An accessible spin through the corridors of power in ancient Egypt, corridors that converged on thrones on which women reigned.
You wouldn’t know it to read the standard survey texts, but the history of ancient Egypt is punctuated by periods of rule by women—and more of them than just Nefertiti and Cleopatra. Cooney (Egyptology/UCLA; The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, 2014) digs into the tombs, papyri, and literature to look at the past of a polity that, though “no less cruel and oppressive to women than every other complex society on Earth,” was not programmatically opposed to the notion that women could rule. Most of these women were on the throne for relatively short periods, often because they stood in when male heirs to the throne were too young or otherwise unable to assume it. One, Merneith, ruled without formal title as regent for one such too-young son; we know little about her largely because “the Egyptians, it seems, never wanted to directly state that the king’s mother was calling the shots.” When her son hit 16 or 17, she continued to advise him behind the scenes. As Cooney notes, it was the last such unacknowledged rule; other women who followed on the throne bore the title “king.” One regent, Hatshepsut, connected to the venerable and powerful bloodline of the 18th Dynasty, was herself only 16 when she ascended the throne, having outlived a number of unlucky brothers (and avoided being married off to one of them, which would have made her queen). The author makes it clear that these female kings could be as tough, and sometimes as sanguinary, as their male counterparts; if forgotten, most were also skillful. The most famous, Cleopatra, was an exception, for Cooney reckons her a failure, having tied her fortunes too closely to a man, if one whose record has also been tarnished by “the Roman misinformation and propaganda campaign against her.”
Cooney provides welcome insights into pharaonic politics while bringing numerous little-known Egyptian women to the fore.