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When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt


When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Dr. Kara Cooney is one of Egyptology’s most visible faces, regularly featured on documentaries and talk shows and in print and digital media. A brilliant scholar who is passionate about sharing her love for ancient Egypt with her audiences, Cooney offers her insights on female rulership in antiquity in her new work of nonfiction, WHEN WOMEN RULED THE WORLD.

Cooney discusses six queens, each of whom reigned as a monarch in her own right --- not as a pharaoh-queen, but as a rightful ruler. She discusses the political context that allowed ancient Egypt to produce female rulers, which was markedly different from the other patriarchal societies of the ancient Near East. Every so often, political vacuums of power arose in Egypt --- i.e., the male line of the dynasty withered out. Rather than allowing competing nobles to suck the country into civil war, the central powers in Egypt would allow a woman from said dynasty to assume power and smooth the political transitions.

"Overall, Cooney creates an intriguing entry in the ongoing discussion about women’s political roles in ancient Egypt."

In addition to its isolated geography, the admittance of women to the halls of power helps account for Egypt’s remarkable pattern of political stability throughout the millennia. That’s especially at odds with the frequent political tensions that erupted in Egypt’s nearest neighbors in the Levant and Anatolia. By prioritizing continuity and peace, regardless of gender, above individual desires, the Egyptians ensured easier transitions of power.

While Cooney’s central thesis is compelling, it is hard to reconcile the supposed smoothness of Egyptian succession with greed and desire for power that surely arose from the higher nobility. The idea that the Egyptian upper classes put their own needs behind those of their country so consistently, century after century, doesn’t vibe with human nature --- few involved in politics are all that altruistic, as we see so often in today’s world.

Surely dynastic transitions were just as unruly and uproarious as they are today --- we just don’t have preserved records recounting said instability. Furthermore, it would be to the advantage of new rulers to portray themselves as keepers of the peace, upholders of millennia of sacred tradition, regardless of whether or not that was true. And relying too heavily on the propaganda left behind by these pharaohs might skew our points of view. Thankfully, Cooney does weave in the archaeological record quite frequently --- but so much has been lost to history, so she must conjecture where possible. And that makes it hard to create a fully fleshed-out portrayal of each queen’s life and motivations.

Overall, Cooney creates an intriguing entry in the ongoing discussion about women’s political roles in ancient Egypt. Sometimes, when striving to apply her singular thesis about a unified political motivation to different women throughout the millennia, her argument wears a bit thin.

Reviewed by Carly Silver on December 14, 2018

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt
by Kara Cooney

  • Publication Date: October 30, 2018
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Women's Studies
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: National Geographic
  • ISBN-10: 1426219776
  • ISBN-13: 9781426219771