When Women Ruled the World | Kara Cooney

Summary of: When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt
By: Kara Cooney


Embark on a captivating journey through ancient Egypt, a land where women once wielded immense power in a world of divine kingship. In the book ‘When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt’ by Kara Cooney, we explore the trials, tribulations, and accomplishments of six powerful women who defied patriarchal norms to shape Egypt’s storied past. Discover the stories of Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret, and Cleopatra, and how they navigated and thrived in a male-dominated society. As you dive into the summary, be prepared for enlightening insights into divine mythology, regal incest, intrigue, and resilient female leadership.

Women’s Rule in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, divine kingship was established with the first of the 20 royal dynasties. The king was considered a divine representative with absolute authority, but female rule was not unheard of. Although the regency system was largely patriarchal and authoritarian, it had a representative of the divine feminine in the goddess Isis. Women played essential roles in royal lineages as strategic peacekeepers and protectors of the kingship, even acting as regents for young kings. Despite having short reigns, some of these women accomplished as much as their male counterparts, but their names have been forgotten.

Queen Merneith: The First Female Ruler of Egypt

Queen Merneith, daughter of King Djer of Dynasty 1, grew up in the royal palace in Memphis and observed the king’s duties up close. After her brother Djet became king, he asked her to be his wife. When Djet died prematurely, his toddler son Den was too young to rule, so Queen Merneith became queen regent. She arranged her husband’s burial and ensured a smooth transition of power by sacrificing power-hungry relatives. Queen Merneith ruled for her son for six or seven years, until he was old enough to do so himself. She was honored with a king’s burial despite never officially taking the title of king. Queen Merneith’s story is known from inscriptions in royal burial complexes, temples, and monuments and the Palermo Stone lists her as King’s Mother alongside the male kings of Dynasties 1 through 5.

The High Cost of Royal Incest

Incest among Egyptian royalty was not only acceptable but was considered the ideal way to maintain power and wealth within a close-knit family circle. However, this practice had its drawbacks, including costly ailments and deformities from inbreeding and the risk of sterility, leading to succession crises. Neferusobek, the first woman to claim the title of King, had to legitimize her reign to stabilize the country during a social crisis but was plagued by droughts, hunger, and palace elites scheming against her. After just four years of rule, her mysterious death led to the downfall of her dynasty, and it would take another 500 years for a woman to claim the kingship once more.

The Reign of Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut was a powerful ruler of Egypt who aggressively promoted her leadership as divine will. She inherited her father’s determination and leadership skills and expanded Egypt’s borders, enriched elites, built temples, and promoted trading ventures. After her death, her nephew and former co-king attempted to erase all records of her achievements. However, evidence of her reign as a power broker and monarch remains throughout Egypt.

Nefertiti: A Queen Beyond Beauty

Nefertiti, the famous bust at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, is known for her beauty. However, recent evidence suggests that Nefertiti was more than just a pretty face. She was the Great Royal Wife of King Amenhotep IV, a devout ruler who attempted to establish a radical new religion of light by defunding old temples, leaving behind old court cities, and erecting a new capital city in the middle of Egypt. When historians believed that Nefertiti died, she just reinvented herself as Akhenaten’s new male co-king and later attempted to restore the country she bankrupted after Akhenaten’s radical attempts. Before Nefertiti died, she began preparing the next king, eight-year-old Tutankhamun, whose famous gold tomb was found by Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922. Archeologists say that this tomb is just the entrance hall to a much bigger, more lavish grave, that of Nefertiti.

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