When studying women and gender in ancient Egypt, scholars frequently ask questions relating to power, beginning with the ruler of Egypt. Pharaonic Egypt was ruled by a "king," as was Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Egyptian ideal of succession for the kingship was from father to son. Even so, the female relatives of the ruling king often played significant roles in the rule of Egypt, while the ideology of kingship itself was a careful blend of male and female elements. Women who ruled independently as king were unusual in Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt, but this did occur, most often in times of uncertainty over succession; the best-known examples are Hatshepsut (from the 18th Dynasty) and Cleopatra VII (from the Ptolemaic period). Even after Egypt was no longer governed by a resident ruler, images of women in power came to Egypt from Rome through representations, especially those on coins.
Below the level of kingship women did hold office, most often in religious institutions, but were largely excluded from administrative roles. The title most frequently held by women was "mistress of the house"; this does not, however, seem to be a courtesy title or expression for "housewife" but rather a genuine recognition of the administrative and business abilities necessary to administer a household. Other titles seem to allude to marital status. Women were frequently identified by their husband and his occupation but still had considerable theoretical autonomy in legal and economic situations. This Egyptian tradition persisted even after the introduction of Greek and Roman attitudes and legal traditions, which more heavily restricted women's activities and status.
It is not surprising that many women, including perhaps some of non-Egyptian ethnic origin, chose to follow Egyptian custom. Indeed, Egyptian traditions about the status and autonomy of women seem to have persisted into the Late Antique period and beyond. The status of women in Egypt was clearly different from that in much of the ancient world. But bear in mind that most sources reflect the experiences of elite women and men. Non-elites probably had considerably less autonomy in general, and, since many of the observable trends in the autonomy of elite women are tied to ownership and property, it is likely that the experience of non-elite women was very different from that of their elite counterparts. Further, it is important to remember that throughout Egyptian history many positions of power, such as most administrative offices and military ranks, were exclusively held by men.
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