Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt

A for effort … But for implementation? You decide

Given that the bulk of my story is set in Ancient Egypt and I have two pretty prominent Egyptian, female characters, I did a fair amount of research on women’s rights and roles in Egypt during that time period before I began writing.

And it turns out that when you boil it down, the issue of women’s rights in Ancient Egypt is one of those things that looks pretty darn good on paper, but can get rather lame when put into practice. That said, most things are like that, and it’s a sight better than the situation in most ancient societies. So, it’s worth a look.

Let’s dig in to some specifics.

Firstly, Ancient Egyptian women were equal under the law to men. This means that (drumroll) female ownership of personal property, including the right and ability to buy and sell, was a thing. Further, women could sue and be sued, initiate divorce, travel on their own, and serve as a witness in a court case or for a legal document.

This. Is. Huge in the ancient world.

Now, before you start your standing ovation, remember that I said this all looks good on paper. There’s a second aspect to all of this that we need to discuss.

Social standing.

And social standing, in Ancient Egypt, came from your job.

I think you may see now where this is heading.

We have plenty of evidence that women in Ancient Egypt held jobs. Women could be manufacturers of goods or service providers, such as makeup artists or cooks. A few women, who had families willing and able to educate them (many men were not literate, either), held careers as doctors or scribes. Many became priestesses.

But.

Not many (read: hardly any) worked in any sort of administration, and that, my friends, is where the “really big fish” were, socially and legally speaking.

Most women, in actuality, despite the fact that many of their peers worked outside the home (and nothing was seen to be wrong with that), held the title of “mistress of the house” in legal documents and textual records – a much more typical status for a woman when the ancient world is viewed as a whole.

And being the “mistress of the house” makes you a very small fish with not much legal clout, even if your rights are technically the same as men, particularly men with the same sort of “job status level”.

Now, this means that there were plenty of men in Ancient Egypt who would have experienced the same or similar skewing of legal clout based on their social standing. I will also say that women in Ancient Egypt, if they really wanted or needed to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and carve their own path, could probably have pulled it off, limited from certain professions only perhaps by lack of literacy. But again, this was a ceiling many men would encounter as well.

In conclusion, the mere fact that men and women technically held the same rights under the law and even the fact that both men and women felt the same sort of pressure and restriction from their social standing are pretty unusual concepts in the ancient world.

So, as the heading suggests, I’m giving Ancient Egypt an A for effort. It’s a pretty noteworthy accomplishment. In regards to actual grading … you decide! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: The Story of Joseph. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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