When archeologist Herbert Winlock discovered an ancient Egyptian pit in 1927, he was appalled by what he saw. The statues inside had been desecrated in what could only have been a crime of passion: eyes had been gouged out, limbs ripped off, and symbols of royalty ripped from foreheads.
The statues had belonged to one of Egypt’s first female pharaohs, one of the most powerful women in all of history. But in the opinion of Winlock’s colleague, William C. Hayes, she had it coming. A “vain, ambitious, and unscrupulous woman,” she was the “most vile of usurpers.”
Who was this nasty woman and what had she done to earn such a reputation?
Her name was Hatshepsut. Born the daughter of King Thutmose I, she married her half-brother, King Thutmose II, making her a Chief Queen. He died only a few years into his reign, however, which meant his heir, Thutmose III, was next in line to be pharaoh. Since he was only an infant at the time, Hatshepsut became co-regent, a temporary role until he was old enough to rule himself.
In the 18th dynasty, it was not entirely uncommon for Egypt to have a female ruler. When a king was not old enough to rule, leadership would be shared, with the King’s Mother acting as co-regent. But Hatshepsut was one of the first to inherit the full title and power of the pharaoh, and around the 7th year of her rule, she was crowned King.
Most of Egypt’s population at that point was illiterate, so Hatshepsut relied on symbolism and imagery to establish and maintain her legitimacy. Abandoning her queen’s tomb (royalty built their tombs while they were still alive) in Wadi Sikkat Taqa el-Zeid, she built a new one for herself in the Valley of Kings.
But since Egyptians didn't have conventions for placing women “ahead” of men, Hatshepsut depicted herself as masculine. Her monuments included a false beard, male torso, and kingly garb. Drawings of her were done in a reddish-brown color, typically reserved to portray males, but the inscriptions remained feminine in their gendering and pronouns.
While 20th century historians like Hayes were quick to characterize these decisions as an insidious plot to steal power from her male counterparts, Hatshepsut’s androgynous gender presentation coincided with many Egyptian beliefs that seem to conflict with our modern conception of the gender binary. For example, the god Atum, creator of the universe, an androgynous deity who -- after masturbating and swallowing his own semen -- used his male and female reproductive capabilities to give birth to the next generation of Gods.
Egyptians also held the belief that women reached a state of gender fluidity upon death. In the afterlife, they became male but retained their female characteristics to produce their own rebirth. The Egyptian sense of self was divisible and combinatory, especially among Pharaohs, who, considered Gods themselves, often fused their identities with that of their Gods. Hatshepsut wasn’t “hiding” her gender or manipulating her counterparts for personal gain; she was strategically working within and borrowing from a pre-established system of norms and traditions to maintain a position of power.
She did a pretty great job. With the full power of the Pharaoh at her disposal, Hatshepsut brought Egypt into an era of peace and prosperity. She directed a significant trading expedition to Punt, which brought frankincense and myrrh to Egypt. She also oversaw massive building campaigns, reconstructed fallen monuments, and ushered in a new era of cultural vibrance.
Much more would be known about the reign of Hatshepsut had her mortuary temple not been desecrated, only 20 years after her death, by order of King Thutmose III. The cause of this act is still debated, but either way, he destroyed her feminine titles and replaced them with those of other male kings.
As you can tell from the “most vile” descriptions of her, her reputation as one of history’s most impactful women was ransacked not only by her male contemporaries but also by historians who encountered her thousands of years later.
But Hatshepsut wouldn’t be the first woman in power whose reign was subjected to a particular lens of skepticism and scorn. Thankfully, due to the help of queer historians and archaeologists, Hatshepsut’s image has been rectified in the annals of history. A recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum showed her reign to be the era of peace, prosperity, and innovation that it was.
Hatshepsut’s story is a sobering reminder that our history often reflects the beliefs of those telling stories, rather than those who are being studied. Women, queer folks, and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the predominately straight white lens, through which most of modern history has been interpreted.
Hatshepsut, thousands of years ahead of her time, seemed to be struggling with this very issue herself. Before she died, she erected two more monuments in Karnak. In their inscriptions we can see the musing of a woman, thrust into power, pondering how her work will be assessed and who will ultimately be responsible for interpreting her legacy:
“Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say—those who shall see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done?
DISCUSSION QUESTION: Do you know of any other historical figures who transgressed gender norms? Who’s your favorite?
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