At a time when women were considered inferior in virtually every other society in the world, women in ancient Egypt had legal rights, could hold jobs and some women even became pharaohs. It is true that men were dominant in ancient Egyptian society, but the rights accorded to women were remarkable and in many ways they were nearly the equals to men in society.
WOMEN’S LEGAL RIGHTS
An Egyptian woman’s legal rights were far-reaching. A woman could own and sell property, and could enter into any kind of legal contract. They were free to file a lawsuit or even sue for divorce. Women could leave property to their children or other family members, though Egyptian men had some control over this. Women in Egypt also could keep the personal property they brought into a marriage, though their husbands could freely use that property. They were also entitled to two-thirds of their husband’s estate if the husband died while married, in what is the first example of a community property arrangement.
Ancient Egypt for most of the three great kingdoms was an agrarian society, and despite the invention of hieroglyphics, only a small percentage of the population worked as scribes. Illiteracy rates were high for men and higher for women, primarily because there wasn’t a widespread need to read and write. There is evidence of some women who could read and write, particularly royals, but for the average ancient Egyptian citizens, reading and writing was not a primary concern. The following sources expand on the notion of literacy among women in ancient Egypt.
WOMEN IN PUBLIC
Though women were nearly equal to men in many ways in Ancient Egypt, the traditional deference between man and woman still existed. This meant that most women remained at home, rather than out in public, taking care of all aspects of the housing and raising the children. There were some exceptions of women who had jobs outside the home. Archaeologists have also uncovered stories of women drinking in public. The average woman of ancient Egypt – not including royalty – did not stray far from the home or family.
Single women in Egypt could hold a variety of jobs, from different positions in the homes of royals – such as nanny or cook - to weaving, baking and gardening. Married women held jobs outside the home only rarely, especially those with no royal connections. Some women also worked for the state, in jobs like musician or dancer.
WOMEN AND CRIME
In the area of crimes and punishment for women, a variety of sometimes contradictory rules were in place highlighting the struggle between fostering near-equality for women and continuing to keep the man as the dominant figure in Egypt. For example, a woman who commits a serious crime could be an enemy of the state, just as a man would, but if the crime involved adultery – a very serious offense in ancient Egypt – the woman faced death while the man’s sentence usually did not.
Women who committed capital crimes and faced a death sentence received different treatment and had their sentence delayed if they were pregnant. Once the baby was born, the woman's sentence was then carried out.
WOMEN AND FAMILY
In ancient Egypt woman were expected to be the mistress of the home, directing the cleaning, feeding and raising of the children. Marriage was very important in Egypt, as was child-bearing. The traditional expectations were somewhat different with royal women, who could aspire to greatness in the country. Five women were pharaoh. But when it came to the working-class woman, her place was with her family.
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