Ma’at – the concept of harmony and balance in all parts of one’s life – was one of the primary principles of ancient Egyptian culture, if not the central value. This ideal was the most essential obligation observed by the female pharaohs, who was expected to be a role model for how to live a balanced life as a mediator between the gods and the people. Egyptian art, architecture, religious traditions, and even government organizations all have perfect symmetry of balance, which can also be seen in gender roles throughout Egyptian history.
According to Egyptologist Barbara Watterson, in ancient Egypt, female pharaohs had the same legal standing as a male. Her de jure [legal entitlement] rights were determined by her social status rather than her gender. A woman had the right to manage and dispose of her own property as she saw fit. She could buy, sell, enter into legal contracts as a partner, be the executor of wills and a witness to legal papers, file a lawsuit, and adopt children in her own name.
Female pharaohs were treated with respect in ancient Egypt, which can be seen in nearly every facet of society, from religious beliefs to social conventions. Women had the freedom to marry whom they pleased and divorce those who no longer suited them, to work at whatever jobs they pleased (within reason), and to travel wherever they pleased.
Women & Religion
Beginning in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1782 BCE), the most important position a woman could hold was God’s Wife of Amun. The title of God’s Wife was given to a lady who would help the high priest in ceremonies and care for the god’s statue. The most famous of the God’s Wives during the New Kingdom period was the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE), although there were many more women who held the position before and after her.
To decipher the symbols in the dream and what they represented, professional interpreters were needed. The only reports of dreams and their interpretations that have survived are from men, Hor of Sebennytos and Ptolemaios, son of Glaukius (both c. 200 BCE), however, inscriptions and fragments suggest that women were consulted first in these issues. These women were gifted at interpreting dreams and foreseeing the future.
Occupations of Women
Ancient Egypt’s clergy were treated with great respect and provided with a luxurious lifestyle. To become a priest, one had to first become a scribe, which took years of hard work and dedication. After becoming a scribe, female pharaohs could pursue a career as a priest, teacher, or physician. Female doctors were highly recognized in ancient Egypt. Weavers, bakers, brewers, sandal makers, basket weavers, cooks, waitresses, and “Mistresses of the House,” which today would be estate owners, were all common jobs for women. When a woman’s husband died or they divorced, she had the option of keeping the house and running it as she pleased.
Women with exceptional talent were able to obtain work as concubines. A concubine had to be skilled in music, dialogue, weaving, sewing, fashion, culture, religion, and the arts in addition to being employed for sex.
Love, Sex, & Marriage
Women were regarded as legally capable in all elements of their lives, and they did not need the supervision, consultation, or consent of a man to take any action. This paradigm could be applied to marriage, sex, or any other aspect of one’s life. Women were free to marry anyone they wanted, weddings were not arranged by the males of the family, and they were free to divorce whenever they wanted.
Prenuptial agreements were also common in ancient Egypt and often favored the woman. If a man initiated the divorce, he forfeited his ability to sue for the gifts and was obligated to pay alimony to his ex-wife until she remarried or asked him to cease the payment. The children of the marriage always stayed with their mother, and the house stayed with her unless it was held by the husband’s family. Prior to marriage, a woman’s sexual experience was not a matter of concern.
Great queens can be traced back to Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period when Queen Merneith (c. 3000 BCE) served as regent for her son Den. During the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, Queen Sobeknefru (c. 1807-1802 BCE) ascended to the throne and governed as a woman, disregarding the trappings of tradition that only a man could rule Egypt. Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty followed in the footsteps of Sobeknefru and had herself anointed king. Hatshepsut is still regarded as one of the most powerful women in history, as well as one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs.
Despite the fact that female rulers were rare and uncommon in ancient Egypt, great queens were not. Their responsibilities and many of their activities are unknown or untranslated, but based on the evidence available, there is no doubt that these women had significant power over their husbands, the court, and the country.