Women of Ancient Egypt
by Dr. John Palo, D.C.,
Member, International Research Council
ancient monuments can give us a false idea about the status of women in
Egyptian civilization. After all, they were often portrayed as tiny
afterthoughts at the feet of colossal male figures. Nonetheless, the
facts reveal that women enjoyed high status in ancient Egypt.
we explain this seeming contradiction?
It might help to keep in mind that throughout much of ancient
history the pharaoh was considered the direct representative of God. As
any sculpture of him had to portray him as larger than other
than life. Yet, this sculptural inequity between a huge pharaoh and
at his feet was the exception rather than the rule. The colossi of
Akhnaton, for instance, in the Cairo Museum
show no diminutive
queen at his feet. In numerous wall reliefs we find him normally
taller than his beautiful wife, Queen Nefertiti.
The largest Egyptian statues are of Rameses II at Abu Simbel which show a
mini-queen at his feet. Yet, in Queen
Nefertari's temple nearby, we see her portrayed in a statue of equal
that of her husband, Rameses II, and the goddess Hathor. Likewise, a
pair of statues from the Old Kingdom
Dynasty) of Pharaoh Menkaure and Queen Khamerernebty II depict them
side and exactly the same size. So, while the pharaoh was looked upon
as a god
with an appropriately large statue, the queen as "God's Wife" was
usually portrayed of equal size. Once we resolve the Pharaoh-equals-God
the occasional sculptural inequities no longer completely blind us to
status of royal and non-royal women in ancient Egypt.
Present research tells us
had at least five, possibly six, native female pharaohs. Statues and
these pharaohs are rare. Pharaoh Hatshepsut is the exception. However,
her reign as pharaoh she never had a husband. Thus we have no grand
her with a little husband at her feet.
One of two female pharaohs in the Old
was Pharaoh Nitokerty. She reigned around 2180 B.C., at the end of the
Dynasty. Records show, even as late as the Roman takeover of Egypt,
was regarded as the bravest and most beautiful woman of her time.
The famous Cleopatra VII, a descendant of the Greek Ptolemaic pharaohs,
before and after the time of the Roman conquest of Egypt.
At this late time in
Egyptian history the building of huge personal statues of the pharaohs
longer in vogue. We can only speculate, in that clash of Roman and
cultures, whether Julius Caesar or Marc Antony would have settled for
less-than-knee-high statues of themselves at Cleopatra's feet. That is,
course, if Cleopatra had subdued the Romans.
of the God"
It is important to keep in
mind that from the First Dynasty (about 5000 years ago) the Egyptian
of descent was traced through the women. A princess of royal blood was
considered a "Daughter of the God." A man of lesser birth who aspired
to the throne sought marriage with a royal princess. The royal female
was looked upon as the God-line. There was a
strange offshoot to this
idea. Male pharaohs who married someone outside this royal line felt
to later marry one of their own daughter-princesses. This, it seems,
assure them of the divine character of their
position as pharaoh. The
marriage was probably all ceremony and involved no incest. In some way
ceremony helped the male pharaoh maintain an appearance of a man-wife
association with the female royal bloodline.
There is a more down-to-earth explanation for such royal bloodline
They may have prevented the constant usurpation of the throne.
However intricate we may find pharaonic lineage in ancient Egypt, the fact of
female pharaohs speaks well
for the position of women in Egypt.
After all, in the United States,
where the citizens pride themselves
in the field of equal human rights, a female president is yet to be
But, then, the United States
is only 211 years old--making it a child alongside Egypt's
5000 years as a nation.
Yet, we should not overstate the case for equality of the sexes in the
of pharaoh. While ancient Egypt
had some female pharaohs, we must admit this position was male
the most part female Egyptian pharaohs, great as they were, served as
pharaohs. They often just succeeded their husband or served while a
brother or son was prepared for the position.
Pay for Equal Work
Once we leave the
intricacies of royal male/female relationships, the scale of equality
the sexes become even more balanced. Most non-royal statues show men
(noble or not noble) of equal size. Herodotus, the Greek "father of
history," who traveled to Egypt
in the middle of the fifth century, B.C., was surprised at the freedom
Egyptian women. He wrote, "The Egyptians themselves, in their manners
customs, seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. For
women attend market and are employed in trade, while men stay at home
the weaving." In those times Greek women were very much confined to
homes. On the other hand, Egyptian women had been involved in trade for
2000 years before Herodotus. And, of equal importance, the men and
women of Egypt
equally in proportion to the work they performed.
In ancient Egypt
it was not uncommon to have women supervisors in commerce and industry.
least one Egyptian woman was recorded as being both a judge and vizier.
religion, as early as the Old Kingdom,
women served as priests. And, the chief priest could be a woman. Both
female priests received equal pay. Further, there is a record of one
the title "Chief of Lady Physicians."
Even as late as early
from Rome, Greece,
Gaul, Asia Minor, and provincial Africa
attitude towards women's place in Christianity. Clement of Alexandria,
an early Egyptian Christian
father (and probably a Gnostic initiate), wrote, circa A.D. 180: "Men
women share equally in perfection, and are to receive the same
the same discipline. For the name humanity is
common to both men and
women; and for us in Christ there is neither male nor female."
Compare that with the words of Tertullian, a contemporary of Clement,
views reflected those of most orthodox Christians. In a tirade against
Christians, he exclaimed, "These heretical women--how audacious they
They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in
enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!"
another attack against a woman teacher who dared to lead a
Tertullian stated that he agreed with the "precepts of ecclesiastical
discipline concerning women," i.e., "It is not permitted for a woman
to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to
nor to offer [the eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine
function--not to mention any priestly office." Sadly, it is
attitude of male domination that still prevails in much of
well as Judaism and Islam. The early Egyptian Gnostic Christian views
Clement of Alexandria may yet prove a beacon light for equal sacerdotal
So, not only did ancient Egypt lead in female assumption of
national offices, Egypt
also led in the field of female involvement in religion and the work
an excellent book, The
Remarkable Women of Ancient Egypt, Barbara S.
Lesko states, "Four thousand years ago women in the Nile Valley
enjoyed more legal rights and privileges than women have in some
nations of the
world today. Equal pay for equal work is a cry heard now but seems to
the norm thousands of years ago in Egypt."
Again, let us not be fooled by those huge, eye-catching male pharaoh
with minuscule queens at their feet. It merely depicts the pharaoh, male or
female, as God
personified. Aside from this seeming paradox, ancient Egypt
world leader in equal rights for men and women. Talent and ability, not
was the prime key to employment and pay.
Perhaps Ms. Lesko sums it up best: "The Egyptian couple went everywhere
together, sharing life's trials and delights as respected and equal
their secular and religious communities, enjoying equality under the
well. Surely this was one of the glories of Ancient Egypt."
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Ghalioungui, G.P. & Dawakhly, Z. Health and Healing in
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Harris, James E. & Wente, Edward F. An X-Ray Atlas of the
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Lesko, Barbara S. The Remarkable Women
of Ancient Egypt. Providence, Rhode Island:
B.C. Scribe Publications, 1987.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
Copyright © 1988 Dr. John Palo