Women and Gender in Ancient Egypt

Women and Gender in

This exhibition uses Egyptian from the collection of the Kelsey and the Papyrology collection of the University of Michigan Library to examine the roles and lives of women in ancient Egyptian society, and how these fit into the larger patterns of gender definitions and relations. Since ancient , it has been recognized that women occupied special positions within Egyptian society, but only recently has the nature of women’s experience and status in been the subject of systematic study.

The material presented in Women and Gender in Ancient Egypt spans nearly four thousand years, from later prehistoric times through the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Even in a that showed remarkable continuities over long periods of time, there was obviously considerable change in the roles and status of women, as well as in gender definitions and relations over such a long chronological range.

Historical events and cultural imports are often the most obvious influences on women’s roles and gender relations, but factors such as class and status, sexuality and ethnicity also influence understandings of gender. Part of the source material from ancient Egypt reflects a major class bias: texts and images most often come from elites in Egyptian society and reflect their views. It is mainly the archaeological sources–remains of dwellings and burials–that offer unfiltered evidence for non-elites. While texts and images tend to be relatively explicit about gender, archaeological remains require work to distinguish biological from human remains, gender in the artifactual record, gendered space. Patterns of behavior and construction of identity are also closely tied to gender definitions and roles. As is common in premodern agrarian societies, was linked to fertility, although not exclusively. Surviving sexually explicit imagery and texts from ancient Egypt can be of erotic, humorous, satirical, or even religious intent as well. Moreover, many groups influenced Egyptian throughout the covered by this exhibition (c. 3100 BCE-700 CE). The most conspicuous were the Macedonian Greeks and Romans who successively ruled Egypt after 332 BCE, but many other groups from all over the Mediterranean influenced Egyptian customs and society. Certainly Greek and Roman traditions concerning gender–the more dependent status of women in these cultures as well as the different approaches to gender relations and definitions–had a major impact on Egyptian life the Graeco-Roman period.

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