Did Men and Women Share Political Power in Ancient Egypt?
Throughout history, political power has rarely been the domain of women. There were few women notable for ruling nations in ancient times. According to Kara Cooney, associate professor of Egyptian art at UCLA, “Historians can find almost no evidence of successful, long-term female leadership from antiquity -- not from the Mediterranean nor the Near East, not from Africa, Central Asia, East Asia, nor the New World.”
1 The Development of Political Power
The politics of ancient Egypt, like its culture, was shaped by the Nile River and its cycles of flood and drought. To the northern African hunter-gatherers who would become Egyptians, the fertile soil and water that the Nile brought in July through October represented the cycle of birth and death. Tribal leaders may have derived their power from their thorough understanding of the river cycles and from control over how the river’s benefits were apportioned. As the leaders consolidated their power and evolved into pharaohs, their relatives and courtiers became aristocratic landed gentry and royal advisers. As this aristocracy solidified its hold on power, ordinary people had little opportunity to advance to positions at court. Women attained high social position only as wives to important men.
2 Role of Women
Women had a more valued role in Egyptian society than their contemporaries in other cultures. Egyptian women were allowed to own property, pursue careers outside the home, initiate divorce, and inherit and bequeath wealth. Wives were, however, seen as “gifts” to their husbands rather than equal partners in the family and society. They could influence their husbands and sons, but only subtly and “behind the scenes.”
3 The Role of the Queen
There was no word or role for “Queen Regnant” (ruling queen”) in ancient Egypt. The queen was called “The Chief Wife” of the pharaoh. Queens were expected to provide as many male heirs as possible, manage the royal residences, silently support their husband and be a passive but attractive adornment for the king. A few women ruled as regents in place of incapacitated, absent or dead husbands, or underage sons. These few were addressed as “Pharaoh” or “King” and rose to the throne in times of crisis.
Ancient Egyptian records show only one woman who consciously engineered her own rise to power during a time of peace. Her name, “Hatshepsut,” means “most noble woman.” She reigned during the early 18th dynasty (1479 to 1457 B.C.) and was the widow of Thutmose II. She ascended the throne as regent for the son of one of his lesser wives. As Thutmose III grew to adulthood, she shared the throne and eventually assumed full co-kingship with him, often assuming a senior position. Her reign, although marked by prosperity and architectural achievement, was opposed by the powerful priesthood. Hatshepsut appears to have systematically worked on creating the illusion of masculinity in many of her portraits, although she kept her name. Yet she made no revolutionary break with tradition and after her death, the male-dominated world went on.
Many pharaonic wives probably influenced their husbands and some may even have been the power behind the throne. Some scholars see Nefertiti, chief wife of Amenhotep/Akhenaten, as having a great deal of influence over her husband’s beliefs and policies. She may even have played a part in the king’s decision to abandon the old gods and proclaim the supremacy of the sun god, Aten, during the Amarna Period of the middle 18th dynasty (1353 to 1336 B.C.). Artifacts from that period show her as nearly the same size as the king, indicating that he considered her his equal. This is especially surprising since she apparently produced no male heirs. Some depictions show her as “smiting enemies,” a role usually reserved for kings. She was, however, no warrior queen. She left the masculine business of warfare to her husband.