I picked this book up to fulfill Prompt 6: Nonfiction by a Woman Historian on The Reading Women Challenge 2020. I have always been fascinated by ancient Egypt and I have read a ton of historical fiction about these great Queens, including a fantastic one about Nefertiti by Michelle Moran and a 1000+ page one about Cleopatra by Margaret George (which I read in high school, for fun – I was that cool). But despite my fascination, I have never actually picked up anything nonfiction about these women and their role in the ancient world. Now seemed like the perfect opportunity to address that.
This book explores the reigns of six queens of Egypt, over an almost 3000-year period of history, looking at how each woman was able to reach a position of such great power as the head of a country as dominant and successful as Egypt. The six queens are each given a chapter to themselves, where Cooney explains the cultural, political, financial and familial landscapes that allowed for each of their rises to power, as well as the individual decisions and skill-sets of the women themselves, that allowed them each to take advantage of the position(s) in which they were placed.
Towards the end of the book, Cooney writes a little summary of how Cleopatra, the last of these six, was able to use the foundations of those women before her to *almost* create something that surpassed them all. It’s long, but it’s a beautiful synopsis of the primary contributions/methods of each queen and I wanted to recreate is here for reference: “Cleopatra built upon what all other Egyptian queens had already achieved: Merneith’s ability to establish her son in royal power; Neferusobek’s survival as the last ruler standing in her dynasty; Hatshepsut’s climb to the pinnacle of political power using the males around her as stepping stones; Nefertiti’s transformation of herself as she aged, not to mention her salvaging the nation from the political mess left by the men around her; and Tawosret’s scrappy potential to act as an aggressive, even masculine, political operator. Cleopatra stood on all these women’s shoulder’s and almost transcended them all.” Basically, I loved the way the Cooney gave enough historical and political context for each queen to give the reader a sense of the environment and situation, without it ever getting dry or overdone (always a worry I have with nonfiction). It’s fantastic, the way she quickly summarizes for the reader the minimal (and ever-growing as time passes) physical evidence that exists from during each woman’s lifetime/reign, and interprets clearly and concisely what that probably meant as far as her accomplishments and the feelings of the people towards her. She often, which I appreciated, let the reader know when what she’s saying is conjecture vs extrapolation vs hard fact, and was clear when there were parts of the story that we, unfortunately, would never know (or should be careful of interpreting incorrectly). There is, I’m sure, bias from Cooney, as the interpreter of the artifacts, etc. but all historians have that – the personal bias in unavoidable, especially in cases like these where there is so little hard evidence/primary documentation to go on – and I’m glad that at least this one has a feminist bent.
In addition to the basic (but so interesting) presentation of each queen’s life/times/accomplishments, Cooney offered some truly intriguing and intellectual insight into what it was about ancient Egyptian society/tradition that allowed for female leaders, in a time period where it was more or less unheard of. Of note, it’s done based on broad gender stereotyping and generalizations on a more-or-less binary level, without taking into account any kind of gender spectrum or non-binary perspective. She does acknowledge this in her closing chapter/epilogue, but I do want to just make that clear to any potential readers. However, I think it’s an important lens (though by no means the only lens), in the way she’s presenting this book, because she takes those gender generalizations and extrapolates them into our present-day political climate. There are some incredibly astute observations she makes about the general aversion to women in positions of political power in our current day, perspectives like the over-emotionality and indecisive nature of women, that are used to argue against us being fit for those types of jobs. These are, obviously, huge stereotypes, and yet are so often used as “legitimate” reasoning and arguments. So, in this book, she takes those “female weaknesses” and throws them on their heads, illustrating how those exact traits are many of the ones that the women of these pages had that made them the best person for the job of queen at the time that they were called to it. There is nothing inherent to those traits that make them bad for leadership, it’s just a societal and patriarchal structuring that makes it seem so. And at times, being less aggressive and more willing to pause to consider alternative options, typically “feminine” traits, are exactly what is needed in a leader.
This binary gender analysis extends not just to personality traits, but also physical look, as Cooney explains with examples of how, over the years, these Egyptian queens were more and more able to rule with their own faces/bodies in the forefront, their femininity obvious and laudable, as opposed to having to create a more “masculine” persona. However, it’s also a fairly even-keeled (at least it seemed that way) look at ancient Egypt, praising the way they used women to full potential, yet also criticizing (or at least being aware of) the limitations of that use insofar as it upheld the authoritarian and patriarchal government structures. Anyways, I’ll stop there, because this is getting long and, if you’re interested, you should go read the book because Cooney words it all much better than myself anyways.
*Note: I know many readers criticized the gender stereotypes Cooney impresses upon these rulers and uses to interpret them, and they are not flawless, but I am choosing the give the benefit of the doubt, in context. Her connections to present-day leaders and opinions about the incompetency of women to lead are still very much real and widespread. A number of her explanations really felt recognizable to me, and drawing attention to that, the way she explained it, did hit home for me. It’s not perfect and it’s not universal, and it shouldn’t be taken or presented as such, but I do feel that it is at least one very legitimate perspective.*
The bottom line is that this was both an historically informative nonfiction, as well as a really thought-provoking comparative look at women in power over time (obviously, specifically looking at the ancient Egyptian world and today’s world). The writing and tone were academic, yet completely accessible, and Cooney’s narration of the audiobook was super clear. In fact, I’m glad I listened to the audiobook version, because hearing her pronounce all the names and locations correctly was very helpful (I definitely would not have gotten them all right if left to my own devices). Overall, I’m really glad I was pushed to pick this up by my reading challenge.