What Was the Legal and Social Status of Women?
As noted above, gender roles were distinct in ancient Egypt. At the same time, unlike many (ancient) societies, gender played no role in law. Both men and women could own, acquire, and dispose of property, real or personal, in their own names. Women did not need to have a man act for them or represent them in legal transactions. They could make their own contracts, they could bring a court case, and they could serve as witnesses in a court case. Although women only rarely served as part of the "jury" or as witnesses to a contract, this reflects the social fact that women were expected to be at home while it was men who were out in the world and available to serve on a jury or to witness a contract.
Both sons and daughters could, and did, inherit from both parents, and by the Late Period wealthy women would get an "endowment document" from their husband in which the husband guaranteed to support the wife (unless she asked for a divorce) while guaranteeing that their children would be his heirs. Because of gender expectations, a husband was expected to take care of all family business and therefore might deal with (e.g., lease out) property owned by his wife. But if he sold anything of hers, he had the responsibility to replace it with something of equal value.
Johnson, Janet H. “Women’s Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt.” Fathom Archive. Link to resource (accessed May 11, 2010).
Manning, J.G. "Demotic Egyptian Instruments of Transfer as Evidence for Private Ownership of Real Property.” LexisNexis. (Option to purchase) Link to resource (accessed October 22, 2010). (Link doesn’t work).
Piccione, Peter. “Excursis III: The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society.” Link to resource (accessed May 11, 2010).
Women & Gender in Ancient Egypt: From Prehistory to Late Antiquity. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Link to resource (accessed May 11, 2010).
Janet H. Johnson
Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor of Egyptology
1. Compare societies in which women did not have equal legal rights with men to the system in ancient Egyptian society. Which system do you prefer and why?
2. What factors do you think determine gender roles in various societies? Do you think women in ancient Egyptian society were equal to men in all ways?
3. Describe the roles and responsibilities of men in ancient Egyptian society. Compare and contrast this to the role of men in modern society.