The Nefertiti Bust, ca 1350 BC. Found in the collection of the Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
Heritage Images/Getty Images
By Kara Cooney
October 18, 2018

Ancient Egypt’s female feline goddess had two sides. As Bastet, she could nurture and protect; as Sakhmet she had a propensity to brutally attack and maim without control. But in both forms, she had one raison d’être: to protect and nurture the patriarchy.

Such was the case for strong Egyptian goddesses in general, and for the real female leaders of that time. They weren’t in it for themselves, to help a sisterhood rise up, to change the playing field for all women. They used their great and mercurial power to help the men around them – to protect them with their ferocity, to shield them from harm, to keep the same system going.

I study women and power in the ancient world, having just written a book about six queens from ancient Egypt. Their stories reveal a troubling and difficult aspect of female power in history, and one worth keeping in mind today. Though a high number of women in positions of power is often seen as a marker of progress in governments and corporations, history shows that what matters is not how many women rise to that level but what they do once they get there.

In ancient Egypt, at least six women rose up as the highest decision maker in the land, not counting the dozens of others who acted as queen-regents or high priestesses or influential wives. Ancient Egypt allowed more females into power in the ancient world than any other place on earth. Was that society somehow more progressive than we might expect? The answer is a quick and deflating no.

Merneith of Dynasty 1 only ruled to see her young son Den to the throne unmolested, and it’s how he ended up becoming his Dynasty’s longest-lived and most successful king. Neferusobek of Dynasty 12 ruled only because an anemic and inbred family lineage was withering on the vine; she was the last person standing of her great dynasty, a mere placeholder until another man from another dynasty stepped in. Hatshepsut of Dynasty 18 ruled to maintain the power of her young nephew, only to have her legacy as female king — the word “queen” connoting a mere sexual helpmate, not a ruler — ripped away from her 20-some years after her death when her names and images were erased and smashed, her great achievements relabeled for her father or brother instead. (Hatshepsut teaches us all that when women succeed in the workplace, the credit can always be reassigned to the patriarchy.)

Nefertiti of Dynasty 18, if she really ruled at all, knew she had to cloak her ambition and feminine self with new masculine names. (She likely ruled as co-king Ankhkheperre Neferneferuaten and, perhaps later, as sole-king Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare.) Nefertiti must have known she was just paving the path for the next male in line — none other than the young Tutankhamun, so famous to us today for his intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Tawosret of Dynasty 19 also found power by ruling on behalf of a boy-king before taking the kingship for herself alone. Tawosret didn’t hide her ambition; she had competitors eliminated. But such female ambition would not be tolerated, and Tawosret was removed by a warlord who positioned himself as restoring law and order to an increasingly militaristic Egypt. And then there was Cleopatra, who led insurrections against her own brothers, both of whom were taken out by her ruthless actions, and who used powerful men like Julius Caesar and Marc Antony more as sperm donors than as husbands who could control her. But even Cleopatra, who styled herself after the goddess of love and beauty, Hathor, couldn’t stop herself from becoming more of a maternal Isis in the end, paving the path to the kingship for her son Ptolemy XV — better known as Caesarion, the name that, fittingly, emphasizes his father rather than his mother. In the end, if he had lived to rule Egypt rather than being murdered by Octavian, she too would have acted as a mere placeholder in the larger patriarchal system.

Six powerful queens, five of them becoming pharaohs in their own rights — and yet each and every one of them had to fit the patriarchal systems of power around them, rather than fashioning something new. The story of female power in ancient Egypt is a tragedy.

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And so when we look at female power in the world today, we must not assume that a woman in a high position is there to lay the groundwork for other women to follow. Instead we must ask whom these women are really serving.

Take the U.K., with its parliamentary system that has elected two female prime ministers over the last four decades. Ask whether Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May challenged or protected the male-driven agendas around them. India and Pakistan have both seen great female leaders over the last half century, but these women have stepped into the halls of power on behalf of their fathers and husbands and brothers. Ivanka Trump has an (informal) position in the White House, as an influencer of her father President Trump, but that authority comes from her unthreatening role as a daughter. When a woman does directly challenge the privilege of a white man, she faces the possibility of threats like the ones experienced by Christine Blasey Ford. And there is perhaps no better symbol for this dynamic than Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose power is derived from speaking on behalf of a man — maybe a reason why this particular woman makes so many other women so very angry.

The Egyptian female king was only allowed to enter the political fray for a short time to support the male-dominated system around her. Her memory and legacy were erased afterwards if she is successful (think Hatshepsut), or her mistakes aggrandized as a cautionary tale if she was a failure (think Cleopatra). Female power was forced upon a people during moments of great crisis like kingly succession, civil war, or imperial aggression, but only when all hope for a male leader was lost. For the Egyptian system of divine kingship, women were actually the best choice to maintain the status quo – because their caretaking for family could be so easily turned into protection of the patriarchy itself.

And that is the tragedy of female power that the Egyptian female kings whisper to us from the past. Breaking glass ceilings is one thing, but until women can act with their own agendas, most women in power, today as yesterday, are just serving the status quo — like Nefertiti and Cleopatra, part of a long line of women protecting their masculine overlords. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between merely working in a patriarchal system and those who have chosen not to advance causes that help other women, but it is crucial that we try.

National Geographic

Kara Cooney is a professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA and author of the forthcoming book When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt, available soon.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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