Hatshepsut was the first woman to exercise long-term rule over Egypt as a king. Other Egyptian women had governed before her, but they merely served as regents or leaders for short periods of time. If we combine her regency and kingship, Hatshepsut reigned for almost twenty-two years. Even more remarkably, Hatshepsut achieved her power without bloodshed or social trauma. We have no evidence of any messy assassinations of her family members or attempted coups that nearly succeeded (led by her or anyone else). Though Hatshepsut’s rise to power was clean and creative, it required every weapon in her arsenal—invoking her bloodline, education, political acumen, along with a deep (and sometimes radical) understanding of religious power.

So why do so few people today know the name of this extraordinary woman? We know about Cleopatra VII’s murders, sexual exploits, economic excesses, and disastrous military campaigns. Hatshepsut was, as far as we can tell, not a seducer of great generals in charge of legions, for the practical reason that there existed no men greater than she. Rather than seduce mere mortals, she created a mechanism to publicly and inexorably prove the gods’ love for her without having to submit sexually to men. She is not remembered for any disastrous battles because all her military exploits brought her people and her gods greater imperial wealth. There are no stories preserved about her conniving to procure cash because she had more money than anyone in the known world. She is not remembered for her nasty death because there is no evidence of her expulsion, murder, or suicide.

Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right, a woman who could match her wit and energy to a task so seamlessly that she made no waves of discontent that have been recorded. For Hatshepsut, all that endured were the remnants of her success, props for later kings who never had to give her the credit she deserved.

Male leaders are celebrated for their successes, while their excesses are typically excused as the necessary and expected price of masculine ambition. A king’s risk taking is more likely to be perceived as crucial and advantageous, something that can bring great reward if he wins. Even the sociopathic narcissism of a male leader can be suffered. Women in power who do everything wrong offer great narrative fodder: Cleopatra, Jezebel and her daughter Athaliah, Semiramis, Empress Lü. They are dangerous, untrustworthy, self-interested to a fault. Their sexuality and powers of attraction can bring all to ruin. History has shown that a woman who pushes the envelope of ambition is not just maligned in the history books as a conniving, scheming seductress whose foolhardy and emotional desires brought down the good men around her, but also celebrated in infamous detail as proof that females should never be in charge. In this regard, ancient Egypt was surprisingly contemporary, allowing Hatshepsut any opportunity to rule in the first place.1

But Hatshepsut saved the day and her dynasty by paving the way for a baby king who was probably gnawing on his crook and flail during his own coronation. And what may consign Hatshepsut to obscurity is our inability to appreciate and value honest, naked, female ambition, not to mention actual power properly wielded by a woman. Posterity cherishes the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men—that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy, that their impolitic natures ruin carefully tended alliances, that their agenda on behalf of their children will endanger any broader political interests. These critical perceptions make it difficult to properly rank Hatshepsut’s achievements in history. We lose the opportunity to either laud her for her successes or dissect her methodologies and tactics. How does one categorize a female leader who does not follow the expected course of disaster and shame, one who instead puts everything to rights in the end, in a way so perfect that her masculine beneficiaries just sweep her victories under the rug and ignore her forever?

Why does Hatshepsut’s leadership still trouble us today? Female rulers are often implicitly branded as emotional, self-interested, lacking in authority, untrustworthy, and impolitic. The ancient Egyptians likewise distrusted a woman with authority, and this context makes Hatshepsut’s achievements all the more astonishing. For more than twenty years, she was the most powerful person in the ancient world. But when she finally died, all that she had built was instantly over; there would be no legacy.

Hatshepsut’s achievements are relevant to us precisely because they were ultimately rejected and forgotten—both by her own people and by the subsequent authors of history. She was the most formidable and successful woman to ever rule in the ancient Western world, and yet today few people can even pronounce her name. We can never really know Hatshepsut, but the traces she left behind teach us what it means to be a woman at the highest echelons of power: she transcended patriarchal systems of authority, took on onerous responsibilities for her family, suffered great personal losses, and shaped an amazing journey out of circumstances over which she had little control.

We do have a great deal of information about Hatshepsut and the Egypt of almost thirty-five hundred years ago, and from that I have built this story of her life and what she created. All the details that will give us insight into her anxieties, grief, disappointments, and aspirations—from government offices, countless bureaucrats, palaces and temples, riverboats and horse-drawn chariots to the diseases and illnesses that threatened her and her family—are vital to understanding this woman.

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, 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 life, beyond doing what their fathers or mothers had done before them. My Egyptological work on social life has enabled me to re-create Hatshepsut’s world as best I can and thereby to know her better.

I have spent two decades studying the remnants that ancient Egyptians left behind—letters, receipts, funerary texts, coffins, funerary bandages, magical talismans—any attempt by people to work their social circumstances into something better. Most ancient Egyptians used the meager tools they had available to effect small changes in their lives—bribing an official to get a craftsman’s job, demanding testimony from family members to divorce a husband who was physically abusive when he drank too much beer, disowning children in a last will and testament if they did not care enough for their parents—all the while knowing that most of life was already written by forces far beyond anyone’s ability to change them. Hatshepsut was born into the highest echelons of society, to be sure, but even she had plenty of obstacles in her path, not least of which was her female identity. It took all her perseverance and creativity to strategize a change in her social circumstances beyond society’s perceived expectations. Hatshepsut was a rare human being, a woman able to see beyond the machine and set forces in motion to shape her own destiny. She effected the ultimate change to make herself king. She did everything right, but none of it mattered. She was maligned not just by the ancient Egyptian rulers who followed her but also by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egyptologists who were suspicious of her motivations and ready to judge her for taking what did not rightfully belong to her.

Hatshepsut’s story should teach us that women cannot rule unless they veil their true intent and proclaim that their pretentions are not their own but only for others. They must claim to sacrifice themselves to service, declare that they have been chosen by providence or destiny for such a role, and assert that they never sought such authority for themselves. If a woman does not renounce ambition for ambition’s sake, she will be viewed as twofaced or selfish, her actions fueled by ulterior motives. Maybe Hatshepsut was so intent on climbing the ladder to power, one rung at a time, that she never grasped these truths; perhaps she believed that she could change the system. And maybe we still believe the same thing.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!