Essay, Research Paper
The Role of Women in Ancient Egypt
From the time of the Old Kingdom to the time of the New Kingdom, Ancient Egypt was a society dominated by men. Much of the history of Egypt is expressed through the perspective of Egyptian males. This leaves the perspective of the other half of the Egyptian population, females, unexplored. When women of Ancient Egypt are discussed it is often just the women of power or royalty who receive attention. This leaves many people unaware of the role of the average women in this society. Achieving A reversal of this unawareness is done by explaining the role of the average Egyptian woman in the family, the legal rights of women, and the role of women in the temples.
In Ancient Egypt the main purpose for women was to marry and to reproduce. “To marry and beget children may have been the duty of every right-thinking Egyptian, but it was a duty which was very much welcome.” (Tyldesley 1994). There was no legal age of consent. Men would consider women eligible for marriage upon menstruation. This meant that women would marry as young as ten or eleven. Marriage was a private matter with no intervention from the state. No formal ritual was performed to marry a man and a woman. A woman was considered married upon moving into the husband’s household. The husband had the responsibility to care and protect his wife as her father did. The husband was not to be the legal guardian of his wife. This left the woman independently in control of her own assets. Women could jointly own property with their husbands and were publicly acknowledged as being part owner of the property. Upon the husband’s death or divorce the woman was to inherit some or all of his assets.
Ancient Egyptian women in marriage were expected to be fertile. This determined the basic success of a marriage. The masculinity of a man depended on the amount of children he could father. A woman who could bear many children was looked upon favorably by her husband and her peers (Tyldesly 1994). The wife was to blame if she was infertile. This often was legitimate grounds for a divorce. Although, Egyptians looked down on marriages that ended in divorce. Egyptians considered adoption an alternative for couples who could not conceive a child.
The households of Ancient Egypt were run by the wife. The husband was considered the head of the family, but the wife took care of many of the responsibilities at home. Most households were owned by men with few exceptions of women who owned the household. The woman’s household duties included mostly, baking, brewing, weaving, grain storage, and it was her duty to overlook any servants she might have. Since most of a woman’s child-bearing years were spent pregnant a wetnurse was frequently hired to alleviate some of the child-rearing responsibilities. As children grew older the boys were sent to school and the girls remained home with their mother until they were old enough to marry.
In Ancient Egypt women were not strictly limited to their duties in the household. There was a distinct line between types of jobs that women and men could hold. Men held most of the bureaucratic offices. Women were not allowed to hold these offices because women received no formal training in literacy. Since most women were mostly illiterate they were limited to performing jobs such as textile production, wetnursing, milling, spinning, and grain harvesting.
Women of Ancient Egypt were legally responsible for their own actions. This meant that women could venture on their own business deals. Women could buy, sell or trade their property without the consent of a male or a legal guardian. With this responsibility, women were viewed as equals in the court of law. Women were held responsible for any crimes they may have committed. Women could be prosecuted and punished for any illegal action, go to court as a plaintiff, or could be called upon as a witness.
Women played a minor role in the religious rituals of Ancient Egypt. The females that were involved with temple ritual were often just women of the higher classes. These women could be appointed priestess. The majority of priests were men. The female priestess was still always under the authority of a man. The duty performed by most women in temple ritual was shenget, ‘musician’ (Robins 1993). Often there was a group of women called a ‘musical toupes’ who performed during sacred events (Robins 1993). These groups consisted of women clapping, playing the flute, tambourine, and shaking a rattle. The women playing music were often accompanied by dancers.
The women of Ancient Egypt were often kept to the background of public workings in society. Although having many of the legal rights of men, these rights may have been tough to enforce in a society dominated by men. “Woman’s legal rights did not extend effectively throughout society. They may have required at all levels to be backed up by wealth or strong family support.” (Robins 1993). The role of women in Ancient Egypt was often subject to bias in the home, legally, and in temple ritual.
Tyldesly, Joyce. Marriage and Motherhood in Ancient Egypt, History Today, April 1994, Vol. 44 Issue 4, page 20.
Robins, Gay. Woman in Ancient Egypt, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.
R.M. Janssen & J.J. Janssen. Growing up in Ancient Egypt, The Rubicon Press, 1990