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The Position Of Women In Ancient Egyptian Society History Essay


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In most ancient societies, women were in a position of complete dependence on men. In ancient Greece, for instance, while the legal system had already developed to very complicated and detailed level dealing with property, rights, marriage, etc., women were not represented as people by law, and could not partake in any legal processes unless represented by the name of a male relative or spouse. A woman's place, socially and legally, was to be of service towards men. In ancient Egypt, the legal system had also already developed into a complex system. With the birth of the Old Kingdom in 3,100 B.C. (when Upper and Lower Egypt joined into a single union), a complex legal system involving property, marriage contracts, a public court, etc., began to take shape. The system of ancient Egypt was, in many ways, similar to that of other ancient nations; it dealt with similar issues and had a similar level of complexity and social organization. However, the government in ancient Egypt, in great contrast to that of most others, viewed men and women almost equally. Legally, women in ancient Egyptian society were viewed as independent people with equal potential to operate as part of a legal system as men.

The legal system in Egypt allowed women almost an equal amount of freedom and entitlement to natural rights as men. In comparison to those of other ancient societies, Egyptian women enjoyed a position of privilege and independence. However, law isn't the only factor affecting the position of people within a social system. Social behavior, expectations, obligations, traditions, and customs play a large role in defining how an individual functions as part of a community. While women in ancient Egypt enjoyed a position of near legal equality to men, social expectations and customs were a great restriction and a set back in their potential and freedom as members of society.

Women in ancient Egypt were recognized by law as independent individuals. They were allowed to go about their lives and through legal processes without the necessity of being represented by a male relative or spouse, as was the case in many other governments at the time. However, there were many cultural and social expectations and customs which put many restrictions on a woman's potential. Men were expected to sustain the family while women carried out the duties of housekeeping and raising children. Even though legally women could have been considered to be able to navigate through society as equals to men, they weren't truly at a state of total equality. Women did not usually have complete freedom to carry out their lives however they wished, and society was not open to their entitlement to chose a path entirely of their own.

In a legal perspective, women in Ancient Egypt were almost equal to men. They were equally entitled to their own rights, and a set of general rights applied to both women and men. Egypt had a very well developed court system including judges, witnesses, etc. Women were allowed to participate in court from all aspects. They could bring their own cases to court, and, likewise, be brought to court by someone else's lawsuit, and they could act as witnesses or judges. Women were also capable of owning and managing their own private property, and could disinherit children of it, or bequeath the property to certain children and not the rest, if they wished. They could independently sign and conclude legal transactions such as marriage contracts, divorce settlements, and property purchases as well as own, manage, and dispose of material goods, slaves, servants, livestock, and currency. In marriage, a woman was entitled to a third of all property which was acquired within the marriage. Any private property which she owned prior to the marriage remained as her own and was fully returned to her in the event of a divorce. Upon the death of a married man, his wife would receive a third of his property, while the other two thirds went to their children. If they had no children, the remaining two thirds would go to the husband's siblings. If he had no children and didn't want any property to go to his siblings, he could legally adopt his wife as a child thus making her the heir of all his property. (Thompson 3). In most ancient societies, the purpose of marriage was solely for a man to reproduce and have someone to take care of his children and home. Marriage was often put off as long as possible for men, and a man's wife was usually much younger than him and appointed by her father, left with not much of a choice. Women were often bought by the husband from the father and marriage was treated as more of a property purchase than a union. In ancient Egypt, however, the concept of union and family was very much an idea of collaboration and true affection. Married ancient Egyptian couples didn't usually have an age difference as large as that of married couples in other cultures. The raising of children was also based on the idea of true love, affection, education, and patience, as opposed to the traditional raising of children in other societies, which consisted of the teaching of a series of manners and customs to respect and live by. There is no evidence that Egyptians ever had any sort of marriage ceremony. It is assumed that a party was held in honor of the couple, but it seems that marriage was more of an agreement between two people to move in together. There is a possibility that marriage was arranged between the husband and the parents of the bride, but repeated imagery in found art and inscriptions shows women seeking the approval from her parents of a man of her choice; never the father directly and determinately choosing a man for her daughter to marry (Johnson 5). Marriage contracts did not deal with the actual joining of a couple, but instead with the division of property and obligations between the two individuals. In Egypt, marriage and family, even though it was divided into certain duties automatically assigned by gender, was a concept of mutual affection and collaboration. "Egyptians believed that joy and happiness were legitimate goals of life and regarded home and family as the major source of delight" (Thompson 1). The legal system generally recognized women as individuals with equal potential in aspects of marriage, legal proceedings, property, etc.

Egyptian society functioned through many customs and cultural traditions. Women and men had their place in society. While men were expected to provide for their families, women were expected to keep order in the home and do the majority of the raising of children. Women had a few potential methods of sustaining themselves, and it wasn't uncommon for women to have jobs such as maintaining or harvesting fields or producing textiles. However, in marriage, it was generally men that held the responsibility of working and bringing wealth to their homes. Fertility played a huge role in the reputation of a couple in ancient Egypt. Reproduction was considered to be a major component and purpose of life, and was always the main goal of a married couple. A fertile woman was considered a successful woman, and men held the fathering of as many children as possible as proof for their honor, strength, and manliness. Couples always tried to have the largest number of children as they possibly could. Because of this, the obligation of women to bear and raise the children reinforced their position as the keepers of the home and family, and the position of men as the workers and providers for their relatives. "The social and public role of women was vastly different from that of men" (Johnson 6). Social norms separated the general type opportunity a woman could encounter and her potential as a member of society. She always had a role within the community, and while she functioned as part of a system, she didn't have much of a choice as to weather or not she would be affected by it. Her individual choices wouldn't usually alter her path towards something uncommon or exceptional, because her life was predetermined by the external condition and the expectations held for her by a society built upon tradition.

While legally ancient egyptian women had almost as much freedom as men, it would be an overstatement to say that they were considered equals. It is important to stress that although ancient Egyptian society recognized women as individuals "regarded as totally equal to men as far as the law was concerned" (Thompson 1), it had a strict predetermined destiny for people which greatly differed depending on gender. This destiny was most restrictive towards women, and most of them would inevitably follow a certain path towards the common norm. Women were expected to fulfill certain duties, mainly centered on the goal of successfully bearing and raising children. The high social meaning of fertility and reproduction shaped the destiny of women and men into very specifically predefined terms, and the lives of any individual would follow a path with the ultimate goal successfully having and supporting as many children as they could.

Legally, women were granted a series of rights almost identical to that which was granted to men, and they were given a level of freedom and individual recognition greater than that which was given to the women of most other ancient societies, and even of various modern societies. However, there were still numerous social restrictions and expectations which set them back to a predetermined social position and defined a line of strict social separation between genders. It can't be denied that women enjoyed a position of uncommonly high status in great contrast to those of other societies of that time, and even of some nations today. However, it must be noted that "women's remarkable legal equality and ability to own and dispose of property must be seen in the light of the social world in which they lived--a world dominated, at least in the range of records which have been preserved for us, by men and men's concerns" (Johnson 9). It cannot be assumed that the legal advantage of women in ancient Egyptian society really brought them a true state of privilege. Society functioned by an unbalanced distribution on duties, in which men were allowed to thrive and pursue large goals while women had to keep control and take care of the basic roots of balance within the home and family. While "romantic love....seems to have been a recognized social force" (Romer 161), and unity and collaboration, along with mutual respect, were essential components to the overall essence and purpose of ancient Egyptian life, the culture was still greatly divided into certain separated roles defined by gender, and males were certainly dominant.

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