Renowned Egyptologist visits McKendree to discuss female rulers

Dr. Kara Cooney, a renowned Egyptologist and author, gave a presentation at
McKendree University recently about female rulers in Egyptian history.
(O’Fallon Weekly Photo by Angela Simmons)

LEBANON – Adventurer, author and Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney recently enthralled an audience at McKendree University’s Hettenhausen Center For the Arts. Dr. Cooney’s talk, When Women Ruled the World, was the university’s third installment of National Geographic Live. 

Dr. Cooney is a professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) teaching courses in Egyptian art and architecture, ancient Egyptian civilization, and women and power in the ancient world. In travels that have taken her to multiple countries around the world, she is currently researching the reuse of coffins. “I look at these coffins as social documents. I look at them to tell me about gender, socioeconomic place, religious understanding. I look at a coffin the same way you all might look at a wedding dress when it hits the aisle. This work is very painstaking and very time consuming,” she said. 

Dr. Cooney explained why she preferred to use the rich history of Egypt to provide a lens into current society, as there were more than 3,000 years of history for her to examine. She said “I’ve devoted my whole life to the study of people that I cannot talk to that lived 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. I find it useful for me to use the past and then apply it to the modern world around me. I understand the modern world better by looking at the past.”

One of those areas of modern life that she’s able to examine by looking at the past is females in power. In her third book and second trade publication, When Women Ruled the World, Dr. Cooney writes about six powerful Egyptian females, five of which were actually kings, and one queen regent. Before delving into her book, the professor shared current statistics and facts about females in power, both in the United States and around the globe. 

Women in the U.S. currently have around 20 percent governmental power, “snuggled up between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.” The top three countries with females in power are Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa, with Rwanda having the highest of just over 55 percent. Dr. Cooney notes that feminism is looked at negatively lately, “but feminism is just half of the population thinking they should have 50 percent of the power and we have a very long way to go. There are many ways to get there, and the Egyptians got there before we did.” Currently, Egypt has under five percent of females in power. 

In economic power, the worldwide average is four percent of females in charge of Fortune 500 companies, with the U.S. average slightly exceeding that at just six percent. “If we have a choice whether or not as shareholders to give women power over out money, we do not. 

The realm that gives women the most power is the military. “You’d be surprised to know that even though women are not allowed to be combat forces in this country, female officers are taking over every branch of the armed services, except the Marines, by leaps and bounds, with numbers approaching 25 percent. That’s from just 20 years ago when there were practically no female officers.” She stated that the reason was that the military is a hierarchical system from the top down that recognizes leaders and promotes them. 

“I’m not trying to be man-hating. I’m not trying to say this is a right or a left problem, or a male or female problem, because this is who the females are electing, too. We want men in power, we feel more comfortable with men in power,” she explained, adding that in our divided nation, what joins people is a common panic at the possible collapsing future, and what to do about that is the divider. 

Trying to figure out possible answers, she shared photos of herself with her son and said that she experienced “post-partum everything,” including anxiety and depression that took her own power away. She felt that motherhood made her much more tender from the clinical outlook that she had held.

She also spoke about gender norms and economics in hunter-gatherer societies,  farming communities and patriarchal societies. 

All of this, Cooney says, is important to understand when trying to figure out how women would rule differently from men, and why Egypt was once able to have females in the ultimate power seat. When kings died and children were left on the throne, “Egyptians allowed the woman as regent dozens of times, but sometimes those women can step beyond being a regent for a boy and become king themselves.”

Merneith, a queen regent, confused archaeologists because her grave was situated among kings and held some of the markings of a royal grave. The first dynasty “Queen of Blood” helped her son, King Den, achieve power. Cooney mentioned that there were several graves for women and children, which would have been Merneith’s choice, to ensure that her son and his kingship were safe. In return, King Den made sure to bury her in royal fashion. She was later erased from their history. 

Skipping forward to the twelfth dynasty, Neferusobek was “the last woman standing” from her entire family. Dr. Cooney explained that the first female king was intelligent in stating that her power was divine and came from her father, Amenemhat III, whom had ruled strongly for 45 years, rather than her husband. She likened Neferusobek to Ivanka Trump, her office and position in the White House, and the power that she seems to hold, ostensibly more so than current or former first ladies. Neferusobek ruled Egypt for four years. 

The next female king, ruling for 15 years in Dynasty 18 was Hatshepsut. Cooney’s first trade book came from her research about the ruler, titled The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt. Hatshepsut became a queen regent after the death of her husband King Thutmose II. Since the pair had a daughter, their nephew Thutmose III, a child, was chosen as king. Using a priestess position to catapult herself to regency, she became king seven years into her rule. Arguably Egypt’s strongest female king, Hatshepsut was also erased from history, with statues destroyed and her name chiseled off. 

Cooney’s book also talks about the female kings Nefertiti, Tawosret, and Cleopatra. Nefertiti’s co-kingship is debated among Egyptologists, though most are in agreement, because she ruled under a different name. Dr. Cooney also shared that through discoveries of a colleague, it’s now believed that the infamous coffins and funerary mask of King Tutankhamun were originally meant for Nefertiti. 

Cooney skipped over Twaosret was something that people definitely needed to read about. “There’s incest, it’s very Game of Thrones. She’s the most warrior king of all of them. She’s not related to any of them and takes the kingship anyway. It’s amazing,” she said.

Cleopatra was disastrous, and did not rule alone, according to Cooney. Bringing Egypt together with the Roman society, Cleopatra was deemed a failure for not leaving the country better than she found it, and Cooney hinted that she may have been murdered. 

The authoritarian Egyptian regime allowed female rule “to protect the authoritarian regime, and the female rule under this regime is the most needed and most demanded to protect the it,” Cooney explained. 

Displaying a set of emojis that are vastly different for women and men, Cooney said that women are often not put into power because they’re viewed as too mercurial. “Look at this emotionality and stop distrusting it. This connection with the people around us is, I would argue, the only thing that will get us through the twenty-first century.”

Dr. Cooney’s books are available through several avenues, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and signed copies may be ordered from her website, Also on her website are clips from some of her eight visits to The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, appearances on The Today Show, and clips from several Discovery Channel appearances, including her own series, Out of Egypt.