Ancient but equal

Ancient Egypt’s women enjoyed the same legal rights as men

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MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

Scholars have found that ancient Egyptian women enjoyed the same legal rights as men, and even had the right to form prenuptial agreements before marriage to ensure the wife’s welfare in the event of a separation. These ancient prenuptial agreements are preserved in scrolls, and can be quite detailed. One 2,480-year-old document rolls out to a length of eight feet. Such contracts were purely economic, and “were extremely advantageous to the wife,” writes professor Janet H. Johnson. Women could also file for divorce, own and acquire property, enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and serve on juries and as witnesses in court. While equal with men legally, women remained inferior socially. Records show that some women had to sell themselves into slavery for financial security, and in a quote reminiscent of modern struggles with passive sexism, an ancient text observed, “A woman is asked about her husband, a man is asked about his rank.” Egyptian women set a high benchmark in the ancient world. Two-thousand years later, the struggle for equality continues.

Read the full story at Atlas Obscura.

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