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Written by Ty Narada for Dr. Kosso 

Piccione claims that Egyptian women seem to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as an Egyptian man. This notion is reflected in Egyptian art and historical inscriptions. Women’s rights were inherently connected to the theoretical role of the king in Egyptian society. Since the pharaoh personified Egypt, he emulated the social regimen and vicarious personality of the State. In that light, men and women are determined to be socially equal. (Piccione) All people sharing a common relationship with the king compose Egyptian national identity. Men and women evidently shared equally, so it appears that they were equal to each other. (Piccione)

Egypt was not an egalitarian society. (Piccione) Social distinction is viewed in terms of class rather than gender. Rights and privileges varied from class to class but equal economic and legal rights were afforded without gender bias. Most of the text and images that Piccione observed were found in the tombs of affluent Egyptians. He claims that commoners were not well represented due to insufficient funds. (Piccione)

Based on recovered legal documents, Egyptian women were accorded equal rights: They bought and sold private property, materials, servants/slaves and animals. The recovered legal documents indicate that women contracted in marriage and divorce. She could free slaves, make adoptions and execute testaments. Greek women required a male advocate (Kourios) in all legal predicaments. Egyptian women did not. (Piccione)

A man’s customary responsibility was to assure the security of his mother, wife and daughters. He did this by giving them property from which they could earn an income. (Ward) Ward claims that there were no marriage certificates or accounts of formal marriage ceremonies. Marriage was based on property agreements between the bride and groom’s respective families. The husband was expected to supply a house and any existing (or expected) inheritance from his parents. The wife’s family supplied her with a dowry that may have consisted of liquid assets, real property and portable wealth. The wealthier the family, the more extensive the dowry. (Ward)

An imyt-pr was the equivalent of a ‘living will.’ Records show that men more often created imyt-prs to short-circuit the custom of dividing his property equally among his survivors. The imyt-pr could specify property owned prior to marriage. Marriage, according to custom, created a limited community-property union: Only property accrued during a marriage's tenure was dissolvable after death. Property owned prior to marriage was not community property. (Piccione) A more radical provision allowed the husband to ‘adopt’ his wife, making her a legal child. Egyptian custom specified that 1/3 of a man’s property go to his wife and the remaining 2/3rds be evenly divided among his children. By adopting his wife, he could effectively make her his sole heir. It is important to note that gender distinction was made regarding real estate. Creating an imyt-pr could include property owned prior to the marriage; awarding her a fee simple estate (the whole thing). (Piccione)

"Women were clearly able to challenge the provisions of a will." (Ward) Women were free to distribute property according to their desires unless a provision in her husband’s will prevented it: A will was binding. Piccione cites a papyrus that describes a case in point: A childless woman inherited her husband's estate. She raised three children that her husband sired with the female household slave. Piccione says that such liaisons were common. She asked her oldest stepdaughter to marry her younger brother. She adopted her younger brother to make him her son. Her son [brother, formerly] and daughter-in-law [stepdaughter, formerly], became the sole heirs of the estate. Circumnavigating customary function was possible if you knew how. (Narada) The ability to enjoin heirs and disinherit them could be accomplished with equal finesse. According to Piccione, disinheriting an heir was a simple matter of selectively excluding them according to the owner’s conscious. The Will of Naunakht (Naunakht) can provide a more thorough exploration of the mechanics of property distribution. (Piccione)

Piccione describes records of women making arrangements for self-enslavement (indentured servitude) usually as payment to a creditor to satisfy bad debts. The horror of such arrangement is that the woman could also indenture her children and grandchildren in the contract. In the words of one woman who bound herself to the temple of Saknebtynis: "The ‘female servant’ has said before my master, Saknebtynis, the great god, 'I am your servant, together with my children and my children's children. I shall not be free in your precinct forever and ever. You will protect me; you will keep me safe; you will guard me. You will keep me sound; you will protect me from every demon, and I will pay you 1-1/4 kita of copper . . . until the completion of 99 years, and I will give it to your priests monthly." (Piccione). The 99-year stipulation was the loophole in what otherwise would have been an illegal contract. (Piccione) The quote itself is a good sample of one woman’s convictions and priorities.

Egyptian women had the right to bring lawsuits against anyone in open court and women won many legal cases without gender-bias. (Piccione) Women could institute litigation, appeal to the Vizier Court, be awarded legal decisions and have decisions reversed on appeal. Women were acceptable witnesses at a trial without gender-bias. (Piccione) Baines and Eyre suggest that lower class women were illiterate; less than 1 in 30 women had any education at all. (Piccione) Middle class women and the wives of professional men were slightly more educated. The upper class had a higher literacy rate among women. The assumption is based on textual and archaeological records that mention administrative titles that imply literate ability. (Piccione)

According to Ward, "There does not seem to be [evident] societal barriers excluding women from professional life but there is insufficient documentation." (Ward) According to Piccione, royal princesses had private tutors at court that taught them to read and write. Piccione refers to a female physician: As a prerequisite to medical school, she would have had to qualify as a scribe. (Piccione) Egyptian women were free to appear in public without inhibition. It was unsafe for an Egyptian woman to travel abroad until Ramesses III said (in one inscription), "I enabled the woman of Egypt to go her own way, her journeys being extended where she wanted, without any person assaulting her on the road." (Piccione) Piccione described Ramesses quote as a ‘boast’ for which Ramesses must have perceived himself as an enlightened administrator of justice. Piccione said that in spite of Ramesses boast, Egyptian custom still kept women from traveling alone, and those who did were pursued as whores.

According to Piccione, textual sources reveal upper class woman holding real office jobs. Piccione cites Nebet (6th Dynasty) entitled, "Vizier, Judge and Magistrate." Nebet was the wife of King Coptos and grandmother of King Pepi I. Piccione does not know if the title was granted posthumously. Another woman was entitled, "Second Prophet (i.e. High Priest) of Amun" at the temple of Karnak. Piccione says that the ‘Second Prophet’ would normally have been officiated by a male. Some women became national heroines: Queen Ahhotep (18th Dynasty), was regarded for saving Egypt during the wars of liberation against the Hyksos. She rallied Egyptian forces and crushed rebel troops in Upper Egypt at a crucial epoch in Egyptian history. She received the Order of the Fly, Egypt’s highest military decoration, on three separate occasions. There were some notable women criminals too: Tomb robbers, adulteresses, imprisoned convicts and masterminds of crime. Piccione cites Nesmut who was implicated in a series of royal tomb robberies in the Valley of the Kings as his chief example (12th Dynasty).

Artistic renderings reveal men plowing the fields, milking the cows, and doing the laundry. (Ward) Women worked inside or under garden shade. Because men were always outside, they are portrayed in red or brown colors where women always appear white or yellow. (Kosso, Ward) The men are sunburned; the women are not. Scenes with religious motifs far outnumber those portraying daily life (Ward) unlike the Minoans who created art with common everyday themes purely for enjoyment.

The realm of men included government, civil service, the military, trades and professions. A woman's domain was in private life that Ward attributes to social custom more than official doctrine. According to Ward, it was essential in that an Egyptian wife create a home, care for the children, and run the household. This meant a considerable workload for middle and upper income households. Ward says that large households had scores of servants in weaving workshops, large complicated kitchens, separate food preparation and storage areas, tailors and gardeners to name a few. The wife was the principal overseer of all domestic activity and general manager of the family and servants. With the exception of language and cultural aesthetics, Minoan women seem strikingly similar to Egyptian women where the Greeks, due to their expansionist policies, kept women under tighter, more sedated and less liberated conditions.


1. Dr. Cynthia K. Kosso, Professor of History, Northern Arizona University, class lectures
2. Will of Naunakht http://www.library.nwu/class/history/B94/naunakht.html
3. Peter A. Piccione, http://www.library.nwu.edu/class/history/B94/B94women.html
4. William A. Ward, http://www.uky.edu/AS/Classics/wardlect.html
5. Department of Egyptology, Brown University (NEH Lecture, Brown University, 21 June, 1995)