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Ancient as Egypt
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C.S. § 1681-1688 law established in 1972 was a groundbreaking law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in much of education. 20 U.S.C.S. § 1681(a) states that "no person in the United States shall on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Many may wonder how such a "new age" law could be relevant to ancient history. Taking a look back into the time of the Ancient Egyptians, one will see how women's rights were put into existence as early as 3100 B.C.E. In many cultures, women were not respected and did not play important roles in society. Egypt was the first group to develop a respect for women and even have them as pharaohs. Because of the high infant and child mortality rate, women were considered important for their role as child bearers and were given respect accordingly. In Egyptian society, pharaohs were considered to be kings, gods, and their highest ruler. This paper will explore Egyptian views of women from the first ruler, Sobekneferu and the most important and respected female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut, to the last known Pharaoh, Ptolemy who ruled from 51-30 B.C. By doing so, it will examine how feminism and an interest in women's rights cannot trace its roots to the suffrage movement, as so many scholars do, but must look back much further, to the first known strong female rulers in all of history.
Many people believe that feminism is a modern invention and that all historical societies were misogynistic. The belief is that older civilizations did not afford any room for advancement for women. While this is certainly true for some ancient societies, it is decidedly not true for other ancient societies. Not only is there substantial evidence supporting the notion that many prehistoric societies were matriarchal, but also that even large societies, such as ancient Egypt, which supported the notion of the powerful female. Women were considered life givers, and, thus, their roles in society were important. That is not to suggest that men achieved real equality in daily life. Just as Title IX promises to protect a woman's right to de juris equality but does not guarantee a woman access to de facto equality, the rules and norms of ancient Egypt still reflected the fact that women, as a whole, are physically weaker than men, and, thus will sometimes be abused.
With that caveat, one must explore Egyptian tradition and lore to understand the roles of males and females. The female played an important role in the creation mythology of ancient Egypt. Creation was the result of the interaction between the male Geb, who represented Earth, and the female Nut, who represented the sky. Moreover, these two interacted as equals, not establishing male superiority to females. This stands in marked contrast to ancient Greek and Roman creation mythology, which firmly establishes a male as the most powerful of the Gods. Geb and Nut had many children, two of whom were the goddess Isis and the god Osiris. The two siblings married, which established a pattern for the pharaohic leaders of Egypt. This is no surprise given that, like many other aristocracies, the Egyptian pharaohs claimed to be related to the gods or to ascend to god-like status once in power.
Furthermore, it is also important to understand that the gender roles of the aristocracy do not necessarily reflect the reality for most women in a society. Many societies have had nominally powerful female leaders while continuing to subjugate women in the general population. One need only look at the rule of Queen Elizabeth I in England to see a dramatic contrast between the conditions for a ruling woman and the conditions of an average woman. Therefore, the fact that women in Egypt could be pharaohs is not dispositive of the way that women were treated in ancient Egypt. In fact, it is clear that in Egypt this was not the case. For example, Egypt was a slave-holding country, and the history of slavery supports the notion that one of the primary reasons for people to own slaves is access to slaves kept for sexual purposes. Clearly, the lives of the women kept in these base and dehumanizing conditions were far different from the lives of women in powerful positions. On the other hand, there is evidence that women could inherit property in ancient Egypt, which differentiated Egypt from many civilizations that came afterwards. Therefore, it is important to always keep in mind that class impacted the access to rights in ancient Egypt, just as it does in modern times.
One of the critical differences between modern times and ancient times may have been the infant and female mortality rates in childbirth, as well as the high rates of child mortality. Egyptian women tended to marry in their teens. "The average woman, if she lived and remained married until her menopausal years, would have needed to give birth to about six live children for society to reproduce itself" (Bagnall and Cribiore, p.75). In some ways, this need for massive reproduction made women precious, because they were needed to perpetuate society. However, in other ways, this need for massive reproduction helped devalue women. Rather than being seen as human beings, there would have been a temptation for males to view them as reproductive units. Such a view would have contributed to young ages of marriage, multiple wives, and the keeping of harems; all historical elements known to have occurred in ancient Egypt. Therefore, while women in ancient Egypt may have had comparably more rights than women in similar societies, it would be erroneous to assume that they were on equal footing with males.
While equally important to realize that some societies are so gender-segregated that there is no possibility of a female ruler. Gaps in dynastic succession are never filled by women in those societies. Instead, the ruling roles may be filled by husbands, by far-distant relatives, or even by people outside of the family tree, so long as the ruler is a male. Ancient Egypt certainly had a male preference. Leadership went from male to male heir, and it was only when there were no males available that female rulers were a possibility. Therefore, one can see that there was not true equality in Ancient Egypt. While some women may have been afforded similar opportunities to males, this was certainly not an option for all women, even those born to royal families.
One of the lingering questions for Egyptologists is how pharaohs were chosen. There is even a theory that dynastic succession rules were matriarchal. To support this theory, people point out that "many of the royal kings (pharaohs) of ancient Egypt were married to their sisters or half-sisters. Many kings who were not themselves the son of a king were married to the daughter or sister of a king" (Lewis). These facts would support matriarchal succession rules. However, the issue is not clear-cut. Many kings were not descended from royal females. Therefore, succession appeared to be through both matrilineal and patrilineal lines. The fact that succession was fluid and not static is actually one of the factors supporting the idea that ancient Egypt was less misogynistic than many of its contemporary societies and than many societies that would follow it. Examining Egypt's female rulers, one certainly sees a history of women acting as bold and decisive rulers and being treated as such.
Perhaps the most fantastic of all the tales about female rulers is the tale of Nitocris, the last queen of the 6th dynasty. Like most female pharaohs, Nitocris came to power when no male heir was available; her brother was murdered, which gave her a position of power. The story surrounding Nitocris is that she wished to avenge her brother's death. To do so, she built an underground feasting chamber and invited her brother's murderers to a feast there. Once they were in the chamber, she opened the chamber to the Nile, drowning them. However, Nitocris did not go on to become a powerful leader; instead, she committed suicide rather than having to explain her actions to her people (Wilkinson, p.11). The problem with this story is that it does not ring true with historians. Such behavior would not have been in line with Egyptian culture, which neither encouraged that type of revenge killing nor the idea of suicide. Moreover, there is no evidence of any pharaoh by the name of Nitocris (Wilkinson, p.11). As a result, the most vengeful of all the female pharaohs may have been nothing more than myth.
One of the most famous of all of the female pharaohs was Queen Sobekneferu. She ruled Egypt for a four-year period at the end of Dynasty 12 (Hawass, p.32). Her father was the pharaoh Amenemhat III and her brother the pharaoh Amenemhat IV. There…[continue]
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