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One of History’s Most Successful Female Rulers—Who No One Remembers

No-drama Hatshepsut was ancient Egypt’s longest-serving indigenous female ruler, known for enriching her people and commissioning stunning monuments.

Photo courtesy of GFDL

Most of us know about Cleopatra’s sex life, about Jezebel being thrown out of a window and eaten by dogs, and maybe even about the Chinese Empress Wu assassinating all her rivals—but few know about the successful reign of the no-drama Hatshepsut, a leader who enriched her people as Egypt’s longest-serving indigenous female ruler.

Now a new book from UCLA Egyptologist Kara Cooney provides a clear-eyed perspective on how the young Hatshepsut maneuvered her powerful rise, and explains why distrust of strong female leaders caused Hatshepsut’s reign to be virtually erased from history.

The pharaoh was born into the 18th dynasty of Egypt around 1500 B.C.—a time of prosperity and dominance for Egypt—Cooney writes in The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt. At about age 20, when her husband-brother died, Hatshepsut “catapulted herself into the highest office in the land,” via a series of shrewd strategies that outgunned supporters of the infant boy king originally destined for the throne.

We asked Cooney to tell us how this powerful female leader came to be “king.”

Why should we know about Hatshepsut?

She’s the only woman from all of antiquity to have left her situation better than she found it. Other women who held military power are all associated with crisis or disaster. Hatshepsut does everything right, everything was good in her reign. There were no assassinations, only prosperity. In fact, some accused her of giving too much of that wealth away.

Why isn’t she a household name?

Her success precisely is the reason we don’t remember her. We are still quite ambivalent about a female in power. A woman who has succeeded is automatically distrusted—we assume she will only care about herself and close family members, instead of being able to make far-reaching political decisions. An ambitious woman leader is usually maligned in history as a conniving, scheming seductress who foolishly brings down the men around her.

Today, only 5.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female and about one out of five Congress members are women. These are facts. Women have a very hard time finding political power.

Can you name some of Hatshepsut’s successes?

Her wars in Nubia (also known as Kush) were moneymaking. Nubia means “land of gold” and she quashed insurrections there and made sure those gold mines stayed open. She built more structures than any king previous to her—and these were stone temple structures. No king had built temples in stone the way she did. She made sure she left a permanent mark with those sacred structures.

And she was a job grower. She was interested in spreading wealth, creating more titles for people so they could have their own income. The amount of wealth she created and redirected back to her elite was impressive. She decentralized her power and this made the country stronger.

Speaking of power, how did Hatshepsut get so much of it?

She cloaked all her of personal decisions in ideology and idealism—this woman was canny, clever, and calculated.

Her husband-brother, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, died young and she was also the daughter of a successful warrior king. She was pulled into a matrix of power; few people could understand how to justify the aberration of becoming a female king. Yet she made sure everyone believed that this was in their best interest. She was a careful thinker politically and she was a very good communicator. Looking at statuary and relics texts, she covered her power plays by saying ‘the gods asked me to do this.’ She never said ‘I want it.’

In fact, as a priestess, she called God her father, and said God’s seed was planted into her mother.

Hatshepsut's temple. Photo by Andrea Piroddi

What kind of a mother was she?

A very good mother. She had a daughter named Nefrure, her only offspring, and she fostered her daughter’s power. She made sure Nefrure became a high priestess, with a household and income of her own. We don’t know their emotions but the two must have been close allies.

Did Hatshepsut have a lover?

An outsider named Senenmut was her closest ally. He was in charge of her money, her buildings, and her campaigns. His access to her was closer than any other person. In more than 20 statues, he is shown hugging Hatshepsut’s daughter as a young child, which showed everyone that he had this close connection. But just because they were close doesn’t mean that they had a sexual relationship. And remember, Hatshepsut was the most powerful woman of her time—she could have slept with anyone she wanted. This woman’s sexuality was not controlled by others, she controlled her own.

Sexually, Ancient Egyptian customs seem to break all the rules, with brothers marrying sisters, and daughters marrying fathers. Was this widespread?

This only happened in royal families. Brother-sister marriages were sometimes preferred for political reasons. Incest rules are only broken in cultures around the world that want to hold onto extreme power and wealth. It’s a good technique if you’re trying to keep the money in the family. The problem is the health of the offspring is not guaranteed, so it’s not necessarily a successful breeding scheme. To counter this, daughters were kept inside the palace, and non-family women were brought in to the male kings.

Why did Hatshepsut call herself a king and not a queen?

In Egypt, the word for queen means ‘king’s woman’ so when Hatshepsut took on that highest mantel, she abandoned the title of queen and called herself king—and took on the masculinity that went with it.

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