The Woman Who Would be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, 2014, Crown Publishing
This is a well-written, engaging study of a fascinating woman from Ancient Egypt. It has an easy to read study and, while it sometimes strays a little too far into the theoretical, it never reads like an academic tome. It is also an accessible book for anyone who doesn’t know much about Ancient Egypt, going into great detail how religious, politics, and a royal family’s internal life functioned. My only real critique of the book is that it goes too far in using modern feminism to explain Hatshepsut’s rise and Egypt’s reaction to having a woman Pharaoh.
The book starts by highlight that Hatshepsut’s first encounter with power was being appointed the God’s Wife of Amen. In this role, Hatshepsut was given property and a small staff and was responsible for tending to the needs of the god, Amen. She was also Thutmose I’s first born and Cooney hypothesizes that Hatshepsut learned how to govern by watching her father. Cooney spends a good portion of the first half of the book explaining the internal functions of a royal family. She freely admits that a lot of this is speculation based on archaeological findings and that we’ll never truly know what Hatshepsut’s relationship with her father or his many wives was like. Still, Cooney does an admirable job trying to untangle what would happen to a child and mother after they were born, the roles of the wet nurse and familial staff, and the different pressures and expectations for male children and female children.
Hatshepsut marries her step-brother, Thutmose II, and has a female child, but is unable to produce a male heir. However, when Thutmose II dies, it is Hatshepsut who takes control of his son’s fate, not the boy’s mother. Cooney does a lot of speculation as to why this was the case arguing that maybe Hatshepsut’s own mother was still alive at the time and helped her daughter stage a power grab, making Hatshepsut Thutmose III’s regent, instead of the boy’s mother. There is also some speculation that Thutmose III’s mother’s bloodline couldn’t compete with Hatshepsut’s. Once Hatshepsut took over, Cooney believes that she may have continued to have support from her mother in establishing control, and once this control was established, Thutmose could not destabilize it once he was old enough to understand what was going on.
Cooney does a great job trying to understand what Hatshepsut and Thutmose III’s relationship must have been like. At what point was Thutmose III old enough to realize that Hatshepsut had proclaimed herself pharaoh and all that entailed? Why did Hatshepsut never try to kill him and take the throne completely for herself? Cooney uses the fact that Thutmose did not destroy any reference to Hatshepsut until the end of his reign to hypothesize that they had, at least, a semi-working relationship. Cooney cannot say for sure if Thutmose were married Hatshepsut’s daughter, but it would have been odd if he hadn’t. Although her child falls into oblivion after Hatshepsut’s death, suggesting that Hatshepsut may have tried to pass the pharaoship down to her daughter as well and either she was too old and weak to do (she was sickly towards the end of her reign) or the Egyptian officials wouldn’t allow it. Interestingly, Hatshepsut was able to pass down her position as God Wife of Amen to her daughter, which may have suggested that, even though she couldn’t give the throne to her daughter, she could still give her an important position that would keep her safe one Hatshepsut died. The nature of Amun’s God Wife also changed towards the end of Thutmose’s reign. Mothers were appointed to that position instead, Cooney speculating because Thutmose III learned from Hatshepsut and realized that other women could use it as a spring board to the throne.
Cooney spends a lot of time trying to measure how Egyptians felt about this strange new pharaoh. Hatshepsut wasn’t the first woman to claim the title Pharaoh, and it wasn’t unusual for mothers to serve as regents for their sons. However, a regent had never claimed the title Pharaoh, nor had they ever worn the crown and ceremony beard of pharaoh. Even in her depictions, Hatshepsut made sure everyone knew she was pharaoh. She was placed before Thutmose and was bigger than he was. At first, her figure was a combination of masculine and feminine features but steadily grew more masculine (seemingly coinciding with Thutmose reaching his teenage years). As she grew more masculine, she began to share the space with Thutmose, making them the same size, however, by making her form more masculine, she also made it hard to differentiate between her figure and Thutmose III’s. Cooney tries to understand the change as a reflection of Egyptian society’s feelings about having a female pharaoh when the male pharaoh was old enough to make his own decisions, but it also seems like Hatshepsut was still finding ways to remind Thutmose of his place.
Cooney writes that Egyptian society seemingly embraced Hatshepsut’s power grab without much comment. She points out that may be because the Egyptians only recorded anything that would glorify the pharaoh and never stained their records with anything that was problematic. But I think there is also a danger in trying to understand Hatshepsut’s rise and Egyptian society’s feelings through a binary, feminist point of view. While reading Cooney’s analysis of familial life in Egypt, it is clear that the women of the household held power that we Westerners wouldn’t have expected or acknowledged in ancient civilizations-let along our own civilizations. Additionally, women had acted as regents before and Hatshepsut wasn’t the first woman to hold power nor would she be the last. Finally, many of the female deities were protective spirits, as vicious and deadly as they could be kind and loving. There seems to be this understanding of feminine power that is more advanced than Cooney’s theory of feminism would have us believe. Additionally, to expect Egyptians to understand gender along the same binary we understand it seems misguided at best.
Finally, because Cooney wants to establish a feminist theory regarding Hatshepsut’s rise, I think she doesn’t pay enough attention to Hatshepsut’s genius regarding administrative management. One of Hatshepsut’s most faithful administrators with Senenmut. Senenmut rose from humble beginnings to become one of Hatshepsut’s most powerful and trusted officials. He started as her daughter’s tutor, was given control of Hatshepsut’s finances, and became her chief architecture, overseeing the construction of the Deir el Bahri and built his tomb next to Hatshepsut’s. Many people have written that Senenmut was either the real brains behind Hatshepsut (which is ridiculous theory embedded in the sexist belief that a woman could never be as successful a pharaoh as Hatshepsut was) or her lover (which also seems vaguely sexist to me). Whether Senenmut was Hatshepsut’s lover or not (and what that means in terms of political power i.e. was he sleeping with her to keep power or was she sleeping with him to keep him bound to her) he wasn’t the only commoner to be promoted to an important official position. Hatshepsut made it a practice of appointing men from lower administrative families, seemingly buying their loyalty by evaluating their rank and power. This, more so than any feminine powerhouse Hatshepsut may have created with her mother (if she lived long enough to see Hatshepsut become pharaoh) and her own daughter, seems to be the reason Hatshepsut was able to remain in power as long as she did and was able to establish herself as pharaoh. By buying the loyalty of the administrative apparatus that help Egypt together, no one in their right mind would try to overthrow her. I wish Cooney had explored this aspect of her reign in more depth because it is an interesting style of management we have seen in other great historical figures.
After Hatshepsut died, Thutmose III became the sole pharaoh of Egypt. Most of her advisors and officials were disgraced from office, many of the statues Senenmut built for himself were destroyed and he wasn’t allowed to have his body buried next to Hatshepsut’s. His mummy has never been found. Despite getting rid of Hatshepsut’s officials, Thutmose III did not attack her historical record until the end of his reign. Cooney argues that this was because Thutmose III wanted his son to sit on the throne and feared that a woman would try to take the throne once more (we have to wonder if Hatshepsut’s daughter was still around, or maybe even Hatshepsut’s granddaughter-if she had one). However, I wonder if the reason Thutmose III didn’t try to erase Hatshepsut’s name from history sooner was because he couldn’t politically. Maybe Hatshepsut had done such a great job, not only ruling Egypt, but engraving her very presence into the psyche of Egyptian society, that to attack her legacy so soon after her death would have been seen as unforgivable. It was only at the end of his reign, when Thutmose III had enough of his own achievements to push Hatshepsut out of everyone’s mind, that he felt secure enough in his power to attack his co-ruler.
Overall, Cooney’s book is a fascinating read that is a great introduction to Hatshepsut’s reign. While she provides social and familial context rarely encountered in other books about the ancient world, I think she fell a little sort explaining the political machinations that was behind Hatshepsut’s ability to, not only rise to power, but keep it.