I might have liked Ptolemaic Egypt …

Posted by on January 21, 2011 in women | 9 comments

Cleopatra is a name that conjures up visions of a siren wearing elaborate gold headdresses, fine linen, and thick kohl eyeliner. Generally, I think of her as a boon to dark haired women at Halloween. However, I’ve been trying to read histories and biographies of women, so when I saw Cleopatra: A Life, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff, I snapped it up … at Costco for a

I enjoyed the book, although Schiff seems to interject a lot of conjecture into her writing. However, there were several things that really stirred my mind. Firstly, Schiff describes Ptolemaic Egypt as a place where a feminist would feel comfortable.

Cleopatra moreover came of age in a country that entertained a singular definition of women’s roles. Well before her and centuries before the arrival of the Ptolemies, Egyptian women enjoyed the right to make their own marriages. Over time, their liberties increased, to levels unprecedented in the ancient world. They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands’ control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time an ex-wife’s dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers; it was not to be squandered by a wastrel husband. The law sided with the wife and children if a husband acted against their interests. Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter. Egyptian women married later than did their neighbors as well … They loaned money and operated barges. They served as priests in the native temples. They initiated lawsuits and hired flute players. As wives, widows or divorcees, the owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes, camels. As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands.

Reading the above, the rights that women enjoyed then seem not to different from those enjoyed by women in contemporary westernized countries.

Later in the book, Schiff goes on to discuss how Cleopatra manipulated her image to retain power. The female role that Cleopatra seems to have donned most frequently was that of Isis, as pictured in the photo of the statue. Isis was a particularly popular deity, assuming myriad responsibilities and roles.

[Isis] enjoyed nearly unlimited powers: Isis had invented the alphabet (both Egyptian and Greek), separated earth from sky, set the sun and the moon on their way. Fiercely but compassionately, she plucked order from chaos. She was tender and comforting, also the mistress of war, thunderbolts, the sea. She cured the sick and raised the dead. She presided over love affairs, invented marriage, regulated pregnancies, inspired the love that binds children to parents, smiled on domestic life. She dispensed mercy, salvation, redemption. She is the consummate earth mother, also – like most mothers- something of a canny, omnicompetent, behind-the-scenes magician.

Reading this description of Isis, I realized that this is how I tend to think of Heavenly Mother. When I think of her, which really is not that often, I like to think of her as powerful, able, competent, and caring. I have no idea why we don’t talk about her more, and I don’t buy the theory that she’s too sacred to discuss. In my weaker moments, I image her using what soft power she has to make Heavenly Father look good, while still accomplishing what needs to get done. However, I acknowledge that this isn’t a very healthy view of partnered deity, and I’ve been trying to quash it out.

Schiff goes on to ask the eternal question. Chicken or egg?

It is difficult to determine which came first, whether Isis accounted for the supremacy of women in Egypt, or whether the Ptolemaic queens reinforced her eminence. Certainly she introduced an equality of the sexes.

Which makes me wonder. How would the LDS church be different if we knew more about Heavenly Mother? Would women be full partners in practice, as well as doctrine? What if callings were received based on ability, rather than gender? Would men leave the church in droves? Or would having more accountability be better for both men and women? Of course, not every man wants less authority, and not all women want more. But what if authority always went to the one who would use it best? Just some questions that have been rattling around in my brain.

Anyway, if you have some great reading recommendations about women’s lives, I’d love to get them. Some others that I read in the last year or so included:
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, Arlene Blum
Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside, Katrina Firlik
My Life, George Sand
Hospital Sketches, Louisa May Alcott

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9 Comments

  1. Dora, what a fantastic post! I had no idea that women in Egypt led such comparatively liberated lives. Very cool.

    “But what if authority always went to the one who would use it best?”
    Amen to that question. That seems to me to be the ideal way to structure things. Let authority be based on character, compassion, and ability, rather than a person’s biological attributes.

    As for great books about women, I’m reading ‘Romancing Miss Bronte’ right now. It’s a new fictionalized account of the last 10 years of Charlotte Bronte’s life, but from what I can tell it’s pretty close to established fact. It’s been a fascinating glimpse into this woman of genius and her genius family. And it has a rather lovely love story in it too.

  2. What a terrific insight! However, I’m not sure more emphasis on the Heavenly Mother would do much good. Catholics really do worship the Virgin Mary (this is a life-long Catholic talking – whatever anyone says about the difference between “veneration” and “worship” is just delusional apologetics), and for all those centuries of the cults of female Saints (just about most highly venerated of all Saints, male or female, are the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene), women had zero power in the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that Catholic women assumed any roles of authority in their parishes.

    However, this is a different time and a different culture, and of course a different religion. Now, we’re talking about women of the 21st century, who have been exposed to feminism for decades. If the LDS Church added emphasis to Heavenly Mother, depending on how that were implemented, women’s roles could in fact change significantly.

    • As for books – anything by Amy Tan, especially The Bonesetter’s Daughter is fantastic.
      Louise Erdrich: Four Souls
      Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace
      Anita Diamant: The Red Tent
      Monica Furlong: Wise Child
      Tracy Barrett: Anna of Byzantium

  3. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, written in 1915, is a utopian novel of a country inhabited only by women. Gives great insights to the social order of American life at that time.

  4. Love it! I always cringe when people, including feminists, say, “Women have always been oppressed and subservient.”

    Wow, blanket statement! There are so many recorded instances, like the one you describe here, that assert women’s authority throughout time. And it’s silly to think that the kabillions of people who never kept a record of themselves were all mysogynistic. The Victorian era, and its construction of womanhood, left deep harm on our society.

    As far as books go:

    Caliban and the Witch.
    Caliban and the Witch.
    Caliban and the Witch.
    No seriously. Caliban and the Witch. It’s by Silvia Federici, and it’s INCREDIBLE. I’m only a little ways in, and I’ve already learned so much.

    It’s subtitled: Women, the Body, and Private Accumulation. It’s about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and how denigrating women’s authority, and controlling their bodies was an essential step in creating a capitalist society.

    So good. Seriously. Shake while you read good. Love it.

  5. I have been pondering for many months now the same question of how life and the church would be different if we knew more Heavenly Mother. My most recent insight is that if the world in general knew more about Heavenly Mother and the feminine balance of God, we’d see less gender confusion and homosexual behavior. I know how terrible it sounds and I don’t know much I can actually believe this but it was inspired by a section I read in “Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God.” There is such a beauty, and complement between the physical aspects of male and female and if perhaps the divine power of women was more valued and understood, there would be fewer who would feel drawn to rejecting the opposite gender’s physicality. And perhaps, this confusion has been bred into our genetic code so much that after thousands of years of not understanding and recognizing this power of woman that its becoming more and more common for the variants to be expressed in sexual orientation and gender identity. Heretical, I know. But possibly plausible. And also its own topic…

    Other ways I think the world would be different, is that motherhood wouldn’t seem such a lonely, all-consuming pursuit and it would be shared more equally with fathers and other community members. The beauties of female biology would be venerated and respected, maternity care would be paid, breastfeeding would be normal and encouraged, mothers would be valued as working members of society and would have the freedom to be more than just a mother but also be a worker too. Fathers would be more nurturing (because we would see nurturing as a god-like trait and not solely a woman-like trait).

    I think in the church we would see women leading wards, women in the council of the 12, and perhaps women recognized once again as prophets. We might even consider our president of the RS, not just President (rather than sister) but prophet in addition to the male prophet as well. It does not have to be one or the other, but could be both. What beautiful thing would this be: to have a female standing in the place of God welcome us into the celestial room of the temple?

    I’m having fun daydreaming. Thank you for the opportunity.

    • Your comment gave me a thought: why is it, when we in the Abrahamic religions worship this Father God who is absolutely concerned about the future and well-being of each and every one of his children, who is intimately involved in our lives from the moment we are conceived in the womb, that we do not see child-rearing as being in the realm of the duties of fatherhood? Why is that considered “women’s work,” when our Father in heaven is the most involved father I’ve ever heard of?

  6. I am not big into fiction reading unless it is a classic (I know I have issues)… but if you like non-fiction real-life feminism, Zelda by Zelda D’Aprano is a good read. It is her autobiography, but she was THE crusader for equal pay for working class women. Its empowering to read about her dedication- and amazing that her story is true.

    • sorry- just double checked the title of the book– it is “Zelda: The Becoming of a Woman”

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