Photograph by KENNETH GARRETT, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.
Photograph by KENNETH GARRETT, Nat Geo Image Collection

Should women rule the world? The Queens of ancient Egypt say yes.

Egyptologist Kara Cooney has found that ancient Egypt turned to female leadership to rule and protect ancient Egypt in times of trouble. What lessons does the past hold for the women of today?

Reading the news these days is often a depressing and anxiety inducing task. Mass shootings, pipe bombs, assassinations, and—over it all—climate change haunt the discussion. The sources of these modern human malignancies are generally the same: male leaders who want to maintain economic, political, and religious power no matter the cost. It begs the question: Might women rule differently from men? If history is any indicator, the answer is yes.

Lessons from the Past

The ancient Egyptians certainly believed in the wisdom of female rulers. Indeed, when there was a political crisis, the ancient Egyptians chose a woman time and again to fill the power vacuum—precisely because she was the least risky option. For the ancient Egyptians, placing women in power was often the best protection for the patriarchy in times of uncertainty.

Compared to other states of the time, the kingdom of Egypt was different. Natural boundaries of deserts and sea protected it from the constant invasions, warlording, and aggression that Mesopotamia, Syria, Persia, Greece, or Rome endured. In these lands, if a young child took the throne, it would be a call to military competition to seize it from him. But in Egypt, where sovereigns, no matter how young, were revered as god-kings, women protected them. Rather than see the child as an obstacle to power, mothers, aunts, sisters would defended the youths at the center of the wheel of power. This stabilizing tendency was employed repeatedly in Egypt’s history.

Egypt’s Female Pharaohs

In the first dynasty (ca. 3000-2890 B.C.), when her husband King Djet died, Queen Merneith stepped into power on behalf of her young son, instead of allowing an uncle to serve as regent and manipulate his nephew. Merneith was the first documented queen regent who shepherded her son to the throne and insured stability in Egypt. In the 12th dynasty (ca. 1985-1773 B.C.), when inbreeding (or other factors) meant there was no crown prince to take the throne at all, Neferusobek, the wife of the dead king, stepped forward to rule and guided Egypt until another dynasty was ready to rule.

Ancient Egypt 101
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A Woman Who Would Be King

Depicted as a sphinx, the pharoah Hatshepsut dons a lion's main as well as the traditional king's beard.

In Dynasty 18 (ca. 1550-1295 B.C.), a new trailblazer led Egypt during an era of growth and prosperity. When the king died after only three years on the throne, a mere toddler became pharaoh; the boy’s aunt stepped into the breach, and the era of Hatshepsut began. She led Egypt for more than two decades, the longest of any female king, and left the kingdom better than she found it.

Later in Dynasty 18, when King Akhenaten foisted religious extremism upon his people, he made his wife Nefertiti his co-ruler. She must have been the safest option of holding power, and it was arguably she who had to clean up his mess after his death. In Dynasty 19 (1295-1186 B.C.), another woman, Queen Tawosret, was placed as regent for a boy (not her own son) and even allowed to rule as king after his death, but she was no match for the warlord who removed her from power with impunity, seizing the crown for himself.

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The Powerful Cleopatra

This black basalt statue of Cleopatra is one of the few surviving depictions of the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Best known of all was Cleopatra of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-285 B.C.), who eliminated her siblings to take the throne unaccosted, only to put all of her energies into creating a dynasty for her many children. In the end, even this seducer of Roman leaders ruled differently than her partner of the moment, Marc Antony. While he was the (defeated) aggressor in Parthia, she stayed in Egypt and tried to create calm. While he foolishly engaged in the Battle of Actium, she saw the writing on the wall and fled with her fleet, back to Egypt, where she could do some good.

Looking Forward

History shows that the Egyptians knew that women ruled differently from men. And so they used them to protect the patriarchy, to act as stopgaps, placeholders, until the next man could fill the top spot on the social pyramid. But no matter how much power they held, even though many of them were called nothing less than King, these formidable women of ancient Egypt were not able to transcend the patriarchal agenda and change the system itself. When their reigns ended, the masculine Egyptian power structure remained intact.

Cognitive scientists know that the female brain is different from the male. Social scientists have found that men are most responsible for violent crime, including rape and homicide. On the whole, women are less likely to commit mass murder, less inclined to start a war, more likely to be in touch with and express their emotions, and more interested in nuance, rather than decisiveness. Perhaps these qualities were what ancient Egypt sought in times of crisis

These queens call out from the past, challenging us to place women into political power, not as representatives of a patriarchal dynasty, but as women who serve their own, different agendas of social connection and emotional cohesion, instead of aping the aggression of their fathers, brothers, and sons. If a long time ago, women really did rule the world, they were able to do so even without feminism, without a sisterhood, without their own agenda, without their own long term hold on power.

It’s time to look to history, to the powerful women of ancient Egypt who were the salvation of their people again and again. What if today they were allowed to rule with the full force of their emotions–using their emotions—that trait most demonized about women–their ups and downs, their sadness and joy, their mercurial natures? Could this trait be harnessed to connect with others, to find compromise, to take the finger off the trigger, to look to a nuanced solution? It is this element of emotionality that could lead humanity through the trials and tribulations of the 21st century. We should let ancient history be our guide and let women be our salvation once more, this time with their own interests front and center.

Kara Cooney is a professor of Egyptology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Specializing in social history, gender studies, and economies in the ancient world, she is the author of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt (2018) and The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt (2014).
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In the ancient world, female rulers were a rare—but thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, women reigned supreme. Kara Cooney's latest book, When Women Ruled the World explores the lives of six remarkable female pharaohs, from Hatshepsut to Cleopatra—women who ruled with real power—and shines a piercing light on our own perceptions of women in power today.