Women & Power in Ancient Egypt: After 2,000 years, how far have we really come?

from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:S_F-E-CAMERON_2006-10-EGYPT-WESTBANK-0153.JPG

Fig. 1 Queen Hatshepsut in canonical kingly iconography
from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:S_F-E-CAMERON_2006-10-EGYPT-WESTBANK-0153.JPG

Did you know that women in ancient Egypt owned and inherited property, could divorce their husbands, worked in the mercantile in such activities as renting out land, selling goods, production of textiles, hiring out other property owned, and participated in legal processes, in addition to traditional roles of making textiles and running the household?

In the most exceptional and brilliant of examples, women even ruled the whole of Egypt as pharaoh (Fig. 1). In other cases women held the high political and administrative post of vizier, advisor to pharaoh of the affairs of state, and in yet another example combined power with priestly roles as the God’s Wife of Amun (The Hidden One).

The ancient Egyptian philosophical ground in which these circumstances took root can have contributed no small part to the fact that such power was held by women nearly 4,000 years ago. For although the reigns of political power were predominately held by men, at the highest cosmological and ideological levels the ntrw/powers in the visible and invisible world were recognized and represented as a holistic balance of polarities, like the yin and yang of Taoism.

The recognition of such fundamental complements as sky/earth (Nut & Geb, Fig 2), above/below, birth/death, gods/goddesses, as well as the properties of death/resurrection, are ubiquitous in ancient Egyptian ideology. Indeed, even such abstract concepts as the original hiddenness prior to manifestation, complete and whole it Itself, were conceived as containing the balanced potentials represented by male and female principles (Amun/Amaunet). Moreover this balanced, holistic paradigm was perpetuated throughout the entire history of Egyptian culture.

Nut (sky), Shu (air) & Geb (earth)

Major figures from above to below:
Nut (sky), Shu (air) & Geb (earth)

Within the symbolic nature of the ancient Egyptian language medw ntr and its underlying holistic philosophy, such polarities could be represented in both abstract as well as visible personified form, and the invisible powers or ntrw were recognized in both male and female imagery. Such a background context provides an ideological setting that allows room for women to also practically function in a variety of roles and activities, including the extraordinary instances of holding the power of pharaoh.

Beginning with the context of marriage, in ancient Egypt both men and women had joint ownership of property and legal rights. What we generally call ‘marriage’ the Egyptians recognized upon entering into a partnership and establishing a household, rather than with a formal contract (cohabitation anyone?). This partnership was also metaphorically expressed by the term ‘mooring’ [i.e., one’s boat], akin to our modern equivalent ‘settling down’. Upon entering such a union, a woman retained the property she brought into the partnership. Furthermore, outside of royal unions, arranged marriages were not customary, although parents would certainly have concern that a compatible alliance was selected. Polygamy was uncommon, although at least by the New Kingdom kings had more than one wife, which on a practical level served to ensure a royal heir to the throne.

Where ‘divorce’ was concerned, both women and men could choose to depart, separate or sever such a relationship. If they did, they took with them the property that they brought into the partnership – sounds like a fair and effective way to avoid the potential ‘gold digging’ mentality of some avaricious men or women! Yet in addition, as the primary earner for the household, if a woman’s husband severed the marriage, he also had to pay her compensation, similar to our modern ‘alimony’. Recall that it was not long ago even in western culture that women were completely dependent upon their husbands, and it was difficult to divorce.

Whether male or female, the children of such recognized unions could inherit from both mother and father. When the parents died they divided the property between their children via a will, a standard document still in use today. In terms of legal rights to property, this was typically vested in the wife. So for example, just as heirs of the king were generally descended from the royal wife or queen, heirs of non-royal unions were also determined from the legally recognized wife. Yet both women and men could bequeath property to whomever they chose. Thus childless couples without an heir could adopt, ungrateful children could be disinherited, children conceived outside of such recognized unions and other favored persons could also inherit.

Other rights women possessed in ancient Egypt where law was concerned was the ability to testify in trials, participate in lawsuits as plaintiff or defendant, as well as serve on juries. 

As with other arenas, differences in work or profession were marked between the peasant and elite classes. Within the peasant class women would toil along with men in the fields. Whereas in the higher strata of society women would more likely remain at home while men were employed in civil jobs or other crafts, making gendered work roles more pronounced.

Seated statue of Hatshepsut, ca. 1473-1458 BCE, www.metmuseum.org

Seated statue of queen Hatshepsut
in feminine aspect,
ca. 1473-1458 BCE,


Although women could inherit property, men were the primary earners for the family for it was they who were trained in and inherited the father’s profession – yet there are exceptions to this rule as well. For where no male heir existed the wife, daughter or sister could inherit property as well as other legal rights like continuing merchant business transactions that came with property ownership, such as renting or hiring out as mentioned above. In the most exceptional royal instances women could control the power of the throne, inherited and exercised through pharaonic queenship. Similarly, if the heir apparent was too young to rule independently, the ultimate reigns of the monarchy could pass to women in the royal lineage to hold as was the case with Hatshepsut.

Examples of women wielding pharaonic power in the Two Lands include: Queen Sobeknefru, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra VII (the famous Cleopatra) during the last reign of the final dynasty of Ptolemaic Egypt. Queen Sobeknefru assumed the throne briefly (ca. 1787-1783 BCE) after the death of her brother Amenemhat IV. Hatshepsut (ca. 1473-1458 BCE) first ruled as co-regent for her young nephew and step-son Thutmose the III, then took the full titles of kingship of the Two Lands.  Queen Nefertiti was appointed co-regent during the latter part of the reign of her husband king Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1335 BCE) and may have ruled alone for a short period, while Queen Cleopatra VII (51-30 BCE) ruled jointly with father Ptolemy XII and later brothers Ptolemy XIII & XIV. In the case of the two earlier queens Sobeknefru & Hatshepsut, during their reign as pharaoh, they each drew upon iconography relating to both male and female genders, depicting themselves in both canonical kingly symbolism (see Hatshepsut Fig. 1) as well as illustrations of their queenly feminine form (Hatshepsut Fig. 3).

Finally, as early as the Old Kingdom, Sixth Dynasty, another powerful woman named Nitocris/Nitiquet held a preeminent post which some sources list in the role of vizier and others as pharaoh (ca. 2184-2181 BCE). The position of vizier or prime minister was the chief adviser second only to the king, responsible for the administrative duties of running the country, and keeping pharaoh informed of all affairs of state. Brewer & Teeter note that two other women are known to have held the title of vizier, once in the 5th Dynasty and the other in Dynasty 26.

Recent research indicates another forgotten female pharaoh named “Tausret” at the end of the 19th Dynasty, who was likely a descendant of Ramses II.  She is apparently mentioned by both Homer (who thought she was a man) and Manetho, the Egyptian historian. You can read about the excavation of her “temple of millions of years” here http://www.scoop.it/t/egyptology-news?r=0.9695524725610863#post_4007858164.

Relief of a Goddess, Ptolemaic Period, ca. 200 BCE

Relief of a Goddess, Ptolemaic Period, ca. 200 BCE
Photo Credit Natalie Letcher

Certainly the lack of male heirs to fill the throne or vizierate does partially explain the circumstances in which women wielded such authority, in that it served as a way of keeping power within the trusted royal, elite family circle – if not by a man than a woman. However, in order for such a drastic change to be embraced by society overall, the ideological and philosophical ground that allowed for such phenomena to emerge can have contributed no small part.  For there are other occurrences where strong non-royal individuals ascended to the throne, such as the army commander Horemheb (ca. 1320-1295 BCE) at the end of the 18th Dynasty.

So comparatively speaking, after 2,000 years since Queen Cleopatra ruled in Ptolemaic Egypt, and nearly 4,000 years after Queen Sobeknefru of the Middle Kingdom, and considering some of the basic rights regarding property, marriage and divorce women already held in ancient Egypt… how far have women and power really come in modern culture?  

The point of this post is not to emphasize gender discrimination in contemporary culture, but rather to draw attention to another aspect of the holistic philosophy that underlies ancient Egyptian culture. This ideology was manifest in myriad ways, which we can still learn from today. For it is this philosophical understanding that created the unique circumstances, which in some ways were far ahead of modern times. Finally, what does our comparative lack or slow progress where women and power are concerned reveal about our own embedded perspectives and limited ideologies?  

Current research continues to reveal additional evidence that sheds more light on the details of legal rights and the power women wielded in ancient Egypt. For those interested, the books and article listed below provide further information on both women as pharaoh in ancient Egypt as well as case studies on inheritance practices in regards to male and female children.  

For those who wish to pursue study of this ancient culture from the lens of holistic philosophy which is the foundational ideology of the Two Lands as evidenced in both textual and representational forms, the book (shown at right) and the online course are now available!

The first online course on Holism in Ancient Egypt & Greece will be held from March 11-June 17, 2015. As of January 2, 2015 is now available for early registration.  Click the link to check pricing and register. The electronic book is also now available to preview online at Smashwords and to preorder at Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers online for your preferred reading device. You can also sign up for the weekly newsletter to stay abreast of new developments, receive blog updates, as well as promotional offers on the book and online courses.

Lastly, feedback is most welcome, so if you enjoyed the article, please, like share or leave comments if inclined.

Sources & Recommended reading:

 Women in Ancient Egypt, Gay Robins, Harvard University Press

Egypt & the Egyptians, Brewer & Teeter, Cambridge University Press

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Ian Shaw, Oxford University Press

Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt, Rosalie David, Oxford University Press

UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: Inheritance by Sandra Lippert, 2013 http://escholarship.org/uc/item/30h78901#page-1 





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