Hatshepsut, a woman pharaoh from the renowned eighteenth dynasty, reigned very successfully for twenty-two years. Her rule brought enormous wealth and prosperity to her country. She did not wage unnecessary wars but focused on extensive building projects (she was the first ruler to use sandstone and granite instead of mud bricks) and establishing trade routes instead. She had reached for power resolutely, yet without resorting to violence or bloodshed. This was an unprecedented move on a part of a woman. The moment she passed away, her male successor proceeded to systematically erase her legacy, defile her statues and get rid of all evidence of her power and achievements. Not only was she maligned by her successors but she was also vilified by Egyptologists well into the twentieth century. Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist, archeologist, and professor at UCLA, has written a book dedicated to Hatshepsut, in which she looks at the double standards at play in relation to men and women in power:
“Women in power who do everything wrong offer great narrative fodder: Cleopatra, Jezebel and her daughter Athaliah, Semiramis, Empress Lü. They are dangerous, untrustworthy, self-interested to a fault. Their sexuality and powers of attraction can bring all to ruin. History has shown that a woman who pushes the envelope of ambition is not just maligned in the history books as a conniving, scheming seductress whose foolhardy and emotional desires brought down the good men around her, but also celebrated in infamous detail as proof that females should never be in charge.
Posterity cherishes the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men—that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy, that their impolitic natures ruin carefully tended alliances, that their agenda on behalf of their children will endanger any broader political interests.
If a woman does not renounce ambition for ambition’s sake, she will be viewed as twofaced or selfish, her actions fueled by ulterior motives.”
Hatshepsut believed firmly that Amun-Re chose her to rule over Egypt. When she seized power she was a young woman in her early twenties. Over the years, she gradually forged a masculine identity for herself since at that time (approximately 1479 to 1458 BCE) it was inconceivable for the pharaoh to be a woman. The highest position a woman could have hoped for was the First Wife of the King. This title belonged to Hatshepsut’s mother. Egyptian kings had sizeable harems of women at their disposal, destined to produce male heirs. Hatshepsut’s mother failed to do so. Consequently, the throne passed to a two-year old Thutmose III, whom Hatshepsut’s father had with a lesser wife. Hatshepsut became the boy’s co-regent, but eventually assumed the full power of the pharaoh.
As her reign began, she confidently portrayed herself as a female ruler with all the images commissioned by her openly showing her gender. She identified herself with powerful goddesses, particularly with Mut, as well as lioness war goddesses – Sekhmet and Bast. She propagated a myth about her birth from a lioness. However, as the years passed by, uncertainty and ambiguity crept in. With time, all her images became completely masculine, though she still kept the feminine forms in hieroglyphic texts, as Cooney explains:
“To those elites who could read hieroglyphic text and participate in complex theological discourse, she presented the full complexity of gender-ambiguous kingship. There was no need to hide her feminine self from these learned men and women anyway because of their close access to her and her palace. But for the common man or woman who could not read and who might not understand such academic explanations, Hatshepsut presented a simplified and unassailable image of idealized and youthful masculine kingship. For them, she became what everyone expected to see—a strong man able to protect Egypt’s borders and a virile king able to build temples and perform the cult rituals for the gods.”
She had amassed enormous power despite the heavy odds against her. Still, her countrymen were not ready to acknowledge that real power knows no gender. They erased her name from the official list of kings. But the truth about her kingship eventually came out, as the meaning of her name had foreboded: Hatshepsut – Foremost of Noble Women.