An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.
Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt's throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt's second female pharaoh.
Hatshepsut had successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her images were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.
Basing her conclusions on the few remaining artefacts and allowing herself a lot of leeway to fill in the gaps, Kara Cooney has created an enthralling portrait of an amazing woman in The Woman Who Would Be King, a biography of the second female pharaoh, Hatshepsut. From her birth and training as a priestess to her co-regency with her stepson, Cooney traces the steps Hatshepsut took in order to both secure her position and then consolidate it, identifying her as unique - a woman who was able to gain the throne in a male-dominated society during a time of peace rather than war.
Cooney makes some interesting points, showing how both the later Pharaohs and the even later Egyptologists twisted the few elements we have about this remarkable woman into the story of a power-mad temptress who seized the throne from the rightful heir and held it against the judgement of her entire society. The story Cooney tells is much more complex, requiring a knowledge of Egyptian culture and mores, especially when it comes to female sexuality. A true narrative history, The Woman Who Would Be King is far from a dry exploration of ancient artefacts, but instead is an interesting and exciting dive into a world that seems incredibly alien from our point of view. And yet Cooney manages to make the narrative contemporary, showing how the way we look at Hatshepsut affects the way we look at woman in positions of power even today.
I gave The Woman Who Would Be King 4 stars.