Women: Role in Government
Women: Role in Government
Importance. Officially, women’s main political roles were mother or wife of the king. Women, however, gained some political power through religious offices. The most important priestess from the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) through the Late Period (664-332 b.c.e.) was the God’s Wife of Amun, later called the Divine Adoratrice of Amun. This office varied in importance from the early New Kingdom through the Late Period.
Titles. The two most important titles for women identified their relationship with the king. A queen who was the mother of the reigning king held the Egyptian title that translates literally as “King’s Mother.” The second important title was “King’s Wife” (Queen). Usually more than one woman was King’s Wife at one time, but only one woman at a time could be King’s Principal Wife. Sometimes the King’s Wife was a biological sister to her husband, though half sisters and unrelated women were more common in this role. Even nonroyal women who became King’s Wives or King’s Mothers were from elite Egyptian families or foreign royal families.
Queens and Other Elite. Queens had no clear secular duties differing from the duties of other elite women. The difference between queens and other elite women was the scale of the wealth they helped administer. Queens managed their palaces and their estates. They also produced children who would later take over the bureaucracy, military, and priesthood. The king had many wives who lived together, probably raising their children together. The institutional setting where the
royal women lived is often translated as the harem, using a Turkish word for women’s quarters. The King’s Principal Wife had religious duties but was not necessarily the mother of the next king.
Religious Role and Real Power. One road to increased political power for women was through the queen’s religious role. At the beginning of Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.), the office of God’s Wife was filled first by the King’s Mother Ahhotep and later by Queen Ahmose-Nefertary, wife of King Ahmose. The God’s Wife controlled large tracts of land associated with her office. Hatshepsut held the title God’s Wife when her husband, King Thutmose II, assumed the throne in circa 1493 b.c.e. After Thutmose II died in circa 1479 b.c.e., Hatshepsut acted as regent for her nine-year-old stepson, Thutmose III, using the title God’s Wife rather than King’s Wife or King’s Mother. Two years later, Hatshepsut declared herself female king and appointed her own daughter God’s Wife. When Thutmose III assumed sole rule after Hatshepsut’s death in circa 1458 b.c.e., he downgraded the role of the God’s Wife. Perhaps Thutmose III feared that the God’s Wife could threaten his own power. The God’s Wife was not prominent again until the reign of Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten (circa 1353-1336 b.c.e.), when it assumed a different importance.
Amarna Religion. Akhenaten rejected the god Amun, but his new religion of the god Aten stressed the correspondence between the gods and the royal family. His wife, Nefertiti, and their daughters played significant religious roles as the only legitimate priesthood in the new religion. When Tutankhamun (circa 1332-1322 b.c.e.) restored the cult of Amun, he retained this correspondence between the king, his wife, and child; and the deity, the deity’s wife, and child. Thus, the role of God’s Wife assumed somewhat greater importance. The succeeding kings of Dynasties 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.) and 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.) maintained the ritual role of the God’s Wife of Amun without allowing her to gain political power. For example, Ramesses II established parallel cults for himself and his principal wife Nefertary. This situation changed again in the Late Period beginning with Dynasty 21 (circa 1075-945 b.c.e.).
Legitimate Power. The last kings of Dynasty 20 had lost political control of Upper Egypt. The General and High Priest of Amun, Herihor, assumed secular power in the south in the king’s place. Though Herihor clearly had the military power to dominate Upper Egypt and Nubia, something restrained him from declaring himself legitimate king. He preferred to receive the god’s endorsement of his political control through representatives of the royal family headed now by King Smendes. Smendes’s daughter became the God’s Wife of Amun who legitimated Herihor’s secular power. Herihor thus successfully separated the military and religious power of the cult of Amun. He enhanced the religious role of the God’s Wife of Amun and reserved secular power for himself. However, Herihor had also effectively established the principle that the God’s Wife of Amun could bestow political legitimacy. All the high priests of Amun who followed him found they
were dependent on an increasingly wealthy and powerful God’s Wife of Amun.
Kushite Kings. The Kushite kings of Dynasty 25 (circa 760-656 b.c.e.) also used the office of God’s Wife of Amun to legitimate their rule over Egypt. They appointed their own daughters to this pivotal position, gaining control both of Amun’s resources and the legitimacy that Amun’s representative could bestow.
Conclusion. Women were not, in general, members of the bureaucracy or military. With a few exceptions, they could not be king. Elite women certainly had status over nonelite men, but overall women were subservient to men in ancient Egypt.
Betsy M. Bryan, “‘In Women Good and Bad Fortune Are on Earth’: Status and Roles of Women in Egyptian Culture,” in Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, edited by Anne K. Capel and Glenn E. Markoe (New York: Hudson Hills, 1996), pp. 25–46.
Jacobus van Dijk, “The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom (c. 1352-1069 BC),” in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 272–313.
David Lorton, “Legal and Social Institutions of Pharaonic Egypt,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, volume I, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), pp. 355–362.
Gay Robins, “Women,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, volume III, edited by Redford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 511–516.