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

Throughout history, women in power have been the target of hostility, violence and mistrust. But why? What makes female leadership so objectionable?

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 first great female ruler, the pharaoh Hatshepsut, rose to occupy the throne as a cross-dressing king. Her journey was fraught with political intrigue and maneuvering. It took a trauma or a crisis to spark her ascent, and during her rule, she was surrounded by male advisers. 


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, Hatshepsut never would have been able to achieve her title. In that respect, her story symbolizes the central problem in male-dominated cultures — the 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 examines Mayan 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 men with chisels to carve 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.


“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, 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 Associate Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, she teaches about feminism through the lens of women in power in the ancient world.

Kara Cooney-credit Mikel Healey

Dr. Kara Cooney, Egyptologist, Associate 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 revisionist 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.

On the Discovery Channel’s megalodon bungle: In defense of cryptozoology and critical thinking

For us, as for many science lovers, it’s currently our favorite season. Some might even call it the most wonderful time of the year: Shark Week.

The Discovery Channel’s annual full-channel takeover, devoted to all things predatory and sleek, is one of the single-most anticipated science events of the year. So we were a little disappointed — as, apparently, were many Discovery Channel viewers — when the network aired a film that implied that the extinct monstershark megalodon might not really be extinct.

We consider ourselves something of experts on the subject, because, well, this:

Megalodon Jaws
(That’s our Associate Curator of Paleontology, David Temple, with our Adult Education Director, Amy Potts, NOT being swallowed alive by an EXTINCT shark.)

We sat down with Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple to dish over the epic bungle and set the record straight. Here’s his point-by-point breakdown of how wrong — WRONG WE TELL YOU! — it all is:

Point 1 (less a point than a fun fact):

The largest recorded (and verified) Great White Shark was caught off Prince Edward Island in 1988. It measured 20 feet long, meaning the 25-foot “Great White” featured in Jaws would have actually been more believable as a megalodon. The movie is, of course, fictional. Temple says there is a truism in diving that Discovery might have missed during its excitement over giant sharks: “Everything underwater looks a third bigger and a third closer than it really is, except for sharks. Then you can multiply that times 10.”

Point 2

For a threatened “living fossil” species to exist, they must retreat into the margins of their ecosystems. See: the Coelacanth. Megalodons required tropical, warm water to survive, and so for them, retreating into the depths of the ocean simply wouldn’t be a viable option.

Point 3

Megalodons were, as the Discovery Channel portrayed, extremely aggressive and proficient predators. As a result, their impact on their native ecosystems was great. If a population of megalodons yet existed, it’s impossible that we wouldn’t have noticed.

Point 4

If megalodons still existed, even in the cool depths where they couldn’t possibly survive, we would have seen a carcass by now. Even the Giant Squid, seen for the first time just last year, periodically washed up on shore to confirm its existence.

So in conclusion, while it’s fun to imagine a world in which megalodons still swam the seas (“Imagine Jaws on steroids,” says Temple); and while cryptozoologists chasing hidden and mythical creatures like the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot are occasionally right (see: the Okapi); you’d be far more likely to discover a small new species of frog than a 70-foot shark that could eat a fishing boat.

Point? Science.

Shark Week turns 25: Our six ways to celebrate

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, guys and gals: Shark Week is back.

After falling deep down the wormhole of the Summer Olympics (or as we like to call it, the Swimmer Olympics), it’s nice to have something else sleek and muscular to watch in the water.

So in honor of this horrific holiday season of sorts, here are six ways to celebrate Shark Week, starting Sunday, August 12:

1. Make a ridiculous watermelon sculpture, and try not to scare the bejeezus out of your kids.

Shark Week 2012

2. Imagine if sharks could fly and never sleep again.

Shark Week 2012

3. Imagine sharks had movie star teeth and feel better.

Shark Week 2012

4. Have mixed emotions about this photo:

Shark Week 2012

5. Be glad this guy’s extinct:

Megalodon Jaws

6. Learn more about the fiercest shark that ever lived and rent Mega Shark Versus CrocosaurusJust kidding — visit our new Hall of Paleontology to see a cast jaw, spectacular paleo art by Julius Csotonyi, and a compelling display of the jaw with the prey it’s poised to consume.

Happy Shark Week!

Is that an Art Car? My stormy day with Sean Casey, tornado chaser

No, it wasn’t an art car that was parked outside the Houston Museum of Natural Science this week. It was a TIV, or “Tornado Intercept Vehicle,” for those not in the know.

Nancy_TIV_March 2012

I arrived early Monday morning to prep for a special day at the Museum with filmmaker and storm chaser Sean Casey (who you might recognize from the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series).

I knew the TIV was going to be pretty sweet, but I had no idea how impressive it was going to be in person. Once upon a time, Casey’s TIV was just a Dodge 3500, but there are only a few indicators that it was ever a mere pickup truck.

Designed and welded by Casey, the TIV looks like something right out of the sci-fi post-apocalyptic film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The TIV’s cab is covered in armor 2 inches thick, complete with aluminum panels powered by hydraulic pistons that can be lowered almost to the ground to prevent wind from going underneath the vehicle. One of my favorite features is the 40-inch spikes on the sides of the TIV that can be activated to anchor the vehicle to the ground.  These features and more make the TIV ready and able to capture amazing tornado footage (along with look pretty spiffy in our makeshift Museum driveway).

By 9:30 AM, Casey had arrived and opened the bullet-resistant front windows to give fans a better view of the interior of his storm-proof ride. Eager fans arrived early to meet Casey, ask him questions, get autographs and pose with him for photos. Based on the smiles, nervousness, and excitement I saw, his fans weren’t disappointed.  Many mentioned that it was an honor to meet him and said that he was living their dream. Chasing twisters instead of typing? Get out.

Nancy_TIV_March 2012

But Casey seemed just as excited as his fans. He was accessible, easy-going and happy to meet everyone. I overheard all sorts of comments and questions for Casey, but the two most common questions I heard were: How much does the TIV weigh? and What kind of gas mileage does the TIV get?

Answers: 14,500 pounds and 10 miles per gallon.  Casey also introduced all-new showings of his newest film Tornado Alley, now playing at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at HMNS.  His introduction included anecdotes about his early days of storm chasing from a rental minivan to getting pulled over by the police (50 percent of the time in Texas) to the eight years it took to make his latest film.

The highlight for me was watching two lucky contest winners go for a ride in the TIV at the end of the day. After a long day outside with heavy fog in the morning and sunshine and high humidity in the afternoon, I thought of my own question for Casey: Does the TIV have air conditioning? Answer: No. Regardless, our contest winners had a fabulous excursion through the museum district impressing all the spring break traffic with Casey and the TIV.

Casey is about more than tornado chasing, though. I learned two more fun facts about the Discovery Channel star: First, he likes to eat at Chipotle and has gotten quite lost following freeways signs in search of a good burrito. Second, he really enjoys metal detecting with his oldest daughter, so he was drooling over the Ausrox Gold Nugget, which weighs about 748 troy ounces and is now on display for a limited time inside the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals.

While it was an extraordinary opportunity to spend the day with Casey and the TIV, it was also another day in the life of a Houston Museum of Natural Science employee.