The Rise and Fall of the King Herself – A Review of The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

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If one has been reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series or has been watching its TV show adaptation Game of Thrones, then one is most likely familiar with the fact that most of the characters have one primary goal in mind: to sit upon the Iron Throne and rule Westeros. Well, I should say that their primary goal is to survive, but for many, the chance to rule Westeros, whether they do so through puppets or by themselves, is a goal they will risk everything to achieve. Now, most of the competitors are men, but quite a few of the main contenders are women: Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, just to name two of the most popular (mentioning the others would be a risky dive into spoilers and fan speculation).

In any case, Cersei and Daenerys are an interesting study in contrasts. Their goal is the same: to rule Westeros. However, they are going about it in different ways: Daenerys, as the descendant of the overthrown dynasty that once sat upon the Iron Throne, intends to take back what is hers by conquest, whereas Cersei intends to hold power by using political clout, bribery, and blackmail, using her position as mother of the current king to her advantage. Of the two of them, Daenerys is the one who has clearly stepped into what the reader would likely consider a more traditionally “masculine” role, since most conquerers have generally been men. Cersei, on the other hand, is generally perceived as having taken a more traditionally “feminine” tack in her attempt to wield and hold power.

Which, of course, begs the question: why the distinction? Men are no less capable of playing manipulation games than women, and women are no less capable of violent action than men. The answer, of course, is that women have hardly been given the opportunity to carry out conquest: historically, men wielded both military and political power, while women dominated the home and (oftentimes, but not always) religious spaces. Women generally did not wield political power unless they were placed in a position to do so, which was not often, or they took it for themselves, which was even rarer.

Rarer still was the woman who could make it all work: lead a country well and efficiently, protecting it even while expanding it and making it more prosperous than before. History more often portrays women in power, particularly in the ancient world, as the downfall of a nation, her promiscuity and her greed often pointed out as the reasons for why nations fall when a woman is put in charge: consider Jezebel, for example, or Cleopatra. And while there are examples of successful female rule from more modern periods (Elizabeth I and Victoria being the most notable examples), the ancient world has a dearth of truly “good” female rulers.

This is a void that Kara Cooney attempts to address in her book The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt. The book is a biography tackling Hatshepsut’s life, from her childhood as the most royal daughter of Thutmose I, and who, through carefully-considered decisions and use of both religious ideology and political reality, would rise to the pinnacle of ancient Egyptian power, turning herself into the supreme ruler of one of the wealthiest and most powerful civilisations at the time. During her reign, Hatshepsut would not only expand Egypt’s territory, but she would make it wealthier than ever before, as well as maintain peace throughout the realm she ruled. She would also set certain ideological and artistic precedents that would be followed by the rest of the Thutmoside dynasty, and build one of the most beautiful structures of ancient Egypt: her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri.

But despite all these great achievements—achievements that would have been lauded in a male king—Hatshepsut was forgotten, something that was helped along by the fact that her heir and nephew, Thutmose III, attempted to erase all traces of her after her death. She was “rediscovered” in the 20th century, but misogynistic ideologies in the largely male-dominated discipline of Egyptology have twisted her story—a story that continues to be twisted even into the present.

Cooney’s book attempts to correct those mistakes—both Thutmose III’s, and Egyptology’s. Using careful research on the latest sources, Cooney describes Hatshepsut’s life as a constant struggle, not to grab power and hold it, but to do what was necessary: first, to maintain the dynasty her father had started by taking charge of the country when first her husband and then her nephew were too weak to do so; and second, to expand and enrich what was already there. She proposes that Hatshepsut was one of, if not the most, successful rulers of the ancient world, and that the fact that she is not more well-known is a result of deeply-entrenched misogynistic beliefs that dictate a woman who wields power beyond the spheres assigned her by men is only destined to fail, with often tragic consequences for those around her. If, however, she does not, then she must immediately be consigned to the dustbin of memory, her achievements assigned to the men around her. In writing her book, Cooney states, she is attempting to bring Hatshepsut into the contemporary world as an exemplar of power and womanhood—a source of insight to understanding why women, even in the twenty-first century, are locked out of positions of power, or are derided for their ambitions.

One of the things that I appreciate about Cooney’s book—and which I would appreciate in other books like hers—is that she makes it very clear that there’s a very big dearth of knowledge regarding her subject, and that, while she includes everything she believes is relevant to Hatshepsut, she always makes sure to clarify if the information she’s putting forward is based one evidence, or based on speculation. She makes it clear that there are absolutely not documents detailing Hatshepsut’s interior life—her personal thoughts and feelings—because that’s simply not what ancient Egyptians did, but that one cannot help but speculate on them anyway. So Cooney does speculate on things like emotions and personal motivations, but she always makes it clear that these are speculation only, and never tries to project any of it as fact.

This is, however, something some readers have taken a set against. They don’t like all the “maybes” and “perhapses” that Cooney inserts along the way, saying they weaken Cooney’s assertions and, therefore, her overall stand regarding Hatshepsut’s importance as a historical figure and an example for women today. I, however, think that Cooney is doing something right, making it very clear that, unless there is a sufficient body of evidence to support something she says, she will call it “speculation” and nothing more. She does this even to assertions made by other Egyptologists regarding certain matters germane to her book: for instance, she calls out Zahi Hawass on his claim that he has discovered Hatshepsut’s mummy, arguing that his evidence is still insufficient and that, therefore, he cannot conclusively claim that the mummy he’s labelling as Hatshepsut’s is, indeed, actually Hatshepsut.

However, other readers have remarked on another flaw of Cooney’s book, and this is one I rather agree with: the fact that it doesn’t have very good narrative flow. A good biography is, like any good book, one that tells a story very well—whether that story is fictional or historical isn’t really the point. The means that any good story must be able to read well, meaning it flows from one narrative point to the next with relatively little interruption, thus making it easy for the reader to truly sink into the book and become absorbed in it.

This book, however, does not do that. Even if one were to ignore the footnotes, the flow just isn’t what it should be. I attribute this to the fact that Cooney is more an academician than a storyteller; there is just a general feel of the academic paper about this book that I can’t shake off, and I suppose that it’s this feeling that makes some readers react negatively to its flow. I myself don’t mind, as I’ve had previous experience with reading academic papers (some of them far, far denser, and far, far less entertaining than this book), but I can easily understand if people don’t quite appreciate it when they went in expecting a biography, not a monograph. I feel the same way, incidentally: I was expecting to read something less academic than what I got, but again I suppose the book reads the way it does because this looks like Cooney’s first foray away from exclusively academic writing, and into something more for popular consumption.

Overall The Woman Who Would Be King is an interesting, and insightful, read. Cooney draws upon a rich well of updated information and research to bring Hatshepsut’s story into the twenty-first century, showcasing one of ancient Egypt’s greatest rulers as an example of a woman who reached the pinnacle of power through her own initiative and talent: someone to be emulated by women today, who may be looking for exemplars of what it is to be a woman who gains and wields power, and more importantly, succeeds spectacularly in her own lifetime. Cooney also does the responsible thing by drawing a line between fact and speculation, whether the speculation is her own or other people’s, wishing to give as clear a picture of Hatshepsut’s life and times as possible.

However, it’s also very clear that Cooney is not an experienced hand at writing popular nonfiction: the flow of her writing just doesn’t come as easily as might be desired, and has the overall feel of an academic publication. This is likely because this is Cooney’s first time writing a work intended for popular consumption, but hopefully in future she and/or her editors will be able to smooth out this problem and give it a less academic flavour—perhaps when she chooses to write a about some of the lesser-known women who ran Egypt in their time? I do believe Nitocris could use an image update.

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