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The Early History of Women in/and Patriarchy: Women in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia

Most of us, as products of a patriarchy-created educational system, believe that women have always had less status than and been dominated by men.  Eleanor Leacock informs us in her essay “Women in Egalitarian Societies,” that popular images of the relations between women and men in primeval society are epitomized by the brutish and hairy club-carrying “cave man” dragging “his” woman by her long hair.   

Cave Painting of a Horse,
c. 15,000-12,000 B. C. E.

In fact, the “research” and “work” of scholars such as Robert Ardrey, African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man (1961) and The Social Contract (1970);  Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (1966); and sociobiologist David Barash, The Whisperings Within: Evolution and the Origin of Human Nature (1981) reinforce this image, she explains.

Most anthropological writings indicate that the general egalitarianism in these societies did not fully apply to women:
while women were by no means oppressed in the ways that developed in the classic patriarchal societies of the Mediterranean and the Orient, they have always been to some extent subordinate to men, according to these scholars whom Leacock cites, who have written:       

·  “It is a common sociological truth that in all societies authority is held by men, not women.”

·  "Men tend to regularly dominate women."

·   “Subordination of females happens to occur with remarkable persistence in a great variety of cultures.”

·   “Men have always been politically and economically dominant over women.”

·   “Regardless of the form of social structure, men are always in the ascendency.”

Leacock explains that these writings recognize that matrilineality--determining descent (or legitimacy) through women--existed and enhanced women’s status, but it is argued that it just substituted the authority of a woman’s male relatives for that her father and husband.  They suggest that women, even in foraging societies, were basically equal to men but had slightly lower status.  They suggest that women’s role is always “private,” while men’s is “public.” 

Leacock informs us that even female scholars reinforce these traditional interpretations of data; Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, for example, in their 1973 work Women: Their Economic Role in Traditional Societies, explain the differences between women’s and men’s work: equally indoctrinated in the traditional gender assumptions, Leacock notes that they write “Women’s work is . . . bounded by the domestic framework, concerned with the familial, private sectors of society.  Roles within the public sphere are the province of men, and the public sphere is the locus of power and prestige. . . . In effect, whatever the nature of women’s work, or its economic value, it is never invested with glamour, excitement, or prestige.”

Theories of early humans or their predecessors have long believed that men were hunting, while women gathered seeds and plants and took care of the children. These views developed because of assumptions or stereotypes that scholars held about the differences between the sexes. They believed that men were more dominant and aggressive by nature and that women were more passive and weaker.

In her essay, Leacock explains that the message (sub-text) is this: humans have always been aggressive and competitive, and men--being more aggressive, competitive, and strong than women--have always been “dominant.”  Thomas Hobbes, a famous historian and philosopher, theorized that aggressiveness and competitiveness were what enabled people to “overcome” their environment and create great civilizations. Certainly we can see that this way of thinking is still popular is evident in the recent (1990) work of comedian Chris Rock, who cracks up his MTV audiences with his observation to women that they will never be equal to men because, as he explains, “we [men] will always be able to kick your [women’s] ass!”

A study of available data, however, suggests that these statements are not true, that probably some bias caused assumptions to be made about data that were not necessarily true.

We now believe that:

1) that a stage of primitive communism, a stage with egalitarian economic and social organization, preceded the emergence of social stratification    and

2) that women in certain ancient societies, such as Egypt, did hold a relatively equal position to that of men, even where stratification existed, but through social processes and changes gradually lost that status as patriarchal societies gained power and used it to institutionalize changes. 

Anthropologist Barbara S. Lesko asks that we understand that those who assume that total male dominance was the rule in antiquity--because of Biblical accounts--say that the existence of patriarchy in the Hebrew Bible negates all our questions.  The Biblical texts, however, she points out, date to the first millennium B.C.E. and that “civilization” flourished long before that in Europe and the Near East. 

Leacock believes that Studying data from social and physical anthropology, archeology, and primatology in their entirety, rather than selectively, suggests that sociality, curiosity, and playfulness--not aggressiveness or competitiveness as Thomas Hobbes once theorized--made it possible for a fairly small and defenseless creature to evolve into the human being that created many different ways of life around the world.  Hobbes’s theory, and ones similar to it, she explains, has been pervasive and persuasive, causing speculation that when humans turned to hunting animals for additional foods that they were only reactivating deeply embedded aggressive drives and enabling ambitious and powerful people to rationalize their behavior and eschew responsibility to or for the less ambitious or powerless. 

According to Leacock, sociality is the abounding desire to be close to others of the same species and an overriding interest in them.  Rather than competition among individuals for an elevated status, some historians now believe that a rich group life led to cooperation, which itself led to and depended upon the development of tools, utensils, and language. 

In fact, private property, social stratification, political subjugation, and institutionalized warfare with standing armies are all social inventions that Leacock mentions as having evolved throughout the course of human history.  They were used by humans for a reason, she maintains, and their use has affected humans since, but their existences do not automatically express some innate human nature or some necessary linear progression of human history, which has been a guiding (and some would argue crippling) conception of history. 

One has only to consider the hundred thousands of Native Americans murdered or relocated through our government’s “Manifest Destiny” belief, which held that we, meaning white Americans, knew what being civilized meant, understood God’s plan better than other groups--in fact, were God’s chosen people--, and had the right (again a “might makes right” situation) to enforce our beliefs.  In my elementary and high school education (1975-87) I learned that trains equaled progress; that material, commercial, and industrial progress meant civilization and achievement; and that some white people were cruel to Indians--just like they were cruel to Irish immigrants. 

Until a student in my class asked the teacher about the “Trail of Tears,” an incident she’d read about in a book called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I’d never heard of these mandatory moves; I’d always assumed the “Indians” wanted to live on reservations.  The teacher, at that point, explained a little about the “Trail” as being the “Government’s” mistake and mentioned that during World War II, the Government had made another mistake which caused the Japanese (not yet Japanese Americans) to be incarcerated and to lose their property.  Government is in bold print here to reinforce how Americans can rationalize their involvement or lack thereof and eschew responsibility.

                (These incidents also reinforce the idea that fear or insecurity, rather than competitiveness and aggression, can cause humans to be cruel or unjust to other groups of humans: a theorized condition for the shift to a strict patriarchal society).

                (The fact that I’m using a personal anecdote to illustrate a point is a recoupment of an ancient tradition of supporting arguments, which became increasingly devalued as “truth” during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries--largely because of its associations to the private--and womanly--sphere.)

Leacock explains in her essay that the institutionalized inequalities so familiar and “natural” to us, the dominance hierarchies, arose in the fourth millennium B.C.E., during the urban revolution. Prior to that, data suggests, that at different times, various egalitarian gathering and hunting, and later, horticultural (or hoe-agricultural) societies existed.  They elaborated ritually on various forms of social and ceremonial rank but still maintained, as far as can be determined, the equal right of all to basic sources of livelihood. The theory of urban revolution goes like this:

As a result of human inventiveness and ingenuity (agriculture and its tools) specialization of work developed, moving some out of direct contact with food production.  Barter became commerce, supplies began to be stored for the future for the first time, and Priest-chiefs gradually began assuming control of the stores, transferring ritual rank to elitism.  Equal access to land became restricted, and class systems were created--not always without resistance. (Leacock 18)

Fully stratified societies emerged in southwest Asia, and northeast Africa, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Persia.  In the Western hemisphere, precursors of the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs were becoming stratified.

 How were women treated, how did they exist, 
within these classless societies?  

These traditional sex/gender assumptions about men and women’s natures and their effect on human history are beginning to be revised, however. 

This is true for Liberal Arts, as well.  It is dangerous to say that something has always been the same through history because we don’t have knowledge of all history.  The ideas of male dominance and women’s place are being revised through new analyses of the data.

Next in Leacock’s essay she points to four main problems that scholars have to solve as they conduct and interpret data, especially when it concerns ancient societies.  She cites:

                Source Material, itself

Material about ancient cultures, produced by these ancient cultures is not always readily available or easy to come by.  Most of it must be literally un-earthed and can be damaged or destroyed in the reclaiming process.  Materials usually consist of burial or ceremonial sites, or in the case of more “advanced” or “civilized” societies--like Egypt or Sumer--written texts of economic accounts, laws or codes, or personal seals.  Much data from the past has not survived or is currently unavailable.

                 Disciplinary Priority

The very people involved in reclaiming and studying these artifacts can hinder the study of those artifacts.  Archeologist, for example, tend to concentrate on excavating palaces, temples, and royal tombs rather than on town sites which could potentially tell us more about the lives of ordinary people in antiquity.  Philologists who translate texts often give higher priority to figuring out lexicographical and grammatical problems, seldom analyzing the content as thoroughly as a social historian. 

                Ethnocentric Bias                
             Ethno- meaning Race, from the Greek for People

Societies with histories outside of the traditions of Europe or the Orient are commonly all lumped together and labeled “Primitive.” 

                This has two effects. 

1) Statements made about women in “primitive” societies do not usually take into account the diversity of all those societies. 

2) Scholars can misinterpret data based on their own assumptions, such as assuming either that male-female dyads exist as the basic core unit of all societies’ social-economic and child care organization, as they do in Western civilization or that social action is always divided into public, formal, political (Men) spheres and private, familial, informal (Female) spheres.

This has historically been a difficult bias to overcome.  Many of the Greek and Roman historians found other societies, either ones which dominated and conquered or ones which they were dominated and conquered by, strange and less civilized--just based on different customs and, in some cases, different gender relations.

                Androcentric Bias                
meaning Male, masculine, from the Greek for Man

Anthropologists and scientists have on the whole been men who interview other men and assume that the data collected is sufficient for understanding a society.  Women scholars have usually gone along with this, largely because they too are products of the same culture and institutions.  They are trained to think like the men have been trained to think.  Only recently have men and women become conscious of the distortions created by “male” or patriarchal bias.

An example of conclusions drawn based on the historian’s point of view that might be incorrect because of that point of view has tended to be the association that in every “primitive” society, the men were the warriors because they were buried with weapons and that the men controlled the wealth because they were buried with jewelry, while the women, who were sometimes buried with children, stayed home and took care of the kids.

These across the board assumptions have been questioned by recent findings in the Russian Steppes, where a nomadic culture’s burial sites have been recovered/discovered.  This particular culture buried the women with weapons and jewelry and the men with the children. This finding shows us that the assumptions we make might not be accurate.  They do not necessarily indicate that this tribe was matriarchal, any more than the previous findings indicate a definitively patriarchal society.

A recent re-analysis of the data suggests, again, that patriarchal traditions were preceded by egalitarian horticultural societies. Leacock then looks more closely at the earliest known societies:

Early Hunting Peoples of Europe  

The few hints left about the life of the Neanderthals, the theorized ancestors of modern humans who lived until 40 or 50,000 years ago, according to Leacock, confirm the essentially social nature of human evolution.  Several families shared single large dwellings, and evidence suggests that the infirm were cared for.  Burial sites give the evidence of this:

· A Skeleton of relatively old arthritic cripple in one site

·  One of an older man whose right arm had been amputated when young

·  Older skeletons buried with flowers

This social nature is reaffirmed by studies of the Cro-Magnons, Leacock, maintains, while discussing the theorized successors of the Neanderthals and precursors to modern humans. Cave paintings of the Cro-Magnons indicate a respect for hunted animals (as opposed to an aggressive desire to kill a weaker creature) and an appreciation of their beauty. These paintings also suggest a ceremonial life in which both men and women participated.  Additionally, numerous female figurines, ranging from very fat to almost stick-like but always very stylized indicate the importance of women to ritual, Leacock believes. 

Eventually and gradually, Leacock informs her readers, foraging and hunting societies gave way to agricultural and pastoral economies.  In the Middle East, the domestication of plants was developed some 13,000 years ago, presumably by people (women) who gathered and processed wild seeds. By the early third millennium B. C., (2000 B. C.) the people of central Europe were horticulturists who used stone tools, were organized in “clan” units rather than “pairing families,” and were “peaceful” and “democratic.”  There were few weapons, and no hints of chiefs concentrating wealth.  Additionally, given the group sizes and ratios of children to adults, Leacock mentions, these societies were maintained at a level well within the limits of the environmental resources. It is possible that there was a possible conscious population limitation.  In addition to high infant mortality rates and low life expectancies, periods of abstinence, prolonged lactation, herbs for birth control or abortion, mechanical abortions (or attempts) and infanticide may also have been used.

Successors of these villages show evidence of increasing stratification (chiefly dwellings and burials more elaborate than the commoners), and metal tools, which had to be traded for, became important--especially as warfare increased.


How, then, did Patriarchal Practices become so pervasive?

One answer is given by anthropologist Eleanor Leacock who believes that Frederick Engels’s theory, from his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, is likely: that the initial egalitarianism of human society included women, and their status relative to men declined as they lost their economic autonomy.  Women’s public work was transformed into private work and lost its economic importance relative to the still public work of men.  Leacock writes that “The transformation from egalitarian society to societies built on inequality and stratification was not due to a psychobiological combination of dominance drives and population pressures.  Instead, a profoundly social process--sharing--sparked the change, for sharing developed into barter, which in turn developed into the systematic trade and specialization of labor that eventually led to the innovation of individually held wealth and power. . . . The process enriched life and promoted skill.  As an unforeseen result, it ultimately transformed the entire structure of human relations from the equality of communal groups to the exploitativeness of economically divided societies”(32).

Anthropologist Barbara Lesko believes, however, that applying Engels’s ideas to the decline in women’s status is oversimplifying the process.  As we’ll see through a review of her study of gender roles in Egypt and the Near East, other factors contributed to the gradual decline in women’s status.  Lesko writes in her essay, “Women of Egypt and the Ancient Near East” that ”The growth of private wealth and the rise in importance of commerce seems to have affected women’s freedom, particularly their sexual freedom, as women became, in time at least in western Asia, a commodity of exchange through marriages arranged by male heads of families.  The continual warfare which raged through Mesopotamia for centuries led to the rise of standing armies and professional militarism, which also deleteriously affected women’s status. . . .  The insecurity bred from the threat of continual invasion and the rise in importance of the armed defenders of the State (surpassing the food producers’ importance) denied women a useful role and equal status in society.  Furthermore, it seems logical, judging from the contemporary scene, that insecure and impoverished men are most likely to vent frustrations upon the women in their lives and most likely to try to control them, and that the same should be true collectively for groups of men who feel threatened and insecure” (43).

Lesko traces archeological evidence that indicates two broadly differing streams in the later social history of Europe: 

1) that of the Mediterranean world, where the classical patriarchy of the ancient Middle East finally succeeded in submerging what had been the formal public participation of women in social, political, and religious matters;


             2) that of the northern European periphery where women, though far from equal to men, nonetheless retained a relatively higher status than in Mediterranean cultures--a status that persisted long enough to effect early medieval society.  

She mentions that Tacitus observed these cultures, noting that “Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders” and that Germans felt a “reverence” for their women leaders that was “untainted by servile flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses,” which suggests a real respect rather than the self-serving pattern of placing women on a pedestal to show upper-class status. Tacitus’s comments indicate his bias--that cultures that differed from that classical patriarchal structure were strange and somehow more barbaric and less civilized.  

Lesko explain that the earliest cities emerged in the Near East 5,000 years ago. The first written records that tell us about the status of women in antiquity date back nearly 5,000 years and are from Egypt (which flourished in the valley of the Nile in North Africa) and Sumer (which existed in the fertile basin between the Tigris and The Euphrates rivers--which is now southern Iraq).  Of these two civilizations, Egypt’s lasted the longest--3,000 years--but Sumer passed on aspects of its culture-- the writing system (cuneiform), artistic and literary themes, and religious beliefs--to the Semitic peoples who gradually replaced the Sumerians in the area and whose city-states grew into empires further to the north in Mesopotamia.

Data exist in each culture, Lesko notes, because the people recorded their lives--not only on expensive and fragile papyrus--but on pottery and in tomb paintings in Egypt and in Sumer, on clay tablets that were fired like pottery and became virtually indestructible.  Recent advances in deciphering and translating these documents bring the people and their beliefs back to life, quashing some of the long-held assumptions we have had about them.

Most text excerpted from:

Leacock, Eleanor.  “Women in Egalitarian Societies.” Becoming Visible: Women
     in European History. Eds. Renate Bridenthal et al. Geneva, Illinois: Houghton
        Mifflin Company, 1987. 15-38.

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Ancient Cultures, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 01 February 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.