The Woman Who Would be King

The Woman Who Would be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt




A lot of things have changed since the days of Hatshepsut’s reign over Egypt. However, I began to realize something as I read this book. One thing that has actually changed very little is the sport of politics. The same tactics that worked for Hatshepsut are still in wide use today. It was that realization which left me more than a little depressed.


An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power.
Hatshepsut – the daughter of a general who usurped Egypt’s throne and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty – was born into a privileged position in the royal household, and she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her improbable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just over twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of pharaoh in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays in the veil of piety and sexual reinvention. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut shrewdly operated the levers of power to emerge as Egypt’s second female pharaoh.
Hatshepsut successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her monuments were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her unprecedented rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power – and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.
©2014 Kara Cooney (P)2014 Random House Audio


This is a biography chronicling the life of one of the earliest female rulers on earth of which we are aware. The author mixes research and speculation to paint a picture of what life might have been like for Hatshepsut. This portrate includes discussion of: Hatshepsut’s birth, early childhood, relationship to both parents, duties as God’s Wife of Amun, King’s Great Wife, Mother, Regent and finally her own ascent to the throne as King.
I found Hatshepsut to be a fascinating figure in many ways. I first was made aware of her when I was in High School watching a long since forgotten documentary on the Discovery Channel. I was very intrigued by the question of what life must have been like for a female monarch back in those days.
Hatshep was a very successful ruler by any standard. She ruled Egypt during a time of prosperity and relative peace. She oversaw a lot of construction during her reign, more than any other Egyptian ruler up to that point in time. Yet for as successful as she was, her reign may have done more to hurt the chances for future female rulers than pave the way for them.
In the introduction I wrote that politics hasn’t really changed that much since Hatshepsut’s day. This is evident by the things that she did to gain and maintain power. She made sure to be allied with the right people and ensured their continued support with lots of money. She also appeared in different ways to different audiences. More masculine traits would be emphasized or paired down depending on if she was in contact with the educated or uneducated classes of Egyptian society.
There are other ways in which she might remind us of modern politicians but I am hoping that readers will want to find those out for themselves.
The most compelling part of the book for me was what happened after Hatshepsut’s death. When Hatshepsut died her co-reign with thutmose III came to an end and he was now a singular king. At first he did something not normal for the time and continued a lot of Hatshepsut’s construction projects. That all changed some twenty plus years after her death when he started to systematicly remove her from history. Temples and statues were destroyed and carvings were erased or altered whenever possible. But during their reign together there is no account of any major disagreement between them or unhappiness on Thutmose III’s part. The author suggests that this might have been done because of Thutmose III’s own concerns regarding his line of succession.
There are a lot of other interesting facts found in the book. One thing I found interesting is that in ancient Egypt the responsibility of baring a son fell on the man. Also, the Egyptians tended to honor the office of King more than the person who held that office. This is in contrast to the Roman view of Emperors. This helps explain why we know so much more about the exploits of the Roman Emperors than we do their Egyptian counterparts.
My only real criticism of the book is a small one and it comes near the end. The reader is told that when historians first began to discover things about Hatshepsut, they viewed her as a woman who stole the rightful spot of Thutmose III as ruler of Egypt and as someone unworthy of her title. It is then explained that this changed over time as new information became available and further examination was undertaken. I feel this section could have been expanded further. It would have been nice to get some idea of the timeline of discovery and when historians started to view Hatshepsut in a more positive light. However, that could just be my own desire for greater knowledge and understanding doing the talking.


This is the first book by Dr. Cooney that has made it in to audio publication. The following quotation tells you a lot about where the author is coming from and her motivations for undertaking a project like this.

“As a social historian of ancient Egypt, I am drawn to the nitty-gritty of ancient life, particularly those circumstances that could not be conquered: disease, social place, patriarchal control, gender inequality, and geographic location. I want to know how people coped in a world over which they had so little control and in which they had so little time to make their mark; a place where grief, sorrow, and apprehension were more commonplace than success, and where most knew they could never create any kind of change in their lives, beyond doing what their fathers or mothers had done before them.”

One aspect of her writing that I really appreciate is her honesty. Early on, she acknowledges the fact that this is a book that combines both facts and conjecture. It is easy for the reader to determine when she is using the latter because of her use of words and phrases such as: might, maybe, possibly, could have and descriptions of feeling and emotion. In my opinion, acknowledgment of what is conjecture makes it a lot harder to accuse her of projecting some kind of hidden agenda or bias.
I would definitely read another book on ancient Egypt written by Dr. Cooney. She has a very accessible writing style that makes it easy for the reader to seperate fact from fiction but that also conveys her enthusiasm for the subject.


In general, I prefer that audiobooks be read by professional narrators. However, this is one of those exceptions to the rule.
Dr. Cooney does an outstanding job with her narration. Her reading style is pretty straight forward but she does a good job of adding inflection and conveying the emotional weight of the scene.
As Dr. Cooney is an Egyptologist, we can also be confident that she is pronouncing all of the names and places correctly. Nothing can jolt me out of the story quicker than a rather obvious mispronunciation of a name or place. It also helps that Dr. Cooney has a voice that is very easy to listen to for long stretches.
There is no doubt that Cooney deserves a lot of the credit for her performance. However, I think that a measure of praise can be directed towards Cassandra Campbell. I am sure that Campbell, a veteran audiobook narrator and director, had a large hand in guiding Cooney through the recording process.


This is an excellent sounding track. The volume level is consistent throughout which you would expect but don’t always get. There are no sound effects or other background noise on the track, such things would be wildly out of place in a book like this. There are also no musical cues used at any point. It is all you could want in an audio production.


This book contained a wealth of fascinating facts about Hatshepsut and life in ancient Egypt. As this is a book about a culture from so long ago, some of their customs will be very uncomfortable to our modern sensabilities. So if you don’t know much about ancient Egypt already and you are either faint of heart or weak of stomach, you may wish to tread lightly.
I can’t argue with the book’s contention that there is a double standard on which we judge female rulers. Incidents from the 2014 mid-term election campain serve to hammer home that reality. I could not help but think that Hatshepsut would be a success in today’s political world because so little has really changed since her day. The only difference is that whereas Hatshepsut and Thutmose III ruled together in our modern day world, Thutmose III would probably end up being buried under the end zone in some football stadium some where.
If you are interested in ancient Egyptian history or if you are someone wanting to become more acquainted with an early female ruler, then I would highly recommend you give this book a listen.


Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
The Woman Who Would be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt Kara Cooney Kara Cooney Random House Audio History 10/14/2014 10 hours, 25 minutes 8.25/10


A copy of ‘The Woman Who Would be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt’ was purchased from for review.