The Women Who Ruled the World (3500 Years Ago)

Kara Cooney – UCLA

A woman’s power in the ancient world was always compromised from the outset. Complex societies are inherently based on masculine dominance, forcing the ancient female rulers to resort to familiar methods to gain power. Some ancient female rulers, like Cleopatra, used their sexuality to gain access to important men and bear them children. Many, like Cleopatra, only ruled at the end of a dynasty, after the male line had run out, or, like Britain’s Boudica, in the midst of civil war. Sometimes, a woman was the only effective leader left after drawn-out battles against imperial aggression. Some ancient female rulers, like Hatshepsut, gained their position as the regent and helper of a masculine king who was too young to rule.

The Four Most Powerful Ancient Female Rulers:

  • Hatshepsut
  • Tawosret
  • Cleopatra
  • Boudica

How Did Ancient Female Rulers Come to Power?

Almost no evidence of successful, long-term female leaders exists from the ancient world – in the Mediterranean, Near East, Africa, Central Asia, or East Asia. Only the female king of Egypt, Hatshepsut, was able to take on formal power for any considerable length of time, and even she had to share power with a male ruler. Given this social reality, how then did Hatshepsut negotiate her leadership role? How did she rule “behind the throne” before her accession? Why did she ascend the throne as a king? What was her relationship with her co-regent Thutmose III? How are we to find this woman’s power when it is cloaked by traditional patriarchal systems? This lecture will work through the ample evidence for Hatshepsut’s reign in an attempt to find the woman behind the statues, monuments, stelae, and obelisks.

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