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Gender: women in letters/correspondence from Lahun

Letters from Lahun display normative formal features, framing correspondence between male officials. From this period most letters were written in horizontal lines framed by an initial vertical line, and provided with an 'address' around the sign for 'lord', denoting the person to receive the letter. The sender adopted the formal identity 'the servant there' ('your humble servant') unless of higher position, when the letter took the form of a direct despatch, lacking the framing devices of the majority of letters.

Besides these letters from and to men, there survive examples of a differently formulated exchange, involving a woman as a correspondent. In one example (UC 32203), a woman called Ir complains to a man that she has been entrusted with working women who are unable to weave, and that therefore she has been unable to deliver the quota of woven linen expected from her: this reinforces an association of women with weaving, found in administrative documents of the period.

It is uncertain whether a woman wrote her own letter, or dictated to a scribe. The letter of Ir is characterised by irregular handwriting and the use of vertical instead of horizontal lines; these traits might be interpreted as a sign of informal acquisition of writing skills, for example by a wealthy woman from within a kinship unit.

How can the modern reader decode systems of gender relations in this letter?

Source book: Wente 1990


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