If pop culture is your barometer, confident men are brains and confident women are bitches. Princess Diana was melodramatic and manipulative; Britons want Charles to be the next King. Michael Cera can be lauded for his Zen-like poise in interviews; meanwhile his Broadway co-star Tavi Gevinson apparently epitomizes her generation’s self-absorption because she revs herself up for performances by saying, “I am awesome and mighty and cannot be made small.”
But women have been boasting for a long time. “I am the wild horned bull coming from heaven … I am the falcon who glides over the lands … I am the jackal.” Thus spoke Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh of ancient Egypt. If Hatshepsut’s preening tells us anything, it’s that prominent women have actually toned it down since ancient times. You don’t see Miley Cyrus defending whichever outfit just raised eyebrows by saying, “Look, y’all, I’m a falcon.”
We hear Hatshepsut speak in The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, a new biography by Kara Cooney. October also brings Isabella: The Warrior Queen, by Kirstin Downey, about the Castilian monarch who, with her husband Ferdinand, bankrolled Christopher Columbus. And then there’s Victoria: A Life, by A.N. Wilson, about Britain’s long-reigning Queen. Any of these books, perhaps especially Cooney’s, might aspire to be the next Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize–winning 2010 biography of another famous pharaoh.
It’s exciting to see such a noble group of women celebrated all at once, so I would love to say that this tripartite release (from different publishers) is indicative of some feminist trend that signifies widespread interest in the lives of authoritative women. But then I’d be ignoring A.N. Wilson’s book, which is so laden with details of war, politics and interior design that whenever he mentioned actual humans I laughed out loud from sheer relief.
Victoria is less about its title figure than the men in her life: how fat they were, how gay they were and how handsome. This isn’t necessarily surprising, given how Wilson has made hay of such details as the pre-eminent British biographer of entire eras; he is the author of lauded books like The Victorians (2002), After the Victorians (2005) and The Elizabethans (2011). But in Victoria, he undermines the Queen’s diary entries and letters–in which she talks about her loneliness, her physical yearning for her husband Prince Albert and her psychologically loaded phobia of wigs–by saying that she had an “almost unbounded capacity for self-dramatization and self-pity.” Wilson defers to Victoria’s male contemporaries instead of taking her seriously. Perhaps this dismissiveness was echoed by the men in Victoria’s life and contributed in some way to her abiding loneliness? Just a thought.
Queen Isabella of Castile, on the other hand, acted like a badass, and Kirstin Downey knows it. Set mostly in the 1400s, a period when the best that most women could hope for was to survive their teen pregnancies, Isabella is a tale of feminist ambition that reads like a pulpy novel. (Don’t be a snob–that’s a good thing.) Everyone in the Spanish kingdom seemed to be having sex with everyone else, often not consensually. Yet Isabella managed to remain a virgin until marriage. Not only did she choose her husband against the wishes of her brother King Enrique, who attempted to land one for her, but following Enrique’s death, she crowned herself, becoming the first female ruler in any part of the world for generations. She presided over the expulsion of the Muslims who had occupied Spain since the 8th century–as well as the expulsion or forced conversion of Spanish Jews–while allowing her husband, technically her proxy, to think he was in charge. (History rightly faults them both.) She taught herself Latin and hired instructors for her daughters and ladies-in-waiting, changing the course of education and women’s involvement in public affairs. I like to think that when Isabella bragged, she bragged in Latin–a language her husband Ferdinand didn’t understand.
Like Isabella, Hatshepsut relied on a “facade of mutuality” with men to ensure domestic peace. She told anyone who would listen that her royal status emanated originally from her father King Thutmose I and, after his death, from her brother turned husband Thutmose II. (Hatshepsut and her brother tried their damnedest to produce a male heir, but the gods wouldn’t oblige.) When Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut ran out of Thutmoses to link her to the throne. Her PR move was awe-inspiring: she proclaimed to the world that her power came directly from the god Amen. To prove it, she sent hundreds of men on a terrifying voyage to enrich her court with treasures and commissioned scores of self-congratulatory public works.
In Kara Cooney’s engrossing and compulsively readable biography, she writes, “Through the millennia, we have called powerful women many things–bitches, witches … seductresses.” Cooney suggests that Hatshepsut was a master at avoiding such epithets. She made sure that statues representing her carried attributes of both genders (breasts, but no skirt) and had sex with an 11-year-old half brother, all to align herself with those in power. No civil wars were waged by Hatshepsut, and no protests were staged against her; she reigned with the full support of every man around her. Her story is perhaps the most feminist of all three, because everyone who could get in her way stayed out of it. They needed a king. And they knew she was the right woman for the job.
Hale is an essayist and the author of No One Else Can Have You, a novel
This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.
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