Egyptologist and teaching fellow at the University of York Dr. Joann Fletcher writes for the Guardian, “As my TV series shows, with queens so powerful they were known as kings, women ‘eliminated gender hierarchy for a brief period in classical antiquity’.”
I recall a few queens from Egyptian history, namely Nefertiti and the Queen of Sheba, but according to Professor Fletcher, there were several more that have been left out for whatever reason. She writes:
It is a little-known fact that ancient Egypt was populated almost entirely by men. Or at least, this is the impression one would gain from reading many of the publications about ancient Egypt in in which women appear as some sort of minority sub-group. Many works deal exclusively with a male elite of kings, priests and scribes.
Take the case of a married couple from around the 14th century BC whose intact tomb, discovered in Luxor by the Italians in 1906, still contained their mummified bodies and hundreds of personal belongings, now displayed in the superb Museo Egizio in Turin. From the title of the official tomb publication, La tomba intatta dell’architetto Kha nella necropoli di Tebe, (The Intact Tomb of the Architect Kha in the Necropolis of Thebes) you’d think that only the husband, Kha, had been buried there. His wife, Meryt, barely gets a look in.
So why does that matter? Because the way that Meryt has been rendered almost invisible is symptomatic of the way in which the status of women within ancient Egyptian society is still too often underplayed.
Of course we are dealing with a huge chunk of time, but even in the fifth millennium BC, female graves were generally larger than those of men and tended to contain more objects of a wider variety of types. By 3000 BC, Egypt’s earliest queens were buried in tombs at least as large as those of male rulers, the pharaohs, presumably reflecting the fact that some not only controlled the royal treasury, but ruled as regents on behalf of underage sons. In the case of Merneith, her name appears in the ancient lists of kings, and only when archaeologists realised he was a she was her title amended to queen.
Yet some pharaohs were female. Unable to be swept under the academic carpet because of the amount of evidence produced during her 20-year reign, Hatshepsut ended up as the exception that proved the rule. Her stately images as traditional pharaoh with the standard tie-on false beard were reduced to the stuff of sniggering, school-boy humour, while many modern accounts of Hatshepsut’s reign also border on the farcical: this wicked woman masquerading in male clothing while seizing power from the rightful male heir.
Of course Hatshepsut only appears as some freakish anomaly if we ignore her female predecessors Merneith, Khentkawes, Neithikret and Sobekneferu, her successors Nefertiti and Tawosret, and the women of the later Ptolemaic dynasty, the great Cleopatra among them, who enjoyed “equal status with males in the eyes of their subjects” and “eliminated gender hierarchy for a brief period in classical antiquity”, according to Sarah Pomeroy, professor of classics and history at City University, New York.
Certainly the Egyptians did things rather differently when compared to the rest of the ancient world. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed: “The Egyptians themselves in their manners and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind” – although the Egyptians preferred the rather more inclusive term “humankind”, written with both a male and female determinative figure.
Now I’m not for one minute saying Egyptian women ran around doing exactly as they pleased, since most were wives and mothers and the most common female title was Lady of the House, meaning housewife. Yet they did also work in the public sphere alongside men at every level of society, in farming, brewing and baking, buying and selling, sitting on juries and even steering cargo ships.
In terms of high-profile jobs, the most common official title for women relates to temple employment, while others functioned as overseers. Others are known to have held the titles of governor, judge and magistrate, and three even achieved the post of prime minister.
As independent citizens equal to men under the law, Egyptian women could own their own property, buy and sell it, keep hold of it despite marriage, make wills and choose which of their children would inherit. Clearly enjoying at least some degree of financial independence, surviving accounts also reveal they received the same pay as male colleagues for undertaking the same work – something the UK has still to achieve despite 40 years of equal pay legislation.
This makes sense in light of the fact that the Egyptian civilization was able to work cooperatively to build such marvelous, long lasting structures. It’s sad to see that so much of the story of ‘humankind’ has been omitted from written history. For more information about the BBC 2 TV Series called, “Ancient Egypt – Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings” hosted by Professor Fletcher, click here.
I found a video from 2009 featuring the research by Dr. Fletcher on Queen Nefertiti in Egypt: