Iset's Reviews > The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney
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Sep 24, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: bronze-age-5000-to-1100bce-factual


Full disclosure: I requested an ARC of this book and was approved for it.

I’m an Egyptologist, so it’ll be no surprise if I reveal that I have been quite eager to get my hands on this book. The author is not a new name to me – in fact I reviewed her tv series a few years back (I’d recommend it to beginners wholeheartedly, though it didn’t really offer anything new to me) – and a new biography of Hatshepsut is definitely a cause for excitement. The last Hatshepsut biography I’ve seen was Joyce Tyldesley’s Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh in 1996, which I recall as being rather dry. Events in Egyptology have moved on rather a lot since then, especially with the advent of new genetic testing techniques which has recently been shaking up what we know about Egyptian mummies and their familial relationships to each other. A brand new biography of Hatshepsut has been long overdue.

From the beginning, Cooney sets a very modern slant on the biography, questioning why Hatshepsut’s story is so little known when she was one of the very few successful female rulers in the ancient world. Kleopatra VII’s name is far more widely recognised, globally. Why is this? Cooney proposes that this is a result of an extensive human history of patriarchy and misogynistic gender roles; Kleopatra VII, so often unfairly stereotyped as an insidious seducer using her feminine wiles to secure her grasp on power and oriental opulence, fits into a patriarchal narrative of an ambitious woman who dares to go out of her perceived place as a woman by reaching for power, and ultimately getting what she deserves; whereas Hatshepsut does not neatly fit into this narrative because she was a wholly successful female ruler for twenty-two long years, little opposed, widely supported, and lacking a lurid sticky end. So argues Cooney. Cooney has a strong case, and this new modernist perspective on both Hatshepsut herself and how Egyptologists in the past have interpreted her story, sheds some long overdue fresh light on its subject. However, like so many things in history, I would point out that there are other reasons why Kleopatra VII is remembered more than Hatshepsut – Hollywood’s big budget movie starring Elizabeth Taylor being one of them, another reason being that the ability to read Latin, and thus Roman authors’ hostile accounts of Kleopatra VII, has never been lost, as opposed to Egyptian hieroglyphs which remained an opaque mystery until Champollion’s decipherment in 1822.

Cooney further argues, in relation to Hatshepsut’s relative obscurity, that the monarch provided a puzzle to historians and Egyptologists who first attempted to tell her story, and even amongst many of the general public today:

How does one categorize a female leader who does not follow the expected course of disaster and shame, one who instead puts everything to rights in the end, in a way so perfect that her masculine beneficiaries just sweep her victories under the rug and ignore her forever?... Female rulers are often implicitly branded as emotional, self-interested, lacking in authority, untrustworthy, and impolitic.


The stand out example of a well-known, successful female monarch in the modern consciousness is, of course, Elizabeth I of Tudor England, and it’s worth comparing the two for a moment. Elizabeth categorised herself as both mother to, and wedded to, her people, and encouraged the building up of her public figure as the pious Virgin Queen, the prosperous, and popular, Faerie Queen – the bounty and flourishing of England, it is suggested through this idealised characterisation, is magically manifested through the monarch, or through divine favour smiling on the monarch’s piety. Elizabeth was a master propagandist – and interestingly, so too was the Hatshepsut Cooney reveals. Cooney explores at length Hatshepsut’s enormous propaganda campaign to facilitate her unconventional assumption of kingship. Monumental and religious building works proclaim Hatshepsut as a pious daughter of the god Amun, assuming power only in his name, because the god himself chose her to rule. Reliefs depicting the expedition to faraway Punt advertise Hatshepsut’s success as a ruler, bringing exotic bounty and riches to Egypt – surely a visible sign of the favour of the gods. The key differences between these two extraordinary women who lived 3000 years apart is that Hatshepsut already had an heir, her nephew, Thutmose III, with whom she shared the throne, the limelight, and increasingly the power – Elizabeth famously refused to name an heir, keeping power focused firmly in her own hands – and Elizabeth used her gender as an asset of international politics, putting her eligibility to England’s use, but ultimately unable to marry due to general fear of foreign influence or factional favouritism – Hatshepsut too, as a royal woman of Egypt, was unable to marry again after her husband’s death, and not even able to put herself forwards as a marriageable candidate – no foreign influence could be brought to bear on the Egyptian throne through a royal woman marrying outside the country, and a child of this unconventional female king could not be accepted, as a threat to her nephew and co-king – although, in Hatshepsut’s case, Cooney argues the queen had plenty of opportunity to find private romantic happiness. But I digress in this interesting comparison, since Cooney does not touch upon it in the text.

As for Hatshepsut’s love life, it should be noted that whilst Cooney believes Hatshepsut had ample opportunity to pursue a private arrangement, there is in fact no evidence of such a relationship, or who might have been her romantic partner. The Egyptologist community has widely discussed Senenmut in such a role in the past; a man of obscure family origins who surprisingly rose to astronomically high office under Hatshepsut’s auspices, Senenmut was also permitted to depict himself on monuments as being especially favoured by Hatshepsut, and having a close connection with the royal family through his role as tutor to Hatshepsut’s daughter Neferure – some have even suggested that Senenmut, not Thutmose II, was in fact the girl’s father, though Cooney rubbishes this idea. But despite these obvious signs of favour, ultimately a romantic relationship cannot be inferred. Useramun, a vizier of noble birth, was permitted by Hatshepsut to inscribe the sacred Book of Amduat in his tomb, something usually reserved only for royalty – from which we might equally suppose a romantic relationship, but with ultimately just as much lack of definitive proof aside from Hatshepsut’s extraordinary favour. Ancient Egypt enthusiasts may be scratching their heads wondering about that rock graffiti at Deir el-Bahri that’s supposed to depict Senenmut and Hatshepsut in the carnal act, carved by some gossipy workmen. The simple fact of the matter is though, as Cooney points out, neither figure is labelled with a name, nor is the subservient figure in the scene adorned with any of the symbols of office of kingship. Cooney not only provides a more social, modern history of Hatshepsut, but she devotes time to busting old myths that have long been discarded by the Egyptological community but still persist in the popular imagination; among them, the idea that Hatshepsut set out to steal the throne from her nephew’s rightful claim, or that Thutmose III set about destroying her monuments in a fit of righteous anger after her death.

Cooney acknowledges from the start that;

My Egyptological work on social life has enabled me to re-create Hatshepsut's world as best I can and thereby to know her better.


Cooney adds that so much evidence is lost from this period, or exists only in the official propaganda of monumental building works, that in recent times Egyptologists have focused too much on a history of Hatshepsut’s monuments rather than the woman herself, reluctant to fill the gaps in history with speculation about Hatshepsut’s motivations and opinions and turning instead to the tangible but unrevealing evidence of the monuments. I have to say, I agree with Cooney on this, even though I admit to being professionally reluctant to ascribe to ancient individuals thoughts and feelings that are ultimately unknowable, and I feel that this new social history with a gendered consideration of Hatshepsut’s life is just what the subject needs. From the perspective of a reader and an Egyptologist, I prefer the social approach, and at the very least, even if this book is not well-received by the Egyptological community (I await the reaction of my colleagues with baited breath), I think most will welcome the fresh take on Hatshepsut and the opportunity for fresh debate in this area.

Cooney states openly from the outset;

Many historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right.


Cooney is right. The text is filled with Cooney’s postulations about what Hatshepsut’s reasoning may have been for this decision or that decision, or what she may have been thinking when this or that event happened in her life. Reading the text I don’t think anyone would mistake that Cooney is saying Hatshepsut did think this or feel that, but she will receive criticism for hypothesizing in this manner. Archaeologists are notoriously reluctant to speculate about beliefs – the highest tier of what we can know about the past, and the hardest to access, since unless a person wrote down their thoughts this is ultimately unknowable and lost to us – and even when written down, the ancient historian has to be supremely cautious, taking into account the biases of the writer and the potential for propaganda or unreliable accounts. Indeed, as an Egyptologist I feel ethically obligated to stress what Cooney admits openly – these scenes throughout the book are supposition and should not be taken as the final word on the character or nature of Hatshepsut. That disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to applaud Cooney for being bold enough to make use of such supposition. Whilst there’s no way to know for sure, such speculations are not just plucked out of thin air, rather they are reasoned and considered possibilities built on the foundation of what we do know about Hatshepsut and the environment and circumstances in which she moved, and thus are supported by a certain degree of likelihood, even if they’re ultimately unprovable, and I would be reluctant to set any of the scenarios Cooney postulates in stone (forgiving the pun). Nevertheless, as such, I personally feel that this approach is a worthwhile and valuable contribution to the Egyptological community, since it has the potential to fuel healthy debate and bring us closer to our subject, and that overcaution in such matters may be ultimately limiting to the field as a whole.

Whether The Woman Who Would Be King is well-received by the rest of the Egyptological community remains to be seen, and may be a matter for personal ideology in regards to how we approach archaeology and ancient history. However, I have no doubt that it will go down well amongst a wider readership. Cooney’s writing style is fluid, lucid, and engaging, making it a perfectly enjoyable read for a mass audience, and her subject, Hatshepsut, is not so obscure that the casually interested history enthusiast won’t be drawn in to this book.

All in all, highly recommended, and it gets my Egyptologist’s official seal of approval. ;)

8 out of 10
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Reading Progress

September 24, 2014 – Started Reading
September 24, 2014 – Shelved
September 24, 2014 – Shelved as: bronze-age-5000-to-1100bce-factual
September 24, 2014 –
page 1
0.34% "Awesome. I lost out in the GR giveaway but I've just been given an ARC! Eager to get into this, and wondering how Kara Cooney will approach her subject, in contrast to Joyce Tyldesley's biography of Hatshepsut."
September 24, 2014 –
page 10
3.36% ""So why do so few people today know the name of this extraordinary woman?" Cooney asks why Cleopatra is better known than Hatshepsut. My answer? Well, the big Hollywood film, for one. Another reason is because Cleopatra loomed large in the Roman consciousness, which shaped a lot of western society, and Latin could still be read after its' fall, whereas hieroglyphs were only deciphered c. 1822 by Champollion."
September 24, 2014 –
page 10
3.36% "Cooney proposes that Cleopatra (Kleopatra VII) is better known because her story is full of salacious scandal and a doomed ending, but Hatshepsut's story was one of smooth success and lack of juicy scandal, and thus doesn't fulfil the patriarchal "tale of a powerful woman who got what she deserved". It's an interesting theory, one I haven't heard before although I do think there are other factors I aforementioned."
September 24, 2014 –
page 11
3.69% ""How does one categorize a female leader who does not follow the expected course of disaster and shame, one who instead puts everything to rights in the end, in a way so perfect that her masculine beneficiaries just sweep her victories under the rug and ignore her forever?" Well... Elizabeth I, who did it, was characterised as both mother to and wed to her people, lauded as the virtuous Virgin Faerie Queen... cont'd"
September 24, 2014 –
page 11
3.69% "So that's one way of doing it. But yes, why should every female leader have to follow Elizabeth's model in order to be accepted as successful? God forbid she have a love life. I expect Cooney will discuss modern attempts to create some sort of "scandal" out of Hatshepsut's possible lover Senenmut. :p I mean, how dare she? If she's a successful queen she out to be chaste, right? :p ;)"
September 24, 2014 –
page 11
3.69% ""Why does Hatshepsut's leadership still trouble us today?" Well, not me because I learnt about her at a young age in school and have always loved her, but do go on. "Female rulers are often implicitly branded as emotional, self-interested, lacking in authority, untrustworthy, and impolitic." Sadly too true. CRYSTAL - You would like this book. Self-interested is what I call ambition and ability to prioritise."
September 24, 2014 –
page 11
3.69% ""few people can even pronounce her name". REALLY? Now that surprises me. Then again I've always had a knack for ancient names. Comes of reading The Odyssey since I was 5 y/o. But it's easy. "Hat" like a hat. "Shep" like a shepherd. "Sut" like soot. Hat-shep-sut. Although it was probably more like "Hat-shep-saat" like "Saab" but with a T. "Saat" was the ancient Egyptian word for "daughter"."
September 24, 2014 –
page 11
3.69% ""My Egyptological work on social life has enabled me to re-create Hatshepsut's world as best I can and thereby to know her better." Well, from one Egyptologist to another, I'm looking forwards to this. I too am primarily concerned with the social and cultural aspects of ancient life. I'm more of a "what was the ambiance like? How did people think and feel?" kind of Egyptologist than a plant/bones/etc specialist."
September 24, 2014 –
page 14
4.7% ""She did everything right but none of it mattered/ She was maligned not just by the ancient Egyptian rulers who followed her but also by nineteeht- and twentieth-century Egyptologists who were suspicious of her motivations and ready to judge her for taking what did not rightfully belong to her." I'm so glad I entered the field AFTER that nonsense was disproven."
September 24, 2014 –
page 14
4.7% ""women cannot rule unless they veil their true intent and proclaim that their ambition is not their own but only for others... If a woman does not renounce ambition for ambition's sake she will be viewed as two-faced or selfish" Personally I think I'm ideal for the job of Empress of Earth because I'm wiser and more intelligent than most. Nothing wrong with ambition. Ambition doesn't exclude benvolence and compassion."
September 24, 2014 –
page 15
5.03% ""The nature of the information passed down to us is uneven, and because so many of her monuments were destroyed... I have had to break many rules of my egyptological training... by engaging in conjecture and speculation" *whispers* It's okay. I secretly like to imagine a full picture too. I NEVER mix my plausible imaginings with my published Egyptological work though, but I understand."
September 24, 2014 –
page 15
5.03% ""Many historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right." Yeah, I apologise in advance for that. As a fellow Egyptologist I'm ethically obliged to be critical and point that out. But I appreciate it. History is full of human beings, and they felt and thought. Brings them to life a little to theorise about what that might have been."
September 25, 2014 –
page 19
6.38% "Interesting. Cooney plays out a fictional scene in which Hateshepsut postulates that Tuthmosis III was not supportable as heir without her help - not just an infant, but the son of a low ranking courtesan, not a wife and queen, and not only that but his only father was the son of a lesser wife as well, and not born of the previous queen either. For that reason, Cooney suggests, Hatshepsut takes the regency to..."
September 25, 2014 –
page 19
6.38% "... to bolster her step-son/half-nephew's shaky claim to the throne, since she herself is impeccably royal, the daughter of Tuthmosis I and his primary wife, his queen. Interesting idea. I've always heard it assumed that Tuthmosis III was supported unwaveringly simply by virtue of being male, no matter that he was the son of a lesser wife from the son of another lesser wife."
September 25, 2014 –
page 29
9.73% "Cooney wonders if Tuthmosis I felt nervous abut being king when he was not born to it, since most Egyptian pharaohs were born to it and believed to be imbued with their kingly destiny from birth, as well as holding a crucial religious role. I'd say that's a reasonable theory, although we cannot know for sure."
September 25, 2014 –
page 32
10.74% "Another intresting point - Ahmes, Tuthmosis I's queen and Hatshepsut's mother, is never called King's Daughter - and yet she's often assumed to be the daughter of Amunhotep I, whom Tuthmosis I married in order to secure his non-royal claim as heir to the throne since Amunhotep I had no surviving sons by all appearances. But if she was never named King's Daughter, was she actually a blood royal at all?"
September 25, 2014 –
page 35
11.74% "Mutnofret, who was not queen, did hold the title of King's Daughter, as well as King's Sister, whilst Ahmes was only King's Sister and not King's Daughter. Cooney suggests that Mutnofret was Ahmose I's daughter and Amunhotep I's sister, and that Ahmes was Ahmose I's sister and thus not daughter of a king. But I dunno. If Ahmes was Sekenra's daughter wouldn't she have been King's Daughter, and too old to marry?"
September 25, 2014 –
page 42
14.09% ""She may have listened as the other princesses talked about new dresses... these girls were not eager to learn about the world outside." This is where the supposition comes in. For all we know, Hatshepsut's sisters and half-sisters may have been just as interested in the outside world as her, but perhaps because they didn't rise to a position of power we don't know what their thoughts and interests were."
September 25, 2014 –
page 42
14.09% "Interestingly Cooney has it that Hatsehpsut is her mother's eldest daughter. But Neferubity is often written as her elder sister in novels I've read of Hatshepsut."
September 25, 2014 –
page 43
14.43% "And Cooney has it that Wadjmose and Amunmose were Hatshepsut's full-blood brothers. Often in novels I see them gien as Mutnofret's children instead. In actuality the identity of the mother of these two boys is not known."
September 25, 2014 –
page 54
18.12% "The litany of horrible and disgusting ailments that afflicted the ancient Egyptians. Yeurgh. This is something I know about intellectually as an Egyptologist, but I would rather not dwell on!"
September 25, 2014 –
page 54
18.12% "I am so glad I live in a first world society with modern healthcare. Some people think historians are so enamoured of their subjects they would wish to live there. Not true. I definitely like being of this time! We only wish for a magical time travelling device where we can observe historical events firsthand but in which we are totally invisible and suffer none of the discomforts and horrible diseases."
September 25, 2014 –
page 58
19.46% "Cooney discusses Hatshepsut's appearance based on her statuary. Mmmm. Yeah, I'm not sure we can trust that to be an accurate representation of an individual's idiosyncratic features, what with all the ideals in Egyptian portraiture of kingship."
September 25, 2014 –
page 63
21.14%
September 25, 2014 –
page 69
23.15% "Hatshepsut marries her half-brother, and learns how to be a queen."
September 25, 2014 –
page 85
28.52% "Hatshepsut becomes regent for her half-nephew/step-son."
September 25, 2014 –
page 92
30.87%
September 25, 2014 –
page 97
32.55% "Ah, and here we come to the discussion of Hatshepsut's possible lovers, as I've been expecting. "it is quite likely that Hatshepsut had lovers... All the academic speculation about Senenmut being Hatshepsut's lover seems rather silly, as if this man were her only opportunity for an affair. Given her position of power and her lack of a husband she could have had relationships with any number of officials young or old""
September 25, 2014 –
page 97
32.55% "Cooney rubbishes the old "evidence" of that Deir el-Bahri griffiti, though: "the subservient figure in this scene is not labeled as Hatshepsut and wears no uraeus or other mark of kingship or rule." But it's wearing that Tutankhamun headdress, you cry! Nope, sorry. The "nemes" head covering was worn from the highest to the lowest of Egypt, to keep the fierce sun from beating on the head. So Cooney's right."
September 25, 2014 –
page 98
32.89% ""Hatshepsut never favored the palace to the detriment of the army or played one side against the other. And she never attempted a glorious, momentous coup, which in one bold stroke would have pushed Thutmose III from power. Hateshepsut was practical and elegant, not devious and cunning. She was intelligently ambitious." THIS. This is exactly how I think of myself. Ambition and benvolence are not mutually exclusive."
September 25, 2014 –
page 105
35.23% ""Useramun actually had the otherwise-royal Book of Amduat painted in his burial chamber, which ostensibly gave him the same access to the mysteries and powers of the solar barque as the king and chief priest. All the evidence indicates the Useramun's constancy was crucial for Hatshepsut... and she gave whatever was required to secure it." Is Cooney implying that Useramun was a lover? Or am I reading in too much?"
September 25, 2014 –
page 109
36.58% "The climb toward kingship..."
September 26, 2014 –
page 119
39.93%
September 27, 2014 –
page 132
44.3% ""some problematic evidence suggests that Hatshepsut herself may have been intending to push Thutmose III out of the picture, maybe even completely. Recovered blocks from Karnak Temple indicate that the names of the boy king were replaced with those of Hatshepsut's dead husband, Thutmose II, after she became king.""
September 27, 2014 –
page 135
45.3%
September 27, 2014 –
page 137
45.97% ""Essentially, she grandfathered in the first seven years of her kingship by using Thutmose III's dates." She what? I had to go look this up. Apparently it's a very specific American term originating out of American vote extension. Yeah - British people have never heard of "grandfathering", so when a British person reads this book they'll have a "WTF?!" moment."
September 27, 2014 –
page 145
48.66%
September 27, 2014 –
page 158
53.02% "The King Becomes A Man..."
September 27, 2014 –
page 158
53.02% ""The notion entertained by some Egyptologists that [Hatshepsut] was a pacifist just because she was a woman is simply wrong." Heck YES. You know what I wanted to grow up to be when I was 7 years old? A soldier. I wasn't afraid to get into childhood scraps, wore my scars like a badge of honour, and my favourite games were all war strategy games. F*** stereotyping of women as passive pacifists."
September 27, 2014 –
page 175
58.72% ""Depictions of Hatshepsut's daughter Nefrure on her mother's now extensive temple reliefs or stelae show her to be one of her dynasty's most significant royal women.""
September 27, 2014 –
page 178
59.73% "The Setting Sun... Hatshepsut's latter years."
September 27, 2014 –
page 225
75.5% ""When Egyptologists first considered the destruction of Hatshepsut's monuments, it was easy to write a simplistic story about a woman who took what was not hers and got what was coming to her in the end... It seems that Thutmose III's campaign of destruction was done more for complex political reasons than personal hatred and vendettas.""
September 27, 2014 –
page 225
75.5% ""Thutmose III waited until the end of his reign to erase Hatshepsut's presence because it was only then that he needed to shore up the legitimate kingship for a son who had no genealogical connection to Hatshepsut's side of the family. By removing his aunt, whose lofty and pure family connections sullied the aspirations of his own chosen son, Thutmose III was strengthening the history of his dynasty.""
September 27, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by TL (new)

TL amazing review hun:)


Crystal Starr Light What a beautiful, thoughtful, well-written review!! Bravo!!

This sounds like a fascinating book, one that has me intrigued! I may have to check it out one of these days!


Iset Thank you. Reviews seem to come easier when I'm in my specialist subject - the words just flow from my fingertips because I really know the field well. I requested the ARC not just as a reader, but as an Egyptologist, so I've reviewed it from both perspectives.


Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) AWESOME review, Isis! I can't wait to read this book.


Iset I knew you'd be keeping an eye out for when I posted this. ;)


Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) Bwahahaha. Goodreads stalker. :D


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