Femmes Omitted: Hatshepsut, The Forgotten Pharaoh

Female role models can be difficult; not because there isn’t a plethora of women to inspire, but instead we are force-fed stories of great men and their endless achievements. Women are conditioned to aspire to qualities like beauty and celebrity, but that wasn’t what I wanted. I want women who have achieved greatness, women who have struggled and fought to overcome the odds, women who affected the history of the world, and sadly these types of women just aren’t presented to us. It’s not that this woman didn’t exist, but rather history has let her down. She has been overlooked, misrepresented or even completely forgotten. History has been mistranslated. We have had our achievements distorted or ignored by the generations of patriarchal academics who define the narrative of history and would have you believe that women were merely spectators, the cheerleaders of “great” men. Just like the horrifyingly overlooked achievements of people of colour and the constant whitewashing of history, these women’s achievements have been purposefully omitted. To correct the mistranslation of women’s history, this column will present omitted femmes – inspirational females, unsung by history and the world – re-contextualizing their truth and giving them their due respect.

Nobody embodies the idea of achievements being buried and erased more than Hatshepsut, and that’s why it felt appropriate for her to be the first omitted femme. While other famous Egyptian Queens have their own problematic misrepresentations, they are at least remembered – albeit mostly for their beauty or sexual exploits. Much contemporary discourse centres around female leaders and the lack thereof, but we tend to overlook the great female leaders of the past, even those of the ancient world. While it is important to celebrate these great women it is also important to critique the systems that led to their omission from history: the patriarchal lens though which history is viewed, ideas of power, and societal constructs of gender all played a part in maintaining the status quo, so while we present a platform to give praise to these deserving women, we must also scrutinise the context around their neglected achievements.

So, who is she? Born in 1507, Hatshepsut was the fifth Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, but more importantly the second confirmed female pharaoh. After the death of her husband (and half-brother, but incest is a problem for another day) Thutmose II, her stepson Thutmose III was due to take the throne. Hatshepsut, unhappy about Thutmose III ascending to the throne at only two years old, assumed the role of Pharaoh, becoming a ruler who Egyptologists consider to be one of the most successful, ever.

Hatshepsut’s reign was brimming with achievements and great building projects. She was known as one of the great builders of the ancient world, commissioning hundreds of construction projects –  hugely significant, as the ‘greatness’ of a Pharaoh was fundamentally measured in monuments. One of her first great achievements was her twin obelisks. Built in the Temple of Karnak, these were the tallest structures in the world at the time and served as her announcement to the world that she was not only a Queen, the traditional role taken by women, but rather a Pharaoh, an almighty ruler and the embodiment of a god on earth. She presented herself wearing the traditional beard, a signifier of royalty, but never rejected her female identity, instead proclaiming herself as the daughter of a god, cementing her royal authority and stating clearly that she could be both female and a ruler.

Regarded as the first truly powerful woman in history, her reign lasted longer than any other female Pharaohs. She established trade routes that hugely bolstered the economy; she was the first leader to introduce non native flora, encouraging biodiversity in the region; her enormous memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri, is considered one of the architectural wonders of ancient Egypt; there is evidence that her constructions relied on well treated workers and skilled labourers rather than slaves; and she controlled the largest army of the Ancient world. Side note, even with all these achievements she also managed to find the time to take the frankincense imported by her trade routes and turn it into kohl eyeliner, the first record of its use.

…and yet most people have never heard of her.

Unfortunately for Hatshepsut her absence from history was deliberate and strategic. Her step son and successor held a grudge after being denied the throne as a two-year-old. When he finally became Pharaoh, he did what any well-adjusted man with power would do: he sought to wipe his stepmother from history. He insisted that all evidence of her rule, any images of her as a Pharaoh – even the ones on her own monuments – be removed. While I’m sure we have all suffered at the hands of a petty man with a grudge, some have posited that this was due to an even broader, culturally ingrained misogyny. Some scholars believe her erasure was designed to make people forget that a women sat on Egypt’s throne at all. The Pharaoh was known as the literal living embodiment of the male god Horus, and disturbance to the tradition of male rulers was a challenge to concept of Ma’at. Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of truth, justice, harmony and balance was the root of, and the inspiration for, an ideology for these ancient people to live by. This patriarchal ideology supposedly provided balance, to ensure society would not ‘crumble’. A female ruler could be seen as a disruption of this balance and therefore detrimental to Egyptian society as a whole.  

The concept of Ma’at is interesting and still rings true to women today. Ultimately, it’s an artificially imposed and repressive cultural rule, that serves to maintain the status quo of patriarchal hegemony. There is an important lesson to take from Hapshetsut’s omission from the annals of history: getting a woman through the glass ceiling, onto the throne, or even into the White House isn’t necessarily the win we may think it is, because without destroying the patriarchal system that maintains our society as it did theirs, we will always be in danger of our inspirational women being redacted from the pages of history. Hatshepsut was forgotten, lost to time and remained that way until we were eventually able to deceiver the hieroglyphics on the walls of her great mortuary temple complex Deir el-Bahri – thankfully it turns out those tasked to censor her legacy missed some important information and she was rediscovered. Isn’t it about time we give her the reverence she deserves?

Words: Mona Lisa Maclean, Illustrations: Hannah-Michelle Bayley