WOMEN AND LITERACY IN ANCIENT EGYPT

 

We have already noted that women in Ancient Egypt had the same rights and obligations as men as far as the law was concerned.  They could own and manage property and they regularly attended social events with their husbands.  This seems to have been more than just a formality for Athenians were quite horrified by the freedom of Egyptian women to wonder about as they wished.

To what extent did this allow women to acquire high status employment?  To what extent to it lead to widespread literacy among upper class women?  We don't have a clear cut answer to either question, but it would appear that the answer is 'very little'.

The Mistress of the House was in charge of running the home, and among the well-to-do that would have been quite a responsibility.  It involved the management of many servants and an extensive inventory of supplies.  The largest estates would have had a male scribe on staff to record detailed inventory, and it is quite possible the mistress kept track of everything else in her head.

In the Middle Kingdom we see occasional references to seshet which sounds like the feminine of the Egyptian word for scribe.  It is quite possible that one woman with this title was indeed a scribe, but the others were clearly from a non-elite class.  One with the title was a hairdresser by trade and it has been suggested that seshet could have been an abbreviated word for cosmetician.  These references do not appear in the Old or New Kingdoms.  There may have been a few women scribes, but it seems certain that the position was almost totally reserved for men. No woman achieved prominence in the bureaucracy of government.

Women did serve in temples, but it is quite possible that their duties did not require literacy.

Several New Kingdom scenes show women with a scribal kit under their chairs. In only one, however, can we be certain that the kit belonged to the woman in question.  There are letters from women but we cannot be sure that they did not have a servant to do the writing.

In light of the prominence of women in the upper classes and the importance of royal women it seems likely that some, if not all were literate, but we have no evidence of it.  In any event there is no body of writing directed to the women of society nor is there a literary manuscript with a clearly feminine name as author.

 

 

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