Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thoughts on Women in Ancient Egypt

I was thinking about various topics for posts here on my walk to the bank and it occurred to me to write a little about women in Ancient Egypt. It’s a popular topic but what really interests me, particularly when I’m trying to write fiction set in AE, is what did it feel like? I mean we sort of take for granted that we have a lot more freedom today as women in Western society, well at least I do, and I think that’s mainly true of almost any culture and any epoch in human history. But that doesn’t let me escape from thinking about how gender does define my experience from day to day even if it is just in the little things.

Fundamentally and biologically being a mother was an experience that defined and shaped me and how people respond to me from my son to other women to the men around me is all pervasive even if I try to ignore it. Just today I was told that my new hair style was nice because it made me look more feminine and pretty. Women still earn less in comparison to men for many of the same jobs. Single mothers are often blamed for bad parenting on the basis that they are incapable of doing a good job without the aid of a man (this is why I’m personally excited about Obama as president, he was the son of a single mom! Finally some representation in the White House!). The latest trends that really alarm me are the treatment of biological conditions of womanhood as diseases like giving birth (watch the documentary the Business of being Born), menopause, or even menstruation.

So while I can say that being a woman in 2008 isn’t as limiting as it was in 1880 or in Ancient Egypt I still have much in common with my ancient sisters. Not that much is really known, regardless of the copious research done on the subject, on some of the fundamentals of AE life. Much is drawn from just a few sources as to the life condition of women and for the most part that which exists applies more to well off women than the peasant farmers and their wives. What is known that is that who you were back in the Old, Middle, or New Kingdom was defined by what class of society you were born to and by what gender you were born. What you did for a living or how much you got to eat or even how long, on average, you might live was all pretty much set in stone the minute you drew your first breath.

Modern women writers like to imagine themselves in a beautiful ancient Egypt where they had lots of rights, responsibilities, and opportunity for advancement much like they have today – plus great make-up and wigs and fabulous sheer clothing and jewelry. The fact is that life was much much harder even for the well off wife. She had to work hard managing her husband’s estate, servants, and probably keeping up with a nice side business of weaving. Her status was, for the most part, entirely dependent on who her husband and relations and defined by her biological role of motherhood. There is evidence to support the sense that Egyptian women had more rights and respect than many other ancient cultures, but their place in was clearly defined by function. It’s quite possible that sexual and gender freedom was not possible in the ancient world due to expediency. That the Ancient Egyptians were more fair minded than other cultures in their treatment of the female gender is significant, even if they cannot be called femininists!


Dorlana said...

Love your blog. Where were you when I was doing research! lol. I'm looking forward to reading more post.

Peter of Dreux said...

I think it's easy to be enamoured with Ancient Egyptian society; one tends to focus on the positive aspects, that which we find admirable or exciting, and forget the mundane or unpleasant.

Nevertheless, it is quite interesting that the status of women over 5,000 years ago was in many instances far better than it was in Europe, for instance, as recently as the 1800's. Certainly compared to their contemporaries, the lauded ancient Greeks, Egyptian women were the recipients of greater respect.

Kemsit at Panhistoria said...

I totally agree with your main point, Peter, and wish sometimes that the main influence of Western culture was not Greek but AE!

And thanks Dorlana! :)