There was one exception: Egypt. Throughout the country’s long reign from Dynasty 1 through to the Ptolemaic years that ended Egypt’s independence until the twentieth century, Egypt was unique in its acceptance of female rulers.
There were not many but occurring as often as they did over thousands of years, suggests the practice was longstanding and accepted throughout Egypt. Separated by years, and sometimes even millennia, these queens came to the throne under difference circumstances, with different strategies. The thing that binds them all together, even now, is that their rules all inevitably ended to restore patriarchal balance. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt (2018) by Kara Cooney examines the reigns of six queens to explore Egypt’s complex attitudes toward female rule and what lessons might be gleaned for modern society.
This book is divided into six chapters that work chronologically through ancient Egypt’s history beginning in Dynasty 1 with Merneith–one of the first Egyptian women to rule as a regent for a relative too young to rule in his own stead. Next Cooney introduces readers to Nefrusobek who ruled as the last of her dynasty when Egypt’s penchant for using incest to consolidate power resulted in a sterile male heir.
Cooney’s previous book, The Woman Who Would Become King, is a more in-depth study of Hatshepsut–the first Egyptian queen to surpass her role as regent and declare herself king in her own right–so it’s no surprise that this chapter is one of the most thoroughly researched and well-informed.
Nefertiti, the queen who watched her husband Akhenaten usher in the monotheistic Amarna period (and bring Egypt out of it after his death) is an interesting figure. Cooney explores how Nefertiti’s position ruling beside Akhenaten allowed her to grasp for more authority. However, its should also be noted that to support her theory of Egypt supporting queens routinely throughout its long history, Cooney supports a very specific school of thought with very little historical evidence suggesting that Nefertiti eventually reinvented herself as Smenkhkare, a little-known ruler who followed.
After Smekhnare (or Nefertiti’s) reign Tawosret again saw the end of her dynasty as Egypt became globalized for the first time–a change that would have lasting consequences even a thousand years later when Cleopatra became the last Egyptian to rule Egypt.
Cooney situates each queen well in Egypt’s history and in relation to each other. Even when Cooney delves into what might be conspiracy theories (and theories with little support from new DNA evidence) she also points out the flaws or leaps in logic with a frankness that I appreciate.
Throughout When Women Ruled the World Cooney balances her own conjectures and often working with almost nothing in terms of a historical record to create a nuanced and sometimes even restrained picture. The book is at its weakest when she is trying to use these queens to create a compelling argument for why women should not be sidelined as potential leaders but that is also the thing that ties the entire book together. Includes a map, timeline, and extensive footnotes. Recommended for nonfiction readers and ancient Egypt enthusiasts.