This exhibition uses Egyptian artifacts from the collection of the Kelsey Museum and the Papyrology collection of the University of Michigan Library to examine the roles and lives of women in ancient Egyptian society, and how these fit into the larger patterns of gender definitions and relations. Since ancient times, it has been recognized that women occupied special positions within Egyptian society, but only recently has the nature of women’s experience and status in ancient Egypt been the subject of systematic study.
The material presented in Women and Gender in Ancient Egypt spans nearly four thousand years, from later prehistoric times through the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Even in a culture that showed remarkable continuities over long periods of time, there was obviously considerable change in the roles and status of women, as well as in gender definitions and relations over such a long chronological range.
Historical events and cultural imports are often the most obvious influences on women’s roles and gender relations, but factors such as class and status, sexuality and ethnicity also influence understandings of gender. Part of the source material from ancient Egypt reflects a major class bias: texts and images most often come from elites in Egyptian society and reflect their views. It is mainly the archaeological sources—remains of dwellings and burials—that offer unfiltered evidence for non-elites. While texts and images tend to be relatively explicit about gender, archaeological remains require more work to distinguish biological sex from human remains, gender in the artifactual record, gendered space. Patterns of sexual behavior and construction of sexual identity are also closely tied to gender definitions and roles. As is common in premodern agrarian societies, sexuality in ancient Egypt was linked to fertility, although not exclusively. Surviving sexually explicit imagery and texts from ancient Egypt can be of erotic, humorous, satirical, or even religious intent as well. Moreover, many ethnic groups influenced Egyptian life throughout the period covered by this exhibition (c. 3100 BCE-700 CE). The most conspicuous were the Macedonian Greeks and Romans who successively ruled Egypt after 332 BCE, but many other groups from all over the Mediterranean world influenced Egyptian customs and society. Certainly Greek and Roman traditions concerning gender—the more dependent status of women in these cultures as well as the different approaches to gender relations and definitions—had a major impact on Egyptian life during the Graeco-Roman period.