Female Leaders, Ancient and Modern: Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut, gender, and power

What is it that makes female power so objectionable? What about a woman leading creates hostility and mistrust? That’s the million-dollar question.

Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney and Houston native searches for the answer in her new book, The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power. Cooney returns to the Houston Museum of Natural Science Tuesday, Aug. 4 to present a lecture that examines female power and politics throughout the ancient world.

The life of the first great female ruler, the pharaoh Hatshepsut, whose rise to the throne as a cross-dressing king was fraught with political intrigue and maneuverings. Apart from the male pharaohs before and after her, Hatshepsut never ruled alone. And like other women in power, she was surrounded by men advising her. It took a trauma or crisis to spark her ascent.

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Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, who came to the throne in 1478 BC. Flickr Creative Commons.

“Hatshepsut is a case study for me,” Cooney said. “She was one [incredibly powerful] woman whose circumstances put her into a tenuous and difficult position where it was demanded of her to take on more power. Maybe people pulled strings for her.”

Without men, Cooney said, she never would have been able to achieve her title. In that respect, her story symbolizes the central problem in male-dominated cultures, suspicion of women’s motives.

“It creates a pattern, bringing up all the other women in power,” Cooney said. People know Cleopatra, whose names rolls off the tongue, but she was ultimately a self-interested and ineffective ruler. “No one knows Hatshepsut. She left her country at the end of her rule better than when she came. We have a hard time with successful females, but we love to talk about their failures.”

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Cooney deciphers hieroglyphs. Discovery Communications.

The Egyptians of her time attempted to redact Hatshepsut’s rule as pharaoh from their history. For reasons still under debate, her nephew and successor, sent bearers to chisel out her images from monuments 20 years after her death.  Egyptologists are attempting to explain whether this act was also a political decision.

“He waited a good two decades before he started to destroy these statues and monuments, but when he did, he went after the statuary with ferocity,” Cooney said. “This doesn’t seem to be an act of hatred; it seemed like more of a calculated act. He doesn’t remove her images as queen. He removed them as king. When she takes the aberrant step forward as a kingly ruler, that didn’t bode well.”

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Cooney peers into the past through human remains. Discovery Communications.

In her book, Cooney attempts to fill in the gaps in Hatshepsut’s history with responsible conjecture. The story isn’t historical fiction, like that of Jean M. Auel, who wrote the Earth’s Children series. Cooney cites Auel’s work as formative to her approach to writing about the past, but The Woman Who Would Be King is more an effort of “archaeo-ontology,” taking educated leaps to theorize about a real person and her ancient society.

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“How would she approach the problems before her? How would she approach getting more power, keeping power, dealing with certain officials? There’s a tremendous amount we don’t know, but she was able to do it somehow,” Cooney said.

“Every human has emotions, desires, wants, dislikes. We’re more alike than dissimilar. Here was a high elite, an educated woman maneuvering within the halls of ancient Egyptian power. We can make reasonable guesses about what she may have done and how she engineered her future. The same way a paleontologist can look at Lucy’s fossils and think about the challenges she had, we can take what we know about our emotions today and come up with some sort of story.”

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Cooney on location in Egypt. Discovery Communications.

Cooney grew up in Houston, where she attended Memorial High School. She presents at HMNS often, preferring informative talks with the public to TV appearances. She produced the Discovery Channel series Out of Egypt with her husband Neil Crawford, a comparative archaeology series which took her around the world to ask broad questions about society and its link to the distant past. The series is available on Netflix and Amazon. Now, as Assistant Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, she teaches about feminism through the lens of women in power in the ancient world.

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Dr. Kara Cooney, Egyptologist, Assistant Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, and author of The Woman Who Would Be King. Photo by Mikel Healey.

“I tell them in the beginning, ‘Look, I’m not here to write a revision of feminist history. I’m here to help you see how it’s unfair. I’m here to help you see how we can transcend this,’” Cooney said about her students.

Tickets for her lecture and book signing are available online. Tickets $18, Members $12.

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Handpicked gems meet gold vermeil at Tummino’s Trunk Show

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Native Texan Mirta Tummino discovered her talent for jewelry design while working for a Fortune 500 company in Chicago. Her part-time design and metalsmithing studies at the Lillstreet Art Center quickly became a passion when she started selling her one-of-a-kind designs in Chicago area boutiques.

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Lariat necklace, multiple gems.

As demand grew, Mirta was able to fulfill her true calling and become a full-time artist. Moving back to her native Houston opened new opportunities for her collection and she soon realized her colorful gemstone jewels were a perfect fit for the museum with the world’s finest gem and mineral collection.

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Handpicking her stones, Mirta complements classic gems like aquamarine, labradorite, and blue topaz with the less common kyanite, Russian amazonite, and black opal. Each stone is delicately wire-wrapped in sterling or gold vermeil to create an intricately precise bezel.

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Amazonite necklace.

Mirta will make an artist appearance Friday, Aug. 7, from 10 to 4 p.m at the Houston Museum of Natural Science Museum Store. The entire Mirta Tummino collection will be 20% off the day of the show, plus membership discounts.

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Feel good about looking great knowing that 100% of museum store and trunk show proceeds benefits HMNS’ educational programs.

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 7/27-8/2

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 

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Rocket Day At The George Observatory!
Saturday, August 1
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m
Bring your junior Rocket enthusiasts out for a day of rocket launches and a mission to the Moon! Kids learn about rockets and how they work, build a water rocket and then launch it. After the launches, we blast into space aboard the S.S. Observer for a simulated spaceflight.

NEW Planetarium Film – Starry Night Express: To Pluto!
Embark on a live tour of the night’s sky. With the Planetarium’s Astronomer as your guide, audiences will practice finding what constellations, planets and other astronomical events are out in the sky. Then take part in a 3 billion mile journey to the edge of our Solar System and explore Pluto. Using the late breaking images and data from the New Horizons spacecraft, voyage through the spacecraft’s 9 ½ year trek through our planetary system. Learn what was encountered along the way, what we have found and waiting to discover.

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Wanda Hall: Being Natural

The first things all visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science see are an 8,000-pound amethyst geode from Uruguay in the lobby and the smiling face of Wanda Hall. And she wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Security guard Wanda Hall can be found in the lobby between the parking garage and the gift shop, greeting guests with her wide smile. Hall became the front line security guard in July 2014.

Hall has been with HMNS for three years, joining the security staff in 2012 right after the opening of the Dan L. Duncan Family Wing. She began by patrolling the brand new Morian Hall of Paleontology, the special exhibition Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition during its time with us, and the Hall of Ancient Egypt, before moving to her current post at the parking garage lobby July 15, 2014.

Hall relishes her job and the opportunity to speak with every guest that visits the museum. Even during our interview, she occasionally paused to greet parents and children entering for Xplorations summer camp.

“[If] you smile at people, they’re going to smile back,” Hall said. “You can’t help but smile at people.”

Hall grew up in Smithville, TX, about 45 miles southeast of Austin on State Highway 71. At the age of 22, she followed in her brother’s footsteps and traded in the town of 3,927 people for Houston, a city of 2.2 million.

Before finding her way to the museum, Hall spent 29 years working as a social worker for the State of Texas, helping seniors and disabled citizens with Medicaid eligibility. She spent eight years retired, enjoying working out and tending her garden, which includes a lemon tree and a pineapple plant.

This love of nature and plants has made the Cockrell Butterfly Center Hall’s favorite place in the museum. She used to spend her breaks in there, roaming around among the flora and floating butterflies—that is, until she learned of the two green tree pythons living in the conservatory next to the handicap entrance.

“I like the butterflies, the plants, everything. But I’m still afraid,” Hall said. “I haven’t been in there in a while. They said, ‘didn’t you see the snakes behind the glass?’ Ever since they told me that, I haven’t been back in there!”

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Hall sits at her typical post, located right next to the gift shop steps. Even while posing for photos, she continued to greet and assist visitors to the Museum!

Ophidiophobia aside, Hall really enjoys working at the Museum. A true people person, her infectious smile and laughter are great for welcoming visitors to HMNS. She loves interacting with the patrons, and they frequently reciprocate.

“Last year around camp time, this little girl came up to me and said, ‘When I come around the corner, there’s something about you. You’ll smile at me. You make my day.’ That was so sweet,” Hall said.

“I meet a lot of people,” Hall continued. “A lot of people want to sit and talk as they come through. They’ll be gone a few minutes and then they’ll come back and talk. People can be glad to see me, and I’ll be glad to see them. I like working in the front. I don’t think I want to come back inside!”

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is open seven days a week, and Hall will be there to greet visitors Monday through Friday. For those planning to visit on August 14, be sure to wish her a happy birthday!

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