I don’t normally blog about this kind of thing, but today I found an article on the Internet citing ancient Egyptian history to promote an agenda that seems feminist on the surface but actually appears rather sexist when you think about it. I thought it worthy of a response.
The author of the article is Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney, and the article is “Should women rule the world? The Queens of Egypt say yes.”
Her argument is that, even though most Pharaohs of the ancient Egyptian civilization were male, in times of crisis they would choose a female ruler instead. Among the female Pharaohs she names are Merneith of the 1st dynasty, Nebrusobek (or Sobekneferu) of the 12th, Hatshepsut of the 18th, and Tawosret of the 19th. And these are all interesting personalities in their own right, do not mistake me. In fact, I’d go as far as to say Hatshepsut is among my personal favorite Pharaohs throughout Egyptian history, male or female. There is a good case to be made for studying and giving more exposure to the ruling women of ancient Egypt, even if they weren’t the cultural norm for that society.
The problem comes in when she explains this trend by invoking modern Western prejudices about gender (emphases mine).
History shows that the Egyptians knew that women ruled differently from men. And so they used them to protect the patriarchy, to only act as stopgaps, placeholders, until the next man could fill the top spot on the social pyramid. But no matter how much power they held, even though many of them were called nothing less than King, these formidable women of ancient Egypt were not able to transcend the patriarchal agenda and change the system itself. When their reigns ended, the Egyptian power structure remained intact.
Cognitive scientists know that the female brain is different from the male. Social scientists have found that men are most responsible for violent crime, including rape and murder. On the whole, women are less likely to commit mass murder, less inclined to start a war, more likely to be in touch with and express their emotions, and more interested in nuance, rather than decisiveness. Perhaps these qualities were what ancient Egypt sought out in times of crisis.
These queens call out from the past, challenging us to place women into political power, not as representatives of a patriarchal dynasty, but as women who serve their own, different agendas of social connection and emotional cohesion, instead of serving the aggression of their fathers, brothers, and sons. If a long time ago, women really did rule the world, they were able to do so without a sisterhood, without their own agenda, without their own long term hold on power.
It’s time to look to history, to the powerful women of ancient Egypt who were the salvation of their people again and again. What if today they were allowed to rule with the full force of their emotions–using their emotions—that trait most demonized about women–their ups and downs, their sadness and joy, their mercurial natures? Could this trait be harnessed to connect with others, to find compromise, to take the finger off the trigger, to look to a nuanced solution? It is this element of emotionality that could lead humanity through the trials and tribulations of the 21st century. We should let ancient history be our guide and let women be our salvation once more, this time with their own interests front and center.
Anyone with a critical mind should be able spot the sexist over-generalizations here, even if it is cloaked in the rhetoric of feminism. And it’s not only sexist against men, mind you. The very assumption that women are naturally gentler and more nurturing than men (or, in other words, “sugar and spice” versus “snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails”) is an old prejudice that probably came about to rationalize regulating women to the role of homemaker and child-bearer while men were away doing all the “important” stuff. It really isn’t a trope that a presumed feminist like Dr. Cooney should indulge in.
The second problematic theme I see here is that she is projecting modern Euro-American notions about gender differences onto an ancient African culture. Does she know for sure that the ancient Egyptians had the same ideas about men and women’s “natural” differences that we do? Beliefs about gender vary from culture to culture and from time period to time period, as anthropologists have recognized for decades. You would think a scholar studying a civilization fundamentally far removed from our own would recognize this instead of forcing her own modern Western biases onto it.
This is a textbook example of Eurocentric sexism masquerading as feminism if I ever saw one.