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When Women Ruled the World summary

Kara Cooney

Six Queens of Egypt

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24 mins
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    When Women Ruled the World
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    In times of crisis, ancient Egypt repeatedly called upon women to lead the country.

    Thousands of years ago, in ancient Egypt, women ruled supreme. How was this possible? To answer this question, we need to take a look at Egypt’s unique system of power: divine kingship.

    In 3000 BC, when northern Egypt defeated the south after centuries of conflict, the Egyptian nation-state was established. Protected by deserts and seas, rich in minerals and nourished by the Nile, Egypt became one of the most prosperous nations in the ancient world. This wealth may be the reason for Egypt’s relative political stability throughout the millennia.

    At the same time that the nation was established, Egypt’s tradition of divine kingship was founded with Dynasty 1, the first of 20 royal dynasties. For the Egyptians, their king was a divine representative with incontestable authority – even when “he” was a woman.

    Make no mistake: ancient Egypt’s regency system was undeniably patriarchal and authoritarian. Power was meant to transfer from father to son indefinitely, and female rule was an exception. This belief was rooted in the myth of the god Osiris, the primeval king of Egypt, who had passed his title on to his son Horus.

    However, Egyptian mythology also has a representative of the divine feminine in the form of Osiris’s wife and sister, Isis. In texts inscribed on pyramid walls, the goddess Isis is portrayed as queen, mother, lover, daughter and nurturer. The titles of royal women, such as Great Royal Wife or King’s Mother, were modeled after these female archetypes. Their job was to protect the kingship, making sure the royal lineage could continue uninterrupted.

    Trying to produce male offspring was considered a royal duty and, to maximize the king’s chances of reproduction, he had multiple wives. But despite this practice of polygamy, ancient Egypt faced no shortage of succession crises. Each time a royal family line ended, a new dynasty would arise. 

    It was often during the uncertain times at the ending of a dynasty that a woman stepped up to take power. Women often pulled strings from behind the scenes, making it even harder to trace their achievements. When a king was crowned too young, his mother would act as regent – as done by Egypt’s first female leader, Queen Merneith.

    Though these female rulers often had short reigns as strategic peacekeepers, some of them accomplished as much as any male counterpart. But all too often, their names have been erased and forgotten.

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    What is When Women Ruled the World about?

    Ancient Egypt is a historical anomaly: the Egyptians called upon women to lead their country more frequently than any other culture. Tracing their rise to power within the authoritarian system of divine kingship, When Women Ruled the World (2018) tells the stories of Egypt’s six most important female leaders – Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra – and explores what lessons they hold about female leadership for us today.

    Who should read When Women Ruled the World?

    • Folks who are interested in the history of female leadership
    • Women who want to be inspired by female trailblazers of the past
    • History buffs who want to learn more about life and death in ancient Egypt

    About the Author

    Kara Cooney is a professor of Egyptology at UCLA. Her studies focus on afterlife beliefs, preparations for death and gender dynamics in ancient Egypt. Her previous book, The Woman Who Would Be King, is about the life and death of Egypt’s female king Hatshepsut.

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