When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance in Europe by Maureen Quilligan
When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney
There are two books titled When Women Ruled the World available to read in 2021. The first is Kara Cooney’s on six female pharaohs in ancient Egypt; the second is my book on four queens ruling in sixteenth-century Europe. Prof. Cooney deals with women who ruled Ancient Egypt at six different, widely separate times. My book deals with women who ruled at the same time in Northern Europe during the last half of the sixteenth century. They not only knew each other, they wrote to each other about the difficulties of ruling major European realms when everyone had agreed that women should not rule.
Prof. Cooney began her brilliant work on women pharaohs with a first book dedicated to Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh in the Eighteenth Century dynasty in Ancient Egypt: The Woman Who Would Be King (2007). The second book titled When Women Ruled the World (2018), concerns five more female pharaohs beyond Hatshepsut who ruled at intermittent intervals throughout ancient Egyptian history (2018). Both of Cooney’s books on female pharaohs are are acts of breath-taking scholarship and feminist courage.
I thought long and hard about changing my own title so that it did not echo the one Prof. Cooney had used; but I ultimately decided to go ahead and use the same name. Not only had I signed a contract to write a book of that title forty years before and thus felt wedded to the words, I also decided that it would be extremely useful to link the two books by repeating the title. Prof. Cooney’s book crucially understands how the fundamental nature of Egypt’s spectacularly steep social hierarchy allows women to come to power by means of their membership in the most elite ruling families. Some readers have experienced disappointment at the female pharaohs’ reliance on their already elevated place within a masculinist structure; only by such traditional means of family status were they able to come to power. Similar to Prof. Cooney’s argument, I posit that the inheritance of dynastic power is the key to women’s sovereignty in sixteenth century Europe; as members of elite ruling families, women may attain sufficient political authority so as to be able to rule over men. In each case women who come to power in traditional societies do so by being members of the highest elite groups; In many cases they solidify bonds within their own dynasties, empowering them even more by their marriages outward with other elites.
Somewhat unique to Egypt is the sense that because the ruling family is so catastrophically above and beyond any other family in the realm, no suitable marriage mate can be found to be a spouse except for another member of the same family. No one has sufficient stature to be wedded to a potential ruler but a member of his (or her) own family. Incest becomes not only necessary but traditional and is a signal of the steepest possible social hierarchy. Thus pharaohs may only marry members of their own family, usually a brother with a sister.
Similar to Egyptian marriage practices, marriages among royal families in Europe were often arranged between close family members: for example, Elizabeth I’s older sister, Mary Tudor, was first betrothed by her father Henry VIII to her uncle Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor! In the end, she ultimately married Charles’ son, Philip II of Spain, who was her first cousin (once removed); Philip and Mary shared Isabelle of Castile as forbear; she was Mary’s grandmother and Philip’s great grandmother. So close were the family relations that Mary and Philip’s union required a papal dispensation for incest. Like the steeply hierarchical Egyptian system, monarchy throughout Renaissance Europe rested on the dynastic inheritance of power through generations of close in-marrying among an international pool of royal-blooded elites. The Hapsburg rulers of the Holy Roman and Spanish Empires were special in this practice only because many more uncles married nieces in their family than in other European dynasties.
Although Prof. Cooney does not mention Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping while Giving (1992) by Annette Weiner, the argument Weiner outlines makes very clear the anthropological underpinnings of the female power Prof. Cooney and I describe. By focussing on the gifts women give each other, Weiner has rewritten the long-standing rules of gift exchange first outlined by Marcel Mauss in The Gift: Form and Functions of Gift Exchange in Archaic Societies (1921). The gifts exchanged between men enforce a reciprocal return between the men, creating a social bond that underlies larger society itself. In distinct contrast, women’s gifts never circulate outside of the family, but are kept close. Instead, these “inalienable possessions” increase the prestige and social status of the family as they are inherited down generations after generations. Like the gifts they give, Weiner argues, the women retain strong ties to their natal family; sisters and brothers stay in closer contact than Mauss had supposed. In this way Weiner thus rewrites the incest taboo. In 1949, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ recast Mauss’ argument about the gift in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. For Lévi-Strauss the incest taboo protects select women (sisters and daughters) from sexual contact with close male kin, so that they remain suitable to be traded between groups of men, sisters, nieces, daughters, and cousins; women of one group become the wives of another, and vice versa in the required reciprocity of forced exchange. The finest gift groups of men can give each other is a woman. The blatant incest in the Egyptian kinship rules demonstrates with remarkable clarity how unreciprocal and hierarchically stratifying their society becomes. By Weiner’s theory, at least, it should be no surprise that women could gain power in Egypt’s still very masculinist society. One just needed to look for the female pharaohs as Prof Cooney has so brilliantly done.
On a trip to Egypt I had marveled at Hatshepsut’s immense and immensely elegant tomb, the first structure you see in the Valley of the Kings. I had enjoyed the irony that a tomb for a female pharaoh should be the first structure you see when you look across the Nile at the “Valley of the Kings” across the Nile from Luxor.
Totally open to the visitor, Hatshepsut’s tomb temple contrasts sharply with other tombs in the Valley of Kings which, although they are massive multi-roomed underground palaces filled with exquisite art, they are (like the graves in the pyramids near Cairo) hidden deep in the earth with small and hard to find entrances. Such structures were meant to avoid the discovery and plunder of the rich treasures buried with the male pharaohs, intended to decorate and embellish their journeys through the afterlife. Hatshepsut seems to have wanted to declare her different identity from the other pharaohs.
Another strong woman, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, built the most distinguished and beautiful Elizabethan house in the 1590’s in England, Hardwick Hall. She put her initials “ES” on top of the six towers, as if daring subsequent ages to forget her part in the design of the house. Now always named “Bess of Hardwick” for her construction of this hall, Elizabeth Talbot (a great friend Elizabeth I, and, after the queen, the second richest woman in England ) built the house on the property where she had been born.
She had built other great houses for her fourth (and last) husband (one of which is the current Chatsworth, a still famous English “Country House’) but she saved her best efforts for her very own domain. I treasure the architectural accident of the very similar arrangement of the pillared porticos in both Bess’ and Hatshepsut’s buildings.
Bess’s creativity took another important form beyond architecture. She was a notable collector of tapestries and other cloth hangings. Most significantly she did cloth work alongside Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who was her and her husband’s prisoner for much of the eighteen years Mary was imprisoned in England.. I discuss the remarkable embroidery and appliqué work they did together in another blog “Mary, Queen of Scots: Her Self Portrait.”