This International Women's Day, I'm excited to share my candid and insightful conversation with Dr Kara Cooney, UCLA Professor and Egyptologist extraordinaire.
Today is International Women’s Day, 24 hours in which to celebrate the achievements of the women of the world, acknowledge their conditions, and steel ourselves for the battle ahead to gain recognition, equality and human rights for all. As many of you know, for me, this drive to improve the lives of women necessarily includes the reclamation of our collective history. Knowing the strength, abilities and successes of the women who have come before us can inspire belief in our own ability to effect change.
So today, of all days, I’m pleased to bring you my recent interview with Dr Kara Cooney on her journey as the author of The Woman Who Would Be King. An exploration of the life of Hatshepsut—eminently successful pharaoh from ancient Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty—Kara’s work in the field of reclaiming women’s history lies close to my heart.
In comparison to Egyptian Enigma, my contribution in fiction form to discussions of ancient Egyptian women highlighting Tausret, female Pharaoh in the Nineteenth Dynasty, Kara’s The Woman Who Would Be King is a wonderful non-fiction exposition that draws clear distinction between facts and supposition.
Despite being familiar with the basic facts of Hatshepsut’s life, I was drawn from chapter to chapter with the need to discover more of her decades-long strategy to work the political system into which she was born until she rose to rule Egypt for over twenty years. Inspirational stuff on International Women’s Day!
1) As a respected academic in the field of Egyptology, what has been the most challenging aspect of writing more accessible non-fiction? How has the publication of The Woman Who Would Be King affected your professional life?
I’m constantly dealing with the push and pull between my academic world and my popular world. I love both—I love delving into data and trying to figure out what the hell is going on and coming up with analysis using theory and large data sets; and I also love teaching, connecting with people and helping to make the ancient world come alive.
It’s very hard for an academic to straddle those worlds and not feel like they're somehow doing something wrong, or that they will be judged for it, and judged as wanting for doing so. Academics are told again and again, “Don’t assign your preconceptions, your judgments, to the ancient world. It’s not right.”
I understand that, and yet I was very clear that I was doing that on purpose in this book. I think it has a place. This book is not an academic book; it’s not for my colleagues, I didn’t make any grand discoveries. I was just trying to tell [Hatshepsut's] story, and standing on the shoulders of other people to do so.
2) How did you juggle those two worlds, as well as your own personal world, in the process of pulling the book together?
Writing was really tough because I’d just had a baby, a boy that needed a lot of my attention. I would just snatch time as I could and wrote a very difficult-to-read draft that the editors at Crown were not too thrilled with. I remember that phone call where they were like, “Look, this is going to need a lot of work”, which I already knew.
The academics always take first priority. I had to put the information in there first, and then rely on the help of an editor to highlight a section and say, “This is boring”. I just couldn’t make those calls because you have to kill your darlings, and I can’t do that.
3) Out of all of the Pharaohs in Egyptian history, what drew you to Hatshepsut? Why did you feel the need to bring her to life?
I never sought her out; [in a sense] she kept finding me.
In 2006 I was in-between jobs. I got a call from somebody who said, “I heard you speak and I would love for you to be on this TV show about Hatshepsut.” I knew who she was, the basics of her history, but I didn’t know the details. I just had to start reading and try to figure her out.
Then this editor who’d seen the show approached me, and he's like, “I really want you to write a book”. I’m like, oh I could write it based on my research [in the 19th and 20th Dynasties].
He’s like, “I don’t think so. It’s about Hatshepsut.”
4) So if Hatshepsut was outside of your area of research, how did you go about stepping into her mind?
Hatshepsut will remain an enigma to all of us, I think. She set it up that way—she knew what she was doing. One of the reasons she is an enigma is she did everything right: she was a traditionalist, she didn’t make any waves. She wasn’t individualized, so she is hard to find.
I had to go into the book thinking, “Well, she had a baby. We know this. What is it like to have a baby? she would have lived in a place where people got sick and had to worry, had great anxiety about their baby living or dying.” And I can imagine that—I can imagine what it is like to be frailer than the men around me. I can imagine what it's like to live for a short period of time. I can imagine what it's like to fall in love. I don’t know many people who haven’t fallen in love. I can imagine what it's like to be a human being. That is what I did to write her.
5) You have a new book coming out in November, When Women Ruled The World. What can you tell us about that?
It covers six queens of ancient Egypt: Merneith, Neferusobek [Sobekneferu], Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tausret and Cleopatra, and looks at patterns of female power, how these women were able to do what they did, what made them different, what allowed them to achieve these levels.
And this is a political book, it’s not an Egyptology book. I find it intriguing that people have this knee jerk reaction against females in power. I think in the same way that a human community needs to talk about racism to be able to transcend it, we need to talk about our misogyny—and our problems with females in power in particular—to be able to transcend it.
6) It seems that feminism underpins much of your work—why is that such a driving force for you?
I teach a class called Women in Power at UCLA, and I’m always thinking about the hidden systems every complex civilization exploits—there’s no way to avoid it. You and I sitting here doing what we do, we’re exploiting someone somewhere. It’s unavoidable. But every complex civilization also hides the exploitation.
I had to watch a video for UCLA about implicit bias. It starts off with a study about a little girl. They give this dossier about this little girl to all these teachers and they ask the teachers to rank this little girl according to some set of standards. They tell half the teachers, subtly, in conversations, that she is white and her parents are rich. With the other half they sneak in that she is a person of colour and she is having a really tough time economically.
The implicit bias was clear. The people who heard that she was a person of colour ranked her lower in her potential. The people who heard that she was a white girl from money ranked her higher. When they were shown the results they were like Holy God, what are we doing? How has this happened?
My warm thanks to Kara for taking the time for this interview, and for sharing her emotional journey as the author of The Woman Who Would Be King. Kara regularly posts fascinating items on history and Egyptology on Facebook: Kara Cooney - Egyptologist.
You can find Kara's book here on Booktopia: The Woman Who Would Be King.
My recent title exploring ancient Egyptian women’s lives (which includes a mention of Kara!) is also available on Booktopia: Egyptian Enigma, Book 3 in the Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series.