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Photo of Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA.

The parallels of female power in ancient Egypt and modern times

Photo of Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA.

Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA.

Related: Kara Cooney discusses her book, ‘The Good Kings,’ published in 2021 by National Geographic, in which she draws parallels between pharaohs and present-day authoritarians.


Over the course of 3,000 years of Egypt’s history, six women ascended to become female kings of the fertile land and sit atop its authoritarian power structure. Several ruled only briefly, and only as the last option in their respective failing family line. Nearly all of them achieved power under the auspices of attempting to protect the throne for the next male in line. Their tenures prevented civil wars among the widely interbred families of social elites. They inherited famines and economic disasters. With the exception of Cleopatra, most remain a mystery to the world at large, their names unpronounceable, their personal thoughts and inner lives unrecorded, their deeds and images often erased by the male kings that followed, especially if the women were successful.

In her latest National Geographic book, “When Women Ruled the World” Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian art and architecture and chair of the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, tells the stories of these six women: Merneith (some time between 3000–2890 B.C.), Neferusobek (1777–1773 B.C.), Hatsepshut (1473–1458 B.C.), Nefertiti (1338–1336 B.C.), Tawroset (1188–1186 B.C.) and Cleopatra (51–30 B.C.).

As we ponder Women’s History Month, and look forward toward a U.S. presidential primary campaign that includes more women candidates than ever before, we asked Cooney about themes of female power and what Egypt can illuminate for us.

Your book illustrates that Egyptian society valued and embraced women’s rule when it was deemed necessary, but these are not instances of feminism. Their attempts to rule was really about keeping the set structure in place.

Studying Egypt is a study of power, and specifically of how to maintain the power of the one over the many. That story also always includes examples of how women are used as tools to make sure the authoritarian regime flourishes. This is the most interesting part to me because then the whole tragedy of the study, of the book, is that this is not about feminism at all. It’s not about feminists moving forward, it’s not about the feminist agenda. It’s not about anything but protecting the status quo, the rich staying rich, the patriarchy staying in charge and the system continuing. We still do this, us women. Women work for the patriarchy without thinking about it, all the time. In the end, did women rule the world? Yes, they did rule the world but did it change anything? No.

I want to look at our world the same way. It doesn’t matter if we have a female president. What matters is how people rule and whose agendas are served.

People who have been to Egypt probably know the name Hatshepsut and maybe Nefertiti, but clearly the most pervasive female cultural Egyptian reference is Cleopatra. Why is she the one? Do we just have more materials related to her?

No, it’s because when you are successful, you can very easily be erased. Cleopatra failed in her efforts to hold on to power and hold onto native rule in Egypt. When you are a failure, it’s aberrant, strange and it spins a good tale. It’s a great story, failure. Whereas success is doing what everyone did before you and what everyone will do after you. It’s the same and nobody cares. It’s the same as being a successful female in a meeting or a successful female who shares a great idea with her boss and her boss takes that idea into the meeting while she sits there meekly, letting the boss take it for his or her own because it’s a successful, great idea.

So it’s the women who are the greatest successes in the story who are the most successfully erased. The women who did it all wrong and didn’t leave their land better than when they found it, who are remembered as cautionary tales. That’s our cultural memory. That’s why everyone can pronounce the name Cleopatra and no one has any idea how to pronounce Hatshepsut. She is not in our cultural memory. It doesn’t serve our patriarchal system to add her to it.

But remember, in the Egyptian mindset Cleopatra wasn’t a failure. She fought Rome and lost, but in the Arabic sources Cleopatra is remembered as an adherent to Egyptian philosophy, a freedom fighter against Rome and as a learned patriot to her people.

Book cover of When Women Ruled the World

How does the framework of Egypt’s long and relatively well-documented history and culture inform our perspectives on power as American citizens, a country of such a comparatively short history and governance?

Egypt is such a gift. When I get asked — and I do — “Why bother devoting your life to this place that’s been gone for 2,000 years and studying people that are as old as 5,000 years?” the answer is that Egypt provides me with 3,000 years of the same cultural system, religious system, government system and language system. I can follow them through booms and busts, through collapse and resurgence and see human reactions to prosperity and pain. That’s really useful. We are in this infancy of 250 years and we think we are so smart, we think we are post-racial, post-sexist and all of these things. But we’re not. Egypt is a huge gift to compare the situation that you are in to the past to see how you might better face the future.

It must be difficult to unearth women’s stories because of the ways in which historical records from around the world largely excluded information about them.

That’s the frustration of working with Egypt. We can’t forget that this is an authoritarian regime. It’s not a competitive place where I can get a speech from a competitor and try to understand a different viewpoint and agenda. It’s my responsibility as a historian of this regime to try and break it down and see what the truth is between the lines. For these women in power it’s even harder because so many of them were erased when their stories did not fit the patriarchal narrative. My job is to be a historical reconstructionist without being a revisionist. I’m interested in seeing how people work within a system and why we are so opposed, even hostile, to female power.

Why are we so hostile to female power?

The stereotype is that the female is going to use emotionality, her own and others, to manipulate and lie, to shame and guilt people into doing something. The man somehow won’t do that. He will be a straight shooter.

There is the idea that there is the masculine emotionality and a female emotionality. This female emotionality, which many men also bear, is the reason we don’t allow them to wield power because they’re happy, sad, up, down. They feel too many emotions that cannot be allowed.

The men that we ask to lead must suppress those emotions and show this even-keeled strength or only anger and no other softer emotions and then only strategically. We demand a kind of emotionality from our leaders that I find quite stunted and I want to know what the evolutionary biology of that is because a lot of this is a knee-jerk reaction to what serves us better in a short-term, acute time of crisis. I think we all need to discuss what it is about that female emotionality, of connecting with our own emotions and others or even manipulating our emotions for our own gain, that is so problematic.

As of now, six women have announced Democratic presidential campaigns for 2020. What does our historical knowledge of what happens to women when they seek power bode for the coming election season?

I get rather cynical about it, to be honest. Already I see the dialogue revolving around deceit and not being a straight shooter.

Again, it’s that double standard that you wouldn’t necessarily get with a man. It’s interesting to see how people are judging women based on emotionality and how much of that they show, how ambitious they seem to be and how duplicitous they may or may not be.

That possibility for deceit is something we are quite obsessed with for female candidates. The possibility of lies by the female is that much more powerful than the outright, absolute fact of deceit by a male candidate or leader. That is very interesting to me. The female is assumed to be a liar, but when a man lies he’s doing it for a reason and he’s on my side so I’m cool with it.

We’ve been discussing racism for some time but we do not discuss our hostility towards females in power. Unless we start to talk about it and openly discuss it, it won’t change.

Photo of Lynn Vavreck

Political science professor’s new bestseller illuminates America’s ‘Identity Crisis’

Photo of Lynn Vavreck

Lynn Vavreck

For almost a decade, UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck has been telling us the message matters when it comes to American politics, specifically presidential campaigns.

“Every election will create narratives about how the winner won,” said Vavreck, co-author of a recently released bestseller about the 2016 presidential election that uses data-driven analysis to dispel popular misconceptions about why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

“But it’s common that those narratives don’t quite hold up under scrutiny when we look at polling data and electorate surveys and other data, and that’s particularly true of what we found when we looked closely at 2016,” said Vavreck, who was named the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy in January.

In “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,”Vavreck and co-authors John Sides, professor of political science at George Washington University, and Michael Tesler, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, methodically outline the primary battles that led to the eventual matchup between Trump and Clinton. The authors dissect media coverage, national polling, data about voters’ attitudes, the effects of Russian interference, the impact of social media on misinformation and the candidates’ messaging and overarching campaign strategies.

As the nation recalibrates after a contentious midterm election season punctuated by polarized rhetoric and high voter turnout, “Identity Crisis” takes a microscope to what mattered most in 2016.

While historically presidential elections are almost always a referendum on the party in power, and typically a referendum on how well the economy is performing under that power, it’s not ever solely about the economy, Vavreck contends, and which she outlined in her 2009 book “The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns.”

For the most recent election, which was always going to be a toss-up, as “Identity Crisis” painstakingly documents, the message that emerged was all about identity.

Photo of the bestseller "Identity Crisis"

“Identity Crisis” cover

“In 2016, the notion of identity, and how people think about their group compared to other groups was a prism that refracted voters’ ideas about the economy, which created a phenomenon we call ‘racialized economics,” Vavreck said.

Trump was particularly good at identifying and stoking the flames of in-group/out-group insecurities and flash points, with fiery rhetoric around complicated issues like immigration, criminal justice and fears of Islamic terrorism, as well as economic anxiety. Shortly after the election, a prevailing theme of voter rage and frustration began to emerge to explain Trump’s win.

But, according to Vavreck and her co-authors and the data they examined, voters weren’t markedly angrier in 2016 than they were in 2012 or even 2008. And, voters’ attitudes about race weren’t much different between those election time frames, either.

What was different in 2016 was the message, the players, and the fact that “outsider” Trump was willing to tap into racial fears and attitudes in ways that previous Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom campaigned against a black candidate, declined to do, Vavreck said.

“I think Trump is not held to the same standards as ‘professional’ politicians because of who he is — so in some way, he was able to do what a typical politician could not do — or certainly would not do,” she said.

This identity messaging strategy was again in play during the recent midterms when the president frequently held up a caravan of asylum seekers from Central America as a national threat while speaking in support of Republican candidates.

Meanwhile, although almost every week there’s a news story about Facebook’s effects on elections and democracies, Vavreck is doubtful about how much impact the social networking platform truly wields, mostly because of the nature of the interaction on the site. People mostly follow and see posts from people who already think very similarly to them.

And the oft-discussed Russian ads were seen by a relatively small number of people, and mostly within those echo chambers, Vavreck said.

“I’m pretty skeptical of the social media angle because of the self-selection into conversations on those media,” she said.

Vavreck has emerged as a respected voice in the world of presidential politics. She contributes regularly to the New York Times data-driven politics and economics blog “The Upshot,” and is a coveted local, national and international commentator on American presidential campaigns.

She’s already thinking about what 2020 will bring, this time planning to write a book on her own, without her collaborators from “Identity Crisis.” Along with Sides, she co-wrote the well-received “The Gamble:Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election.”

“I am really interested in the role of ‘authenticity’ in politics — what it is, how we can measure it, how people perceive it, whether it really does any work,” she said. “People evaluate art and music this way all the time, and I’d like to try to evaluate politicians as performers in this way.”