Why women rule the world
When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney
If you’ll indulge me, I precede this review with a seemingly tangential but ultimately relevant anecdote. A few years ago, as part of a male-dominated gaming group, I observed a discussion regarding how more female players could be attracted to the game. The earnest solutions suggested included pink paint jobs in the store, and adding more caring and nurturing tasks. After attempting and failing to stifle my laughter, I explained that these stereotypes are not in fact biologically in built into women, and that my personal favourite aspect was the combat, because it offered the most challenge and variety, with no two encounters the same. I was then immediately undercut by an older, evidently traditionalist woman who loudly announced that I was talking rubbish and that a competitive drive just wasn’t in a woman’s natural make up. I wondered just how she explained my lifelong aggressively competitive energy, and of course, it couldn’t possibly be that society’s narrow parameters are too restrictive in their definition of masculinity and femininity; it must be that I and other women like me are some kind of aberrant freaks, despite having never felt any kind of gender dysphoria or confusion about my female identity.
Why do I mention this incident? Because Kara Cooney’s When Women Ruled the World, well-meaning as it is and trying to highlight the reigns of some of ancient Egypt’s female rulers, is marred by scientifically unsupported, irrational stereotypes like those above. Even as Cooney sheds light on the historical facts of these women, she infers baseless stereotyped interpretations, such as that these women’s successes as rulers were because they ruled in a different style than men – they ruled better than men, Cooney tells us, avoiding rashly going to war and fostering Egypt’s prosperity like loving mothers. Given that the pool of female rulers is so small, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about whether female pharaohs were averse to war. I couldn’t believe such nonsense in a non-fiction work from a credited historian – and yes, that is my professional Egyptologist’s opinion. This reading ignores mountains of evidence to the contrary (the many men who have successfully led from economic, diplomatic, scientific, and other foci, with reduced emphasis on war; as well as the women who have successfully and without compunction pursued the more martial arts), and is a biased and limited assessment of both men and women. I dont base that on opinion. The work of neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioural scientists have shown that much of the notions of in-built feminine empathy and male logic are founded on confirmation bias and unscientific method, while rigorously conducted studies evidence parity and even reversal.
Cooney seems confused about her own point, in one moment highlighting how Hatshepsut’s reign was erased from the record by the male kings who followed her, but the next moment discussing how in the face of the dearth of women in modern politics society should take a lesson from ancient Egypt, which “valued a woman’s calmer, more nuanced political skills.” She plucks out six queens from Egyptian history, though there were arguably more of unusual power. Even so, this score of prominent, power-wielding women in ancient Egypt is a small number when compared to 3000 years of history which was for the most part ruled by men. Ancient Egypt is a notable example of female freedom and power – when compared to other contemporary neighbouring societies. But it was still male-dominated, and at times – usually when she is comparing to modern women in politics – Cooney implies it was an idyllic utopia. This doesn’t really ring true – we are closer to gender parity today than at any time in the past – and Cooney does not properly place ancient Egypt in context by making it clear that although it was closer to gender parity than its contemporaries, it was still nowhere near modern standards, let alone an aspirational model.
This is a shame because, aside from reinforcing stereotypes about the way in which women rule, and misstating the quality of gender parity in ancient Egypt compared to modern day versus sitting among its contemporaries, Cooney does actually make solid points. She is quite correct in stating the studies which have found the modern female leaders are deemed less trustworthy and more strident than their male counterparts, and they are critiqued more often for their visual appearance than men are, instead of for their policies. She is quite correct in highlighting the enormous gender disparity in modern positions of power. And, to be fair, Cooney does mention that not all ancient Egyptian female rulers avoided war – though she still seems to take the view that in general female power is mysteriously inherently more nurturing and peaceful.
I know that a lot of readers strongly dislike historical non-fiction that thrives on “perhaps”, “might have”, and “probably”, so if you’re one of those, you’ll find plenty to dislike here. I personally do not object to it – the way I see it, it is hardly the author’s fault if the amount of evidence we have on a historical subject happens to be scant, and as long as the reader is fully aware of speculation, it can help us to examine possible interpretations and implications out of the evidence. However, sometimes Cooney makes statements out of what is really speculation, with no qualifying “perhaps”, “might have”, or even “must have” in sight; for example, stating that Ankhsenamun became Ay’s Great Royal Wife when in fact this is still heavily debated by Egyptologists since it is based on such scant evidence: (view spoiler)[(a single ring with their cartouches twinned, but Ankhsenamun appears nowhere else even suggested as Ay’s Great Royal Wife, and some Egyptologists read it instead as a familial relationship instead). (hide spoiler)] In another place Cooney says that late in the reign of Ramesses II, “12 crown princes were named and died in succession” before the succession was finally settled on Merenptah, the 13th born son who did eventually become the next pharaoh. This statement is not just misleading – it is unequivocally incorrect. (view spoiler)[Some younger sons predeceased their elder brothers, so when a crown prince died, the title skipped ahead to the eldest surviving son. Of Merenptah’s 12 older brothers, only three were crown prince before him. (hide spoiler)] The section on Kleopatra VII is the most egregious in this regard. Cooney states that there were no female monarchs between Tausret and Kleopatra VII, even though there were several Ptolemaic queens who acted as regent, affirmed co-ruler, and even independent sole ruler, before Kleopatra, most of whom she mentions in Kleopatra’s chapter – so why say there were none? At one point Cooney says that Ptolemy XII had three daughters, citing Kleopatra VI, Berenike IV, and Kleopatra VII herself (view spoiler)[(though Kleopatra VI as a daughter of Ptolemy XII is debated, and is probably the same person as Kleopatra V) (hide spoiler)], but later in the chapter she finally remembers there was a fourth daughter, Arsinoe IV. She states that Arsinoe IV was assassinated in her early thirties, moments after telling us that Kleopatra was aged 28 and Arsinoe IV was her younger sister. I get the distinct impression that Cooney doesn’t know the subject of Ptolemaic Egypt that well. Cooney accepts uncritically the hypothesis that Kleopatra VII was illegitimate, without discussing the evidence at all. (view spoiler)[The basis for suggesting that Kleopatra VII was illegitimate rests on no more than the implication that Kleopatra VII learnt Egyptian and a single mention by Strabo that Berenike IV was Ptolemy XII’s only legitimate daughter. However Plutarch does not specifically say that Kleopatra VII learnt Egyptian or that it was her only additional language, he states that Kleopatra VII knew seven other languages, among which people often presume that Egyptian was one, and it does not necessarily follow that learning a language means one has ancestry. Meanwhile Strabo makes known errors about Berenike IV in his text, and no other sources suggest anything other than that Kleopatra VII was legitimate, plus combined with the fact that in the Ptolemies long three-centuries reign they persistently promoted a Hellenistic elite, and practised incest, and that Roman sources hostile to the Ptolemies mention nothing out of the ordinary or scandalous about the mystery mother... it doesnt look great for this particular hypothesis (until/unless further evidence is discovered). (hide spoiler)] Cooney also states that Kleopatra VII’s line died out with her grandson, Ptolemy of Mauretania, despite discussion by historians that there were in fact further descendants.
I really wanted to praise this book. I viewed Cooney’s previous book on Hatshepsut positively – yes, it was a popular history, and yes, it was highly speculative, but being aware of the caveats it was useful in examining the gaps in Hatshepsut’s history and the plausible scenarios that might have filled them. The basic premise of this book is one that I am interested in: female rulers of ancient Egypt, particularly those lesser known (Merneith, Sobekneferu, Tausret) rather than those more well-known (Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Kleopatra VII). I am a little disappointed that Cooney went for the big names. She does mention in the course of the text some of the stories of yet more female regents, co-rulers, and monarchs (Neithhotep, Neferuptah, Ahmes-Nefertari, Nefertari, Kleopatra II, Kleopatra III, Berenike IV), but some are not mentioned at all (Khentkawes, Ankhesenpepi II, Tiye, Arsinoe II). I don’t even mind the copious speculation in the text. What is misleading is when Cooney accepts certain hypotheses uncritically and conveys them to the reader as fact instead of just one possible scenario, and she does this far too often. On top of this, the book is marred by Cooney’s adherence to disproven gender stereotypes, which comes across as unscientific and decidedly not objective.
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When Women Ruled the World
Our world is an absolute mess. Would things look different if women were in charge? Bartana is an Israeli multimedia artist and no stranger to speculative projects. In the past, she has imagined a mass Jewish return to Poland and a rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon. At the performance I attended, the guests included a human rights lawyer, a defense and security expert, a political scientist and a former Austrian politician who is a nuclear nonproliferation activist. Over the course of the intermission-less performance, their testimony was drawn out and occasionally shut down by the actors seated among them. This is the War Room.
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