Kara Cooney is an Egyptologist and National Geographic explorer with an interest in women’s roles in ancient Egypt. This book is a taster tour of the rise and fall of 6 of Egypt’s female rulers, the most famous of which are Cleopatra, Hatshepsut and Nefertiti. Before I read this I was passingly familiar with these three but had never heard of the others she features (Merneith, Neferusobek and Tawosret). The timelines covered are broad- Merneith was the first of the six and she ruled in the 1st Dynasty (2950 BCE); Cleopatra’s reign was nearly 3000 years later (30 BCE- which really reminds you just how long and how old ancient Egypt lasted; if ancient Rome lasted as long we would still be Romans).
To the extent possible given the patchy evidentiary records for some of these Queens, Cooney traces how each woman came to power and what her rule looked like. Her thesis is that women rulers were a last resort for the patriarchal Egyptian society, and that women were called on to lead in order to save or hold together the kingdom during difficult times/ when a male heir no longer existed. While I think this may hold true for some of her examples (ie: Tawosret was the last of her line in a difficult and changing world), other Queens seemed ambitious and determined to make themselves rulers regardless of whether there were male alternatives (ie: Hatshepsut and Cleopatra).
While I appreciated the overview of these women’s lives and some insight into how ancient Egypt functioned as a civilization for so long, my review is somewhat mixed. Cooney is not shy about advocating or arguing a feminist perspective throughout her work, which I didn’t love- I was looking for a history of these women and I’m not sure I got that as it felt like Cooney was trying to make the facts fit her patterns and theories as opposed to the other way around. [At the same time I’ve been thinking about how many ‘neutral’ history books have come from the opposite underlying opinions and assumptions than Cooney centres, ie: that women are ineffectual/non-existent/dangerous rulers. I was trying to consider whether if I’ve been inundated with so many of those types of books for years I don’t even notice the slant, and maybe rather than Cooney being an extreme advocate she’s in the same bucket, its just more noticeable? (Also, she is very blunt about setting out her approach and often ‘neutral’ male historians wouldn’t need to be so blunt- their opinions would be the water that history swims in. Things to ponder…].
Cooney also drew significant parallels between the hardships these women faced and those hardships women still face today (ie: we’re happy to let women step in as interim rulers until a man can come and do the job ‘for real’). While I agree with her conclusions for our present day (she is not the first to posit this theory of female leadership, and there are statistics to support that times of trouble are when female leaders are called upon- the glass cliff so to speak), I’m not sold that its such a neat overlay between our current issues and thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history.
My other criticism is how little we still actually know about some of these women, which isn’t Cooney’s fault (the record for Cleopatra is nearly all 3rd party non-contemporaneous sources; the record for some of the lesser known Queens is extremely slim full-stop). I’m glad Cooney is highlighting these women, as that may drive more research.
Counting this one as the ‘Star’ square for cbr14bingo- who is more famous than that most famous Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra? And the other Queens would certainly have been the stars of their own day- the living goddess, the most important Egyptian, the pinnacle of their societies. Would give this 3.5 stars if there were half numbers.