African women in history were afforded rights that women in other places were not, which enabled them to rise to success in multiple areas. One key difference that allowed this was Africa’s primarily matrilineal traditions. As noted by ancient historian Herodotus, the Egyptians have “reversed the ordinary practices” of the Greeks, trading a patriarchal societal structure for a more egalitarian one. There are several examples of this, from women thriving in their careers to their equality in the eyes of the law.
As an example, Hypatia was an Egyptian woman mathematician who refused to convert to Christianity and was murdered. Hypatia was able to lead a prominent life that was distinct from the lives of women in Greece who were “not permitted to move about in public without a ‘kourios’ or male escort.” Her story was not unique, as many prominent Egyptian women contributed much to science, perhaps allowed by their cultural indifference to gender. Yet tragically, their impact on society was unfortunately cut short by patriarchal agendas like those of the Romans.
Barbara Lesko, an egyptologist working at Brown University, noted the absence of a wage gap in ancient Egypt, which is a progressive ideal that is yet to be adopted widely even today. The evidence to support this includes documents regarding distribution of payments for employment, and their inclusion among some of Egypt’s greatest records of their history: inscriptions in monumental architecture. These cultural ideals meant that women were not bound to the status of a housewife only, and could be successful and fulfilled by their own merits alone— and not necessarily by their husbands.
Their rights to equality extended beyond employment and into the legal system as well. Though their societal structure gave bias to the wealthy elite, the Egyptians made no de facto or de jure distinction between genders in its delivery of the law. Perhaps the best legal precedent they left behind was plenty of case law regarding several property disputes; in each case, it is easily demonstrated that women were often land owners, and were often afforded equal distribution of wealth from executors of estates. This is significantly different from the Greek (and other societies like Antebellum America, for that matter) approach to women’s rights, which could range anywhere from their presence in an elite class in Sparta to their exclusion in Athenian democracy.
To finalize this point of Egyptian women’s freedom, it is worth pointing out their ability to divorce and retain an equal share of assets. As noted by Beatrice Lumpkin, “Any valuables brought into a marriage by the woman were hers to take if the marriage broke up— also a share of any property the couple accumulated together. Inheritance was also spelled out, with one-third going to the widow and two-thirds to be divided equally among the children, female and male alike.” This sort of attitude toward women’s equality was often not embraced by other societies such as the English, Americans, and Greeks.
Something that likely enabled Hypatia’s success as a mathematician was her ability to thrive in a society that accepted her for who she was. Even today, women are severely underrepresented in mathematics— not for their lack of ability (Ada Lovelace, Emmy Noether, Julia Robinson among many others would argue otherwise), but rather because they live in societies which do not enable them. Ancient Egypt was different. It provides a well studied example for the African mindset towards empowering women; the mindset that people should be afforded equal opportunity to really contribute to society regardless of gender.