Feminism and the Battle for Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt
It is often assumed that women in the ancient world held little power or influence. However, women in ancient Egypt could become highly influential physicians, political advisors, scribes, or even rulers. But like women in many cultures throughout history and today, they had to fight to acquire and hold onto their rights.
The first female ruler known in ancient Egyptian history lived during the reign of the First Dynasty. Her name was Merneith; she was a consort and a regent around 2970 BC.
Tomb stela of Merneith from the Umm el-Qa'ab. (CC BY 2.0)
After thousands of years of equal rights, Ptolemy IV tried to stop the strong tradition of cults of women. He changed the law and canceled many rights that had made women equal to men. It was the beginning of the dark age characteristic for the upcoming dominating beliefs, which had their roots in Rome and Greece. However, Egyptian women didn't want to accept a patriarchal society. Until the power of the Egyptian civilization came to an end, they fought for their rights. Commonly, researchers accept that the end of Egyptian women’s independence arrived with the death of the great scientist Hypatia in 415 AD. Before that event took place, Ancient Egyptian women had thrived in society for more than three millennia.
Women who wrote the history
Seshat was a goddess of scribes in Ancient Egypt. Many of her priestesses were well educated writers who served nobles and rulers. Moreover, it seems that all of the noble women took writing lessons. The correspondence of women from Deir el-Medina suggests that women from other classes of Egyptian society could also write. The wives of drawers, painters, stone masons and other workers, used to exchange letters with their husbands. They were writing about the obstacles of daily life, about their feelings and all of the things which were important to them.
Seshat carved on the back of the throne of the seated statue of Rameses II in the Amun temple at Luxor. (CC0 1.0)
It is unknown how many difficulties women had to pass to become a royal scribe like men. However, there is no proof that they had to do anything more than men, suggesting that the exams and opportunities were equal. The first known female scribe is dated back to the rulers of the 6th dynasty. Idut was mentioned in the Mastaba which belonged to the vizier Ihy, dated back to the 5th Dynasty. She was perhaps a daughter of the pharaoh Unas.
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In the tomb TT390, located in the South El-Assasif necropolis, which is a part of the Theban Necropolis was buried a woman named Irtyrau. She was a chief attendant of the Divine Adoratice of Amun, and a great scribe of Nitocris I, a daughter of pharaoh Psamtik I. Nitocris was a Divine Adoratice of Amun between 655 until her death in 585 BC. Irtyrau belonged to a prominent family Thinite from Abydos. The tomb of Irtyrau was discovered by the team of Wilkinson, Hey and Burton in 1820, explored later by Lepsius.
Tomb TT390 (Egypt My Luxor)
Viziers of the Pharaoh
Some women in ancient Egypt could also be viziers (the highest officials to serve the Pharaoh). Only two of them are confirmed and known by name. The first one is known in historical texts as Nebet. She was a vizier during the reign of pharaoh Pepi I of the Sixth Dynasty, during the period known as the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Her husband was the nobleman Khui, who was also an important person in the court of the king, but his wife reached the highest possible position in the political system of the country. The daughters of Nebet and Khui, Ankhesenpepi I and Ankhesenpepi II, became wives of Pepi I. Ankhesenpepi I was a mother of a pharaoh Merenre Nemtyemsaf. Her sister bore a Pharaoh, Pepi II. Moreover, Ankhesenpepi II, after the death of her first husband, got married to Merenre Nemtyemsaf.
Statuette of Queen Ankhesenpepi II and her Son, Pepy II, ca. 2288-2224 or 2194 B.C.E. Egyptian alabaster, Brooklyn Museum. (Public Domain)
Nebet was known as a powerful woman of her times, some believe that she was a princess related to the royal family. Her name was connected with Geb, Toth, and Horus. It seems that her position influenced the image of the dynasty. As a vizier she controlled the building of the pyramid of Pepi, and other monuments ordered by him. He was one of the greatest kings of his times, and his right hand was a woman.
Also during the Ptolemaic period, during the reign of Ptolemy V, a woman became a vizier - Queen Cleopatra I Syra, mother of Cleopatra II, Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII. She was born in 204 BC as a daughter of King Antiochus III the Great and his wife Leodice. She was the first of the great Cleopatras of Egypt and perhaps the only queen of this country, who had become a vizier.
Queen Cleopatra I Syra. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The healers of Sekhmet
The medicine of ancient Egypt was very advanced and patronized by female goddess Sekhmet. The adepts of medicine from all of the ancient world were arriving near the Nile to study the secrets of the human body. Nonetheless, in Egypt, women were able to be a lot more than midwives. They were allowed to be physicians of the royal family and even perform surgeries.
The first known female physician lived circa 2700s BC, during the reign of the 2nd and 3rd dynasties. Her name was Merit Ptah, and she is known from the necropolis around the step pyramid of Saqqara created by another great vizier, physician and scientist – Imhotep. The inscription says that her son was a High Priest and a Chief Physician. It seems that his mother was also his teacher.
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Soon after, another woman became the most influential physician of the royal court near the Nile. Her name was Peseshet and she lived during the reign of the 4th and 5th dynasties. She was known as the main doctor of the Kingdom. She is known from the mastaba of her son in Giza, where her personal false door was found. She graduated at medical school in Sais, the center of the medical sciences in the third millennium BC. She knew all the medical documents created in the past, she knew how to create medications, complete difficult surgeries and is recorded as having healed cancer of the womb using a mixture of fresh dactyls, bay leaves, and essence of the seashells.
The forgotten power of female minds
Women in ancient Egypt worked in many jobs traditionally dedicated to them, but they were powerful enough to be independent, have their own workshops producing textiles, jewelry and other goods, and even take an important role in political life, become physicians or scribes. Although, they were underestimated by many historians for centuries, their strong position in the powerful civilization of ancient Egypt could be an inspiration for modern women in many parts of the world.
Featured image: Ancient Egyptian women celebrating feasts and festivals that were accompanied by music and dance. Source: Public Domain
Carolyn Graves-Brown, Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt, 2010.
Christian Jacq, Les Egyptiennes, 1996.