A Study of Female Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt
The Kingdom of ancient Egypt lasted 3,000 years, from around 3150 BC to 30 BC. During this time, ancient Egypt developed into one of the world's greatest civilizations. It was known not only for its monumental architecture, sophisticated language and writing systems, advanced mathematics and astronomy, and rich cultural heritage but also for having female rulers with full power and autonomy. These female pharaohs were exceptions to the norm, but they were also highly successful and influential rulers. Their reigns were characterized by peace, prosperity, and cultural achievements. From this point in time, it is possible to analyze the circumstances that allowed them to take this role, whether they were considered equal to their male predecessors, and whether their rule was considered a long-term solution or a momentary relief to bridge a rough political situation. Equally important is to learn how they were treated after their service was no longer required and a suitable male contender would arise.
In ancient Egypt, the title of a pharaoh was held by both men and women, and female pharaohs were not unusual. Some of the most powerful and influential pharaohs in ancient Egyptian history were women who ruled with strength and determination and left a lasting impact on the region's history. It is worth noting that while some female pharaohs ruled in their own right, others served as regents for young male heirs or took on significant political power and influence during their husband's reigns. There were several female pharaohs in ancient Egypt, although the exact number is somewhat challenging to determine because of a lack of written evidence. This article will more thoroughly examine the rule of the first three female pharaohs that bore the title of the king. They are Merneith, Neferusobek, and Hatshepsut.
There is much debate about how this ancient political system was oriented toward a woman. In many stances, ancient Egypt was forward in thinking compared to its peers in the sense of liberties women relished. The evidence indicates that these liberties mainly applied to the elite, as the life of the less privileged was rarely recorded. David Silverman (1997), an American archaeologist and Egyptologist, wrote that a woman could attend the court alone and represent herself. She could be a legal heiress to her father and husband, and female children could receive inheritance along with male siblings. Women were also permitted to divorce and remarry (p. 83). The imposing question is, how much free choice were women of royal blood given when they were presented with the idea of marrying their fathers or brothers or stepping in to rule for their sons to serve as placeholders until a suitable male figure appeared? There was an apparent intention and a pattern in the political system of ancient Egypt that not only allowed but forced women to assume the role of a sovereign in certain situations. It was imperative to preserve the king's bloodline, and if a king were to die too soon or if his son was too young to ascend the throne, then a woman would be endorsed to access the throne and its power. Kara Cooney (2018), an Egyptologist, archaeologist, and professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, explains that the reason why these women were ideal contenders to facilitate the transition between the two male successors was because of a notion that a mother would be unlikely to betray her son, and a wife, daughter, or sister would not see her male relatives as political rivals (p. 24).
Merneith, a queen from Dynasty 1, which covered a period from ca. 3000-2890 BC, is considered one of the first female rulers in the history of the world. At the very dawn of the unification of the Egyptian kingdom, when the first dynasty was only forging the monarchy's rules, Merneith stepped in to rule for her son. To get an idea of how brutal this world was, her father, King Djet, was buried in the company of 587 people sacrificed to serve him in the afterlife (Cooney, 2018, p.38). The ''queen mother'' served at least five to six years before her son took over, and she was recognized as a legitimate ruler by her son. Merneith was buried in a tomb that archaeologists first considered belonged to a male ruler, as burial chambers were adorned in the highest fashion. Her burial site showed that she was honored like a king, but often when a mother ruled for her minor son, she was omitted from written records. This was the case for Merneith, as she was only recorded as a king's mother on a king's list found in her tomb. Later generations never mentioned her again in the context of a ruler (Cooney, 2018, p.59).
One thousand years passed before another queen took a much bolder approach to claim her title. Queen Neferusobek was a queen from Dynasty 12, which spanned from 1938 to 1775 BC. Neferusobek became a queen in a way that was not considered traditional. As discussed previously, women were expected only to step in as co-regents until the next male heir was ready to take over the crown. Neferusobek was the daughter of Amenemhat III, who ruled for 45 years and outlived all of his male heirs (Cooney, 2018, p.78). It remains to be clarified if Neferusobek's husband, Amenemhat IV, was related to her by blood as a half-brother or if he was an outsider. Amenemhat IV died after nine years of rule. Due to failing to produce a male heir, Neferusobek daringly used the connection of her father's bloodline to gain authority proclaiming herself as a direct successor. She was courageous enough to claim the highest office simply because no one else had apparent authority to claim it. She was the first queen to influence her public image by changing the traditional iconographic representation of a female ruler. Her insignia portrayed her as a woman, proudly stating her gender but with masculine attributes like a headdress and a kilt, which displayed the symbols of strength that previously only men from Dynasty 12 wore (Cooney, 2018, p. 84). Clinging only to her lineage, while the empire faced many hardships from threats both within and outside the kingdom, Neferusobek's reign ended abruptly after less than four years without a recorded explanation. It is probable that she had a violent end, but she was honored by preserving her name in most of the king's lists, which cited her as a ruler.
The most intriguing female ruler from Dynasty 18, which covered the period from 1473 to 1458 BC, was queen Hatshepsut. The firstborn daughter of Pharaoh Thutmose I was known as well-educated and very intelligent. Thutmose I was not of royal descent, and he invested a lot in legitimizing his title. It is curious how Thutmose I, a well-known general adopted into the royal family at 40, never faced challenges with being recognized as a proper royal successor. What he lacked in royal pedigree, he made up in energy and significant strategic operations, pushing the borders of Egypt deep into the territory of Levant and Nubia (Wilkinson, 2010, p.228). Hatshepsut was the firstborn daughter of Thutmose I and the high priestess in Thebes, which was the most powerful religious center in Egypt. After all of her brothers died untimely deaths, she was forced to marry her half-brother, Thutmose II. Marriages between siblings and sometimes between parents and children were socially acceptable at the time and were considered to fortify the purity of royal blood and lineage (Margetts, 1951, p. 559). Unfortunately, the marriage between the siblings failed to provide any offspring. After the early death of her half-brother and husband, Hatshepsut had to step in as a co-regent to her nephew. After seven years of ruling as a co-regent, Hatshepsut started implementing a specific narrative about her right to kingship. She emphasized her relationship with her own father, a well-respected general and a competent ruler. She represented herself as a legitimate and a prechosen heir, disregarding her subordinate position to her husband and nephew. Stories of divine birth were inscribed on newly erected monuments; previous depictions where she was represented as a female were altered, and new ones with Hatshepsut wearing king's robes were chiseled in newly built temples ((Wilkinson, 2010, p.231). She ruled successfully for over two decades, secured the kingdom's borders, improved trade, and initiated numerous building projects (Wilkinson, 2010, p.233). Hatshepsut eventually handed over the rule to Thutmose III, her nephew, but she could not be forgiven for her claim to the throne. In her case, the retribution of the political system to the female ruler was most apparent. It is unclear whether Thutmose III instigated a nationwide campaign to eradicate all traces that Hatshepsut was an independent queen, as the destruction came almost 30 years after he ascended the throne; specifically, only iconography that marked Hatshepsut's kingship was erased from the monuments, statues, and inscriptions (Silverman, 1997, p. 89). She was still well documented in history, but efforts were made to hide representations of Hatshepsut as a king from future generations.
In conclusion, ancient Egypt showed more appreciation for the governing roles of females compared to neighboring states and empires. Women were allowed to be legal successors to deceased husbands, and depictions showed them in religious rites and ceremonies (Silverman, 1997, p.87). It is probable that the queens who were only supporting their spouses had a very high rank, enjoyed great respect, and were welcome to participate in decision-making. Contrarily to this democratic approach, ancient Egyptians had a different understanding of how powerful a woman should be in a rigorous patriarchal society. History showed that the system in ancient Egypt tolerated the regal mothers only until they had served their purpose of bridging the gap between two males appointed to rule. Ultimately, attempts to try to erase the female rulers from the physical world and obscure them from the historical narrative were often made. It seems unreasonable to compare the contemporary perspective to anything that occurred over 3000 years ago; however, after discussing how much power a woman in ancient Egypt could be allowed to wield, there is a resemblance to be found in how women today are seen as leaders in government. By researching stories of these remarkable women from antiquity, analyzing their mistakes, and the groundbreaking approaches they implemented, and understanding of the past can help contribute to the development and study of modern gender equality.
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Cover image: Female musicians seated on the ground (ca. 1350 BC) [plaster and paint]. The British Museum, London, England. Retrieved from
Figure 1: Coronation of female pharaoh in ancient Egypt (n.d.). [Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration] In Media Store House. Retrieved from
Figure 2: The banquet: fragments of wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun. (ca. 1350 BC) [plaster and paint]. The British Museum, London, England. Retrieved from
Figure 3: Mitchell, D. (n.d.). Unknown title [Painting]. In Mythology. Retrieved from https://painting-mythology.blogspot.com/2015/03/queen-pharaoh-hatshepsut.html