Dr. Kara Cooney is a professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA. She specializes in craft production, coffin studies, and economies in the ancient world. In 2009, Dr. Cooney produced a comparative archaeology television series, Out of Egypt, which examined similarities and links between several ancient civilizations. She was also the host, lead researcher, and writer for the project.
Dr. Cooney's work has appeared in numerous academic and research journals over the past 10 years, and The Woman Who Would Be King (released October 2014) is her first popular work. Chronicling the life of 18th dynasty female pharaoh Hatshepsut, the book delves into the more human side of the impressive and long-reigning ruler.
Loranne caught up with Dr. Cooney this month to talk about her work.
For those who have yet to read your book, can you give us a brief intro on what it's all about?
The Woman Who Would Be King is a sexy, human, emotional, biography of Hatshepsut, this amazing ancient Egyptian woman who worked her way up the hierarchy, from princess to priestess to queen to king of all of Egypt, an amazing journey that no other woman in the ancient world has rivaled.
I read in your acknowledgements that you were initially prompted by someone else to tackle a biography of Hatshepsut. What really sold you on the project?
It's funny: Academics like to work in their little boxes, and when it was suggested to me by my lit agent Marc Gerald that I write a biography about Hatshepsut, I initially resisted, because she is not in my academic wheelhouse, so to speak. I work on later periods and on different people. But the more we talked about the overarching topic of women and power, the more intererested I became. I actually started the book with an undergraduate General Education class at UCLA called Women and Power in the Ancient World, and I wrote it while I was working through that material. I wanted to crack why women continue to have such an uphill battle in gaining political and economic power, and why Hatshepsut could attain so much of both in the ancient world. Her life story started to look more and more like an invaluable resource for today's woman: how can we climb that ladder when every obstacle possible is in our way?
You stated very clearly in the preface that a fair portion of the book is--due to the lack of existing records detailing the more human aspects of Egyptian history—based in a fair amount of conjecture. As someone who's used to basing their work more heavily on hard evidence, was it difficult for you to take this approach?
I write about the ancient world, so qualifications are completely commonplace. What is NOT commonplace for me is storytelling within that limited evidence base. I wanted to tell a story from cradle to grave, with all of the emotions and pitfalls and humanity that I could bring to it, and so I had to find the historical circumstances as I could, and then bring them to life: given who Hatshepsut was, given the people who surrounded her at a given space in time, unraveling the idealized way history is presented, I would then ask: what might have really happened here? How might she have really felt? What might have motivated her in one direction or another? My conjecture is always circumstantially grounded—in one place and time when I know that something happened and when I can ask why. I don't try to chase my tail asking questions that could never be answered; that is too frustrating for me and the reader.
What was the most interesting thing you learned, or that surprised you, in the research process?
I was fascinated by the new evidence put forward by Zbigniu Sfranski, a Polish scholar, that Hatshepsut's daughter had been given presumably by her mother a significant amount of power later in Hatshepsut's reign, only to see that power taken away, to see her figures and names erased in Egypt's most sacred temples. If this really happened the way Sfranski suggests, then Hatshepsut really did push the boundaries of female political power in a new and profound way, and she lived to see it all crumble around her, to see the impossibilities of it all. This was the most tragic part of her story for me: that she tried to make a place for her daughter in the pinnacles of power, and the pushback was too much even for Hatshepsut to overcome.
Not to give too much away, but—especially in comparison with perhaps the only other solo female ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra—Hatshepsut's reign was, on the whole, quite successful. She increased the wealth and territory of Egypt, and undertook massive construction projects, some of which still stand, over 2,000 years later. Why do you think Cleopatra became a household name, while Hatshepsut has been largely forgotten by the average history book?
This speaks to humanity's undying interest in female failure: we love to tell stories that aggrandize female political failure. Cleopatra has poems and letters and plays written about her, marking her as an egotistical, dramatic, glamourous, selfish being, who looked to seduction and breeding as her main avenue to power, and who was interested in conspicuous consumption (she boasted, for instance, of her ability to dissolve priceless pearl earrings in wine) Cleopatra highlights everything about a woman in power that can go wrong: she is surrounded by crisis, debt, self-serving interests, and collapse. Cleopatra did not, in the end, despite charm and true survival instincts, leave Egypt better than she found it. Hatshepsut did. She served as a mother to her dynasty and her nephew and saw her land thrive.
One of the things I found most interesting about Hatshepsut was how adaptable she must have been, as both a person and a political figure. First ruling and depicting herself as a woman, but then sort of shifting her gender, and gradually coming to portray herself as a male king in sculptures, stelae, and building projects. Although it proved an effective strategy, she appears to be the first and last woman to attempt to acquire and maintain power like this in ancient Egypt. Why do you think that is?
Hatshepsut was the last to take on the gender-bending kingship, it's true. Tawosret of the 19th Dynasty did not ever depict herself as man, although she was king for a few years. The God's Wives of Amen of the 25th and 26th Dynasties also didn't try to take on manly depictions, at least not overtly so. Cleopatra celebrated her sexuality, to a fault. Hatshepsut was in a peculiar predicament, though: she was ruling the entire time alongside another male ruler. She was a co-king; she never ruled alone. As a co-king, she had to adapt to her partner. As he grew older, how could an older woman tell a thriving young man what to do? A gender shift was the most appropriate way forward for Hatshepsut: by depicting herself as a man she could take precedence over her young co-king, not matter how youthful and manly he was.
There's some on-going discussion as to whether the 2007 identification of the mummy KV 60A is Hatshepsut or not. If her remains are still out there, would such a discovery help shed any further light on her story?
A mummy always adds to our evidence, giving us information about health and well-being, about mummification techniques, about how many times a woman went through childbirth... If we could identify her, we could learn much, but this is where I let my conjecture stop. I prefer to ask questions that I could materially answer in some way. A body is just a body, after all. Her humanity is to be found in her decisions, the way others depicted her, her ideology and her recorded thoughts.
In addition to your background in archaeology and Egyptology, you're also a professor at UCLA, where as you say you teach a class on Women and Power in the Ancient World—a class I'd love to take, by the way! How was your teaching influenced by your research for this book, or vice versa?
This class was essential to my understanding of women and power in the ancient world. The first two weeks of the class we discuss the biological, cognitive, and psychological reasons it is so difficult for a woman to gain power. And wow, it's complicated! A woman has to breed; she has to menstruate. She has a womb to carry a child and breasts to nurse. There are so many burdens during those childbearing years that keep a woman close to the home and hearth, unable to reach out and hunt or to bring in economically scarce resources or make political connections with other settlements, as men do. A woman's biology can stifle her political possibilities from the beginning. If you look at the economics in combination with geography, it gets even more interesting. A wonderful anthropologist named Ernestine Friedl published a seminal article linking women's power to geographic systems and scarce resources. For example, a woman of the Inuit in Alaska doesn't go out with the men to hunt seals and whales, but she does process those resources. No matter, the men bring in the scarce resources, and the women of these communities have very little power because they do not. By contrast, the women of ancient southern California were able fishermen of the river streams, whether pregnant or nursing or menstruating, and because they brought in equal scarce food resources, they had equal political power. Money and power and geography are always connected. I think Hatshepsut knew this: that Egypt's geography lent it a protection and continuity few places in the ancient world enjoyed; more people were interested in the status quo, and thus women were allowed in as stop-gaps, as placeholders, to an extent unthinkable in most of the ancient world.
Being a bunch of avid readers here at LibraryThing, we always like to ask authors about their own reading habits. Can you tell us what you've read and enjoyed recently?
I read on my Kindle when I'm putting my son to bed. He's a sensitive boy, and I stay until he falls asleep—which my mother has always said never to do—but I get a lot of reading done. I love non-fiction. I love Jon Krakauer. I also love Hilary Mantel. I'm finishing Wolf Hall right now, and I know I'm behind the curve. I'm also reading a book called Crazy Love, a memoir about a relationship gone all wrong. And I'm reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander in German because I have my son in German immersion preschool; I have to keep up! I never used to, but now that I have a child, I read lots of things simultaneously.
When and where do you do most of your writing?
I write out in the world—in restaurants, coffee houses, on campus, in the faculty center. Out in the world. I do a lot of editing at home, near my books and bibliographies. I write with wine. I edit with tea.
What's your library at home like? What kind of books would we find there?
I have so much non-fiction! So much. Lots of reference for Egyptian sites and people and texts; hardcore academic stuff that few people would ever think to buy. But as I read more on my Kindle, things are going more digital for me. It's an interesting time. I think I might buy books more opportunistically and more enthusiastically digitally than I did in paper-form, when I purchased more circumstantially by what was available in a given shop.
Can you tell us what you've got lined up next? Any other projects you're working on?
I have to finish my next academic book about coffin re-use, and for that I need a press that will allow me color pictures and lots of them, plus footnotes galore. I need to present all my evidence to the scholarly community; they will want to check and refute me!
My next popular book is rather crazy—a biography about an amazing Egyptian king who created one of the most innovative religious systems the world has ever seen. It will take quite a bit of research to get it right and be able to lock down the story I want to tell. Let's see how it turns out…
—interview by Loranne Nasir