The Power of Women in Ancient Egypt

The history of women in power is long. As far back in history as we can see, women have always taken leadership roles in countless forms, but even though the story of women rulers is not new, is it still complicated. The line between being what a woman is often expected to be in a societal setting and being a capable, successful ruler that leads to their fullest potential, one who commands the respect of their followers, is gray. Ancient Egypt is no exception.

Female, Egyptian rulers date back to the first dynasty, but finding historic information on them is tricky. This is mostly because the female rulers of ancient Egypt were often erased from history by the rulers who followed. A more interesting point, those rulers who followed were often a child, sibling or other member of their royal bloodline. Hatshepsut and Nefertiti both ruled in the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt, about a hundred years apart. I chose these two women to use for my thesis because of the incredibly different ways that they ruled in such a close chronological succession. There is no argument that women rulers in Egypt are a key piece to its history, the argument lies in how these women were perceived both at them time of their rule and in historical writings today. We know that Nefertiti used her beauty and grace to “wield her power,” and Hatshepsut hid her femininity by posing as a man to “retain her power.” But what is their true legacy?

Nefertiti, whose name means “a beautiful woman has come” and Hatshepsut (pronounced Hat-shep-psut) came to power in very different ways. Hatshepsut was the daughter of a royal King, Thutmose I and sister to Thutmose II. In keeping with royal tradition, Hatshepsut was married to her brother Thutmose II. Nefertiti was born into a humbler beginning, the daughter of Ay, who was the tutor of young prince Amenhotep IV who Nefertiti was introduced to as a child and would later marry.

Hatshepsut would find her power in the same way that it fell upon most women in Egypt, when there were no suitable men left alive to rule. In this case, all her brothers but one had died unexpectedly leaving an uncertain future for the throne. This is when she was married to her last brother who would come into power not long after their marriage when their father died. This brother was weak compared to his older brothers and was unable to rule with any authority. He too would also have an untimely death, leaving no other males in line for the throne except a two-year-old son, Thutmose III, he had with one of his lesser wives. Thutmose III would be named future king but obviously could not rule while he was just a toddler.

Hatshepsut would become regent for her stop-son and nephew thus claiming the throne. She knew she had to legitimize her rule as soon as she could. She appointed her only daughter “God’s Wife of Amun” (an important ritual title held by the queen consorts of the Eighteenth Dynasty,) Hatshepsut also had pictures of herself co-ruling with her father inscribed on public buildings. She would rule over a prosperous Egypt for some twenty plus years, commissioning building projects, such as her temple at Deir el-Bahri, and executing military expeditions that were in continuation of her father’s campaigns. She was also overseeing the training of her stepson for his role as future as king. Everything was going well, but as time was passing, Hatshepsut was visibly aging. Since she was a woman with an almost mature enough male heir to the thrown in the shadows, this was beginning to raise questions. Why was she not naming her nephew the new king? In an attempt to prolong her reign, she began to depict herself as a man. Dressing as a man and even altering her appearance on temples, monuments and in pictures.

While this was clever, it wasn’t working. Thutmose III was older now, ready for his rightful place and his insecurities about being told what to do by his aunt and having his kingdom ruled by a woman was taking a toll on his young ego. Hatshepsut would eventually relinquish reign to her stepson, and he assumed the role of king. When Hatshepsut died, she was buried in state with full respect but shortly after, Thutmose III turned his attention to rewriting his past and removing any sign of his stepmother.

He removed all her images from buildings and monuments replacing them with his fathers. He had several of her statues destroyed and anything that depicted her as king, whether in male in female form, was chiseled away and replaced with images of her father or husband. He didn’t stop there. Instead of choosing a wife of royal lineage to have children, he chose nonroyal women to avoid royal female influence from the palace. He was also teaching his sons to fear royal women in power and to never name kings daughters or sisters to any powerful positions. He continued to rule for some 20 or 30 years until his death at which time, his son Amenhotep II succeeded him.

Hatshepsut did everything right, she was a loyal conservative who did all the things kings were supposed to, but the one thing she could never be was a man. Most of her images and accomplishments simply erased from history as if she never existed as any sort of powerful ruler. Hatshepsut was not the first victim of this fate and certainly would not be the last. Hatshepsut depicted as female Queen Hatshepsut depicted as a male King Like Hatshepsut, much of Nefertiti’s life is shrouded in mystery. It is thought she married her husband as a teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. As was common in this time, She was one of several wives of Amenhotep IV but Nefertiti was his Great Royal Wife and his most beloved. Her beauty was said to have been the reason she was chosen as his royal wife, but Egyptologists disagree, saying this was likely always the plan. Her husband, Amenhotep IV (who would come to be known as Pharaoh Akhenaten) remodeled Egypt’s religion around the worship of the sun god Aten, closed all the temples and, as part of his religious revolution, Akhenaten decided to leave the Egyptian capital, Thebes, and move to a virgin site that would be dedicated to his new religion. The new city was in Middle Egypt and called Akhetaten. In order to achieve this without upheaval from his city’s elites, Nefertiti would need to become influential in delivering her husband’s message.

There are many images that depict her officiating at religious services, receiving foreign dignitaries, and even in the traditional royal role of the king smiting the enemies of Egypt. Unlike other times, there are also many depictions of them as a family with their daughters and of Nefertiti on the lap of her husband, sometimes even kissing.

Everything about their reign was unconventional. Further into her husband’s rule, as he became more and more obsessed with his new religion and consumed with the grief of losing 3 of his daughters unexpectedly (2 of which became his lesser wives) he retreated, became reclusive, and extended more and more responsibility to Nefertiti.

Not long after this time, the historical record of Nefertiti ends. It is thought that due to her husband’s condition and reclusiveness, she assumed her husband’s role and continued ruling under the name of Smenkhkare until her stepson, Tutankhamun, was old enough to assume the throne.

Also, like Hatshepsut, after her husband’s death, his successor (and son,) Tutankhamun tore down Akhenaten’s temples, defaced his pillars, and tried to eradicate all evidence of both his and Nefertiti’s existence.

Queen Nefertari shows the queen presenting scrolls to the Egyptian god of wisdom and writing, Thoth Female power in ancient Egypt had lasting effects on their history, yet so many of these women’s stories have been virtually erased from history leaving us to draw our own conclusions as to how powerful these women were, as they only served when necessity dictated. They all endured their own shares of backlash and overcame their many obstacles in different but effective ways from changing their appearances to unapologetically ruling while using their female attributes to their advantage. Even still, no matter how successful they were and what progress was made, once there was a suitable male ruler, they were replaced and subsequently, erased from history. Most of their legacies are seen as tragic or they’ve been altogether forgotten but we know that these women hold a place in history for seeing their dynasties through much turmoil and coming out stronger, for taking on roles that were thought to be ones only a man could fulfill, all while still assuming all their assigned gender roles of wife, mother confidants to their husbands.

Annotated Bibliography

Artwork

  • The Head of Hatshepsut – Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/548307
  • Head of Hatshepsut (depicted as a male) – Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547553
  • Bust of Nefertiti, http://www.egyptian-museum-berlin.com/c53.php
  • Wall painting of Nefertiti presenting scrolls to the Egyptian God, Thoth, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/02/ancient-artifacts-honor-egyptian-queens-museum-exhibit/

Digital Articles

  • Mark, Joshua J. “Nefertiti .” Ancient History Encyclopedia, published April 4, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/Nefertiti/.

This article lays out a detailed description of the life of Nefertiti, including her upbringing, family information and time in power. This was used as the foundation of the thesis to gather basic information, timelines and other details in order to begin putting together the opinion writing for the life of Nefertiti.

  • Mark , Joshua J. “Hatshepsut.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, published October 9, 2016. https://www.ancient.eu/Hatshepsut/.

This article lays out a detailed description of the life of Hatshepsut, including her upbringing, family information and time in power. This was used as the foundation of the thesis to gather basic information, timelines and other details in order to begin putting together the opinion writing for the life of Hatshepsut.

  • Worrall, Simon. “The Truth behind Egypt’s Female Pharaohs and Their Power.” Egypt’s female pharaohs and what really stood behind their power. National Geographic, published December 14, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/12/queens-egypt-pharaohs-nefertiti-cleopatra-book-talk/.

This article gave insight to the importance of female rulers in Egypt and explains what a difficult life it was even though women back then could come into such power (seemingly easier than in present day America) but not without a high price to pay. The women in ancient Egypt had to be, and were, just as brutal as the men that ruled before and after them. It discusses the complex family systems in place and that coming into power would almost ensure that these women would both take the lives of family members that stood in their way and mourn the tragic losses of other family members including children who were sometimes murdered for revenge.

  • https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/548307
  • https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547553
  • http://www.egyptian-museum-berlin.com/c53.php
  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/02/ancient-artifacts-honor-egyptian-queens-museum-exhibit/
  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/02/ancient-artifacts-honor-egyptian-queens-museum-exhibit/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Nefertiti/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Nefertiti/
  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/12/queens-egypt-pharaohs-nefertiti-cleopatra-book-talk/

Books

  • COONEY, KARA. “Chapter 3 and 4.” WHEN WOMEN RULED THE WORLD: Six Queens of Egypt, 99–167. Washington, DC: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOC, 2020.

In this book Kara Cooney writes of 6 queens of Egypt including the 2 this thesis is based on, Nefertiti and Hatshepsut. She tells of Hatshepsut’s exceptional rise to power as one of the only females to take power at a time of prosperity and go on to rule for over two decades, the longest of any female ruler in Egypt. She then discusses Nefertiti’s very different but also unconventional rise to power as queen to a pharaoh in power, assuming most of his roles and becoming a successful leader but never being recognized for her work since it was done under her husband’s reign.

  • Dreyfus Rene?e, Cathleen A. Keller, and Catharine H. Roehrig. Hatshepsut: from Queen to Pharaoh. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005

This book went in depth into the life of Hatshepsut, explaining how she rose to power and would later change her appearance to that of a male and continue to rule as a male pharaoh. We learn that her images and name were removed from all monuments by her successor and stepson, Thutmose III, therefore making the story of her history and death, hard to trace back with any real certainty.

Tyldesley, Joyce A. Nefertiti: Unlocking the Mystery Surrounding Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen. London, England: Penguin, 2005. The author of this book tells the story of Nefertiti by explaining that while she was known for her beauty and calm nature, she was a force to be reckoned with. This book also gives insight into her husband’s rule and her role in her husband’s decision to abolish the religious practices in Egypt, close all the temples and declare one new god, Aten.

  • Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

This was used to reference chronological orders, art works and other information to help solidify my final opinion.

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The Power of Women in Ancient Egypt. (2021, Oct 14). Retrieved October 27, 2021 , from
https://studydriver.com/the-power-of-women-in-ancient-egypt/

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