When Women Ruled The World
What do female kings of Ancient Egypt and the United States military have in common? This is one of the questions Dr. Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist and professor at UCLA, answered in her lecture about reused coffins and the stories of six female Egyptian kings - MerNeith, Neferusobek, Sobeknofru, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret, and Cleopatra.
The Scene: Auditorium Theatre
The Auditorium Theatre is a grand space. While being ushered to our seats, we could not help but be somewhat in awe of the gilded auditorium. Just as engaging as the space, so was Cooney bringing an enthusiasm for something as simple as 19th and 21st Egyptian Dynasty coffins.
Cooney is equated them to how she breaks down the scene at a wedding. When looking a coffin, “you can talk about socio economic status, you can talk about religion, you can talk about conservatism or not, you can think even about ethnicity,” Cooney said. She further explained that signs of coffin reuse usually signal some sort of crisis. This leads into Cooney’s main focus‑that women typically come into power during times of crisis.
"It comes as a great relief when I can step into my proverbial time machine, go back to the past and try to enter people’s minds, and try to figure out ancient systems, and try to figure out how certain individuals, at certain times, in certain circumstances faced the world,” Cooney said.
The grandiosity of the auditorium did not take away from the current political climate.
During Cooney’s discussion of her research on ancient coffin reuse, the significance of coffins in relation to the socio economic and political status, and how women ascended to power via divine kingship, she could not help but call attention to the similarities between the gendered power inequities of Ancient Egypt and modern times.
Comparisons between the erasure of female Egyptian Kings and the treatment of women by political figures like President Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh were peppered throughout her lecture.
“It’s amazing how the ancient world can become so very applicable,” Cooney said.
It’s a man’s world, but sometimes women come out on top in Ancient Egypt
Before diving into the complex and sometimes elusive histories of Ancient Egypt, she broke down widespread aversion to female power. She shared disheartening statistics about how politically, economically, ideologically, religiously, and militarily, and also in most religious texts, women are barred from having power with humor and unflinching sarcasm. “We human beings seem to need female rule hoisted upon us rather than allowing it to happen,” Cooney said.
One of Cooney’s main points was that in times of crisis women are often promoted to positions of power. “We as a people say ‘OMG this crisis was because of that woman’ instead of looking at that crisis and saying ‘the only reason we had a woman ruling was because of the crisis’.” Cooney said.
In Ancient Egypt, the divine kingship allowed women to be systematically ushered into the position of king. “The Egyptians knew that women ruled differently [...]; they’d ask the kid’s mother to rule on his behalf, to make those decisions for him,” Cooney said. “They knew that a woman was less likely to start a war or to become overly aggressive. They knew that a mother would want her son to grow into his kingship.”
Cooney talked about how the reason women were allowed to become king is similar to the reason why the number of women in the military is growing.“Remember what I said about the United States military, about the authority on top imposing [female officers] on people whether they want it or not, “ Cooney said. “It’s the same deal, you’re going to have this woman ruling on behalf of this boy [...] the hierarchy on the top demands that a woman rule.”
Cooney also discussed the ways in which women maintained power. She used Neferusobek as an example of maintaining power by being subservient to her father. “She justifies her kingship by connecting herself to her father, not to her husband,” Cooney said.
At that point Cooney quickly pivoted to putting it into the context of Ivanka Trump and Hillary Clinton. “Now I’m going to be provocative,” Cooney said.
“It’s an easier thing for Ivanka Trump to be in the White House and gain informal authority as a daughter submissive to her father than it is for Hillary to be in the White House starting a health care plan on a peer level with her husband Bill. These are things that we as humans automatically know.”
Other topics covered included commonplace incest within the Ancient Egyptian elite and what Cooney called “Cleopatra’s harem of Roman Warlords.”
The next installments in this National Geographic Live Series hosted by Auditorium Theatre are Jan 24 and May 7.
For more information on this series visit the National Geographic website.
To book tickets to upcoming National Geographic Live lectures at Auditorium Theatre visit the Auditorium Theatre website.
Photos courtesy of National Geographic.