Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

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Social Structure and Political Organisation

2.4 Roles and status of women: royal and non-royal

See also Analise's presentation for this topic

Royal women

Of all the women in the life of Ramesses II, his mother, Tuya and his first principal wife, Nefertari, appear to have been held in great affection and to have been given the highest honours. Others, such as his associate wife, Istnofret, and the Hittite princess, Matnefrure (Maat-Hor-Neferure), were also held in high esteem and their names appear on monuments and stelae.

Tuya Rammesses’ mother
Tuya survived the death of her husband, Seti I, by 22 years. Ramesses was devoted to his mother and recognised her publicly. He erected statues to her at Pi-Ramesse, in the Ramesseum, and at Abu Simbel; he built her a small temple on the north side of the Ramesseum which she shared with Nefertari and gave her a lavishly decorated tomb in the Valley of the Queens (QV 80).

Hentmire sister / wife
Ramesses took her as one of his official wives but she played only a modest role.

Nefertari first principal wife
Nefertari was Ramesses’ chief consort until at least year 24, after which she is heard of no more. She appeared beside him on state and religious occasions. In year 1 she accompanied him to Thebes for the burial of his father, and also to Abydos. By year 3 she was shown in monumental scale on the interior face of the new Pylon at Luxor. There is no dateable reference to her between years 3 and 21 but she is known to have sent official letters and gifts to the Hittite queen in year 21. Because there is no record of her at Abu Simbel when the massive twin temples were dedicated, she is thought to have died in year 24. She shared a small temple with Tuya in the Ramesseum and her tomb in the Valley of the Queens is the finest yet discovered (QV66).

Istnofret associate queen with Nefertari; principal wife sometime after year 24
Between years 24 and 34 Istnofret was shown on a number of rock stelae in the quarries of Aswan and Silsila with her sons Ramesses (heir apparent), Khaemwaset and young Merenptah and her daughter, Bint-Anath. She probably died about year 34.

Bint-Anath daughter / wife
Ramesses’ eldest daughter (by Istnofret). Firstly, associate queen with her mother and then chief queen associated with Nefertari’s daughter Meryetamun. Bint-Anath bore her father, Ramesses, a daughter. She survived her father’s death and later became one of the consorts of her brother, King Merenptah.

Meryetamun daughter / wife
Eldest daughter of Nefertari. She died before her father.

Nebttaway daughter / wife
The last of Ramesses’ daughter/queens. Took her place alongside her father in the last two decades of his reign.

Maat-Hor-Neferure foreign wife
Hittite princess who married Ramesses in year 34. Later retired to the harem at Mer-wer.

? foreign wife
Sister of Maat-Hor-Neferure

Non-royal women

The picture of women presented in new Kingdom literature, painting and sculpture reflects ‘male ideals concerning women and their place in society’. They are always depicted as young and beautiful and are shown in relationship to their fathers, husbands and sons, playing a supportive but subordinate role. However, legal documents and correspondence reveal a different picture from the passive supporter featured in art and literature.

In theory at least, Egyptian women of all classes were the equals of men in the eyes of the law. A woman could:
  • inherit, purchase, lease and sell property
  • continue to administer her own property even when married
  • hire or buy slaves
  • make a legal contract, go to court as a plaintiff or defendant and give evidence
  • live alone wiothout the protection of a male guardian
  • retain her property if divorced and claim a share of any joint property, except in the case of adultery.

A married woman was more respected than an unmarried one. She derived her status from her husband’s position within society and this status increased with motherhood. The more children she had, the greater her standing in the community and the happier her husband would be since a man ‘was saluted on account of his progeny’. The birth of a boy further enhanced her status, because a son provided support for his parents in their old age and played an important role in his parents’ funeral ritual.

After motherhood, a woman’s chief duty was to look after the home. No matter from what class she came, a woman’s most coveted title was mistress of the house. When she performed this role well she had the respect of her husband.

The wives of high officials, however, had no need to perform any of the usual domestic tasks. They had numerous slaves and servants to do these for them, including wet-nurses to breast-feed and attend to their children. Their chief task was to supervise the running of the household.

Very few women learned to read and write and those who did had no chance of entering the male dominated civil bureaucracy. Her duty was to support her husband in his career. The evidence does suggest though that it was acceptable for a wife to stand in for her husband if he were absent.

The only activity outside the home in which high-ranking women were involved was associated with the temple. Except for mistress of the house, the most common title associated with upper-class women was musician.

A Nineteenth Dynasty text, written by a widower to his dead wife, reveals the ideal of a marriage relationship:
I was a young man when I married you, and I spent my life with you. I rose to the highest rank but I never deserted you from my youth to the time when I was holding all manner of important posts for Pharaoh (Life, Health, Strength): nay rather I always said to myself, ‘She has always been my companion’.