When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

Despite my love of history I know very little about Ancient Egypt, so when I was given the opportunity via National Geographic and TLC Book Tours to read When Women Ruled the World, I was immediately interested. Written by Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptology at UCLA, the book explores the lives of six female rulers – Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra – asking how each was able to come to power, what challenges they faced during their reign and what the modern world can learn from studying them.

Apart from Cleopatra, I had never read about any of the other five rulers before, so I was looking forward to adding to my knowledge, but I don’t feel that I’ve learned as much about these six women as I would have expected to from this book. I can appreciate that the author was doing her best to work with the limited amount of factual information we have available to us, but there’s still a lot of speculation, interpretation and uncertainty. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and there are detailed notes at the back, as well as an impressive list of resources and further reading; I just don’t feel that I’ve come away from the book with any real idea of what these female pharaohs may have been like as people, what their style of ruling was like or what their main accomplishments were.

To be fair, the author does point out that one of the reasons why we know so little about these women’s achievements is because the male pharaohs who followed tried to remove all traces of their predecessor from the historical records. Thutmose III, who ruled after his aunt Hatshepsut, “smashed her statues to bits, chiseled away the reliefs of the Punt expedition, and reassigned kingly images to her husband or father.”

This is a book with a very strong feminist message, which is fascinating when related directly to the Egyptians, for example when Cooney discusses how Nefertiti may have had to assume a male name and identity in order to rule, or how Hatshepsut had herself depicted wearing masculine clothes and with the appearance of a man. However, the author spends too much time drawing parallels with modern politics, discussing the stereotypes directed at female leaders and the language used to describe women like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. It seems that the purpose of the book is to show that women have qualities which make them better equipped to rule the world than men and that the stories of the six female pharaohs of Egypt are being used to illustrate that point, rather than because they are interesting historical figures in their own right whose stories deserve to be remembered.

On a more positive note, I thought this book was written at the right level to make it accessible to the general reader. It wasn’t necessary to have any prior knowledge of Ancient Egypt and I found it easy enough to follow and to understand. There’s a map at the beginning and a useful chronology showing each ruler’s place in history, as well as an interesting selection of photographs and illustrations. Although this book wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I’m pleased to have at least been made aware of women like Merneith, Neferusobek and Tawosret, whose names weren’t even familiar to me before. I would like to read more about them one day.

21 thoughts on “When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    Despite its shortcomings and agenda, I bet having read this will come back to enrich your reading of fiction set during these women’s times.

  2. cirtnecce says:

    I am struggling with a similar work of non fiction and I know exactly what you mean! But atleast you gained some understanding of things you would not have known had you not read this work! As always, excellent review!

  3. Lark says:

    Judith Tarr wrote a really great historical fiction novel about Hatshepsut called King and Goddess. It’s well-researched and well-written and I ended up learning a lot about her. 🙂

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I’m half-way through this book and so far I agree with everything you’ve written. There’s a lot of supposition.

    • Helen says:

      I know there probably isn’t a lot of information available on some of these women, but I would still have liked less supposition and speculation. I’ll look forward to your thoughts when you’ve finished.

  5. FictionFan says:

    Ugh! I hate when writers use historical characters to push contemporary political agendas! I much prefer to see how people lived in their own times and social structures, and judge them in that context…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, definitely! I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book much more if it had actually been about the Egyptians instead of the reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the election.

  6. Lisa says:

    A friend who shares my fascination with Ancient Egypt gave me a biography of Hatshepsut for Christmas last year, which is still unread. I may move that up the shelves. She and Nefertiti are the only two queens I know much about – oh and Cleopatra, of course.

    • Helen says:

      I would like to read a full biography of Hatshepsut as the little I learned about her from this book was fascinating. I haven’t read much about Nefertiti either.

  7. whatmeread says:

    This sounded very interesting to me, but I know what you’re talking about. Although Stacy Schiff’s book about Cleopatra was really good, a lot of it was guessed at. It’s a long way back in history, and Cleopatra didn’t have anyone trying to blot out her memory. Interesting that they should have done that. Maybe I’ll read it anyway.

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    Aw what a shame that you didn’t learn as much as you hoped and that the author seemed to have a bit of an agenda… Otherwise this was sounding like it might be exactly my cup of tea! I love anything Ancient Egyptian!

    • Helen says:

      Ancient Egypt has never been one of my favourite periods, but I would love to learn more about it. I’ll have to look for another book to try, as this one was a bit disappointing.

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