It’s a book!

Isn’t it pretty? I made it myself (publishing on zero budget…)

Cover Image of Pharaohs, Emperors, and Other Women who Ruled.

So, I think it’s pretty obvious that the book is about women who, well, ruled. I can’t remember why, but one evening years ago I got to wondering about women who were official leaders with actual power. Not women with influence, or pulling strings behind the scenes – women who were officially recognised as being the one in charge. I think maybe it started with a wikipedia article? So many things do… Anyway, there were fewer than I might have hoped for, but so many more than I’d heard of.

And at first I just thought these women were cool or terrifying. But the fact that I had heard of so few of them nagged at me. Bookshelves in the English speaking world generally feature just a handful of big name rulers. Part of it is unavoidable: there’s just a lot more historical documenation for Cleopatra or Elizabeth I than, say, the queens of ancient Qedar (see, who among my fellow white anglos has even heard of Qedar, let alone its five queens regnant?). But part of it is avoidable; there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t hear about the sister queens of Patani, or the formidable anti-colonial queens Nzinga Mbande or Ranavalona. And I’d recently started writing as a hobby, and honestly it just kind of spiralled from there.

I started making notes, writing little mini-biographies, and realised something about these female leaders: it was a global phenomenon. Throughout history and around the world, stories of women who were calling the shots. Not limited to the European Enlightenment or ancient societies, but everywhere and everywhen. Those “exceptional” well-known examples turned out to be exceptional, not in the quality of leadership, but in the quality and quantity of documents recording their time in power. Elizabeth I wasn’t even the first queen regnant of England – that was her sister, Mary.

The second realisation took a bit longer, but was just as fundamental: female leaders, just like male ones, come in all varieties. There was Tamar of Georgia, born into the ruling dynasty and brought up to rule, but there was also Shajar al Durr, a slave girl who became sultan of Egypt. Boran of the Sassanid Empire, who understood basic politics, and her sister Azarmidokht, who … did not. The much-married Anula (hint: bring your own food) and never-married Elizabeth of Russia. Mawiyya, who defeated the Roman legions, and Zenobia, who ultimately lost. Raja Hijau, who had a collaborative approach to rule, and Ranavalona, who was very much “one woman, one vote”. There’s no one way to be a female leader, just as there’s no one way to be a male leader.

And finally, the third realisation: unsurprisingly, these women sometimes faced opposition to their rule. Not infrequently the opposition was based on their gender, but sometimes it was just ordinary power struggles. And the opposition was almost always male – husbands, sons, rivals, outsiders – with a notable exception: sisters (or sisters-in-law). Because what other woman would have the status to make a run at the top spot? The Ptolemaic queens Berenice, Arsinoë and Cleopatra are a prime example of sisterly infighting.

Oh, and the title! It turns out that while English has the very gendered terms ‘king’ and ‘queen’ – seriously, in Old English cwen originally meant ‘woman’ – this is not always the case. There is no specifically female version of pharaoh; no pharaoh-ess. Possibly because when the word first evolved the default was male, but it’s interesting to note that a gender-specific form never appeared. In German, for example, we have königin, a female king (könig being king). Linguistically, English doesn’t have female kings, and neither did Ancient Egypt. But where English had to occasionally struggle with the existence of actual female kings, Ancient Egypt never bothered: male or female, you were pharaoh.

Anyway: buy my book! It’s short and fun! Like me.*

* I am undeniably short.

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