The Women of Ancient Egypt Were All About Prenups

In Depth

Couples in ancient Egypt had the legal right to draw up pre or postnuptial agreements—before or during their marriage—to ensure that wives would get a decent-to-hefty financial payout if the relationship failed. Praise be to Isis, goddess of womanhood, marriage, and getting your ass paid.

The legal documents—created with the cooperation of the husband, the wife, a number of witnesses, and a scribe who could convert the couple’s agreement into legal language—were often several feet long. If a party wanted to break the contract, they’d have to appear in court.

One such document, eight feet long and written in demotic script, hangs at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. As Cara Giaimo at Atlas Obscura describes it:

The 2,480-year-old marital document…was made to ensure that if the union between the signers didn’t work out, the wife would be adequately provided for. Her compensation would include “1.2 pieces of silver and 36 bags of grain every year for the rest of her life,” says Dr. Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Institute.
“Most people have no idea that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as men,” says Teeter. Egyptian women, no matter their marital status, could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and serve on juries and as witnesses. They could acquire and own property (and fairly often, they did: a fragment of papyrus from 1147 B.C, denoting thousands of land holdings names women as the owners of about 10 percent of the properties listed).

Contracts like these, according to professor Janet H. Johnson at the University of Chicago, “were extremely advantageous to the wife.”

Unlike marriage contracts in contemporaneous cultures, they were purely economic, promising not eternal faithfulness or mutual responsibility but cold, hard cash.

Women could also, Giaimo notes, file for divorce.

None of this is to say that ancient Egypt was a paradise of equal opportunity. Typically, women were still reliant on their husbands for social status. Privilege and independence, much like today, were intrinsically linked to socio-economics, affording wealthier women greater freedom than women who were poor.

But the fact that they had legal means to protect themselves is both exciting and a good lesson to all of us. Protect your assets, plan for the future, and get everything in writing… like an Egyptian.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via the AP.

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