Oh, Sure, She Was the Most Powerful Woman in History. But Jeez, Mix in a Salad!

hatshepsutHatshepsut was Pharaoh of Egypt for twenty-two years, from about 1479 to 1458, BCE, during the eighteenth dynasty. Hatshepsut’s tenure saw the reestablishment of trade routes that had been decimated during the Hyksos occupation, and the commissioning of scores of building projects in both upper and lower Egypt. Hatshepsut was also skilled in using propaganda to bolster the standing of the royals, one of the most skilled manipulators in the ancient world.

Oh, and Hatshepsut was a woman, only the second to rule Egypt using the title of Pharaoh, and the longest-tenured by far. Other than Hatshepsut, only Khentkaues II and Sobekneferu are known to have ruled in their own right. (Nefertiti may have ruled for some time after the death of Akhenaten; Nitocris’s gender is the subject of some debate.)

The mummy of Hatshepsut was identified last month, found in tomb KV60. While there is some debate over the identification (as one might expect, 3,500 years later), it is certainly something to note with interest, and a reason to remember Hatshepsut’s reign, and the the difficulty a woman must have had ascending to power and maintaining it, even in what was, for the time, a reasonably egalitarian society for women.

Or if you’re the media, it’s a moment to note that when Hatshepsut died, somewhere in her mid-fifties, that she wasn’t totally hot.

More startling, the descriptions of Hatshepsut suggest that women haven’t changed all that much over the centuries.

Turns out, Hatshepsut was no Cleopatra. Instead, she was a 50-year-old fat lady; apparently she used her power over the Upper and Lower Nile to eat well and abundantly. Archaeologists also claim that she probably had diabetes, just like many obese women today.

Got that, everyone? Hatshepsut was arguably the most powerful woman in history, and certainly in the top ten. She ruled over what was at the time the most powerful nation on the planet. She built temples throughout the land of Egypt, she reestablished trade routes, held off a strong challenge to her rule from her stepson, Thutmose III, and even attempted, unsuccessfully, to change succession rules so that her daughter, Neferure, could succeed her. Along the way, she may have had a torrid affair with one of her royal architects, Senenmut, and merely became one of the most successful rulers of the Nile. But she was fat when she died, and that’s really the most important part of the story. Also, obesity means diabetes, so fatties, lose some weight.

Of course, it’s not just her weight that draws mockery 3,500 years after her death:

Hatshepsut also suffered from what all women over 40 need—a stylist. She was balding in front but let the hair on the back of her head to grow really long, like an aging female Dead Head with alopecia.

This Queen of Egypt also sported black and red nail polish, a rather Goth look for someone past middle age.

It’s so hard to find a stylist in Thebes, especially in the fifteenth century BCE. Especially one who can fit you in if you have a busy schedule ruling Egypt. Also, Hatshepsut wore nail polish patterns that seem odd three and a half millennia later, because styles never, ever change.

Of course, the article notes that she was a ruler:

But like today, one should never be fooled by a woman’s Look. Hatshepsut was a powerful, successful woman. She married one of her half brothers, Thutmose II, and helped rule Egypt as his “Great Royal Wife.” When her husband died, Hatshepsut was named regent for her step-son but quickly grabbed the throne for herself.

To underscore her position of power, Hatshepsut often wore the complete regalia of a male pharaoh, including a false beard. Some speculate she actually liked wearing men’s clothing, and so what?

Yeah, so what if the dyke — ahem, powerful woman — liked to wear men’s clothing? It couldn’t be part of a brilliant propaganda campaign to assert that she was king regardless of her gender, and that the symbols of her rule were just that — symbols of her power, not her gender. I mean, it’s probably that she was just a little androgynous — if you know what I’m saying.

Hatshepsut’s reign was successful, but that didn’t stop her successor, stepson Thutmose III, from attempting to disappear her from the records. Possibly he did so out of an attempt to head off the claim of Neferure to the throne, and ensure that Amenhotep II, Thutmose III’s son, would succeed him. Possibly he did so to take credit for Hatshepsut’s accomplishments himself. And possibly he did so in order to ensure that the people didn’t get the wrong idea that a woman could actually lead a nation successfully, and wonder why more women didn’t get the opportunity.

Happily for history, Thutmose III failed in at least part of his bid. He is now remembered, if at all, as an antagonist in Hatshepsut’s story. But as we stand here 3,500 years later, knowing that we may have found at last Hatshepsut’s remains, which will go on display in Cairo along with the other Pharaohs of Egypt, it would be a shame for us again to miss the point of Hatshepsut’s story, which is simple: given the chance, women are quite capable of leading effectively, as well as if not better than men. It would be a tragedy for us to focus on Hatshepsut’s weight at death (which would be unsurprising for a middle-aged, rich woman) and the cut of her hair, and for that focus miss out on the story of the extraordinary woman she must have been.

(Via zuzu, who says,  “But of course, there’s a double bind — can’t be too pretty, or you won’t be taken seriously, but you can’t be old, fat and/or ugly, either. Being 3500 years old and having your own burial complex won’t help you with that catch-22.”)

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56 Comments

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56 responses to “Oh, Sure, She Was the Most Powerful Woman in History. But Jeez, Mix in a Salad!

  1. Pingback: University Update - Diabetes - Oh, Sure, She Was the Most Powerful Woman in History. But Jeez, Mix in a Salad!

  2. I love that they compare her to Cleopatra, a woman who was multilingual and could strategize with the best of them, now overshadowed by her perky breasts. Nice of them to coalesce the female appearance dichotomy into one sentence using two of the most powerful women in Egypt’s history. And they don’t even know they were clever!

  3. That was easily the most egregious history-related article I have seen recently. Aside from the sexism (which is pretty bad), there are the wanton anachronisms. Goths? 15th B.C. Egypt? Huh?

  4. boatboy_srq

    I guess the writers thought the archaeologists went looking for HOTshepsut, and found the Queen of Egypt instead. Amazing the difference a vowel makes.

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  6. fwiw, this is how hawt Cleopatra was.

  7. Wish

    My God, that is one poorly written article. The author should be ashamed; it sounds like it was written by some snarky teenager. Gotta love how pretty much any article about a powerful woman has to include at least one little dig about her looks. Just to keep em’ in their place.

  8. The Discovery Channel keeps advertising their special on Hatshepsut as “the woman who was the most powerful man in the world,” which makes my teeth grind every time I hear it. Okay, I get that she dressed in men’s clothes, but she was still a woman, which makes her the most powerful woman in the world.

  9. Julia–You got there first. When I read the comparison of appearances, all I could think of was that Cleopatra was no Cleopatra.

    Jeff, this does bring up the question of why people are often so concerned with how a ruler (particularly a female ruler) looks. Sometimes, historically, past rulers have demonized earlier ones by talking about their ugly appearance (the Tudors of England insisted that Richard III was a hunchback. It’s questionable, but he was an enemy to the family). And certainly, Elizabeth I made sure that everyone thought she was beautiful – she had a strict control over her appearance, looking a lot younger in her portraits than she really was in her final years.

    But why do we continue to do this? Certainly, it’s media friendly to point out a (dead) woman’s flaws and make some suggestions a la What Not the Wear.

  10. nightshift66

    Well, on one level, I’m glad for ANYthing that can get existentialist Americans to recognize for a nanosecond that important things happened long before they deigned to arrive on the scene. Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Babylon still influence our lives today.

    But yeah, the article is puffery at its most pure.

  11. BGW

    I say file this one in the “Who Cares” catagory.

  12. Boatboy: You mean her?

    Perhaps THIS one?

  13. Kate Harding

    Also, obesity means diabetes, so fatties, lose some weight.

    Yeah, this was the aspect that drove me the most insane. You diagnosed her with fucking diabetes after 3500 years? Because she was fat? Will someone please shoot me in the head now?

  14. GiniLiz

    Fat and balding… Anybody else thinking PCOS?

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  16. Adam

    I didn’t get the impression that the diabetes diagnosis was based solely on the fact that she was large. All the better (i.e. not the one quoted above) articles I’ve read say that the diagnosis (along with a cancer diagnosis, although I’ve seen references to both bone and liver cancer, not sure which is correct) was based on the results of a CT scan done on the mummy, although I don’t have the medical knowledge to guess as to what one looks for when diagnosing diabetes or cancer in a 3500 year old corpse.

  17. Kate Harding

    I don’t have the medical knowledge to guess as to what one looks for when diagnosing diabetes or cancer in a 3500 year old

    Me neither, but I wish someone who did have that knowledge would explain it better.

    And hey, as long as they’re diagnosing her, very good point, GiniLiz.

  18. Kate217

    She was over 50!!!!! That, in and of itself, was a tremendous accomplishment for anyone then, especially for someone with enemies in high places. It’s quite possibly the fact that she was heavy that allowed her to live so long. Fookin’ eedjits.

  19. She was over 50!!!!!

    That was a long life in ancient times.

  20. blusilva

    “Hatshepsut also suffered from what all women over 40 need—a stylist.”

    EXCUSE ME? FUCK YOU!

    Leaving aside how insulting the whole “fat” issue is. This woman “suffered” from what ALL women over 40 need, because all women over 40 are such old, nasty hags.

    *seethe*

  21. When I get home tonight to my wonderful photoshop-equipped laptop, I am so going to make a Hatshepsut diabeetus meme.

  22. puellasolis

    What an appalling, worthless piece of shit. Ugh. I can’t believe they published that tripe at all, let alone under a science heading.

  23. JoAsakura

    Oh, god. this article fills me with RAGE.

    The stylist comment? Listen douchehound, it was not uncommon for men and women to shave their heads and wear wigs.

    ARGH!

  24. Yellowhammer

    Women haven’t changed that much over the centuries- we’re all just dying to let ourselves go and be ugly, and have been for millions of years.

    Thank God we have MEN! Men who will remind us how we must look!

    That was Hapshetsut’s REAL problem, yah know. She didn’t have a man over her to tell her to lose weight, get a wig and get a better manicure, for pete’s sake.

    A friend of mine told me years ago that he was thankful for bath and body works and fashion magazines. I asked him why and he said “Because without them, women would turn into men.”

  25. edenz

    >The stylist comment? Listen douchehound, it was not uncommon for men and women to shave their heads and wear wigs.

    Yes, and if the writer actually knew anything about history at all – this was common right up until the end of the 1700s. Reason: fleas & lice. You know all those pics of the founding fathers with wigs?

  26. Yes, GiniLiz, being a PCOS-er myself I thought the same thing. PCOS, of course, is associated with elevated levels of insulin as well as elevated testosterone (and of course fatness). Can they measure insulin resistance in a mummy? If so, I’d love to know how that’s done. If, OTOH, it was simply “guesswork” that she was diabetic because she was fat, they oughta be ashamed of themselves. And the fact that the reporter never thought to question that (or at least that the response was never printed) is a double shame.

  27. Alix

    That article is disgusting. Who cares what she looked like? Dammit, Hatshepsut’s one of my favorite people in history; I want to go slap the author.

    A bit randomly, Melissa:

    The Discovery Channel keeps advertising their special on Hatshepsut as “the woman who was the most powerful man in the world,” which makes my teeth grind every time I hear it.

    I have to sort of defend the Discovery Channel here. The ad said “the most powerful man on earth was a woman”, which to me has a different emphasis – that this person we would assume was male based on the title/position was female, and was the most powerful person in the world. I was irritated with the ad more because the rise in the narrator’s voice on “woman” indicates surprise than because of the sentence itself.

    (Sorry, my nitpicking asserts itself once more…)

  28. I’m sure if my firewall would let me see what your link led to, Fritz, you would win.

    BGW: We care – okay, I care – because history matters. How we interpret history matters. Using the discovery of a powerful and important woman’s corpse as an excuse to insult her and make modern-day women insecure for the millionth time is a very telling way to use history to show the message you want it to – and giving examples of the ‘prior truth’ of something is a very basic way to give your argument validity. It matters that a female king is being made fun of by the media to belittle women, instead of, oh I don’t know, having her story used as a way to interest young women in archaeology?

    Granted I’m a (military) history major gunning for a teaching position, so this opinion coming from me isn’t so surprising. But considering how much weight so many people give to an idea having precedent, we need to be aware of and care about how history is presented in the media.

  29. The ad said “the most powerful man on earth was a woman”, which to me has a different emphasis

    Nope. Still offensive for the same reason–because it’s substituting “man” for “person,” which is the most basic language of Othering women.

    The most powerful person in the world is the only appropriate way to convey that idea. A woman cannot be the most powerful man on earth. That simple.

  30. Alix

    Melissa – Sorry, I don’t think I worded that right. (It sounded right in my head.) I meant more that I see what they were trying to do – they were trying to go for a pun. Our image of the pharaohs is that they were all male; we see it as a male role, and assume, when no contradictory info is present, that a pharaoh is a man. The ad was playing off that AND the common use of “man” for “person” (which I agree with you is offensive). I still maintain that the most insulting thing about that ad was that it seemed surprised that a person fulfilling a very male role could be female.

    …I’m not sure this is explaining my view any better, and I’m not sure I’m right, either, but I do think the sentence structure and emphasis matter almost more than the word choice in this case.

    And since this isn’t what the post’s about, I’ll drop it. Like I mentioned, it pinged my nitpicky-word-person nerve. (Sorry…)

  31. I’m sure if my firewall would let me see what your link led to, Fritz, you would win.

    It is from the movie The Mummy. The Queen looks like a fitness model and is wearing some kind of see-through leotard. She looks like she should be teaching an aerobics class in Hollywood.

  32. Adam

    “The Queen looks like a fitness model and is wearing some kind of see-through leotard. She looks like she should be teaching an aerobics class in Hollywood.”

    I think that’s the main reason why most of the articles about Hatty (sorry, I play a lot of Civilization, and am in the habit of referring to leaders who appear in the game by nicknames) seem to linger on the fact that she was fat. The popular media image of an Egyptian queen is very much Hollywood-Cleopatra. We don’t have trouble picturing, say, an English or a French queen as a normal middle aged woman, but I bet that just about everyone here reflexively imagines some sexed up Halloween costume Cleopatra as their ‘default’ female Egyptian ruler. I’d be willing to bet that it has something to do with the perception of Egypt as ‘exotic’.

  33. Alix – I agree with your interpretation of what they were trying to do. I just disagree with you that that makes it unoffensive. 😉

  34. Fritz

    We don’t have trouble picturing, say, an English or a French queen as a normal middle aged woman…

    I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard Queen Elizabeth described as “homely” or “frumpy.”

    She was quite pretty when she was a young woman — and she’s still an attractive woman. But, some dipshit is always making a comment about her appearance.

  35. Alix

    Melissa – Cool. Sorry for the minor derailment. *is sheepish*

    Back on topic – I think it’s kinda cool, actually, that Hatshepsut was overweight. I’m overweight, and like I mentioned, Hatshepsut’s one of my favorite historical people ever, and it’s kind of cool that we have at least that in common. (I’m having a history-geek moment here, ok? :D)

  36. oddjob

    If, OTOH, it was simply “guesswork” that she was diabetic because she was fat, they oughta be ashamed of themselves.

    FWIW, if this info. is also being published in a peer-reviewed journal, I can’t believe they’d make that assertion unless they had decent data from which to draw the assumption (& no, I’m not a physician or a forensics scientist, but since I’ve known plenty of overweight Americans who didn’t have diabetes, I can’t imagine being fat is sufficient reason on its own, not for publication in a science journal).

  37. Sorry for the minor derailment.

    No apology necessary. Meadering always encouraged.

  38. Adam

    Here’s an article about the tests done on the Hatshepsut mummy that’s actually informative:

    http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/hatshepsut/

    The diabetes claim does, indeed, look to be highly speculative:

    “”Obesity and poor oral hygiene suggested to [radiologist Ashraf] Selim and colleagues that she might have suffered from diabetes. But, Selim said, ‘Surely this is just a theory based on this circumstantial evidence, which we cannot confirm.'””

    There’s some interesting stuff in there about how they were able to determine obesity and diagnose cancer.

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  40. Fritz – Ah, Anaksun-amun? She was a sex slave (Slated to be a wife but not yet, because then her fooling around with Imhotep would have been adultery. Or sex slaves are more sympathetic and we were supposed to feel bad for her? I’ll stop trying to analyize Stephen Sommers movies now.) and supposed to be wearing a thong and body paint in that still, so being model-bodied makes cinamatic sense, in that if a king gets to pick property, why wouldn’t he use modern western standards of beauty and not his own?

  41. Brynn

    Okay, I get that she dressed in men’s clothes, but she was still a woman, which makes her the most powerful woman in the world.

    I’ve always wondered if she may have been trans.

  42. Dan

    The Discovery Channel keeps advertising their special on Hatshepsut as “the woman who was the most powerful man in the world,” which makes my teeth grind every time I hear it. Okay, I get that she dressed in men’s clothes, but she was still a woman, which makes her the most powerful woman in the world.

    I saw you go over this with Alix but just a quick question. Isn’t the point of the ad a challenge to a sexist stereotype, ie. that all Pharohs were male? And if their point was trying to challenge a sexist stereotype, how could they have said it better?

  43. Fritz – Ah, Anaksun-amun?

    They were showing that clip on the Discovery Channel along with a few others from The Mummy.

  44. Jewel

    Dan – maybe “The most powerful Pharoah in the world was a woman.”

  45. “They were showing that clip on the Discovery Channel along with a few others from The Mummy.”

    *headdesk* In that case, I may have to disown Discovery. Sheesh.

  46. Adam

    “Dan – maybe “The most powerful Pharoah in the world was a woman.””

    Assuming that the point of the ad was to grab attention by setting up and then countering the stereotype that a powerful person in the ancient world was necessarily a man, I don’t think that works as well as the actual wording used by the DC. By avoiding the word ‘man’ it doesn’t explicitly set up the expectation that is then negated by the phrase ‘was a woman’.

    “*headdesk* In that case, I may have to disown Discovery. Sheesh.”

    Right with you on that one.

  47. Dan

    The ad said “the most powerful man on earth was a woman

    Jewel:Dan – maybe “The most powerful Pharoah in the world was a woman

    Yeah ok, that sounds fine to me. But does it have the same affect?

    What stuck in my mind was the feminist riddle (from the 60’s I think) of the boy and his father in a car accident, they go to the hospital, see the surgeon and the surgeon says “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son”. How is this possible? The idea being to reveal sexist stereotypes that the first reply is not that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

    That’s how I saw the ad being positioned.

    Melissa said to Alix – it’s substituting “man” for “person,” which is the most basic language of Othering women

    If taken in context of the riddle above, is it still the language of Othering women? I’m genuinely asking that.

  48. Alix

    If taken in context of the riddle above, is it still the language of Othering women? I’m genuinely asking that.

    Yes – and that’s the point. That’s the disconnect the riddle (or pun, in the case of the ad) hinges on. It IS the language of Othering women – but it’s also subverting that, or trying to.

  49. Dan

    Wait, it is subverting that?

    You were just saying the exact opposite above.

  50. Dan

    Ok wait. I’m confused.

    If the riddle is a challenge to sexist stereotypes and the ad was going after the same ends(at least that’s how I saw it) how is it othering women? I need to know this.

  51. Alix

    My problem with the ad was the surprise in the narrator’s voice when he said “woman”. That, to me, undermined the whole pun that would have, due to its construction, been subverting sexist assumptions if it had been delivered properly.

    But that doesn’t mean that the use of “man” for “people” isn’t still Othering – it just means that the Othering would have been subverted if the line had been well-delivered.

    Of course, a danger of puns is that a lot of people don’t pick up on them, and for them, even if the pun worked, the Othering language would still have supported the Othering of women.

  52. Dan

    the Othering language would still have supported the Othering of women.

    Ok, that sentence makes no sense to me but that’s probably my fault not yours I think.

    So,in the end, it’s all in how you took the ad?

  53. Alix

    Meaning if you don’t get the joke, it might as well not exist.

    So,in the end, it’s all in how you took the ad?

    To some extent, yes, I think so. All language requires interpretation, and how you interpret something affects what you think it means. If, for example, an ad makes a pun using a word that omits women from the human race and you get the pun, you might find that an acceptable use of exclusionary language. If, on the other hand, you don’t get the pun, then the exclusionary language just reinforces the universalization of male experience as human experience by some small amount in your mind – and those small amounts add up.

    It is in how you take it. But it’s also in the word choice itself.

  54. Dan

    Ok, thanks for that explanation. Now I see exactly what you’re saying.Sorry if I was slow on the pickup.

    I wasn’t sure how Melissa was offended. I’m not saying she was seeinng phantoms by any means. I was confused because she stated,”The most powerful person in the world is the only appropriate way to convey that idea. A woman cannot be the most powerful man on earth. That simple.” She saw it as a denigration of a woman and maybe all woman and I took it as a clever turn of words to challenge a stereotype.

    I understand your point of view, I guess I was trying to understand hers because I was obviously not picking up on something.

  55. As offensive as I think this article was (would it amaze you that the author writes self-help books?) I didn’t react to the line about her being a powerful man because, well, legally, she was.

    Part of the subversive glory of Hatshepsut was that faced with the reality that only men were allowed to rule, she decided to become a man and ruled.

    Before she died she had statues made of her daughter with a beard in preparation for passing down the kingdom along the female line.

    All the time she was having what was said to be a fine old time with her architect.

    The woman had nads. They weren’t the kind of nads she was popularly credited with having, but they were definite nads.

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