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Quick Q&A: Dr. Kara Cooney

A professor of Egyptology, Cooney specializes in the study of ancient women who rose to power, such as Cleopatra. She visits Clowes Hall on January 16 to talk about her latest book, When Women Ruled the World.

What can ancient women rulers teach us about the modern world?
There’s a lot that transfers, because the patriarchy has not died. And when women did transcend the obstacles in their way, there was this strange reaction to that. That she was too ambitious. That there was something wrong with her. Cleopatra was working on behalf of her dynasty, but the Roman propagandist writers said she was greedy, self-serving, and selfish. They even called her a sorceress. Women today find the same knee-jerk reaction to them trying to obtain power.

Do women wield power differently?
The Egyptians certainly thought they did, and that’s why they put them in power so regularly. If a king died and there was a young prince, they didn’t allow the child’s uncle to make decisions on his behalf. If you put a man in charge, they knew the 10-year-old would get pushed aside and the uncle would be the ruler. But if you made the child’s mother the decision-maker, in most situations, she would make sure her son grew into his power and then, when the time was right, she would step aside. The Egyptians understood this difference.

It’s also hard to find a female ruler who, terror-wise, can measure up to even a third-tier male despot. Are there any female Genghis Khans or Pol Pots?
No. I’m in contact with a doctor who has made a list of every female ruler he has been able to find throughout history. And he says definitively, there is no female Pol Pot who rules with an ideological fist of terror. There is no female Alexander the Great, who continues to invade and invade without ever stopping.

You’ve been called the female Indiana Jones. Are you okay with that?
It’s the touchstone for the portrayal of archaeologists, so from that perspective, it’s fine. But I’m not that adventurous. Desert sands and archaeological digs are interesting, but they’re not my thing. I do more museum work, and I’m usually crawling around storage areas trying to find things, which is less sexy work. But it’s fun to me.

But you’ve also crawled around actual pyramids. What’s that like?
I barely fit, because I’m 6’1. Getting inside these things, you can’t crawl your way up because it will kill your knees, and you can’t walk normally either. You have to chicken-walk up the passageways until you get to the galleries where you can stand up. But it’s worth it because you have the grand gallery, you have the chamber with thick sides of pure granite. If you make a noise, it reflects off every wall. It’s an amazing place to visit. You sense that it’s not meant for the living, though. Visiting a pyramid is not a comfortable thing. When the lights go out, I can’t tell you how dark it is.

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