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When Women Ruled the World

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Kara Cooney, author of When Women Ruled the World, characterizes her book as one of “my little Egyptological ventures in popular nonfiction.” A professor of Egyptology and gender studies at UCLA, Cooney writes solidly researched, richly informative history in accessible, non-jargon-free language. I know very little about Egyptian history, other than what I learned from Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, and Richard Burton, but I finished When Women Ruled the World with a more than superficial knowledge and with many remarkable insights into the lives of six female Egyptian monarchs.

There are several reasons for Cooney’s successful portrayals. One is the way she weighs previous research assumptions and conclusions. She explains, for example, that most of what we know about Cleopatra came from Roman scribes who wanted to expose her flaws. Hollywood hasn’t helped, either. Cooney clearly explains how biased historians and filmmakers have steered audiences toward misperceptions and misinterpretations. Her Cleopatra chapter shows a smart, shrewd, calculating politician busily manipulating friends and foes alike.

When the historical record is more obscure, Cooney is equally resourceful, speculating if necessary, pointing out how interpretations differ, and why. I learned, for example, about the ways Egyptian rulers diminished their predecessors by excising names from tombs and statuary, then replacing those vanquished names with their own. Cooney unlayers the layerings in thoughtful and provocative ways. She carefully lets the reader know what is fact and what is speculation, so the reader reaches Cooney’s conclusions without being lectured. I felt like a willing participant in the dynamics of history, and I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling.

It is true that Cooney has her own political agenda. Her intent is to highlight these six women’s individual accomplishments in feminist terms. Each inherited a moment of crisis, and historians once believed those predicaments were the result of female rule. Cooney argues contrarily that each of the six used distinctly female modes of leadership that actually staved off more critical famine, greed, war, and chaos. “Alone, or in the service of others,” Cooney concludes, “the ancient Egyptians knew to embrace and utilize all female talents, including emotionality, a mercurial nature, and an ability to softly nurture or ferociously kill when circumstance demanded it.”

Cooney regularly moves her politics into the twenty-first century, and this is another reason why When Women Ruled the World is so eminently readable. She muses, for example, about how the Egyptians tolerated ambitious daughters more than wives, suggesting a parallel with how Americans seem to distrust Hillary Clinton more than Ivanka Trump. She refers to a Syrian commoner craving Egyptian power as the equivalent of a hedge fund CEO manipulating the assets of a newly acquired conglomerate. Centuries later, looking at Alexandria, she notes, “It was full of money but lacking respect: the Dubai of its time. And so, like Abu Dhabi, it lured scientists and intellectuals with quick cash to bulk up its worth in acquired scrolls and volumes from neglected foreign collections.” Throw-away analogies like this one recur on page after page of When Women Ruled the World, making Cooney’s book a treasure trove of popular culture.

Obviously When Women Ruled the World is far more than a “little Egyptological venture.” Rather, Cooney has written a probing investigation of a small collection of female rulers, smartly assessing how their gendered personalities at first helped them succeed and then ultimately caused them to fail. While she critiques the patriarchy that bound these women, she keeps her focus on praising the women’s achievements. Cooney wants her readers to understand a slice of Egyptian history, but she also wants us to think about the present. Might there come another time when “women rule the world?”   – Ann Ronald

Also available by Kara Cooney: The Woman Who Would be King

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