Women In Ancient Societies Essay Research Paper

Women In Ancient Societies Essay, Research Paper

“You’ve come a long way, baby” so says the Virginia Slims cigarette commercial. This brand of cigarettes, intended mainly for women, was absolutely correct-women have come a long way. In today’s society, women have gained a role comparable to their male counterparts. However, this struggle for equality has been a long one, lasting for several centuries. If we go back to our roots (ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Israel, etc.), we see that in some societies (Mesopotamia and Israel) women were treated as inferior beings while other societies (Egypt) granted women special rights that once were only given to men.

The most complete surviving code of law from ancient Mesopotamia is Hammurabi’s Code. This list verdicts by Hammurabi, sixth king of the Babylonian dynasty, was written on a stela and placed in the center of the marketplace for all to see. Among the verdicts listed on this stela, those laws concerning women are especially harsh due to their description of the inferiority of women.

Of particular interest are the laws concerning male and female merchants. Although female merchants might work just as hard as their male counterparts, they were often given strict penalties if their work was below par (sometimes even as far as death). In law #108, “if a woman wine-seller, instead of receiving grain for the price of a drink, has received money by the large weight and has so made the value of the drink less than the value of the grain, they shall prove it against that wine seller and throw her into the water.” This refers to a practice known as a trial by ordeal. It was believed that the Euphrates River would act as judge of people accused of various crimes. If, when thrown into the river, the accused person floated, she or he was considered innocent. But if they sank, the river had found them guilty. However, verdict #94 states that if a male merchant’s goods were not worth the price paid for them, then the merchant would have to refund the money paid for the goods. Death to the maiden, but total refund for the master. Not exactly equal treatment, eh?

Mesopotamia was not the only place in the ancient world where women were not treated equally. In Israel, for example, women were often treated as property and not given the same rights given to men. In several cases, the women of Israel were treated worse than the women of Mesopotamia. The laws that governed Israel at that time are listed in the books of the Torah. Exodus 21:22-25 describes a situation in which two men are fighting and hit a pregnant woman. If the woman has a miscarriage because of the blow, the men must pay a fine for their act – not to the woman, but to her husband, presumably because he has been deprived of a child. Numbers 5:11-31 describes a magical ritual that women were forced to perform if their husbands suspected them of having had an affair. A priest prepared a potion composed of holy water mixed with sweepings from the floor of the tabernacle. He proclaimed a curse over the potion and required the woman to drink it. If she were guilty, she would suffer greatly: her abdomen would swell and her thighs waste away. There is no similar magical test for husbands suspected of having an affair with another woman. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 requires that a woman be a virgin when she is married. If she has had sexual relations while single in her father’s house, then she would be stoned to death. There were no similar virginity requirements for men.

Unlike the position of women in most other ancient civilizations, the Egyptian woman seems to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as the Egyptian man-at least in theory. This notion is reflected in Egyptian art and historical inscriptions. The Egyptian woman’s rights extended to all the legally defined areas of society. From the bulk of the legal documents, we know that women could manage and dispose of private property, including land, portable goods, servants, slaves, livestock, and money. A woman could administer all her property independently and according to her free will. She could conclude any kind of legal settlement. She could appear as a contracting partner in a marriage contract or a divorce contract; she could execute testaments; she could free slaves; she could make adoptions. She was entitled to sue at law. It is highly significant that a woman in Egypt could do all of the above and initiate litigation in court freely without the need of a male representative.

Not only were there laws that gave women specific rights, but there were also laws that required husbands to treat their wives with some dignity. In the Maxims of Ptahhotpe, paragraph 21, men are required to “fill (your wife’s) belly, clothe her back; oil is the panacea for her body.” If a man refused to fulfill these requirements, then his wife would not bear him any children, because in return for these luxuries, women would provide their husbands with a vagina that would produce him many children.

The role that women played in society differed greatly in each legal system. In both Mesopotamia and Israel, women were not given the same rights as men. However, in Egypt women were almost on an equal level with the men. So, my advice to any woman living back then would have to be buy a ticket to Egypt-I hear the Nile is really nice this time of year!


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