Hatshepsut’s Egypt: Modern Lessons on Feminism from an Ancient Pharaoh

Kara Cooney’s new biography The Woman Who Would Be King sets out to do for the little-known Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut what Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra did for the more famous queen. We caught up with Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA, to ask about the challenges of writing the life of a woman whose story is all but lost to history — and to discover what this woman, who ruled as a pharaoh from the age of twenty, can teach us today about women in positions of power.

Signature: What first drew you to Hatshepsut’s story?

Kara Cooney: The book was a suggestion from my agent, and at first I was actually opposed to the idea. Because academics work in very narrow fields, I was frankly quite worried that other Egyptologists would judge me for working in the 18th Dynasty when normally my research takes me to the 19th, 20th and 21st Dynasties. I now realize that I could not have written this book if I had been a Hatshepsut specialist, because then I would likely have had a particular agenda, excavation, or text reading to defend. Instead I came in as an over-educated PhD journalist, if you will, and wrote the story — from cradle to grave — that I thought the evidence represented.

SIG: What made you decide to approach it as a biography?

KC: So many scholars focus on the ample evidence left behind of Hatshepsut’s reign — statues and reliefs and courtiers’ tombs — that they forget the emotions and decisions and strategies of the woman herself. I wanted to change things up a bit, from an Egyptological perspective at least, and focus on the woman, instead of the things left behind. ?So the biography aspect was evident to me.

SIG: In your preface you discuss the difficulty of writing the life of a woman in the ancient world, when there is so little concrete evidence, and you often, as you put it, “engage in conjecture.” Can you explain a little more about that process?

KC: Ah yes, conjecture! One review put it perfectly — it said I was a bit defensive (annoyingly defensive!) in the opening of the book, but that upon reading further, the reasons for the apologetic conjecture became clear. The evidence of Hatshepsut’s reign is all wrapped up in ideology and display, with no personal letters or other fragments of humanity to hold on to, even though we know that living, breathing people were a part of this drama. So, to write a biography from cradle to grave and beyond with all of the humanity, decision-making, and strategy that the Egyptians almost never record, conjecture was the best way to face the lack of evidence and yet to feel her story simultaneously. Conjecture was the best way to tell the real story, behind the idealized version, that the Egyptians try so often to veil.

SIG: There are so many surprises in the story of a woman who found a way to rule as a king, and exercised such power. What surprised you the most in the research and writing of the book?

KC: I was surprised how much I was rooting for her, how much I hoped — in a facile, score-keeping kind of way — that she had assassinated her co-king Thutmose III. Yet simultaneously I respected her elegant strategies, in a practical, realpolitik manner: that she hadn’t had anyone killed, that her entire kingship was a foundation for her dynasty’s continuation and glory.

SIG: Inevitably, a story like this will invite comparisons to Cleopatra, a much more famous Egyptian ruler and recently herself the subject of Stacy Schiff’s speculative biography. Why do you think Cleopatra captured the imagination of later societies and became a myth in ways that Hatshepsut (until now) did not? How were they similar and different as rulers?

KC: Here we come to the point about female rule. I argue that it is the unsuccessful female monarchs who are remembered, as cautionary tales, and the successful ones, like Hatshepsut in all her dynasty-saving responsibility, who are forgotten. Cleopatra was an amazing woman, to be sure — intelligent, strategic, farseeing — but her techniques were rather inelegant and quite patriarchal: sex with the highest ranking Roman warlord, production of offspring with that warlord and then the attempt to set up the family as ruling dynasts of the Eastern Mediterranean. If Antony and Cleopatra had won the Battle of Actium, perhaps we would remember her differently. But they lost, and Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra is the typical story of female power: crisis demands that a woman lead because all male candidates are gone; she comes in at the end of her dynasty when danger is at her doorstep; she meets a bad end. None of those things hold true for Hatshepsut, and that is what makes her so extraordinary — not just as a female leader, but as a strategic thinker who understood the matrix of power and who could plug into it at will.

SIG: Did writing this book make you think differently about women in power in the modern world? Do you think there are lessons in Hatshepsut’s experiences that are relevant today?

KC: Absolutely. In my class at UCLA, Women and Power in the Ancient World, we discuss the biological, psychological, political, and social reasons why women have so little power and why so many obstacles are put into their paths. Sexuality is a key inhibitor. A young woman can seduce, and for that reason she is untrustworthy because she may have ulterior motives. A pregnant or nursing mother is occupied with her family and is believed to care little for or misunderstand political matters. But what about older women? Why do we still distrust their power?

Here I think it’s key to remember that women often (but not always!) display more oxytocin-like aggression — which encourages them to take care of their own and look only to their tight family circle, limiting any larger political connections that could build a foundation of power — while a man’s testosterone aggression demands far-reaching political thinking, trade with others, and bridge-building between communities, and thus avenues to real power. Thus we come to the story that Hilary Rodham Clinton loves to tell: that a man needs to have pictures of his family in his office so that people know he’s a good family man and not overly selfish or ambitious, whereas the same photos in a woman’s office will elicit feelings of distrust and hostility from people who think she only cares for her family and nothing beyond. My own feminist take is: there is no reason to deny these biological and psychological realities; we might as well own that they exist, recognize them, and then transcend them. As a woman with some power at a university, these gender roles are indeed always somewhere in the back of my mind. It doesn’t necessarily change my own behavior, but it helps me to avoid impolitic situations.