When Women Ruled the World Review- National Geographic Live and Dr. Kara Cooney at The Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University; photo courtesy of John Boehm and The Auditorium
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National Geographic Live has returned to the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress, Chicago, with a series dedicated to inspirational women. The first program in the series, featuring Dr. Kathlyn M. (Kara) Cooney, entitled “When Women Ruled The World” was presented on September 26, 2018, on the Auditorium’s historic stage.

 Dr. Cooney is an Egyptologist, archeologist, associate professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Language and Cultures at UCLA. She is known for her scholarly work, for hosting television shows on ancient Egypt on the Discovery Channel, and for publishing several books including “When Women Ruled The World: 6 Queens of Egypt”, due in October, 2018, from National Geographic Press. Her research specialties include craft production, coffin studies, and economics in the ancient world. In fact, for a good portion of the evening, Cooney took attendees on a crash course through symbol reading, the re-use of coffins, and incestuous relationships in ancient Egypt.

Dr. Cooney is a vibrant, funny, exceptionally well-informed speaker, comfortable with her subject and used to being at the head of the class. She gave the audience a look back to a time in Egyptian history when women were rulers- literally, kings. The stories of these women, too often omitted from history texts, reflect cultural norms in which powerful women were not considered exceptional or unusual. They may have been treated as political pawns in a patriarchal society, but the power and influence they wielded cannot be denied- although it HAS been denied, as they have been largely erased even from the hieroglyphics/tomb markings.

When Women Ruled the World’s Dr. Kara Cooney; photo courtesy of National Geographic

The absorbing talk described the lives of 5 (of the 6 explored in the new book) remarkable female pharaohs, Hatshepsut to Cleopatra. These were women who wielded actual supreme power, and their unique position within the historical periods in which they dwelt can help us adjust our views about the genesis of women in powerful roles in our own times.

While female heads of state are not exactly objects of curiosity any longer, for most of recorded history women as absolute rulers were a rare occurrence. However, thousands of years ago in Egypt, there were indeed women who reigned. While most of these women were on the throne for relatively short periods, often acting as interim rulers standing in while male heirs to the throne were too young or otherwise unable to assume power, they proved just as capable as those for whom they acted as place-holders. What is known about their histories demonstrates that the female sovereigns Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Cleopatra- and many others less prominent- were effective leaders.

Among the questions Cooney addresses are: What was there in the culture and society of Egypt that provided women unparalleled access to the pinnacles of power? Were there different or absent policies of primogeniture? Finally, how did Egypt profit from its relatively liberal reliance on female leadership, and what lessons can be learned from these historical observations? Dr. Cooney took her listeners through this saga of female governance, also analyzing why and how women rulers became scarce in the centuries since these trailblazers, and the impact of this change on our modern lives.

This reviewer came away convinced that the following issues combined to create the disparate power status between men and women:

–  The inalienable fact that women bear children, and all the attendant physical vulnerabilities that once-repetitive condition entails.

– The disproportionate value placed on male hunters’ ability to bring back scarce resources vs. women’s ability to gather abundant resources.

– The ability of men to compete with other men and to dominate women physically.

– The exiling into the home of women-mothers and domestic caretakers.

Unfortunately, the talk concluded without projecting any real strategy to alter this imbalance of power in the future- after all, one 70-minute talk cannot be expected to survey history AND solve one of the most important societal questions of the day. During the question and answer episode after the talk, a very interesting event occurred: the only man to question Dr. Cooney did so with a scarcely veiled put-down challenge. He asked her how much of her talk had come from actually reading the Egyptian “texts” and how much was sheer interpretation/speculation! The implication was clear; he was questioning her scholarship and methodology. Cooney handled it with the same candor she exhibited throughout the evening, without needlessly trying to explain that all human understanding comes from “jumping off” from what is known into studied assessment.

We look forward to further developments in cultural advancement, to more programming from National Geographic Live at The Auditorium, and to Dr. Cooney’s new book. As she noted, after being asked about the effect wrought upon society by the introduction of reading and writing, “Those who can write have the power”.


For information and tickets to all the great programming at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, go to auditorium theatre website


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