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Egyptologist Kara Cooney uses lens of ancient Egypt to discuss female power

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 7, 2020

Egyptologist Kara Cooney will be in Spokane on Thursday to talk about powerful women in ancient Egypt, including Cleopatra and Nefertiti. (Marissa Stevens)
Egyptologist Kara Cooney will be in Spokane on Thursday to talk about powerful women in ancient Egypt, including Cleopatra and Nefertiti. (Marissa Stevens)

For Kara Cooney, studying ancient peoples helps her understand the world around her.

“I think most people think they need to look at the actual world around them, or they’re not going to get it,” she said. “For me, I find it’s too shiny, too distracting, too much of my own stuff.”

Cooney, who teaches Egyptology at UCLA, will be in Spokane on Thursday for her National Geographic Live presentation, “When Women Ruled the World.” She’ll look at the women who ruled ancient Egypt, like Neferusobek, Cleopatra and Nefertiti, and use them to look at the power of women in the modern era.

“We’re so good at seeing what we want to see or deceiving ourselves,” she said. “If I look at the same human systems but through a completely different lens, different colors, different feelings, then I can see it better.”

So, if you look back to 1479 B.C. and learn that was the first time a woman achieved formal rule as king in Egypt, you might then ask, “Wait, why haven’t we done that?” Cooney said.

“And then we start talking about female power and what people have against it and why we distrust it so and how does it work,” she said. “You have a conversation that engages people in a completely different way.”

It’s sort of like “just asking for a friend,” she said. “You’re able to talk about your own problems without talking about your own problems.” Using the ancient world opens up the discussion in ways that talking about the same issues in modern times wouldn’t allow.

“So I’m able to have conversations in a lecture hall, in a Q&A session with people who are on the right and on the left about things that we are dealing with today that would otherwise make us scream at each other. But because we’re doing it through this ancient Egyptian lens, it’s 17 steps removed, but we feel like we can talk about it.”

Some of the most pressing issues of the day have been discussed, she said, including our hostility toward female power, authoritarianism, social inequality and propaganda.

“You pick any topic – climate change, government collapse, crisis – pick any topic, and it’s there in Egypt because you’ve got 3,000 years of ups and downs and rights and lefts,” she said. “And when you have that amount of time, I can see what we might do.”

Because comparatively, the United States’ 250 years are a very short time for a country. So Egypt can serve as a guide for how society changes – and doesn’t.

Cooney said her lecture will be divided into three parts. The first will deal with the current status of female power – and that women don’t have the power you think they do, she said. She’ll have numbers for women holding political, economic, military and ideological power – in other words, the top of society. And those numbers aren’t so great, she said.

But she’ll also look at the base of society, where women are earning more college degrees than men, are being the breadwinners, deciding not to get married, making choices about reproduction. At the grassroots level, she said, is where the patriarchy is being shaken up.

“The patriarchal structures around us are crumbling, which is why there’s so much interest in this topic of female power,” she said. “Which is why there’s so much fighting going on with society, some people wanting to go back to the way things were and make America great again, some people wanting to go forward with this social experiment. But everyone can see that the social structures that have worked are being broken down from the bottom up.”

The second part of the lecture will be a “quick-and-dirty Anthropology 101,” Cooney said, with a brief overview of how hunter-gatherers lived and how much female power there was. Then agriculture came in, and female power disappeared.

“Then we get to Egypt, an agricultural state, and we look at why and how women were invited to power so regularly,” she said. “Egypt seems like this triumph, this exception, this amazing place that allowed women a power that was more enlightened than other places,” Cooney said.

But as Cooney sees it, the women are there just as placeholders to keep the patriarchal system going. “We even are so deceived that we see these queens like Hatshepsut … as paragons of success. And I see them as just another means of the patriarchy keeping itself in power,” she said.

That’s not how other Egyptologists see it, she said. Others who work in the field are celebrating this female power.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be able to show a young girl in school that it can be done. That a woman’s brain and ability is up to the challenge,” she said. “And yet, it’s important to show that girl that she can can be exploited and used as a cog in the machine to keep a whole system that does not work in her favor.”

Initially, Cooney avoided studying the female rulers of ancient Egypt. “I didn’t want to be that identity-driven chick,” she said, the female professor who studies women.

But during a period of unemployment – at a point, she said, when she would’ve said yes to anything – she was asked to take part in a documentary, “Egypt’s Last Queens.”

After the documentary, she went back to her coffin studies and other work. Then a literary agent approached her about writing about Hatshepsut. She said no, she couldn’t write about her because Hatshepsut had lived during the 18th dynasty, and Cooney was studying the 19th and 20th dynasties.

The agent’s response was, “Don’t you want to write something about female power?”

“It was like Hatshepsut was stalking me and whispering in my ear and saying, ‘Don’t forget about us, somebody’s got to tell our story,’ ” Cooney said. “She found me with the documentary, then she found me again for this book.”

That book is “The Woman Who Would be King,” published in 2014. In 2018, Cooney followed up with “When Women Ruled the World.”

And while her lecture focuses on female power, it’s not about hating men, she said.

“There’s still a fear that it’s going to be a man-bashing thing, and in no way, shape or form is it a man-bashing thing. It is simply questioning why half of the population does not have half of the power in the ancient world and today. And that’s it. And I think most men would agree that we should have that,” Cooney said.

But it’s not their fault, she said. They’re just working in the system like everyone else.

“It’s kind of like a cleansing sort of moment because I think men expect to be yelled at and have an identity war,” she said. “We are very much just cogs in the machines … we’re more helpless than we like to believe.”

And to that point, Cooney’s main hope is that her talk helps people look critically at the systems in their lives – the corporate system, health insurance, police force and more – and try to crack what the power sources are.

“It makes me a different kind of feminist because I have a historical view of how the power systems work and how hard it is to change.”

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