Women in ancient Egypt did not form a single coherent group, since ancient Egyptian society was highly stratified. At the top of the social organization was the king, together with the royal family, followed by the ruling elite group. That group consisted of the literate male officials through whom the king governed the country, and their families. The illiterate, nonelite groups were at the bottom of ancient Egyptian society and formed the vast majority of the population. Those groups supplied food, goods, and services to the elite. The sources from which scholars can learn about women present a number of gaps and biases that make it difficult to obtain a complete picture of ancient Egyptian society and the place of women within it. Most of the extant evidence was produced by and for the king and the elite. Although textual and representational materials of the elite include images of the nonelite, those were produced specifically to serve the purposes of the elite and provide limited information about the nonelite.
A further problem in the study of ancient Egyptian women is that texts and monuments were produced by men. Although some elite women may have been literate, there are no surviving texts, except possibly some letters, that are known to have been written specifically by or for women. The images of women found on monuments were almost certainly produced by men, since no professional female artist is attested anywhere. Thus, what we know of women represents a male point of view, and women do not speak directly to us. In addition, textual sources make it clear that a major sphere of female activity and authority was the household, so that our general lack of knowledge concerning settlement sites and houses is also a severe handicap to the study of women.
Because ancient Egyptian civilization spans three millennia, it cannot be assumed that society remained unchanged. Evidence cannot be read backward and forward in time to fill the gaps found in one period with material from another. It is impossible, therefore, to produce a unified picture of women and their position in society that applies to all three millennia.
Royal women—mother, wives, and daughters—surrounded the king, but they did not all have equal status. The most important were the king's mother and his primary wife, who shared a ritual role as bearers of divine queenship, complementary to the divine aspect of the king. The king's consort was often his sister (or half-sister), but she could also be of nonroyal origins, as were most secondary wives, who had the potential to become king's mother if their sons succeeded to the throne. Scholars know little about the background of king's wives of nonroyal birth, but the available evidence suggests that they came from elite families. During the New Kingdom, kings also made diplomatic marriages with foreign princesses.
Although royal women potentially had access to the highest authority in the land, it is unclear whether they normally shared in or exercised any of that authority. Some queens, however, are known to have acted as regents for young kings, and King Ahmose's stela honoring his mother Ahhotep shows that she had wielded real authority. Otherwise, some king's mothers and consorts probably played an unofficial role by influencing the king in making decisions or formulating courses of action.
At certain periods, royal women also held the powerful office of “God's Wife of Amun” in the cult of Amun at Thebes. At the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty, King Ahmose bestowed the office, together with a considerable endowment, on his consort, Ahmose Nefertary. The title was also held by Merytamun, wife of Amenhotpe I, and then by Hatshepsut. When Hatshepsut ruled as regent for Thutmose III, “God's Wife” was her most frequently used title, occurring more often than “King's Principal Wife,” but after she became king, she passed on the office to her daughter, Neferura. Later, during the sole rule of Thutmose III, the title seems to have become less important and to have disappeared for royal women in the reign of Amenhotpe III, although an anonymous “God's Wife” is found twice in scenes in the Luxor temple. Royal “God's Wives” occurred again sporadically in the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, but the title does not seem to have been particularly important for them. During the Third Intermediate Period through the twenty-sixth dynasty, the office of “God's Wife” once again became prominent. This time, however, it was held only by king's daughters, each of whom adopted her appointed successor.
What, then, was the role of the “God's Wife”? Eighteenth dynasty temple scenes show her participating in temple ritual; being purified in the sacred lake, along with male priests, before entering the temple; taking part in rituals to destroy Egypt's enemies; and summoning the gods to their evening meal. In temple scenes of the Third Intermediate Period through the twenty-sixth dynasty, the “God's Wife,” now often called the “God's Adorer,” is shown interacting directly with deities in scene types once limited to the king. In addition to offering directly to deities, she is also embraced, suckled, and crowned by them. It would seem, therefore, that the “God's Wife” had a priestly role within the cult of Amun at a time when priests were otherwise almost exclusively male.
It is important to ask what the basis was for the role and authority of the “God's Wife.” How did she come to hold her position in relation to the god Amun? The answer lies in another title that these women held, that of “God's Hand.” This title refers to the original act of masturbation by which the creator god set in motion the creation of the ordered universe. Because the word for “hand” in ancient Egyptian is grammatically feminine, it was easy to personify as a goddess the hand with which the creator god masturbated. The fact that the title “God's Hand” was linked to that of “God's Wife” shows that these women were enacting the role of the divine god's hand that stimulated the creator god in his act of creation. Exactly how this translated into specific temple ritual is unclear, but it is likely that the importance of these women derived from a role in which they were believed to stimulate the god Amun sexually, so that he would continually repeat the act of creation and thereby prevent the cosmos from being overwhelmed by chaos.
Women in elite families were concerned mostly with the management of the household and the bearing and rearing of children, since virtually all women would have been expected to get married and raise a family. Little is known about how marriages were arranged, or about prescribed, preferred, or proscribed marriage partners. Marriage was not a matter for the state with religious or legal sanctions, and it seems to have been constituted by a man and woman living together. Property was of primary concern in marriage, especially its division in the case of divorce. Women kept control of the property and goods they brought into a marriage and could dispose of them as they wished, although in normal circumstances they would pass them on equally to their children. On the death of her husband, a woman received one-third of their joint property, while the other two-thirds was divided equally among his children, male and female.
The chance survival of a document drawn up by a woman called Naunakht concerning the disposition of her property shows how a woman could favor some children over others and divide her property according to her own wishes rather than accepted custom. Naunakht lived during the twentieth dynasty in the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina. She was comparatively wealthy in her own right, having inherited property from her father and first husband, and being entitled to a third of the property she held jointly with her second husband. Her first marriage was childless, but she had eight children by her second, and normally her property would have been divided equally among them. However, she explains in the document she has had drawn up that some of her children are not behaving toward her in her old age as they should. Therefore, she disinherits these and divides her property among the offspring of whom she approves.
From the seventh century BCE, written contracts were drawn up between spouses concerning their economic rights and obligations. In the event of divorce, the man promised to give the woman a sum of money, her third share of their joint property, and the equivalent value of what the woman originally brought with her into the marriage. It is unclear whether such favorable conditions for the woman continued an earlier tradition, but they must have made divorce expensive for men, and perhaps protected women from being arbitrarily repudiated, or badly treated and driven out of the house.
Divorce was the reverse of marriage and occurred when one partner moved out of the marital home. Little is known about the reasons for divorce. A Late period contract states: “If I repudiate you as a wife, be it that I hate you, be it that I want another woman as wife instead of you.” Some divorces were probably due to incompatibility or to the desire of one spouse to take a new partner. Lack of children, however, was surely a common cause, since the purpose of marriage was to have children; adultery on the part of the woman was certainly another. In fact, Late period contracts protected the husband if he wished to divorce his wife for adultery, for in such a case a woman lost her financial rights.
Because life expectancy for both partners was lower than it is today, many marriages were relatively short. Remarriage after death or divorce was possible for both men and women, so many individuals had more than one marriage partner in a lifetime. There is some evidence that wealthy men occasionally engaged in polygyny, but the practice does not seem to have been widespread.
From the Middle Kingdom forward, a married woman was called “mistress of the house,” a title that implies she was in charge of running a household. This implication is supported by a section in the eighteenth dynasty Instructions of Anii that says: “Do not control your wife in her house, when you know she is efficient; don't say to her: ‘Where is it? Get it!’ when she has put it in the right place.” It was a wife's job to manage the household, giving her an area of authority that, depending on her social status, could be quite extensive.
Women of the upper elite were responsible for running large establishments with numerous servants whose work they would organize and oversee, even if they did not themselves have to perform manual tasks. Wives of the lower elite would have overseen smaller households with fewer servants, and they would probably have performed a number of domestic tasks themselves. The grinding of grain, baking, spinning, and weaving were traditionally regarded as woman's work.
Central to most women's lives was the bearing and rearing of children. Infant mortality and death in child-birth were high, and houses contained a domestic shrine for the performance of rituals designed to promote the well-being of the family as well as successful conception and childbirth. The shrine was often decorated with images of the household god Bes, who protected women in childbirth and young children. In excavated settlement sites, common finds include small figurines of nude women, sometimes accompanied by a child. These probably relate to domestic cults and the promotion of female fertility. Also found in the houses of Deir el-Medina were stelae of deceased relatives and ancestor busts that formed focal points for ritual. The dead were thought to be able to influence the lives of the living, and deceased relatives could be asked to help with family problems and to aid in the conception of children. Because the household and childbirth were both areas of female authority, women probably played a major role in domestic ritual, a fact reflected in two unusual stelae that depict ancestral busts. In one, a woman kneels adoring a bust, and in the other she stands before a bust, burning incense and libating.
The concern with women's health and their ability to bear children is also reflected in sections of the medical papyri that are devoted to specifically female matters. These include tests to discover whether a woman is fertile, whether she is pregnant, and the sex of the unborn child. They also deal with menstrual problems, prevention of miscarriage, hastening birth, ensuring milk supply, and protection of mother and child after birth. Motherhood was celebrated in the texts of the male elite, where it is made clear that a son was supposed to hold his mother in affection and honor.
Elite men provided for their dependents through government income. Although women could not hold government office, they could have independent means, and from as early as the Old Kingdom they could own land and other property. Goods and property were usually inherited equally by all children, and women could become (co-) owners of large estates that provided them with an income. Women retained ownership of goods and property after marriage. They could also generate income through cultivating land that they owned or rented. They could enter into business transactions, trading items like textiles and vegetables which they almost certainly produced themselves. A few scenes in tomb chapels show women in a market setting selling goods, in one case apparently exchanging perishable items such as bread, fish, and vegetables for grain. Women could own slaves and hire them out by the day. Women, like men, could draw up a document for the disposition of their property after death, if they wished to make other arrangements than the normal, equal division among all their children. Legally, women were treated as separate individuals responsible for their actions, whether married or not. They could go to court as plaintiff, defendant, or witness on an equal footing with men, but there is no evidence that women normally sat as members of the court, which may have worked to their disadvantage.
Most priests were men, but some women also served. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, many high-ranking women were priestesses of Hathor, but few acted as priestesses of other deities. During the New Kingdom, the priesthood became a full-time occupation and a branch of the bureaucracy in which male officials made their careers. Women were musicians in the cults of deities, accompanying the performance of ritual by shaking the sacred sistrum. The musicians of a temple were headed by a superior who was often the wife of a senior priest in the cult.
The rituals performed inside temples functioned on a cosmic level and were closed to most people. The outer parts of temples were more accessible, and personal worship often focused on images in those areas. Both men and women visited temples to pray, and a text on the statue of an official set up in a shrine of Hathor is addressed specifically to women. In it, the official offers to intercede with the goddess on their behalf to obtain “a good husband” for them. The worship of Hathor was popular with women because of the goddess's connection with sexuality, fertility, and childbirth. Although the donors of votive offerings in temples are usually not known, some votive pieces presented to Hathor were undoubtedly dedicated by women because the donor is named or depicted.
Votive statues and stelae were set up in the outer areas of temples to associate the donor with the temple deity and rituals in perpetuity. Most of the statues belonged to men, whereas a portion of the stelae belonged to women. Although statues were more expensive items than stelae, it is unlikely that economic reasons alone account for this discrepancy; there must have been some other factor involved that virtually excluded women from owning temple statues.
Elite men and women shared the same funerary beliefs and practices, but at any given socioeconomic level, men's burials tend to be richer than those of women. The tomb-chapel was the most expensive item of funerary equipment, and only relatively high officials owned one. The decoration featured the male official as the primary figure, although he was often accompanied by his wife and other relatives in secondary positions, and family members were usually interred in the burial chambers associated with the chapel. In eighteenth dynasty burials of husbands and wives, the woman often has one coffin fewer than her husband, and may share some items with him, such as the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), where the husband is clearly the primary owner. The funerary rites performed over the deceased before the tomb chapel were the same for men and women. They were always carried out by male priests, whereas women were prominent as mourners. Two women played the roles of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys mourning the dead Osiris. In tomb chapels, the funerary cult focused on statues of the chapel's owner and his wife, so that a large number of funerary statues depict women. Although the funerary cult was ideally performed by the eldest son, stelae show other family members, including the wife and daughters of the deceased, performing some of the rituals.
The standard image used for elite women in art depicts them as being of childbearing age in order to stress their central role as childbearers—whatever their actual age—so that a man's mother, wife, and daughter may all be represented similarly. Women's fertility is often further emphasized through the manipulation of female dress to reveal the outline of the body and, at many periods, the pubic area. In contrast to women, men have a mature image in addition to a youthful one. The former shows them as successful government officials, an image not appropriate to women. Compared to men, women are generally depicted in a more passive manner, standing with their feet almost together, frequently doing nothing, whereas men stand with one leg well advanced, often performing an action. Gender is also distinguished by skin color, with men being depicted as reddish-brown and women as a lighter yellowish-brown. Many images, both two- and three-dimensional, depict couples and tell us something about how husbands and wives were perceived in relation to one another. Overall, there is a hierarchy of gender that privileges the male and subordinates the female through the use of one or more of a number of strategies: scale, compositional position, pose, and distribution of texts. The man is almost always identified by his official titles, but the woman is known simply by her relationship to her husband.
There is little information available about the families and households of the nonelite. As in Egypt today, much of the ancient population probably lived in mud-brick villages by the Nile River. Some of the men were engaged in the various nonscribal occupations known from elite sources, but the majority worked on the land. Most women were occupied with household duties and childbearing and rearing, which was as important to the nonelite as the elite, since children provided free labor in the fields and support for their aged parents.
Some women worked outside the home, although according to elite sources their work was more restricted than that of men. They were employed as household servants; eighteenth dynasty banquet scenes depict them waiting on the guests. Other evidence shows that they were employed as hairdressers, wet nurses, and possibly nannies. One of the most frequently represented tasks involving women is bread-making, a laborious process that involved breaking up the whole grains of wheat or barley by pounding them in a mortar with a long pestle, then grinding the result on a grindstone to make flour. The flour was then mixed with water to form dough and baked into loaves. Men are most frequently depicted pounding the whole grains in the mortar, while women grind flour. Women are also depicted watching the bread molds stacked on the fire, shielding their face from the heat with one hand and poking the fire with a stick held in the other. In model bakeries of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, often the only women included are those grinding grain; all the rest of the workers are men. Further evidence that grinding grain was especially associated with women comes from administrative documents dating to the reign of Sety I that relate to bread-making for the royal palace at Memphis. They list the amount of grain given to twenty-six women for grinding, together with the amount of flour produced. The government also provided households at Deir el-Medina with female slaves to grind grain.
Brewing was closely associated with baking, since beer was made from fermented grain, and bakeries and breweries are often depicted next to each other. The workers involved in brewing are most frequently men, although women are sometimes shown sieving the beer mash to extract the liquid. Other forms of food preparation, such as butchering; preparing and preserving meat, birds, and fish; and cooking are always depicted being done by men. This gender distinction was perhaps limited to large households with male servants. In nonelite families without servants where male family members worked at occupations outside the house, women would surely have been responsible for food preparation.
Textile production was traditionally women's work, and in large households female servants were probably employed in the manufacture of cloth. Women were also trained as musicians and dancers, appearing in tomb scenes from the Old Kingdom to the eighteenth dynasty. Although music frequently had a ritual aspect, troupes of performers were employed by larger households as well as by temples. Dating to the end of the Old Kingdom, male musicians were also found, and men and women may have performed together.
The nonelite were also employed in craft production in the workshops of the king, temples, and great officials. The depictions and models show workshops for carpentry, jewelry-making and metal-working, sculpture, leather-working, and weaving. Women were excluded from all craft production except weaving. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, only women were involved in textile production, but from the eighteenth dynasty, men are shown operating the newly introduced vertical loom.
The largest area in which the nonelite were employed was on the land, and scenes in tombs from the Old Kingdom to the eighteenth dynasty depict activities connected with the agricultural year, animal husbandry, and work in the marshes, some of which are also represented in three-dimensional models. Women are almost entirely absent from these activities, except when shown performing a few specific tasks at harvest time. In the Old Kingdom, women are shown winnowing the grain after threshing, although in later periods this appears to have been done by men. From the very end of the Old Kingdom forward, women are often shown following the male reapers to collect fallen ears of grain in small baskets. During the eighteenth dynasty, although not earlier, women are shown harvesting flax, which was pulled up by the roots rather than cut like grain. The preponderance of male workers on large estates is confirmed by a letter dating to the twenty-fourth year of Ramesses II's reign that lists the workers on an estate of Amun in the Delta—they are all male. We know from other documents that women were attached to temple estates, but it is not clear what their duties were.
The evidence shows that the ideal world of the elite included a division of labor among the nonelite, in which women were far more restricted than men in what they could do. It suggests that women were expected to be concerned mainly with household duties, either in their own homes or as servants in the houses of the elite. The question is how far this gender-based division of labor was in force outside the elite sphere. Women, like men, were liable for state labor, but it is unclear what duties they were assigned, although they may have been conscripted to work in state fields. In a New Kingdom copy of a Middle Kingdom text, women act as beaters to make birds rise in the marshes, although in tomb chapels only men are shown in marsh scenes. Two New Kingdom love poems use the image of girls netting birds, an occupation carried out in tomb scenes by men. The image would hardly be effective, however, if this was something that girls did not do. The discrepancy may be explained by the fact that in one poem the girl takes the birds home to her mother, suggesting that she is not working on the type of large estate depicted in tomb scenes, but is catching birds to support her family. It seems probable that the elite ideal was not universal.
In contrast to elite women, we have little evidence of the legal and economic situation of nonelite women, although we can be sure that it varied according to their position or that of their families in the social hierarchy. Subsistence-level income or even poverty may have been the lot of many nonelite women and men. In describing the life of a peasant farmer, an elite author recounts a series of disasters that result in the farmer being unable to pay his taxes. When the tax collectors come, he is beaten while his wife and children are tied up, and in the end they are left without any grain. Although exaggerated for the purposes of the text, such disasters undoubtedly occurred, and neither men nor women would have had much legal recourse against the state and other powerful institutions. Overbearing and dishonest officials could presumably make life difficult for the nonelite, although in some Middle Kingdom texts officials deny that they have ever mistreated inferiors. In similar texts from all periods, officials claim to have looked after widows, and the New Kingdom Instructions of Amenemope warns officials not to cheat or harass widows, suggesting that some widows were liable to receive such treatment.
The fact that women were not part of the government bureaucracy reveals that ancient Egypt, like most societies, was male dominated. The source of all authority resided in the king, from whom it passed to his male officials. The exclusion of women from the kingship (apart from a few exceptional cases) and from the bureaucracy clearly limited their access to official authority, but this does not mean that they were without any authority or were dominated entirely by the male part of the population. Not only were there areas within society where women held authority or shared it with men, but the interactions of men and women were affected by status, so that, for instance, an elite woman no doubt had authority over male servants.
Not all authority in ancient Egypt was of the same type. Some was officially recognized as part of the public, legitimate structure of society, while other types existed through nonofficial channels. The first type formed part of the elite's ideal view of society recorded on the monuments. The second lay outside the ideal and is only occasionally glimpsed in nonmonumental documentation. Although women were excluded from direct access to the sources of authority enjoyed by male officials, they had indirect access through opportunities to influence their husbands and sons. Further, the ability of women to own or rent land, conduct business, and accumulate income in their own right would have given them a potential role in public life through their contributions to the economy of their community. Undoubtedly, women with wealth could achieve an independence impossible for those who had to rely on their husbands for support, and they would probably have been able to wield considerable power within the family and local community.
- Allam, Schafik. “Women as Owners of Immovables in Pharaonic Egypt.” In Women's Earliest Records from Ancient Egypt and Western Asia, edited by Barbara S. Lesko, pp. 123–135. Atlanta, 1989.
- Bryan, Betsy M. “In Women Good and Bad Fortune are on Earth: Status and Roles of Women in Egyptian Culture.” In Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, edited by Anne K. Capel and Glenn E. Markoe, pp. 25–46. New York, 1996.
- Černý, J. “The Will of Naunakhte and the Related Documents.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 31 (1945), 29–53. Publication of a document in which a woman disinherits some of her children.
- Eyre, C. J. “Crime and Adultery in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (1984), 92–105.
- Fischer, Henry G. “Priesterin.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie 4: 1100–1105. Wiesbaden, 1982. Important English-language article on priestesses.
- Fischer, Henry G. “Women in the Old Kingdom and the Heracleopolitan Period.” In Women's Earliest Records from Ancient Egypt and Western Asia, edited by Barbara S. Lesko, pp. 5–24. Atlanta, 1989.
- Friedman, Florence D. “Aspects of Domestic Life and Religion.” In Pharaoh's Workers: The Villagers of Deir el Medina, edited by Leonard H. Lesko, pp. 95–117. Ithaca and London, 1994. Explores domestic cult at Deir el-Medina, including its relation to women and childbirth.
- Gardiner, A. H. “A Lawsuit arising from the Purchase of Two Slaves.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21 (1935), 140–146. Publication of a document concerning the purchase of a female and a male slave by a woman.
- Gardiner, A. H. “Adoption Extraordinary.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 26 (1940), 23–29. Publication of a document concerning the adoption of a woman by her husband as his heir, and the subsequent adoption of three slaves by the woman.
- Johnson, Janet H. “The Legal Status of Women in Ancient Egypt.” In Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, edited by Anne K. Capel and Glenn E. Markoe, pp. 175–186. New York, 1996.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Berkeley, 1976.
- Pestman, P. W. Marriage and Matrimonial Property in Ancient Egypt. Leiden, 1961. A study of the so-called marriage contracts of the Late period.
- Pinch, Geraldine. “Childbirth and Female Figurines at Deir el-Medina and el-Amarna.” Orientalia 52 (1983), 405–414.
- Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. London and Cambridge, Mass., 1993. Contains extensive bibliography.
- Robins, Gay. “Some Principles of Compositional Dominance and Gender Hierarchy in Egyptian Art.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 31 (1994), 33–40. Shows how husbands are normally given compositional precedence over their wives in two- and three-dimensional art.
- Robins, Gay. “Women and Children in Peril: Pregnancy, Birth and Infant Mortality in Ancient Egypt.” KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 54 (1994–1995), 24–35.
- Robins, Gay. “Dress, Undress, and the Representation of Fertility and Potency in New Kingdom Egyptian Art.” In Sexuality in Ancient Art, edited by Natalie Boymel Kampen, pp. 27–40. Cambridge, 1996. Discusses women as icons of fertility.
- Roehrig, Catharine H. “Woman's Work: Some Occupations of Nonroyal Women as Depicted in Ancient Egyptian Art.” In Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, edited by Anne K. Capel and Glenn E. Markoe, pp. 13–24. New York, 1996.
- Smith, Stuart Tyson. “Intact Tombs of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Dynasties from Thebes and the New Kingdom Burial System.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 48 (1992), 193–231. Shows tendency for husbands to have slightly wealthier burials than their wives.
- Sweeney, Deborah. “Women's Correspondence from Deir el-Medineh.” In Atti Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia, vol. 2, pp. 523–529. Turin, 1993. Discusses the possibility of female literacy in relation to material from Deir el-Medina.
- Troy, Lana. Patterns of Queenship in Ancient Egyptian Myth and History. Uppsala, 1986.
- Ward, William A. “Non-Royal Women and their Occupations in the Middle Kingdom.” In Women's Earliest Records from Ancient Egypt and Western Asia, edited by Barbara S. Lesko, pp. 33–43. Atlanta, 1989.