and picking up kernels that fell to the ground. This is the idealized picture, but poorer women must have taken part in all aspects of farmwork when the men of the household needed help, just as the peasant women of Egypt do today " despite conservative Islamic ideals of female seclusion in the home.
The ancient Egyptian woman could also be involved in activities outside her home. Women contributed to the family´s income primarily by selling produce or surplus handicrafts such as linen items at the local market. Market scenes, like one from the Theban tomb of Ipy, show that women went down to the riverbanks, the traditional marketplace setting in ancient Egypt, to sell goods as well as buy them.
Weaving was an important activity for women. If ancient models and tomb scenes are an accurate depiction of the division of labor, spinning and weaving were done solely by women until the beginning of the New Kingdom (about 1570 B.C.), after which men were also depicted as weavers. But even then, it remained a predominantly feminine pursuit. Some women held the title "Overseer of Weavers," indicating they had charge over a shop or small factory of weavers.
Ancient letters reveal that women could carry out business transactions themselves and even act on behalf of another individual. Many documents from the workmen´s village, Deir el Medina on the west bank at Thebes, show that women were corresponding with both men and women regarding the sale of property, as well as non-payment of goods and services. Men also relied on women to conduct business in their absence. For instance, the Twentieth Dynasty scribe Nesamunemope corresponded with two different Deir el Medina women, instructing them to carry out detailed exchanges of goods and to oversee the proper cultivation of a parcel of land.
Few Egyptian women were employed full-time outside the home, but those that were held a variety of positions. Most were probably employed as domestic servants, caring for the households of the upper class. They also served as wet nurses and nannies for the children of these households, and as hairdressers or personal attendants for the lady of the house. Additionally, a few women acted as stewards for queens and princesses, overseeing the household economy that produced and stored food, linen and other household supppes. The more accomplished of these ladies held such titles as "Overseer of Weavers" and "Overseer of the Storehouse," suggesting positions of authority. Other titles included "Overseer of Cloth," "Inspector of the Treasure," "Overseer of the Chamber of Wigs" and "Overseer of Doctors."
To carry out those duties, some women must have been literate, although literacy in ancient Egypt was not widespread among either gender; reading and writing were mainly limited to the small group of men who were scribes and administrators. Nevertheless, the title seshet ("female scribe") is known. Some have interpreted this title to mean "cosmetician," but evidence from some New Kingdom tombs shows "scribal kits" depicted under the chairs of a few women. This indicates that the writing paraphernalia belonged to the women portrayed, even though they are not specifically identified by title as female scribes. (A scribal kit was a bag that contained reed pens or brushes for writing, an ink palette and a sack of pigment for use as ink. Some scenes even included a writing board or papyrus.) One woman was depicted with a scribal kit under her chair in four different scenes " a rare and unambiguous sign that she was closely identified with the ability to read and write.
Suzanne Onstine is the Associate Director of Archaeology for the University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition and president of the Arizona chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt.
Read the complete story of Women in
Egypt in the current issue of Egypt Revealed Magazine - http://www.discoveringarchaeology.com/egyptrevealedsub.htm