by Caroline Seawright
February 10, 2001
Women in Ancient Egypt
In the ancient world, Egypt stood out as a land where women were treated differently.
…but the Egyptians themselves, in most of their manners and customs, exactly the reverse the common practices of mankind. For example, the women attend the markets and trade, while the men sit at home and weave at the loom… The women likewise carry burdens upon their shoulders while the men carry them upon their heads… Sons need not support their parents unless they chose, but daughters must, whether they chose to or not.
— The History of Herodotus Book II, Herodotus
In Egypt, women were much more free than their counterparts in other lands… though they were not equal with men, both men and women in Egypt accepted that everyone had their roles in ma’at (the natural order of the universe)… and that the roles of men and women were different.
Women in Egyptian Art
From the formal paintings on tombs, the Egyptian stereotype of a woman was that of wife and mother, the husband being the head of the household. She worked indoors (mostly), out of the Egyptian sun, so her skin was lighter than that of her male counterparts. (When she died, she was painted green, as were the men, as this was the colour of rebirth.) Women were seen to be slim and beautiful, even though a fat stomach in men equated with wealth and power (the rich could afford to eat more than the poor!) Noble women did not work in these paintings, but women are seen to be dancers, musicians, acrobats, sacred ‘prostitutes’, maids, kitchen staff, field workers and much, much more.
Sculpture, unlike painting, usually only showed noble or influential people. When women were in a sculpture, she was usually part of a husband-and-wife or family group, with the wife physically supporting her husband with an arm around his shoulder. In the sculptures of a pharaoh and his wife, she was normally on a smaller scale, indicating the pharaoh’s godly aspect – the wife was only human. (Normal sculptures had the husband and wife in proportion to each other.) Women only sculptures are very rare.
Women in Writing
Ancient Egyptian letters, though, show the more human side of Egypt. There were love letters, poetry, private law cases and personal letters between friends and family members. Ostraca (pottery chips) were used as note pads by the Egyptians, showing their thoughts and messages to themselves. Not surprisingly, ancient Egyptian relationships were about the same as today – they loved and hated, they held hands to show affection and love, they had romantic moments and bitter fights, they gossiped and chatted, just as we do today. (Note, though, that the Egyptians were big on double entendres and were not prudish, as we westerners tend to be today. ‘Unseemly’ things have been left out or ignored, at times, in translation. For example, the sun god Ra masturbated, and his semen turned into his children, Shu and Tefnut!) But one must remember that the writings were written by men, as women – even thought who could read and write – tended not to make a profession out of writing, so many topics that would have only been of interest to women are absent from Egyptian writings. They did have a goddess of writing, though – the goddess Seshat, the ‘female scribe’.
As an interesting side note, one ancient poem showed that, just as today, women had to put up with men perving at them:
She makes all men turn their necks
to look at her.
One looks at her passing by,
this one, the unique one.
— Papyrus Chester Beatty I
Medical writings, though, show us what sort of problems the Egyptian woman faced. Ailments, symptoms and suggestions for cures for women were all recorded by the ancient Egyptian doctors. The modern study of the mummies also show these problems, and more general things about her. She was relatively short with dark hair and eyes, and light brown skin. She lived to approximately forty years, if she survived past childhood and pregnancy. Life was hard to both women and men, even with the Egyptian doctors. Most advice, though, was a mixture of ancient medicine and magic spells – scientific knowledge combined with superstition! They believed that every medical problem (not caused by an accident) was the result of demons or parasitic worms. The way they dealt with that was to alleviate the symptoms, and use spells to get rid of the cause. It’s not surprising that the life expectancy of the ancient Egyptian was pretty low!
Prescription for safeguarding a woman whose vagina is sore during movement: You shall ask her “What do you smell?” If she tells you “I smell roasting,” then you shall know that it is nemsu symptoms from her vagina. You should act for her by fumigating her with whatever she smells as roasting.
— Kahun Medical Papyrus
Women suffered from deadly diseases such as smallpox, leprosy, spina bifida, polio and many, many more. Even smaller problems, such as diarrhoea and cuts, could still prove fatal! Almost everyone suffered from rheumatism and abscessed teeth (the desert sands got into most Egyptian foods). Doctors or scribes, other than giving advice for such conditions, occasionally even got into giving advice for such things as ‘female troubles’ and tips for the complexion!
In ancient fiction, women tended to be secondary figures to the plot. She was the wife, daughter or mother, left behind while the man went off on his adventure. This points towards the fact that written tales were written by men, for men. It is not until the end of the Dynastic period where women started actually having characteristics in stories – mostly they were the bad women of the plot. For example, in the Tale of the Two Brothers, as in the story of Joseph in Egypt, the woman was married (in this case, to one of the brothers), yet she made advances to the hero of the story. He rejected her, then in revenge, the told her husband that the hero had raped her. In this story, even the hero (who avoids this trap) married, and was betrayed by an unfaithful wife!
Love songs and romantic poems had a much more favourable image of women. Semi-erotic, they showed women who expressed their own sexuality, showing that women desired men just as much as men desired women. References to sexual intercourse were freely written, showing Egypt’s relaxed attitude towards sexual relationships.
O my god, my lotus flower! …
It is lovely to go out and …
I love to go and bathe before you.
I allow you to see my beauty
in a dress of the finest linen,
drenched with fragrant unguent.
I go down into the water to be with you
and come up to you again with a red fish,
looking splendid on my fingers.
I place it before you … Come! Look at me!
— IFAO 1266 + Cairo 25218, 7-11
Women, Food and Drink
When it comes to food and drink, women could eat and drink as much as their male counterparts. Although Egyptians tend not to be depicted actually eating food, they were shown drinking. (The Egyptian for ‘to pour’ sti also meant ‘to impregnate’ (depending on the added determinative hieroglyph), so these scenes could well be visual puns!) Women were even depicted as getting drunk and throwing up, which was seen as a good Egyptian joke!
Women’s Education and Career
Other than scribe god Thoth’s wife Seshat, the goddess of writing, very few women were seen with a scribe’s writing kit, let alone actually seen writing! These high ranking or royal women were often given a private tutor, who taught them reading and writing. The female pharaoh Hatshepsut’s (1473-1458 BC) daughter, Neferura, had a private tutor, Senmut (one of Hatshepsut’s favourite courtiers). Surprisingly, some ostraca suggest that some ordinary housewives were able to read and write – there were laundry lists, female fashion advice and other female concerns found! These women, though, would be the wives of educated men, so this was not common through the land of Egypt. This is to be expected, as many of the men could not write, either.
Despite this, due to the fundamental biology of a women, she only had a certain range of jobs available to her. She was married at the age when the males were starting their job training, and naturally became mother and housewife. Though a wife could become her husband’s official representative from time to time. For example, if a husband was absent, she could take charge of his business for him. When a high-class woman found little to occupy her time, a religious position such as a priestess for a certain god or goddess, was encouraged. She was expected to make contributions to the temple – she was not just a “pretty face” for the particular temple she worked for.
Women with talent could enter jobs in the music (which has links to sexuality), weaving or mourning (the women hired to grieve at funerals) industries, while those well connected women could get professional positions such as domestic supervisors or domestic administrators. Women who took people into their service took women, the men took men into their service. Maids were for the mistress, manservants for the master of the house. (Sexual segregation seems to be wide spread, even in the temples – it was mostly women who served goddesses, and men who served gods.) Some of the job titles women could hold were “Supervisor of the Cloth”, “Supervisor of the Wig Workshop”, “Supervisor to the Dancers of the Pharaoh” and “Supervisor of the Harem of the Pharaoh”. From this, it is known that these were female-linked occupations, because females were in the managerial-type role. One woman, Lady Nebet, even managed to get the powerful position as Vizier – the right hand ‘man’ of the pharaoh – but it is known that her husband performed the duties of this role. Other women managed to become ‘stewards’ and ‘treasurers’.
On of the most exalted administrative titles of any woman who was not a queen was held by a non-royal women named Nebet during the Sixth Dynasty, who was entitled, “Vizier, Judge and Magistrate.” She was the wife of the nomarch of Coptos and grandmother of King Pepi I.
— The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society, Dr Peter Picone
Women’s Beauty, Hygiene and Fashion
In Egypt, cosmetics were not a luxury, they were a way of life! Men and women followed the latest fashions in both hairstyles and make-up. Cosmetics, more so, was life or death in Egypt – kohl to rim the eyes was (almost) equal to sunglasses today! Everyone, from the poor to the pharaohs, had make-up… the difference being the range and quality of the products used. As for hair, rich Egyptians shaved their heads and used wigs to keep up with the latest styles – these wigs were even made of human hair! Perfumed oils were used to rub into the scalp after shampooing (if they had their own hair), and perfumed fat was possibly placed on top of the head (seen in many party scenes, though this might be an ancient Egyptian way of symbolising perfume, rather than actual cones of perfumed fat), to melt into the hair and give off a pleasing scent. Due to the climate, Egyptians were fixated on cleanliness – so much so that foreigners (thought to be dirty) and those who didn’t have access to much personal hygiene were despised. Men and woman shaved and plucked off all of their body hair using tweezers, knives and razors, be them of flint or metal (they used oil as shaving lotion – moisturising oils were also rubbed into the skin as protection against the harsh, hot climate). Not only was this for beauty, but it also rid the Egyptians of body lice. To clean themselves while bathing, the Egyptians used natron (which was also used when mummifying the dead), followed by linen towels for drying. The rich had facilities in their places of residence while the majority of Egyptians bathed in the Nile (which was also used for drinking, cooking water, laundry and sewerage – water-bourn diseases were common). The Egyptians even had deodorants! As for menstruation, there is very little written (men did not find this important enough to write about), but there is evidence that the Egyptian women used folded pieces of linen as sanitary towels that were laundered and reused. The term ‘purification’ and ‘cleansing’ were used to describe menstruation, and men tried to avoid contact with women at this time – it was seen as ritually unclean.
In a “Wisdom Text” there’s one more indirect hint about menstrual hygiene. The text describes the high social status of a scribe and also gives some examples of “negative” careers like that of a laundry worker, who even has to wash the “loincloth of a menstruating woman,” which could easily be a pad with belt or something similar.
— Menstruation, Menstrual Hygiene and Woman’s Health in Ancient Egypt, Petra Habiger
Nudity in ancient Egypt, when in its correct place, was not offensive or uncomfortable. Various jobs required that people went nude – fishermen and other manual labourers for instance – as did ones social status – the very poor tended to go nude. Female servant girls, dancers, acrobats and sacred ‘prostitutes’ went around totally or semi-nude for their jobs. The high class, though, seemed to love showing off their clothing and the latest fashions – the fashions changed much over time, but always the outfits appeared with jewellery… necklaces, rings, anklets, bracelets. Even the poor wore jewellery (though not of gold or precious gems), but this was not only decorative, but usually a good-luck symbol or protective amulet.
Women and Law
When it comes to law, legal correspondences show that (in theory) women stood as equals to the men of the same class. Egyptian women could inherit, she could purchase and own property and slaves, and she could sell her property and slaves as she wished. (Though if she was married, her husband had some say in these matters.) She could make legal contracts, start law proceedings (and hence, be tried for crimes) and borrow and lend goods. She was allowed to live life as a single woman, without male guardians. (In the rest of the ancient world, men dominated women, so this is very, very different from the norms of the rest of the world!) One of the reasons that this freedom might have occurred, is because decent could be passed through either the male or female lines – a pharaoh could only become pharaoh if he married a woman of royal blood, as women carried the royal line!
In marriage, assets acquired together by the couple were shared – a wife was entitled to a share of these communal assets. She could pass on her own assets, and her share of the marital assets, to her children as she saw fit. (The poor, though, were not really treated the same way as the rich, man or woman. An Egyptian peasant woman was usually married at 14, she took care of her family through most of the year… yet she was also expected to toil away with the men folk during certain important agricultural periods, too! She was usually a grandmother by the age of thirty. It was a hard life for the poor, women or otherwise. She probably had very little time for going to court or making wills!)
I am a free woman of Egypt. I have raised eight children and have provided them with everything suitable to their station in life. But now I have grown old and behold, my children don’t look after me any more. I will therefore give my goods to the ones who have taken care of me. I will not give anything to the ones who have neglected me.
— Lady Naunakhte’s Last Will and Testament
A husband could even pass the full amount of his assets on to his wife (rather than his siblings or children) in his will. He could even adopt his wife to make sure that his siblings could not inherit his assets – she was then entitled to both the wifely portion of his goods, as well as the potion given to his children!
My husband made a writing for me and made me his child, having no son or daughter apart from myself.
— Nenufer, Wife of Nebnufer
Ancient Egyptian Women
Egyptian women had a free life, compared to her contemporaries in other lands. She wasn’t a feminist, but she could have power and position if she was in the right class. She could hold down a job, or be a mother if she chose. She could live by herself or with her family. She could buy and sell to her hearts content. She could follow the latest fashions or learn to write if she had the chance. She loved and laughed and ate and drunk. She partied and got sick. She helped her husband, she ran her household. She lived a similar life to that of her mother and grandmother in accordance with ma’at. She was an ancient Egyptian woman with hopes and dreams of her own… not too much different we woman of today.