Women in Ancient Egypt: Revisiting Power, Agency,  and Autonomy


This collection of papers from a 2019 Cairo conference represents current research into the life of women in ancient Egypt. By applying contemporary social values and gender assumptions, late 19th- and early 20th-century scholarship tended to omit women from historical investigation. Evidence for female participation in socio-economic or religio-political life was often ignored, and the significance and influence of women beyond the domestic setting barely acknowledged. 

Despite more enlightened recent studies, such androcentric opinions  have persisted as established ‘facts’, which the authors of these papers  now put to the test, leading to the  re-evaluation or outright rejection  of some cherished beliefs.

The authors, drawing on textual and iconographic sources, material culture, and anthropological evidence, investigate a wide range of topics, dealing with women of all classes  from the Early Dynastic to the Roman Period. A common theme is the importance of examining Egyptian culture in context, avoiding modern preconceptions and recognising unconscious bias. In introducing her comparison of gender issues surrounding Hatshepsut and Nefertiti, Jacquelyn Williamson admits that the social values of her own upbringing  had, at first, hindered her objectivity.

Susan Anne Kelly’s study of Old Kingdom female titles distinguishes between honorific and meaningful designations. Izold Guegan looks at the ritual and cultic role of female temple personnel. Kathrin Gabler suggests that, because of the significant contribution of its female population, Deir el-Medina should be known as a ‘community of workers’ rather than ‘workmen’. Romane Betbeze and Rahel Glanzmann discuss the adaptation of standard masculine iconography and representation to female funerary contexts. Reinert Skumsnes’ discussion of the position and recognition of women within the family and in law contrasts with Anke Ilona Blöbaum’s reflection on the decline in women’s status into the Christian era.

Four chapters cover issues of women’s health, which have previously been glossed over or poorly understood. Clémentine Audouit claims that, while ‘gender’ is a social and cultural construction, the ‘male/female division’ is primarily defined by physiology; therefore a focus on actual human remains can reveal ‘the lived experiences of gender’. Suzanne Onstine and her co-authors include bio archaeological analysis of female bodies from TT16 to emphasise the perils of being an Egyptian female of child-bearing age. 

The best is left to last. Anne Austin demonstrates how the Victorian association of tattooing with eroticism and depravity led to Egyptian depictions of tattooed women being labelled as sex workers or concubines. Austin suggests the designs contained elements of magico-religious protection, especially related to fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth.

A valuable contribution to the fields of women’s and gender studies, this collection paves the way for further  re-evaluation of earlier scholarship.  

Women in Ancient Egypt: Revisiting Power, Agency, and Autonomy
edited by Mariam F Ayad
American University  in Cairo Press, 2022
ISBN 978-1-6490-3180-8
Hardback £85