Why Ancient Egypt Saw More Female Rulers Than Modern America

National Geographic Live / Performances and Artists

Egyptologist Kara Cooney


Egyptologist Kara Cooney points out a troubling fact: Women make up 50 percent of the population today, but they don’t make up 50 percent of government leadership.

That hasn’t always been the case.

Ancient Egypt, Cooney notes, saw the world’s most powerful women ruling solo over Egypt’s vast and influential empire – many of them achieving more growth and prosperity than their male counterparts.

“These female leaders ruled systematically and regularly, unlike any other place in the ancient or modern world,” Cooney says.

Can we apply their lessons to securing more women in power today?

Cooney believes so.

“It’s a strange thing to look at modern politics through the lens of the ancient world, but it works,” Cooney says. “I want to have a discussion of these women who transcended the patriarchy, and also look at why human beings are still so hostile to females in power.”


A Patriarchal Government That Put Women in Charge

Ancient Egypt posed a unique contradiction, Cooney says: While it was a strict patriarchal society, it still allowed for female leaders.

This was made possible by Egypt’s “highly unequal method of rule,” she says, which adhered to a royal patriarchal dynasty for 3,000 years.

“Divine kingship was so respected, if a king died early or a boy was too young to rule, it allowed a female representative of that patriarchy to step in as the ruler,” explains Cooney, who has authored multiple books on ancient Egyptian rulers. “This kind of authoritarian system puts all the power into the royal family and jealously guards it.”

No other ancient civilization allowed for a woman to hold power, she adds.

“In places that distributed power more evenly, like the democracy of ancient Greece, those systems would never allow for a woman to take position of leader,” she says. “If one man fell in a competitive government system, another man took his place, leaving no options for a woman.”


Hugely Influential – And Largely Forgotten

While ancient Egypt boasted many bold and inspiring female leaders, most people today only remember Cleopatra.

Cooney has a theory why: Cleopatra’s rule was a spectacular failure.

“We remember female rulers like Cleopatra for their grand, splashy, dramatic failures,” she says. “The female rulers who were the most successful, who kept Egypt’s economy rolling and grew its properties and set Egypt in the right direction, their success is seen as a boring story.”

But these stories are more than worth sharing.

During her presentation, Cooney will dive into the incredible stories of these forgotten female rulers, including Nefertiti, who repaired a fractured Egypt after extreme social upheaval, and Hatshepsut, who expanded Egypt’s territories and bolstered its economy.

“Most people can’t even pronounce Hatshepsut’s name, so it’s up to me to share her story,” Cooney says with a chuckle.


The Modern Problem

The crux of Cooney’s presentation will discuss why the modern world sees so few women in power.

Today’s democratic governments, Cooney notes, offer just 26 percent female leaders in British Parliament and not a single female American president in history.

“The question is, how do we transcend that, without becoming an authoritarian government system (like ancient Egypt)?” she says. “It’s a tricky problem.”


Kara Cooney took the stage as part of the 2018-2019 National Geographic Live series.


Photo Credit: MEDINET HABU