William A. Ward, Department of Egyptology, Brown University (NEH Lecture, Brown University, 21 June, 1995)
Please be sure to read Professor Ward’s notes on the translations of his sources.
Before looking at the position of women in the economic structure of Pharaonic Egypt, we must first understand something about that structure itself. We are, of course, limited to the available documentation which only indirectly touches the bulk of the population, the peasant-farmers at the bottom of the economic scale. There are ample written records to show how the economy functioned at the level of the royal family, the wealthier strata of officialdom, and the temple hierarchies. We can even go as far down the economic scale as the professional middle class and the independent peasant landlords. But the records stop here and we know next to nothing of the economic status of the majority of farming families who, for want of a better term, labored as tenant-farmers on land held by others.
As in any agricultural society, the basis of wealth lay in ownership of land and animals and the profit they produced. Since there was no money, profit was measured primarily in terms of grain-yields, so that the more land an individual owned, the greater the grain-yield, hence the greater his wealth. In most agricultural societies, such an economic system produced a small wealthy class, a professional middle class dependent on the wealthy class for its economic stability, and a very large peasant class reduced to serfdom. This was not true in Egypt where a different kind of economic structure was created. This has been labelled “redistribution,” a practise whereby some of the profit from the land was fed back into the general population rather than hoarded by a wealthy aristocracy.
This was largely possible because of the land itself, a geographical context that fostered security, stability, and cooperation. Egypt did not have to cope with certain major problems endemic in neighboring regions. For example, the basic political structure in all of Western Asia was the small, independent city- state, of which there were hundreds stretching from the Levantine coast to the Tigris River and beyond. Kingdoms and empires were formed in Western Asia, but only by military force and such kingdoms and empires lasted only as long as that military force was strong enough to maintain them. Each of these hundreds of city-states was easily invaded so that the long history of that large area is one of inter-city warfare, the conquest of one city by another, and a constant shifting of political centers.
More to the point, agriculture depends on water and the water-supply in much of Western Asia was erratic. In Canaan, for example, there are rivers but most run dry or very low during the long summer season there. While many towns were built along the rivers, most grew up around the natural springs that abound in the region. A few seasons of below-average rainfall during the winter meant that the great underground reservoirs in the mountains that fed both the rivers and springs were low. This literally almost destroyed the area’s agricultural output so that food was often in short supply. A drastic change in the climate was a catastrophe. Toward the end of the third millennium, for example, a lack of water caused the disappearance of urban life in Palestine for two centuries and the population was reduced to a semi-nomadic way of life . The lack of a dependable water supply throughout Canaan remains a serious problem to this day; it is a major factor in the modern political unrest in the region.
Such major difficulties did not plague Egypt. While the Nile Valley was not as isolated from its neighbors as commonly supposed, it was not easy to invade. Indeed, the first successful invasion and occupation of Egypt did not occur until the late 8th century B.C. when a Nubian dynasty ruled for about a century. Throughout most if its history, Egypt enjoyed a stable government found nowhere else in the ancient world. This allowed the development of a sensible and well organized control of the nation’s natural resources, especially its oversight of the land and the abundance it produced. This abundance which regularly yielded a large surplus was due, of course, to the Nile River, the single water supply that was the ultimate basis for the economic stability of the country.
In the Spring and early Summer, the central African rainy season caused two great lakes to overflow — Lake Tana in Ethiopia and Lake Victoria in Uganda. Swollen rivers from these lakes rushed northward to join at Khartoum in the Sudan forming the Nile River which then flowed northward to the Mediterranean, blanketing the entire flood plain of the valley with water. The flood plain of Egypt lay under water from July to October, fertilized naturally by the silt and organic matter deposited over the land by the flood waters. After the flood receded, from November to February came the growing season. After the crops had been harvested the dry season set in from March to June when the Nile was at its lowest. And so it went year after year, century after century. These seasons, each about four months long, gave a dependable water supply producing a dependable food supply that produced a dependable surplus income. There were fallow years here and there, but Egyptian planners were prepared with granaries of emergency food supplies. And there were years of excessive flooding that dissolved the mud brick villages built among the fields. But by and large, the cycle of flood, planting, and dry seasons was regular, the annual agricultural yield was regular, the state could count on a regular income, and most important, a regular surplus. It was this regular surplus that allowed the Egyptian state to redistribute its wealth down the economic scale so that far more of the population was able to share in the profit.
Let me present a hypothetical case. Take an average free peasant farmer who owns his own small farm — let’s call him Neferhotep, the Egyptian equivalent of Smith or Jones. He and his family work their fields for half the year when agriculture is in full swing. When the crops are in, the tax collectors come round, Neferhotep hands over the required sacks of grain, and the family settles into the other half of the year when most of the fields cannot be worked since the water supply is at its minimum or the inundation covers the land.
But Neferhotep and his sons do not have to remain idle for several months. The government has begun building a temple in a nearby town and must assemble a labor force. The architects and stone-masons and other professionals are salaried government employees so, while they may own farms here and there, their primary income is their monthly salary. But architects and stone-masons do not clear the bulding site, haul the stone, make the mud bricks, or the multitude of of other tasks involved in creating a new temple. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of extra workmen are therefore needed. It might even be thousands, depending on the size of the project. By joining this work force, Neferhotep and his sons bring in a secondary income, extra salaries paid in sacks of grain during the months when their own fields produce little or nothing.
Neferhotep’s family now has a surplus, sacks of grain they do not need for their own use but which can be bartered for items the family needs or would like to have. Perhaps a donkey to help with the work around the farm, or a copper pot Mrs. Neferhotep wants for the kitchen, or maybe even for the small plot of land a neighbor has put up for sale that can be offered as the dowry for Neferhotep’s eldest daughter. The extra income earned on the building project can be used as he sees fit to make life for his family just a bit more comfortable.
Without the new temple in the nearby town, there would be no donkey, or copper pot, or dowry for the daughter. On a very small scale, Neferhotep’s farm income has run the full cylcle — his fields give taxes in the form of sacks of grain he pays to the state, the taxes give him a second job, the second job raises his income in the form of surplus sacks of grain and thus raises his standard of living. Since the building project will last several years, Neferhotep and his sons can plan ahead on how this surplus wealth can be invested. The surplus is enough to buy the donkey, the copper pot, and the extra plot of land. And should they be even more fortunate, Neferhotep’s younger son has shown a budding artistic ability that could mean a career in the building trade.
But the family has another source for additional income since Mrs. Neferhotep and her daughters are expert at weaving several grades of linen cloth, much desired by the neighbors. Linen was not only used for bedding, clothing, and other everyday things, but also for the funerary shrouds found with most burials and, for those who could afford it, the substantial linen wrappings used in mummification. This small cottage industry supervised by Mrs. Neferhotep was therefore another source of surplus with which the family could afford luxuries like a few small pieces of furniture made of imported cedar wood.
In passing, we should keep in mind that the women of this small farming household must have contributed to work on the farm. This would especially be true when the crops were planted and harvested, work that had to be finished within a matter of a few days. The women would also have seen to the vegetable patches and fruit trees around the house. As in any farming family of our own day, there were ample chores for everyone. Still, except for those short periods when the whole family was needed, mainly planting and harvesting, my impression is that there was a clear division of labor. Men in general did the outside work: they plowed the fields, milked the cows, and even did the family wash. Women worked inside or in the shade of their gardens. This has a visible expression in Egyptian art where men are almost inevitably shown in red or brown colors, women in white or yellow. Egyptian men got sun-tans, the women did not.
Just as the Neferhotep family could invest its surplus to improve life on the farm, the state invested its surplus to improve life for the whole nation. Constructing a new temple provided employment for both the professional builders and for the innumerable Neferhoteps of the farming communities. The finished temple provided jobs for priests and the large cadre of lay personnel needed for its religious and civil functions. It also provided new taxes to the state, more surplus to be used in state projects, creating more jobs, more surplus to individuals, and so on. The dependable annual cycle of the river made posible a dependable annual cycle in the economy.
Agricultural profit thus went full circle from those who grew the grain, through taxation, and back to at least some of those who paid the taxes to begin with. This is somewhat over-simplified, but is the fundamental principle on which the Egyptian economic structure was founded.
Furthermore, the almost inevitable agricultural surplus created a second source of government income, the exchange of this surplus with neighboring regions for raw materials and manufactured products. Just as Neferhotep went outside the family to his neighbors to buy a donkey or a piece of land, the state went outside Egypt to obtain many items the Nile Valley itself could not supply. Foreign trade between nations, like that between Neferhotep and his neighbors, was essentially the exchange of surplusses. Egypt’s main trading commodity was food, in demand by her neighbors who, in turn, supplied Egypt from their own surplusses.
Take wood, for example, a necessary raw material in most societies. Native Egyptian trees were sufficient for most purposes, but the Egyptians early discovered that the coniferous trees of Canaan were of better quality and produced aromatic oils and resins. These foreign conifers became highly prized for wooden furniture, and the like, their oils for mummifcation, medicine, and perfumes. In the first centuries of Egypt’s historical age, most of the desired coniferous woods could be obtained from Palestine where the water supply was eratic, meaning an undependable food supply and, therefore, a demand for Egyptian grain. An exchange of food and conifers was an obvious step for both to take. Already at the beginning of the first dynasty, there existed Egyptian trading colonies in southern Palestinian towns and a string of settlements along the sea-coast of Sinai, some Egyptian, some Canaanite, some a mixture of both.
But the most desirable coniferous wood was cedar along with the valued cedar oil it produced, and this could only be obtained from farther north in Lebanon. The mountains of Lebanon were covered with coniferous forests though, again, the water supply was eratic and some of the Lebanese city-states lacked enough agricultural land to grow sufficient food. Hence, the early creation of a long commercial relationship between Egypt and Lebanon that would last for many centuries to come.
This early commercial contact produced other things as well. Canaanites from the southern towns of Palestine came to live in Egyptian urban centers bringing with them the science of metallurgy. By the early third millennium, Egypt had discovered the turquoise deposits in the mountains of southern Sinai. Here again was a foreign raw material that soon became a necessity in Egypt, at least among the upper classes, for jewelry. To the south, there was gold in Nubia and the Nile river was a natural trade route for the ivory, spices, and other luxury products of the Sudan.
Such foreign ventures were possible because the Egyptian state had the surplus capital to invest in the surplusses of other regions. It should be emphasized that foreign commerce was largely in the hands of the central government so the profits from such ventures provided another income for the royal family. It was not hoarded by them since much was filtered down to other segments of the population through royal gifts and grants. And it was possible for farmers like the Neferhotep family to purchase with their own surplusses at least some of the items or materials that came from foreign places. Even in lower class cemeteries, one finds pieces of gold jewelry and, in one period of Egyptian history when amethyst quarries near Aswan were exploited, even the lower classes were able to include fine amethyst necklaces among the objects buried with them in their tombs.
The general picture one gets of the Egyptian economy is that the two-fold income from internal taxation and external commercial ventures benefitted everyone from king to peasant to one degree or another. Much of this income was fed back into the general population by state- sponsored enterprizes, generating more and more opportunities for employment. The great temples followed the lead of government since they owned vast tracts of land producing income that not only created larger priesthoods, but a demand for more farmers, more artisans and craftsmen, more sailors to man the temple ships transporting grain to temple storehouses, in short, more employees at all levels. The same was true of the large private housholds which could have hundreds of dependants.
All this has a familiar ring in modern times — feed funds into more jobs that create more taxes that create more funds to feed into more jobs. Surprisingly enough, it worked for most of Egypt’s 3,000 year history. There were a few bad times when the state went bankrupt and the cycle was broken. But it always revived, the cycle was renewed, and the basic economic structure fed by the over-abundance of the river remained generally stable.
What did all this mean to the Egyptian woman? What was her place in this thriving economic atmosphere? First of all, it is necessary to understand that Egypt was, to use modern terminology, a male-dominated society. As a general rule, public life was the realm of men, that is, the whole complex of government, the civil service, the army, the trades and professions. A woman’s domain was in private life which may have been more a matter of social custom than official doctrine.
It was essential in Egyptian society that the wife create a home, care for the children, and generally run the household. In families of the middle and upper economic strata, this could mean a considerable load of work. Large households had scores of servants, workshops for weaving, preparing food supplies, and making clothes, fruit and vegetable gardens, and so on. The wife was therefore often in charge of a substantial community and it was her job to see that it functioned effectively. Simply maintaining the food supply for the family and its dependants was a task of no small proportions. The kitchen and storage facilities of the larger households were extraordinary in their size and complexity.
This does not mean, however, that women could not share in the economic stability of the country nor that they were denied economic independence. A prime goal in any agricultural society is, of course, ownership of land. In the Middle East today, a region with a long tradition of farming, a family may turn professional, no member of the family may actually farm the land, but land is retained in the family nonetheless. One can always return to the land if this becomes necessary; there is always a place to go. There is thus a security in just owning the land above and beyond the profit it might yield from farming.
It is quite clear that throughout Egyptian history women could own land. It is of no small interest that the earliest tomb biography known, dating around 2700 B.C., also mentions a legal document for the first time in Egyptian history, and that this is the testament of a woman. It is from the Saqqara tomb of Metchen, an important official of the Delta region, whose mother passed on some land to her children. Metchen, of course, notes only his own legacy, some 34 acres of land, a holding of some size even in a family of means. We know nothing more about his mother’s testament though there were other children involved so that what she owned and could pass on to her heirs must have been of considerable extent.
Another early legal document of ca. 2600 B.C. is the will of a prince who notes he is “alive on his feet and without illness,” as close to our own “of sound mind and body” as we could want. The prince disposes of his many estates among his heirs which include his wife, sons, and daughters. Each receives a specific legacy that is to be their own property. While this particular testament concerns members of the royal family, a few decades later the will of a commoner gives property to his son with the injunction that no man or woman in the family can claim rights to that property. The women of the family are here clearly able to challenge the provisions of a will.
Around 1900 B.C., two brothers who lived in the early 12th Dynasty wrote wills that tell us of the disbursement of property over two generations. The older brother, a minor government official who mentions no wife or children, leaves “all his possessions in field and town” along with all his movable property and dependants to his younger brother, a low-ranking priest. Five years later, the priest records his own will passing on to his wife all the property originally gained from his older brother, including a house from which no one can evict her. The priest’s own property will obviously pass to his children, but he is here making sure that his wife has her own inheritance which, he states, she may dispose of as she wishes.
Sometime during the 13th Century B.C., a small stone stela was placed in an Egyptian temple at Amarah West in the Sudan . It contains extracts from two family testaments declared by a mother and her son. The father, now dead, had originally divided his property between his wife and son. Both now state that the entire inheritance is to go instead to a daughter since she is the one who has agreed to care for the mother in the latter’s old age.
And around 1100 B.C., a most interesting case concerning inheritance was heard in the Vizier’s court. A priest now living with his second wife went before the Vizier to establish the division of his property. He had no children by his second wife, but there were children from his first marriage. The case concerned the joint property accrued in both marriages which technically should go to his children. However, he wished to divide this joint property. What had been accrued during the first marriage should go to his children, what had been accrued during his second marriage should go to his second wife. This required the prior agreement of his children who duly appeared in court and gave their consent, even to the stipulation that none of them could contest the will in the future. The second wife therefore inherited what her husband wanted her to inherit.
These documents spanning some 16 centuries are but a few of those indicating that women could inherit and own land, and then determine who should inherit both land and movable property from them. Other documents tell much the same story, including the right of a woman to contest a will and fight for her legal rights in court. One woman, for example,complains that her mother has cheated her out of her inheritance. Another wins her case against male relatives who refused to hand over her husband’s property. And yet another is concerned with payment never received for land she had sold. There is even a case where a woman takes her husband to court for wife-abuse, her chief witness being her mother-in-law.
While the testaments noted here are concerned with the right of women to inherit and own property, there is a far more important element, namely, a woman’s security and independence. The Egyptian woman was given much honor and respect. The wisdom literature openly instructs men to honor their wives and there is ample evidence to show that these instructions were taken to heart. For example, in the thousands of funerary scenes on stelae and tomb walls, a man’s wife or mother is mentioned or pictured in a place of honor. As often as not, a man is identified as the son of his mother rather than as the son of his father.
One of the duties of a man was to assure the security of his mother, wife, and daughters. One way of doing this was to give them their own property from which they could earn an income. Other societies solved this problem in different ways. Multiple marriage was common in many cultures not only as an instrument for creating large families, but also as a way to assure that no woman would be without the protection of a family. The latter motive is often overlooked in modern assessments of the practise which tend to emphasize its negative features. Another method was by levirate marriage by which the brother of a deceased man married the widow. While this is best known from the Old Testament, some scholars feel the practise is of Hurrian origin . In both cases — multiple and levirate marriage — property rights may also be involved, but one must not lose sight of the social significance, that by these means women, while they may not have received independence, did receive the protection and security of belonging to a family.
It was not necessary to resort to such methods in Egypt where women could legally play a significant role in administering family property or own it outright themselves. One of the classic cases in Egyptian inheritance law with all the drama of a Perry Mason thriller took place around 1250 B.C. Two families came to court disputing ownership of a plot of farmland about nine acres in size, a land-holding that meant a substantial income. The legal technicalities of this case are not important here. Suffice it to say that the winners could offer to the court copies of original documents as old as 300 years and that the losers presented forged documents to support their claim. Of importance in the present context is that the final claimant’s mother and grandmother had both been executors of the family holdings and that his great aunt had raised a previous lawsuit disputing the grandmother’s status as administrator of the entire estate. In other words, the women of the family could not only administer the family property, but could dispute legal decisions and be major litigants defending what they conceived to be their rights of inheritance.
Economic security of women was also a key element in marriage and divorce. It is difficult to believe that a marriage was formalized without some kind of religious ceremony, though at the non-royal level, we have no evidence that such occurred. We possess no marriage certificates, no accounts of any formal marriage ceremonies. Certainly, the setting up a new household must have been solemnized in some fashion if only by the families involved. In general, however, marriage appears to have been a secular rather than a religious event, more an agreement between bride and groom and their respective families.
What we do have in lieu of marriage contracts are property agreements based on both social custom and the law, designed not only to establish the economic viability of the new household, but also to protect the rights of both husband and wife should this household be broken up by divorce. The legalities of marriage and divorce thus revolved around what the husband and wife brought into the household at marriage and what they could take from it should the marriage be disosolved.
The husband was expected to supply a house and whatever inheritance he had or could hope to have from his parents. The wife supplied her own inheritance in the form of a dowry given by her family that might consist of movable property, a plot of farmland, or both. The wealthier the family, of course, the more extensive the property involved. Should a divorce take place, the legal system moved in to assure a fair settlement. The general practise was two-fold. First, the husband and wife each took back whatever property they had contributed at the time of marriage. Second, any additional property that had accrued during the marriage was divided between them: two-thirds to the husband, one-third to the wife. In this way, the woman became financially independent, did not have to return to her own family, and might even be considered a good prospect for a second marriage.
That the families of both husband and wife were involved in the marriage and divorce of their children goes without saying. It was the respective families, after all, who supplied the property the bride and groom contributed to their new household. And fathers of the bride were not averse to adding footnotes to marriage agreements. One father forced his prospective son-in-law to swear a legal oath that, should a divorce occur, the son-in-law will give up his right to his share of the community property added during the marriage, and will get a good beating to boot. The hundred blows with a stout stick to which this young man agrees was the same punishment regularly meted out to convicted thieves and other minor criminals. Another father, apparently dubious about the intentions of his prospective son-in-law, promises his daughter a place to live should her new husband decide he prefers the bachelor life after all. I should note that prospective sons-in-law were not above taking extra measures themselves. A love charm intended to cast a spell on the girl of a young man’s dreams requests of odd and sundry gods that they “make her come after me like a cow after herbage, like a serving-maid after her children, like a herdsman after his herd.” We have no way of knowing, of course, if the young woman in question was influenced one way or the other.
To this point, we have seen Egyptian women within the household as wives and mothers, but also as inheritors of property, executors of estates, legally the equal of men, and with the security and, where necessary, the economic independence underwritten by both the law and the family. While women are not generally found in public life, this does not mean that careers for individual women were impossible, although government and the professions as a rule were not areas in which women played a role. I refer, of course, to non-royal women; queens and princesses by virtue of their position had responsibilities to which commoners could not aspire. There is a rather interesting historical development in this matter of women in public life as one looks at the Old, Middle, and New Kingdom periods in Egyptian history. Public and non-household administrative functions were most common in the Old Kingdom after which, as time went on, fewer and fewer women are found in such positions. This may be illusory due to the limitations of the source material now available, a caution one must always note, but what is available certainly suggests this to be true.
During the Old Kingdom (ca. 2800-2200 B.C.), we find non- royal women in administrative positions outside the household. They held minor or middle management posts in palaces and temples; there was a Chief of Weavers of the Palace, several women who functioned as funerary priests, and even a Chief Physician. Compared to male officials at the same administrative levels, however, such women are rare. Many of them belonged to the entourage of queens or other highly-placed ladies. One finds priestesses attached to temple cults and women were prominent as directors of the professional singing and dancing troupes that were so much a part of temple ceremony. Whether or not any of these women supervised men is unknown, though singing and dancing troupes consisted of both men and women, and surely any middle management administrator must have had male employees. A female Overseer of a Storehouse, for example, may well have supervised men working there, though this depends on the size and location of the storehouse.
This points out one of the difficulties we have in attempting to understand Egyptian administration at all levels. We are basically dealing with official titles identifying individuals who appear monotonously in the texts without knowing what many of them actually did. There are hundreds of official titles at the palace level alone, yet very few appear in contexts that define their function. The duties of a hair-dresser or a barber are obvious from the title itself, but there is no obvious meaning for the title Overseer of a Storehouse. There are many terms for storehouses and we do not understand what differences there may have been between them. The importance of an overseer is thus relative to the size of the storehouse, whether it belongs to a palace or private household and, if the latter, how large a household.
In this regard, we should note a very common title of women in the Old Kingdom, totally misunderstood until recently. Literally translated as “Royal Ornament,” the numerous women thus designated were thought of as concubines belonging to a king’s harem. But, in my opinion, royal harems did not exist until New Kingdom times and, even then, were not harems in the modern sense of the term. It is now known that a “Royal Ornament” was rather a Lady-in-Waiting in the service of a queen. They were married women of the upper classes whose husbands were usually part of the king’s household or belonged to the upper echelons of government.
During the second stage in the history of women’s public functions, the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2100-1650 B.C.), there were many priestesses serving various deities, especially the goddess Hathor, though temple personnel in general remained dominantly male. The old title “Royal Ornament” is still common so that upper class women remained in the entourage of queens. A few women held low-ranking administrative positions in the palace and private households, though far less in number than in the Old Kingdom. Again, we face the problem of not knowing what functions a given title may have carried. The singing and dancing troupes are now directed mostly by men of upper class status. One new profession in which we find women is that of scribe which assumes a certain level of formal education. One gets the impression, however, that there were fewer opportunities for women in public life, or perhaps there were fewer women who desired careers outside the household. Most of the titled women of the Middle Kingdom belong in the ranks of the ubiquitous household servants that worked both for the palace and for all families of any substance.
In the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1100 B.C.), the situation has changed again, though the evidence is somewhat skewed. One looks almost in vain for women in administrative or professional positions of any kind other than within the context of temple service. But does this reflect the reality of the period? A strong argument has recently been made that reliefs and paintings of New Kingdom tomb chapels, a major source for defining Egyptian society in general, suffers from male bias. That is, the reliefs and paintings that adorn the walls of tomb chapels are oriented toward men, with women playing a passive role. I would not argue with this interpretation since it is certainly a valid one.
But there is more to it than this. In the tomb chapels of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, scenes of daily life far outnumber those with religious import. The women of a family are shown with their names and whatever titles they may have had. The family servants are shown, or at least named, in profusion along with titles designating their respective positions in the household. The emphasis in these earlier periods is thus more on the activities of this life which, by their very presence on tomb walls, are transferred to Paradise where these activities will continue forever.
In many ways, the artistic representations in New Kingdom tomb chapels reverse all this. Scenes with religious motifs now far outnumber those portraying daily life which eventually almost disappear. The women of a tomb owner’s family are still portrayed, but identified only by name and, in the overwhelming number of cases, only by the title “Lady of the House,” that is, a married woman who runs the household. The family servants who still existed in large numbers are shown far less frequently since there are fewer scenes of daily life, and when portrayed their names and titles are rarely given. The emphasis in the New Kingdom is on religious ritual and the funerary cult, far more attention is paid to gods and goddesses, and the older emphasis on the present life has given way to how to achieve Paradise. In other words, the mundane has given way to the supramundane. The same changes take place on the innumerable funerary stelae of the period, another major source for re- creating families and servants and whatever professions they may have followed.
In this new context of religion-oriented tomb decoration, there is a certain logic in recording only the religion-oriented positions of women. It is true that the whole range of male professions is noted in all areas of religious and civil life, that their wives and daughters have more or less faded into the background, and that we do not generally see the women of the New Kingdom, both of the upper and lower classes, as anything more than members of the family known to posterity as those who maintained a household. This profession and the role of women in religious affairs is apparently what mattered in New Kingdom times, in keeping with the overall intent of the tomb art of the age.
Certainly, women were not in the background in real life. They could have economic independence as we have already seen, and had legal rights equal to those of men as we will see tomorrow. Furthermore, it is evident that men with considerable property sought and followed the advice of their wives who were thus partners in running the business affairs of the family. One absentee landlord who fired a tenant farmer after visiting his land-holdings returned to Thebes and, following the advice of his wife, not only reinstated the farmer but enlarged his holdings by leasing him additional fields. A series of letters to a Scribe of the Necropolis and his wife indicate that the wife was very much involved in helping her husband run the estate in matters both large and small. And we cannot ignore the role that women played in administering what is incorrectly referred to in the literature as the “royal harem.” What is involved is really the queen’s palace, a separate royal institution with its own economic base as broad and lucrative as that of many temples. But while both men and women served as officials in these palaces, the archaeological remains of which can be identified at several sites, the major administrative positions were mostly held by men.
It is frankly difficult to offer a satisfactory overall generalization about women in public life outside the temples. I have the impression that a rather small minority of Egyptian women entered what we would term secular professions. There do not seem to have been any particular societal barriars preventing them from doing so, so it would be rather a matter of choice on the part of individual women themselves. To a certain extent, we lack enough documentation, but this is not the whole answer. The women who were educated and therefore eligible to enter public life belonged to the upper classes and it was these very women who already had extensive responsibilities over their large households. It may be that few women of this class had the time to engage in public professions. The “working mom” was just not a role that most women could take on even if they wished to do so.
The best I can offer as a general rule of thumb is what I have already noted: public life was the domain of men, women had the vast responsibility of private life. The number of women who were able to move into the public professional sector was relatively small and those that we can identify are the exceptions.
Lecture, Brown University, 21 June, 1995
William A. Ward, Dept. of Egyptology, Brown University
Urk. I, 2:9- 10.
Goedicke, Die privaten Rechtinschriften aus dem Alten Reich. Vienna, 1970, 21 ff.
Ibid, 31 ff
Griffith, Hieratic Papyris from Kahun and Gurob. London, 1898, pl. 13, Nos. I.1 amd I.2
Stela from Amarah West; Fairman, JEA 24 (1938)
Amonkhau; Pap. Turin 2021; Cerny and Peet, JEA 13 (1927), 30 ff.
Ost. Berlin 10629
Ost. DM 235
Pap. Brooklyn 16.205
Ost. Nash 5
Inscription of Mose
Ward, Orientalia 32 (1963), 430
HO pl. 23, 4
Ost. DM 1057; Smither, JEA 27 (1941), 131ff
G. Robins, in Women’s Earliest Records
P. Berlin 8523; W. Spiegelberg, ZAS 53 (1917), 107ff.
Wente, Late Ramesside Letters, nos. 2, 4, 5, 9