The Women Who Ruled the World (3500 Years Ago)

Kara Cooney
Kara Cooney
UCLA

Kara Cooney is a professor of Egyptology at UCLA and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Specializing in social history, gender studies, and economies in the ancient world, she received her Ph.D. in Egyptology from Johns Hopkins University. In 2005, she was co-curator of Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Cooney produced a com­parative archaeology television series, titled Out of Egypt, which aired in 2009 on the Discovery Channel and is available online. Her popular books include The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient EgyptWhen Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt, and The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World. Her forthcoming books include Recycling for Death: A Social History of Ancient Egypt through Coffins of Dynasties Nineteen to Twenty-two and Ancient Egyptian Society: Challenging Assumptions, Exploring Approaches

 

Overview

Female Rulers

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 Women 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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