Last weekend (November 3-5) the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities held their 42nd Annual Symposium on Aegyptus: Under Roman Rule at the University of Toronto. In addition, there was a two day Scholars’ Colloquium held on the Friday and Sunday when scholars come to present their original research on any topic related to Egyptian history. There were many great speakers including, but not limited to: Prof. Jean Revez, Prof. Jean Li, Dr. Edmund Meltzer and Prof. Kerry Muhlestein. I also presented the paper on female masculinity, entitled “The Ascending Gender Paradox,” posted below.
Female Masculinity: The Ascending Gender Paradox
Good morning. My paper today is part of a broader study on gender fluidity and women’s roles in the New Kingdom. We know from recent history that when war called for men to fight abroad, it was the women who stayed behind and carried out the traditionally male occupations. The situation at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty must have been similar. With the creation of an Egyptian empire, soldiers were now required to march year round, which resulted in a deficit of able-bodied men at home to perform the mundane tasks in the “real” world. My goal is to understand this phenomenon in the New Kingdom and explore how femininity and masculinity were perceived. Today I will discuss images of female masculinity within the royal family.
I argue that to a large extent gender has been culturally constructed, and that society created the appropriate roles for men and women. What is intriguing about the symbolism of power employed during the New Kingdom by royal women is that it brings women into the historical spheres of the political and economic, when often women’s history has been about sex and the family. It is this new gendered imagery from the New Kingdom that appears in conjunction with sovereignty and dominion, that helps maintain the social order, but also promotes change.
It’s been noted by countless scholars that beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty the role of royal women in the politics of ancient Egypt intensifies. This is a rare example in Egyptian history when war, diplomacy and high politics embrace the relationship between men and women. The usurpation of masculine images and prerogatives by queens legitimized their authority, conventionalized their image of power, allowed them to appropriate male privilege, and permitted them to replicate the symbolism of the divine creator gods. This phenomenon escalates at the end of the Seventeenth Dynasty, and culminates in the reign of Tawosret at the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty. I will make the following argument: Queens during the New Kingdom undercut the assumed connection between men and masculinity, and they demonstrated when and how a non-dominant masculinity could be utilized for domination and rule.
Here are some terms I will be using. First, the most recent use of the word “gender” refers to the socially constructed attributes of being male or female, or of femininity or masculinity. This rejects the biological determinism that’s understood in the term “sex.” Biological determinism refers to the theory that biological factors, as opposed to social and environmental factors, determine psychological and physical traits.
There are two scholars whose work is foundational for my research. Raewyn Connell’s work on masculinities theorizes a hierarchy of masculinities, which consists of multiple forms. And, Jack Halberstam’s work on female masculinity suggests that it could be separated from men. His work provides a model to help understand that while still supporting conventional attributes of kingship, royal women also challenged the contemporary form of hegemonic masculinity and subverted Egypt’s hetero-patriarchal culture. This study of New Kingdom queens exposes that female masculinity was another form of masculinity that existed in the past.
During the New Kingdom, there were many notable queens who deserve some discussion, but I am going to give you only snapshots of royal women, using gender as an analytical tool. So in other words, I am going to present some examples of royal women, who masculinized their public image to represent and enforce their power. Then I am going to explore why they did this and what it meant. I will spend most of my time exploring the case of Hatshepsut, one of the most unique and intriguing queens of ancient Egypt.
In an attempt to understand the gender dynamics of ancient Egypt, some scholars have assumed a male-female binary existed, similar to the traditional western view. Others have suggested that gender was more fluid and less firmly binarized. In point of fact, ancient Egypt offered both a male-female binary, in that gods, people, and words, could be categorized as either masculine or feminine, and it proffered a fluid gender system. It was this variability that allowed queens to manipulate their gender in creative ways for their own political gain. Male and female elements could be combined to make new compositions that could fit anywhere on the gender spectrum.
What is fascinating is that New Kingdom queens demonstrated that masculinity could be separated from the male body. Their gender tampering was not supposed to be an imitation of maleness, but rather it identified a “counterfeit masculinity” that was free from maleness. To us, masculinity embodies the qualities that have been culturally ascribed to men, and therefore mark the male gender. But these attributes need not be assigned exclusively to men.
Royal women used a multiplicity of strategies to masculinize their public image to give it agency and make it more efficacious in achieving their goals. Masculinity invoked legitimacy, privilege and power, and gender was not beyond their control.
Now, this option was not open to all women in ancient Egypt, but for those like Hatshepsut who already had an abundance of power, masculinity could be appropriated for political gain. Female masculinities offered alternate modes of masculinity that detached power from men, in the case of Hatshepsut, from Thutmose III. Hatshepsut’s gender presentation was complex and productive, and her masculinity was a product of her profession and her status. This was how she produced power and fostered new political relationships.
There are three concepts that preface female masculinity in the New Kingdom: creator deities as androgynous beings, the office of kingship as androgynous, and the fragmented nature of female rebirth. Lana Troy suggests that the character of the creator deities was expressed through the inversion of gender roles, the symbolic inversion of sexual function, and male-female composites. Creator deities exemplified a male-female binary superimposed by gender fluidity, and this reveals that androgyny characterized creation in ancient Egypt. In this context, the queens’ composite representations for political legitimacy would have been unremarkable. The main point is that queens’ gender manipulation was founded on the millennia-old canon of gender fluidity.
It is imperative to note that the notion of ancient Egyptian kingship was also androgynous. It was a construct that could vacillate between male and female manifestations of power.
Lastly, following Kara Cooney and Heather McCarthy, female rebirth in ancient Egypt entailed a sexual transformation. It was masculine creativity that allowed for the rebirth of the deceased, and a woman could access this regenerative power in several ways. For example, a woman’s name could be combined with that of Osiris’ and she likened to a male god. Also, throughout the New Kingdom a woman’s funerary equipment could be adapted to take on the male gender. Sometimes this was done through the use of masculine pronouns in the funerary inscriptions.
So let’s talk about some of these “masculinized” representations of royal women. My narrative begins at the end of the Seventeen Dynasty with the struggle against the Hyksos. I will discuss Ahhotep, Ahmose-Nefertari, Hatshepsut, Tiye, Nefertiti, Ankhesenamun and Tawosret, but the masculine images and prerogatives I’ve collected are not limited to these queens.
Ahhotep, the sister-wife of Seqenenre Tao II and daughter of Teti-Sheri was the first of several mothers during the New Kingdom to act as co-regent to her young son, after the unexpected death of his predecessor. And, it is possible that during this time, Ahhotep participated in combat, exercised command on the battlefield and administered military operations. Ahmose acknowledged his mother’s dedication on a stela he set up at Karnak:
“She has looked after her (Egypt’s) soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters; she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels”
This inscription has been interpreted to mean Ahhotep led the Egyptian army and made significant decisions in battle, possibly taking up arms to protect Thebes and exercising real authority. She could have done this while Ahmose was still very young, or perhaps later, when he was abroad fighting. The chronology is confused.
Additionally, despite the disorder surrounding the recovery of Ahhotep’s coffin and burial goods in 1859, there were some intriguing finds which included ceremonial axes, three gold and bronze daggers, a necklace with three golden flies of valor, and an armlet thought to be an archer’s bracer. These items have been identified as conventionally masculine burial items and suggest the occupant had a military role of some sort. Kamose’s name appears on some of the objects but the name Ahmose appears more frequently, which has led scholars to postulate that Ahhotep was buried by her son Ahmose. Unfortunately, there is no scholarly consensus on whether the Ahhotep buried with these items at Dra Abu el-Naga is the mother of Ahmose or another Ahhotep. But either way, these women were commemorated for their participation in the military—a traditionally masculine sphere of activity.
Later, King Ahmose married both of his sisters, but it was Ahmose-Nefertari who became his chief Queen. Ahmose-Nefertari, King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, and King’s Great wife, also bore a new title— God’s Wife of Amun. This title gave her control over land, goods and a staff of male administrators.
Like her mother before her, Ahmose-Nefertari acted as regent to her young son Amenhotep I. Then, she resumed her role as partner to her son after he became a childless widower. After her death she was worshipped, along with her son, at the village of Deir el-Medina and was revered as a goddess of resurrection.
Ahhotep, Ahmose-Nefertari and her mother Ahmose not only acted as strong role models for Hatshepsut, but they also created a foundation on which she could base her own power. Now, Hatshepsut has attracted a great deal of attention for doing gender wrong, at least according to us. Today we are restricted in what we can learn about Hatshepsut personally, but the images that remain exemplify Hatshepsut as the virile woman, who broke the bond between masculinity and the male body.
Several scholars have claimed that Hatshepsut definitely dressed as a woman in “real-life,” while others have suggested that she may represent a third gender. Further still from the point, are scholars who theorize that she was transgender or that she was a cross-dresser. The truth of the matter is that we have no idea how she dressed from day to day since the art and artifacts that emerged from her campaign of visual representation limit our image of her. So, it needs to be acknowledged that we can only know how Hatshepsut wanted to be perceived in her capacity as king of Egypt—her public image.
Hatshepsut is the best-documented female sovereign from ancient Egypt. In her repertoire of preserved statuary and relief work, her compositional image as king is displayed in a variety of ways. She feminized aspects of the kingship and she masculinized elements of her biological sex. Through the development of her image, Hatshepsut eventually makes her female sex invisible. She negotiated her image and she managed to generate what she needed—to create what was deficient.
Hatshepsut had two issues to contend with: she was a woman and Egypt already had a legitimate king. There was a strong need for her and her administration to validate her reign and to display her legitimacy. She accomplished this in several ways. If her most controversial method was manipulating her gender, this was only one component of a complex campaign. The dual kingship gave Hatshepsut access to certain venues to promote her own authority and to present her policy and political self-definition. Even before she took the throne she had control over the official iconography of the central power. In the beginning Hatshepsut is totally absent in the official imagery of the kingship, but she gradually ascends in the imagery by obliterating Thutmose III. According to the tomb inscription of the official Ineni, Hatshepsut was in control of Egypt. She embraced the civic role of head of state and advanced the kingdom by building for the gods, leading military expeditions to Nubia, and organizing long distant trade missions. Hatshepsut built a monumental temple for her cult at Deir el-Bahri and included sanctuaries for other deities as well. She also abandoned her queen’s tomb and initiated the construction of a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings. In her monumental artwork, she placed herself in a dominant position in relation to her co-regent, Thutmose III.
There were compelling reasons for Hatshepsut to modify her gender, and the results of her public “cross-dressing” and were very effective. The use of a masculine guise gave Hatshepsut access to male social privilege and allowed her to by-pass the political restrictions of womanhood. Through her masculinity Hatshepsut acquired mobility and social power.
Now Hatshepsut was not the first female ruler to use masculine garb to manipulate her gender. However, she appears to have engaged in this sort of operation more consistently than anyone else. There is a statue of Queen Nefrusobek from the 12th Dynasty that illustrates this queen in male attire…and female attire.
Some consider Hatshepsut’s reign unsuccessful and assume a woman on the throne was unacceptable. This is not the message that the masculinization of her public representation should convey. Instead, we might appreciate the success of Hatshepsut’s experiment in using her non-dominant form of masculinity to challenge hegemonic ideals and to craft her authority. She ruled for over twenty years and Egypt prospered. Her successor, Thutmose III, maintained both her circle of officials and her plan to restore monuments Egypt-wide, which confirmed respect for her decisions. So perhaps Hatshepsut was doing gender right.
Hatshepsut is not the only historical figure to provide evidence that our modern perceptions of the gender binary in the New Kingdom are inaccurate. Here Senemut, one of Hatshepsut’s most important officials takes care of the princess Neferure.
Before I move ahead to the Amarna Period, and for the sake of chronological order, I present one of the queens of Thutmose IV, Iaret(?), wielding a mace and standing behind her husband as he smites Egypt’s enemies. This image of her is from a stela dating to year 7 that was found at the temple of Amada in Nubia. Here we do not see the masculinization of the queen’s body, but instead the appropriation of a masculine prerogative, the upholding of maat accomplished through the smiting of Egypt’s enemies.
Now to the Amarna Queens. During the reign of Amenhotep III Egypt was stable and prosperous and this affluence allowed Amenhotep III to build profusely throughout Egypt. Because of this, many images of his Queen, Tiye, survive. Several remarkable representations illustrate the queen of equal size with her husband. In the tomb of Kheruef, her strength and ability to act were presented in the form of a female sphinx trampling female captives. The sphinx was half lion and half king, and from the beginning it was invariably male. Between the chair legs there is another image of female captives.
Her usurpation of male prerogatives was not limited to decorative motifs; Queen Tiye was also known throughout the Near East and she involved herself in diplomatic correspondence with other great powers. Upon the death of her husband, international letters arrived at Tell el-Amarna addressed to her.
Now androgyny is a definitely a hallmark of the Amarna period and is quite evident in Akhenaten’s public image as an earthly representation of the asexual creator god, Aten. On a domestic stela, Akhenaten’s interaction with his children is also significant and reminiscent of the images of Senenmut. Here Nefertiti faces her husband, instead of sitting behind him, and her chair is more elaborate than her husbands’. She also takes on an androgynous body shape, with her positioning suggesting the masculinization of her political role. Additionally, blocks from the Hwt-benben show Nefertiti performing the king’s role as a priest, and on a block from Hermopolis she smites Egypt’s enemies. The relationship between Akhenaten and Nefertiti is gender fluid and the two can move across the gender spectrum at will. And of course, there is the likelihood of Nefertiti having ruled both as co-regent with her husband, and also independently after him.
Their daughter Ankhsenpaaten is noteworthy because of an intriguing passage found in the Manly Deeds of Suppiluliuma. The letter is addressed to the Hittite king:
“My husband has died, I do not have a son. But, they say, you have many sons. If you would give me one of your sons he would become my husband. I shall never pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband…he will be my husband and King of Egypt.”
This letter is unparalleled. Not only did Ankhsenpaaten actively pursue a husband, but she engaged in international correspondence, suggested she, a princess, marry a foreigner, invited an outsider to enter the Egyptian court, and proceeded as if a king attempting to establish a diplomatic marriage. Unfortunately, the Hittite prince Zananza was murdered on his way to Egypt.
There are several well-known Ramesside queens, but I would like to close my talk with a few remarks on Tawosret. She began her career as chief queen to Seti II who ruled for six years, she then moved to the position of regent during the reign of Siptah, and then finally rose to the job of pharaoh. Tawosret was universally accepted as ruler and she had control over all of Egypt.
Several parallels can be drawn between Tawosret’s reign and that of Hatshepsut. Both women were of royal birth, both were daughters or granddaughters of a king, and both were queens before they became pharaohs. Also, they were each the chief queen of the previously deceased pharaoh when they became regent and neither of their co-regents were their biological sons.
Unlike the evidence for the reign of Hatshepsut, there is only one known statue of Tawosret as ruler, which was discovered at Medinet Nasr in 1971. This headless statue shows a seated woman who is identified by the inscriptions as Tawosret. She is dressed in masculine garb and the remains of the lappets of her nemes-headdress are still visible on her shoulders. She wears a broad collar around her neck, sandals on her feet and a long pleated garment. According to Gae Callender, in the post-Amarna Period men and women wore similar clothing, but according to others this example is clearly the type worn by men. Her body, however, is female. Most of the titles and epithets are in the masculine form, but her two cartouche names give her a feminine gender.
Tawosret took advantage of her royal status and her position as co-regent by gaining access to certain venues to promote her own authority and to present her policy. Tawosret not only built a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and a Mansion of Millions of Years, but she also erected monuments at Giza and at several Delta sites. She built throughout Egypt, maintained trade and commercial contact with the Near East, promoted good will in the region, and solidified alliances despite the ensuing turmoil. There is some evidence to suggest Asiatics invaded Egypt around this time, and if this happened during the reign of Tawosret she must have defended Egypt militarily. There is a curious ostracon from the 20th dynasty in the Cairo Museum that depicts a queen in a war chariot firing arrows at a male enemy. It is possible that Tawosret was also a military commander like some of the queens who came before her.
Despite Tawosret’s many similarities with Hatshepsut, there were several significant distinctions between their reigns. While Hatshepsut’s image slowly transitioned into the masculine, Tawosret retained her female identity and only supplemented her representation with male regalia and dress. Tawosret combined masculine and feminine royal symbols but never reached a fully masculinized state; for example, in her tomb she appears wearing the blue war crown of a king but carrying a lily scepter, or queen’s flail. Tawosret appears as Pharaoh in some images and as King’s Great Wife in others: She embodied both royal offices. So, Tawosret’s gender fluidity revealed itself in her deeds and her official image. It is through her titles “Lady of Strength,” “Lady of Action,” and “She who Subdues Foreign Lands” that Tawosret confirmed that a woman could embrace female masculinity, and that it was an effective strategy to gain support and maintain control. Through her statuary and relief-work she negotiated within the patriarchal system, and again corroborated that masculinity could derive from outlets other than maleness.
There are several theories that might account for this historical change. One such theory pertains to the many princes who ascended to the throne in the New Kingdom, who were too young to rule alone. We have examples from early Egyptian history as well, such as Meritneith from the First Dynasty, who acted as co-regent with her son Den, and Ankhnesmeryre II from the end of the Sixth Dynasty, who probably took the throne along with her very young son Pepy II. So, mothers as coregents was not a new phenomenon, but in the New Kingdom it occurs on multiple occasions in a relatively short period of time. Another trend to consider is that in the New Kingdom princesses didn’t marry outside of the royal family. This practice decreased the number of claimants to the throne and allowed the royal family to maintain power. Likewise, brother-sister marriages, which had always been the norm, now converted to father-daughter marriages. The nature of these marriages is controversial and many think that these relationships entailed only the elevation of the daughter to a prominent position. An additional reason for the breakdown of traditional gender roles at this time may be the empire, and the need for a standing army. So, again, I return to my initial suggestion that women needed to take more responsibility at home while the men were away fighting.
To conclude, many queens re-gendered their image through a series of sophisticated campaigns incorporating many parts. The masculinization of the female body was reclaimed for the political purpose of dominion and authority. It was Hatshepsut who made maleness non-essential to masculinity. All of the queens I have mentioned today were able to negotiate their positions within patriarchy through their campaigns of visual representation. It is indeed possible that acting in their positions of authority encouraged the masculinization of their public images, and that their genders shifted with their jobs. In the case of Hatshepsut, her masculinization was not a disguise; this phenomenon sought to construct her identity as king, not as a man. Only masculine iconography existed to recognize kingship. The masculinization of the public image of royal women was more pronounced after her reign than it was before. Royal women negotiated with patriarchy and operated to access the privilege, power and legitimacy associated with men.
Presented on Friday, November 3, 2017 at the SSEA Scholars’ Colloguium in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Statue of Hatshepsut from her temple at Deir el-Bahri. Photograph by Kelly-Anne Diamond
Hatshepsut’s Temple at Deir el-Bahri. Photograph by Kelly-Anne Diamond
Tawosret’s Mansion of Millions of Years, 19th Dynasty. Photograph by Kelly-Anne Diamond