When Women Ruled the World: An Interview with Egyptologist Kara Cooney

Kara Cooney will give a lecture, “When Women Ruled the World,” March 19 at the Kauffman Center. (©Mikel Healey)

Egyptologist Kara Cooney’s March 19 talk at the Kauffman Center, “When Women Ruled the World,” begs today’s burning question: When WILL women rule the world?

What do Egyptian queens have to do with women today, and how do we consider their rule in historical and contemporary context? If 2018 was the year of the woman, those who have been elected in the midterms bear the weight of history and of our considerable expectations. Cooney’s expertise on women rulers in ancient Egypt may provide fascinating insights into gender and power and our culture’s inherent sexism. Cooney responded to some questions that should set the tone for her fascinating talk March 19. The answers are slightly edited for length and clarity.

How did the women you discuss come into their power and how did they hold onto it?

Ancient Egypt is an anomaly as the only land that consistently called upon the rule of women to keep its regime in working order, safe from discord and on the surest possible footing — particularly when a crisis was underway. Each started as a queen — a mere sexual vessel for the king — but each became the chief decision-maker, and five of the six served as king outright. Though each woman must have had the gravitas, skill, intelligence and intuition to rule, each was also put in power by an Egyptian system that needed her rule.

These women were power brokers: educated for complex tasks and supreme leadership, ready to hold the highest position and able to see and move the pieces on the board. But viewed through another lens, they were utterly powerless, mere pawns of a patriarchal system over which they had no control and could never hope to alter in the long term.

What were the political circumstances that gave way to their rise to power in ancient times?

These female kings were mere placeholders for the rightful masculine leaders who were too old or too young to rule — or hadn’t been born yet. Often, the men who came after them erased or omitted their names from the formal “king lists” of monarchs created by the royal temple. In the end their power was a short-term illusion each time it occurred.

Were any of them tokens or political pawns of powerful men?

One could argue that all of them were allowed into power at least in part because their rule politically benefited the men around them — maintaining a dynastic hold on the kingship or bolstering the power of the non-royal elite men around them.

This illustration of men and women in ancient Egypt accompanies details of Cooney’s lecture on the Kauffman Center website. (National Geographic Live)

Can you draw any comparisons between these women and modern women political figures/heads of state such as Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, et al.? Shared ideologies, strategies?

Absolutely. Each of these women found herself a representative of a certain family or political group. In the cases of Thatcher, May and Merkel, each was elected to power in parliamentary systems. I haven’t seen a woman elected leader of state in a modern country with a direct election system, as in the United States. As for Gandhi and Bhutto, these women found themselves also part of parliamentary systems, but as representatives of a family dynasty of which they were the last member standing. The links to ancient Egyptian patterns are palpable.

Hillary Clinton was also seen as a representative of a political dynasty, but in many ways, she suffered for it, trying to take power as a wife — a peer, rather than a daughter — one level down. Hostility toward her by the American electorate was, and still is, palpable. If feminism is nothing more than half of the population wielding half of the power, we in the United States have a very long way to go. Although the 2018 midterms provided some successes in electing women to political office, we are still far behind where we should be, less than 25 percent of Congress being female.

Can you come to any conclusions — based on your knowledge of ancient Egyptian history — about how we, in contemporary cultures, can elect more women to high political office? Are there any comparisons or conclusions to actually be drawn?

I think that the first thing we need to do is to admit our human apprehension and even hostility toward women in power. We need to think about why we hold such views without even verbalizing them. We need to think about why we distrust a woman’s emotionality in comparison to a man’s. In the same way that inherent racism can be transcended through education and discussion, we can also transcend our inherent sexism.

As part of the Kauffman Center Presents’ National Geographic Live series, Egyptologist Kara Cooney will give a lecture, “When Women Ruled the World,” at 7:30 p.m. March 19 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are limited; to order, www.kauffmancenter.org. To learn more about women rulers, see Cooney’s books, “When Women Ruled the World” and “The Woman Who Would Be King.”

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

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