Modern queens and princesses, ruling from the highlands of the Tibetan Plateau to the tiny South Pacific island of Niue, have rarely possessed the type of power wielded by the female leaders of ancient Egypt.
These women were not just figureheads or puppet-masters behind a man, they were powerful and ruthless heads of a highly advanced civilization. In ancient Egypt women enjoyed the sort of human rights that their counterparts today are still fighting for—they worked, owned property, ran businesses, and divorced their husbands. Their society was, writes Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptology at UCLA, in her new book When Women Ruled the World, "light-years ahead of us in their trust of female power."
"In one place on our planet thousands of years ago, against all the odds of the male-dominated system in which they lived, women ruled repeatedly with formal, unadulterated power," Cooney writes in the book's introduction. No other civilization was so regularly run by women, particularly in times of war, which leads her to ask: "What about ancient Egypt allowed this kind of political and ideological power among the acknowledged weaker sex, plagued by pregnancy, nursing, monthly hormonal shifts, and menopause?"
Cooney seeks answers in profiles of six ancient female leaders—Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret, and Cleopatra—beginning near the dawn of the empire in 3000 B.C. All ruled as queens and all but one ended up in the official role of king. But their reign wasn't as liberated as it seems: though they were given ultimate power, they often served in the place of a male leader who was too young or old to rule, and wielding this power still threw them into battle with the patriarchy. Soon after their rule, most of these female leaders had their accomplishments wiped from history, their statues smashed, and their names forgotten. But for brief moments, they ruled Egypt, and a glance at the current world stage shows that remains unique. "Simply put," Cooney writes. "modern female leaders are far more distrusted than their counterparts were in the ancient Egyptian world."