Was there actually a time when women ruled the world? Author and archaeologist Kara Cooney tackles that topic in her latest book “When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt.” It’s an historical overview, an archaeological examination, an assessment of women’s roles in the patriarchal god-king power structure of ancient Egypt and considers what these long-dead ancients can teach us about our own times.
A Mar Vista resident, Kara wears many hats. As a professor of Egyptology and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Language and Cultures at UCLA, her work focuses on death preparations, afterlife beliefs and gender studies, all of which come into play in this book. She’s participated in digs with the Metropolitan Museum of New York at the Royal Pyramid complex of Senwosret III and the Theban Necropolis with Johns Hopkins University. She appeared as a lead expert in the popular Discovery Channel special, “The Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen,” and is a recurring team member of the History Channel’s Digging for the Truth. Her book “The Woman Who Would Be King” was published in 2014.
DO WOMEN RULE DIFFERENTLY?
This book focuses on six queens of Egypt who served as kings, whether solely or in partnership with a relative or other chosen ruler for whom she acted as regent. The best known are Cleopatra and Nefertiti, but before them, Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut and later Tawosret had shorter shots at running the show.
Kara goes into as much detail as Egyptian history and archeology allow concerning their rise to power. But, she says, “Women were placeholders, stepping stones from one man or boy to another, a means of keeping the dynastic system intact, so if the dynasty was going to die out and there was only a daughter left to rule, Egyptians allowed that to happen. Or if the king was too young to rule on his own, it was safer to allow a woman to rule, because a woman was more likely to protect her own son when making decisions, if she tried to remove the boy she’d likely be removed herself. So she’s less likely to rock the boat or create a coup.”
But the question about whether women rule differently from men remains unanswered: “The title to my book allures you with the idea that women actually ruled the world, that there was a matriarchy, but then cuts you off at the knees by saying that even this place that allowed women power, regularly and systematically, only did so to protect a patriarchal dynasty. Ironically, it’s in the most unequal, most authoritarian societies where women had the best shot to rule.”
One of Kara’s specialties is coffin studies. “To a normal person hearing this, coffin studies may seem to be macabre and all about death and death rituals,” Kara said.
Before recorded history, ancient Egyptians pictured their history in texts, images and statues in temples and monuments, offering the “official” version of their kings and queens’ lives, but nothing about their inner workings or failings. They also used statuary to erase the memory of women they didn’t wish to credit, instead assigning successes during their reigns to the men who came after by replacing their images.
Coffin studies allow a different insight into these women rulers, Kara explains. “I look at coffins as remnants of social lives lived. And I reconstruct the social tactics of families in display competition with one another, showing their best selves during times of prosperity or crisis. I can look at that coffin to understand the differences in gender and class and as a way to get at larger human social systems.
“Coffins reveal social details about a person you won’t see in state temple texts. In a coffin, I’ll know what titles that woman held, how much gilding was applied, what sort of religious access she may have had, who she was married to, whether her coffin was reused, whether it was in a time of crisis. I can look at craft techniques, at woodwork and varnish and where it comes from. For me, coffin studies have been the gift that keeps on giving!”
She chuckles when she says, “It can get a little boring, coffin after coffin but I’m working on a big book that includes data from last 12 years of my life’s work, and it’s fun to write up a narrative instead of another research article. I’m trying to put the whole thing together in a book called ‘Recycling for Death’ with lots of pictures. Maybe even more than one volume; there’s lots of death!”
With COVID 19 ruling our lives right now, at least 25 events, at which Kara was to appear as part of the NatGeo Live series, were cancelled. These days, she’s teaching remotely from her home office. “I have 200 UCLA students in a Zoom class that I’m teaching for the first time, and I’m using the experience to write a book called ‘The Good Kings,’ with a subtitle that will convey the idea of what authoritarians of Ancient Egypt can teach us about today.”
Now Kara’s new favorite queen, Nefertiti was the Great Royal Wife and co-king with Akhenaten, who upended all of Egyptian society and religion. With parallels to Donald Trump, each disruption was a test of loyalty for his followers. After his death, Nefertiti came in to undo the mess he made.
But the answers are yet to be found: like all things archaeological, Nefertiti’s complicated life is just now being pieced together from ancient ruins and remnants. And even if, in the end, she did fix things, she was still protecting the dynastic patriarchy.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.