THE EGYPTIAN ECONOMY
THE CASHLESS SOCIETY AND WOMEN'S PLACE IN IT
Three features of Ancient Egypt combine to make a unique economic system:
They had no coinage
They had no merchant class
Depending on their wealth, they could trade for all of the necessities and a wide range of luxuries.
Coins did not arrive in Egypt until after the Greeks. Although every purchase involved the trade of one item of merchandise for another the system worked surprisingly well. The deben was their monetary unit and it functioned much as the dollar does in North America today to let customers know the price of things, except that there was no deben coin. A deben was approximately 90 grams of copper; very expensive items could also be priced in debens of silver or gold with proportionate changes in value.
Since seventy-five litters of wheat cost one deben and a pair of sandals also cost one deben, it made perfect sense to the Egyptians that a pair of sandals could be purchased with a bag of wheat as easily as a with chunk of copper. Even if the sandal maker had more than enough wheat, she would happily accept it in payment because it could easily be exchanged for something else. The most common items used to make purchases were wheat, barley, and cooking or lamp oil, but in theory almost anything would do.
Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians did not see trade as a legitimate way to get rich. Merchants were simply servants employed to find and deliver merchandise; they were paid for their labor but did not expect any additional profit. Temples and wealthy noblemen had them scour the country for whatever was needed. If in the process they picked up a surplus in some things they were made available for trade to the general population. Items were simply priced according to the cost of production. Over the centuries there were adjustments in relative value but these were fairly minor.
Most Egyptians were agricultural workers and so their pay was whatever they produced less taxes, rent, etc. Those on salary would receive most of their wage in wheat which they could either eat or exchange for other items.
There were no legal restrictions on the economic activity of women in Ancient Egypt. Most of the contracts and business papers we have found bear men's names, but there are enough legal documents of all types with the names of women that we can be certain their rights were more than merely theoretical. Women could and did own property, buy and sell, borrow and lend, sue and be sued, make a will and inherit property.
Men and women could make a will distributing their property as they wished. We even have examples where the husband and wife made wills bequeathing their shares of the family assets in different ways. Most people did not bother making a will and at death their estates were simply divided among their children, with sons and daughters inheriting equally. We hear about these cases only if there is a dispute that went to court. There is evidence to suggest, however, that a son or daughter who did not participate in the expense and act of burial was not entitled to inherit.
What should happen to a farm when the owners die? In particular, should it be passed intact to a single heir or be divided among all heirs? In some countries the whole farm went to the eldest son and other arrangements had to be made for any additional children. In other countries it could be split into small farms and divided among the heirs. The Egyptians generally followed the second course, but there are cases where one of the heirs (either a man or a woman) administered the intact property and simply shared the income with the remaining heirs who lived elsewhere.
There were many ways in which a "Mistress of the House" could supplement her income. Some had small vegetable gardens. Many made clothing. One document shows an enterprising woman purchasing a slave for 400 deben. She paid half in clothing and borrowed the rest from her neighbors. It is likely the woman expected to be able to repay the loan by renting out the slave. Indeed, we have a receipt showing that one woman received several garments, a bull and sixteen goats as payment for 27 days work by her slave. Those who could not raise the money on their own sometimes joined with neighbors to buy a slave. Women were often part of such a consortium.
We know that a woman could inherit and operate a large, wealthy estate. A man who owned such an estate would hire a male scribe to manage it and it would seem reasonable that an heiress would do the same thing. We have little evidence of elite women with paying jobs whether full or part time.
The fact that a woman could manage her own financial affairs did not necessarily mean that she could live without male support. Outside of domestic service there were few opportunities for a woman to earn a wage. If she inherited a three to five acre plot of land (a fairly typical holding among the independent peasantry) she would need a husband or son to do the physical work. What it did mean was that in case of marital breakup or old age she might have some savings that could be used to finance her care.
Life was harsh everywhere in the ancient world. For most men, as well as women, their only assets were those they earned that day. The legal right to manage your finances was meaningless if there were no finances to manage, and numerous writers mentioned the sad plight of widows.