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More Words With a Mummy

ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

We were a group of friends lunching together in Cairo. The afternoon was one just following the publication of the introductory articles descriptive of the tomb recently discovered within the shadow of the great pyramids. All told, we were eight, four women and four men. Among the number was my incomparably, charming fellow townswoman, Edna Thomas, who was then captivating Egypt with her negro spirituals and plantation songs. Of the other ladies, one was Dutch, one English, and the fourth, my wife, an American. But they all matched the “Lady from Louisiana” in graciousness and wit, and each of my guests waxed enthusiastic over the marvels of Tutankhamen and the possibilities of the undisclosed mysteries of the recent find. I had been to the bottom of the new pit but as Dr. Reisner, the head of the Harvard expedition, did not permit me to divulge what I had seen, I could say nothing. We did not then know even the name of the Queen or that the sarcophagus was empty. It amused me, however, to follow the speculations of my friends.

Finally, fearful lest my silence might provoke embarrassing questions, I determined to shift the conversation into safer fields. I, therefore, turned towards Miss Thomas and laughingly said to her: “Do you know that you and my wife, who are both Americans of twentieth century vintage, have no such property rights and social prerogatives as were enjoyed by this Cheops mummy—assuming it to be a woman, for as yet its sex is as unknown as is its name.”

In the twinkling of an eye I had upon my back not “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” but one more than the Three Graces. At first the womaniy solidarity was perfect. They, stood as a unit in defense of their sex and of their generation. Combatively, one of them said: “What you say may be true of America but it is not of England. We Englishwomen, certainiy, have greater rights than Egyptian mummies.” And then it took me some time to straighten out matters and a hearty laugh brought a truce of concessions. But after all I was perfectly right in what I had said.


Egyptologists fix the introduction of the calendar at B. C. 4241. Over 6000 years have passed since then. Strange as it may seem, woman had greater legal attributes during the first 36000 months of this period than she has latterly enjoyed. Even today in but a small section of the world has she caught up with her sister of Ancient Egypt. In a word, every mummy of a free woman in a museum had once greater property rights and social prerogatives than are now granted to the majority of the women who look at her through a glass case. I do not say that the world has moved backward. To express myself so would be to indulge in opinion. I am merely endeavouring to set forth historical facts.

The Toledo (Ohio) Museum of art publishes a magazine known as the Museum News. In its issue of December, 1907, it gives concrete expression to the idea upon which I am insisting. Its editor is very proud of the Toledo collection. He has a facile pen and his readers are told that the home of Brand Whitlock, America’s war time minister to Belgium, has in its possession a treasure which gives documentary, evidence of the exalted position accorded to and maintained by women in Egypt three centuries before Christ was born—”a position almost undreamed of and unhoped for by the most enthusiastic new woman of these modern days.” But in thus comparing the “most enthusiastic new woman of these modern days” to her sister of B. C. 300 the impression might be created that there was something unusual about that special date. Such however was not the case. B. C. 300 was simply a typical year of those happy bygone days when women rnied the world. Andre Favre, the eminent French Egyptologist, makes this perfectly clear in his monograph entitled “Le Manage en Egypte.” When one reads his treatise the mural decorations of Pharaonic days take on a new meaning. The women there delineated may not look particularly brilliant, but there is as much evidence of intelligence in their angular features as there is in those of their husbands. And the mysterious hieroglyphs teach that whatever epoch of Egyptian history may be considered, the wife is always mentioned in connection with the husband and as having the same legal rights and advantages. As a daughter she is the equal of the son. As a sister her attributes are the counterpart of those of, her brother. As soon as she attains the age of majority she enjoys the same legal status as a man. In fact she may purchase, contract, bind herself. “Nothing,” insists Favre, “restrains her powers.”

But when i ran into Paturet’s “La condition juridique de la femme dans VEgypte” I got my greatest thrill. I learned that no modern cinema star can get rid of her husband with greater rapidity or with less annoyance, than could the vivacious Hatshepsut or the sprightly Semiramis of 3000 years ago. All my former admiration of Reno, Nevada, all my consideration for Paris as the Mecca of the rich divorces of 1927, vanished overnight. I saw Mem-phis-on-the-Nile and Thebes-of-Upper-Egypt drive Reno and Paris into oblivion. I discovered, in a word, that Ancient Egypt knew of that rapid fire style of divorce known as repudiation. I mean by, this that I learned that the wife was legally entitled to abandon her husband and he to leave her without the unknotting of red tape. It was thus that among the gay free-born Egyptians divorce was practiced.

No meddling judge, no inquisitive jury, no embarrassing evidence! Every facility was offered to discontented mates to make their get-away, quickly, unostentatiously, and safely. At first, it is true, this right of repudiation appears to have been reserved to man, but thousands of years ago, so far ago in fact that “the memory of man runneth not to the contrary,” woman was accorded this self-same get-di-vorced-quick prerogative.

But in those halcyon times, scores of centuries before Mormonism planted upon American soil the doctrine of equal property rights for both sexes, woman not only held on to her own purse but she took charge of her husband’s pocket-book as well. This assertion of woman’s hegemony is so categorical that I am not going to ask anyone to take my word for it. The testimony of Sir Flinders Petrie is not to be brushed aside. This is what he writes:

“In Egypt all property went in the female line, the woman was the mistress of the house, and in early tales she is represented as having entire control of herself and of the place. Even in late times the husband made over all his property, and future earnings to his wife in his marriage settlements.”

Now, i must hasten to confess that I did not go into these details when I had the friendly battle which inspired this article. One hesitates to proclaim such dangerous theories at too close range. It would be inviting trouble for a Twentieth Century A. D. married man to let the wives of his guests know what a Twentieth Century B. C. married man had to face. Things were so bad for husbands in those benighted decades that even after a distinct change had come about during the early years of Christianity a Copt selling anything in the market had to add “with my wife’s consent” to make the bargain valid. We modern men may yet come to this now that women bob their hair and that King Gillette has made special razors for Queen Woman; but for the present this indignity is withheld.

But the transmission of all property, in the female line is pregnant with meaning. It symbolises the principle of Matriarchy. It emphasises the fact that at the dawn of history not only was all property vested in woman but man did not even claim a proprietary interest in the children he begot. They belonged to their mother’s clan. He was looked upon as being about as necessary and withal as superfluous as a stallion—or a Prince Consort. What he earned went to his matriarchal stock. At his death his bones did not rest with those of his own descendants. On the contrary they were deposited in the Cromlech of his mother’s kin.

And it thus came to pass that the titular sovereignty of the Ancient Egyptian World became vested in woman and not in man. The natural line of succession to the throne, to quote Professor Breasted, was through the eldest daughter. Men wanted power and as they often could best obtain it through the woman of their own family it became customary in all ranks of society for a youth to marry his own sister. Sometimes, a man became so accustomed to the happy part of being the husband of an influential wife that he married his own daughter when the death of his spouse transferred everything to their child. It is thus that Fir-dausi the great Persian poet writes in the Shahnama:

Bahnan possessed one lion-taking son On whom he had bestowed the name of Sasan; He had withal a daughter named Humai, Considerate, accomplished and discreet. They used to call her by the name Chihrzad. Her father’s greatest joy was seeing her. He took her for his wife, which in the Faith That thou call’st olden was a goodly, deed.

Of course i am not approving such practices: I merely recite the patent facts that in the Ancient Egyptian World society revolved around woman. She was the hub of the universe. She was the center of gravity. It is true that history has handed down to us the names of more Egyptian kings than of queens. But after all, that of itself means but little. Lord Cromer in our own time ruled Egypt for a quarter of a century. The historian of the future will not find his name subscribed to any public instrument. Egypt today is officially, declared to be an independent kingdom and yet Lord Lloyd has an influence in the Valley of the Nile which it would be folly to belittle. Examples of this character could be multiplied to show that the mere fact that Tutankhamen had a sarcophagus of transcendent beauty and of incomparable wealth does not necessarily detract in the slightest degree from the deduction which flows from the mass of evidence which fixes the titular primacy of the Egyptian State in woman.

But after all, this question of matriarchal government and of woman’s social hegemony is of secondary, importance. The outstanding interest centers around her property rights and her position as the mistress of the house. I do not mean as the watch dog of the pantry or as the official hostess of a dominant husband, but, I insist, as the supreme suzerain of the family bank account. When her husband could not trade without adding “with my wife’s consent” she had her position upon a pedestal higher than that of nine-tenths of the women of A. D. 1927.


It was thus that my conversation with a mummy came about. When I saw the hundreds and hundreds of American women who flock to Egypt every year, I often wondered what the old Pharaohs would say if their mummies only, knew what little influence woman really has today, compared with what she had when Ramses expelled the Jews from Egypt. Many a time had I looked into his face as he lies sleeping in the Cairo Museum. Sometimes I have asked myself whether if he could, would he help Dr. Weiss-man and Henry Morgenthau to give new zest to the Zionist movement. I have convinced myself that he would not, and that on the contrary he would seek to attract Jews to Egypt. And then, shortly, after Lord Lloyd became High Commissioner, I enquired of the docile mummy what he thought of Egyptian independence. He seemed to smile enigmatically and to whisper to me, “Be careful”; but all at once his attitude changed. He appeared to sink into oblivion. I looked around. My wife was at my side. I told her what had happened and that her sudden arrival had frightened the Pharaoh back to sleep just when he was about to give me a message concerning the British occupation of Egypt. But my wife only looked pensive and said: “Those old Egyptians were so held down by their wives that he is afraid of women. None of us has ever been able to get a word out of him. He always pretends to sleep when we are about. He does not know that times have changed.”

And they have, in far more ways than one. When the old kingdom held sway over the land of Egypt the social unit was the family. A man had but one legal wife. “She,” again to quote Professor Breasted, “was in every respect his equal, was always treated with the greatest consideration and participated in the pleasures of her husband and her children. The affectionate relations existing between a noble and his wife are constantly and noticeably depicted on the monuments of the time.”

I do not want to be considered as disagreeing with my wife’s explanation of Ramses’ fear of woman but frankly I view the matter from a different angle. I think that the wily, old monarch is merely playing safe. He lived in the old days when a wife “participated in the pleasures of her husband and children.” His civilization accepted the family as the social unit. He lived in an epoch when women wanted to be mothers and when men aspired to be fathers. He therefore cannot understand the meaning of these hordes of husbandless, childless, and bespectacled American tourists who follow gorgeous, insolent, and venal dragomans through the Cairo Museum. He knows that when he was a boy, if his mother took a trip upon a da-habieh or a jaunt upon a camel, his father went with her. And he recalls that, if his parents moved to the seashore for the summer or to Upper Egypt for January and February, he and the other kiddies went along with them. He has plenty of leisure in his glass case to ruminate about what goes on around him. He can see in all directions for some hundred feet or more but he has no specific information as to what takes place beyond this radius. His ears tell him, however, that the overwhelming majority of all tourists now speak the American version of the English language. And his eyes advise him that they are practically all women and that most of them are either beyond the canonical age or radiant in the beauty of unmarried innocence. It is true that he observes rarely a straggling male in plus fours and of bored countenance. The befuddled Pharaoh, however, has no way of telling whether this lone apparition is a polygamous husband accompanying his wives or an eunuch giving an airing to his master’s harem. The whole thing is so inexplicable to him that he covers his confusion by an assumed somnolency.

And i, as a twentieth century A. D. American, am just as much concerned about the caravans of husbandless American wives as is poor old Ramses: but for different reasons. I see in this endless procession of skirts—with an occasional ill-fitting pair of hikers—an outward evidence of an abnormal condition of American life. It brings out that the 1927 A. D. wife does not, like her 1927 B. C. sister, “participate in the pleasures of her husband.” I do not blame her. It would be impolitic for me to criticise him. He is grinding away, at home making money. He is fighting for supremacy on the stock exchange. He is striving for leadership at the bar. Money, to him is a means not an end, an emblem not a goal, a hall mark not a patent of nobility. When “night, sable goddess, throws her mantle round her and pins it with a star,” he returns to his home so exhausted with the battles of the day that he requires refreshing sleep to fit him for the renewal of the fray. He therefore cannot sip the nectar of domestic companionship. He is however generous, magnanimous, and lavish. Jewels adorn his wife, furs bedeck her and soft-cushioned limousines speed her from place to place. These petty things please even her who would fain cast them aside for the spiritual communion assured to the Egyptian woman of old. And they satisfy the vanity of man for they, advertize to the world that he is a success, that his income is big and his resources are expanding.

In time, however, woman tires of parading her husband’s triumph in the neighborhood of his victory. She seeks for other friends and she hurries towards Europe. So the pioneer pathfinders of the endless stream of American tourists came with pearls and diamonds, sables and ermines, unlimited letters of credit, and American Express checks for petty cash. This was only the beginning. Now Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Oklahoma City are sending their intellectuals, women who refuse to be cajoled into docility, by tiaras and necklaces, service-stripe bracelets and high power cars, but who, deferring to some indefinite date the pleasures of maternity, have gone in for scholarship and art, music and science, politics, and literature. The result of this condition is that man’s ceaseless energy, in the field dearest to his heart has driven the great rank and file of a large section of the womanhood of America into building up her mind, extending her field of knowledge, and broadening her intellectual horizon—at the price of an empty cradle.

If this continues for a few decades longer America will have a race of women intellectual giants, who will outshine all of the men and all of the women of all time, but the healthy stimulus of a baby’s cry will not be there. Old Ramses, of course, does not know of all of this. If he did, he would be even more certain that his age did far more for woman than even America, the paradise of woman, is now doing for her. The old mummy is happy in his blissful ignorance. He does not know what he has missed. And I am happy too—I would so much rather talk to Ramses than be in his glass case!


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