This year, the Auditorium Theatre is partnering with National Geographic Live on a three-part speaker series dedicated to the stories of inspirational women.
Dr. Kara Cooney, a celebrated Egyptologist and professor at UCLA, kicks off the series in September with “When Women Ruled the World,” delving into a time when women held positions of power in ancient Egypt.
People often ask me how I decided on Egyptology. And I have no idea how to answer why I do what I do. I say banal things like “I didn’t choose it; it chose me,” which really means absolutely nothing.
When I am hanging out with other specialists of the ancient world, we would never fathom asking each other such a question. But when we step out into the larger world, people look upon us as strange, and with good reason — not necessarily as freaks, but as people who have rejected the normal world, who have chosen to leave modern existence behind in favor of reading esoteric and broken papyri or piecing together the fragments of temple relief.
Here is the extraordinary truth:
We Egyptologists are indeed interested in real life, but only if it happened thousands of years ago. We are driven, for reasons that we ourselves do not even understand, to go back in time in any way that we can, puzzling out how ancient people lived, fought, survived, and died; what drove the ancient Egyptians, what they cared about; what they thought. Only these investigations into their ancient drama can make our existence in this modern world bearable, it seems.
And so I, some girl from Houston, Texas with no genetic connection to Egypt or any part of the Middle East, am best able to understand my place in the modern, crazy, complicated, globalized, unequal world through the lens of a strange and ancient place quite far away from my own existence in time and space, an oasis in Northeast Africa, the first regional state on the globe, the land of countless gods fed and clothed in their dark temple sanctuaries every day, the home of golden pharaohs and millions of peasants who couldn’t even look their human god-king in the eye.
In [my upcoming book] When Women Ruled the World, I focus on six Ancient Egyptian queens — MerNeith, Neferusobek, Sobeknofru, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret, and Cleopatra — and I ask why the Egyptians allowed women to take power more regularly and systematically than anywhere else on earth.
I also look at what our human hostility towards female power is all about. This is the most political book I have ever written and the most scientifically grounded one, because I am reading a lot of evolutionary psychology and cognitive biology — differences between males and females — and trying to understand our human reaction to power. I am looking for patterns as I try to understand what makes these women similar.
In many ways this book is a tragedy, because the women who are successful, such as Hatshepsut, are forgotten, erased, removed. It’s very much about why women in Ancient Egypt were allowed to take positions of power so regularly and systematically, as opposed to anywhere else in the world. And given that, does that mean that the Ancient Egyptians were more liberal towards female power than the rest of the world? Or is there something else going on? Where does it come from and how does it work?
— Dr. Kara Cooney