Cleopatra and Feminism in Ancient Egypt

9 years ago

Two weeks ago, Stacy Schiff wrote a rocking historical feminist op-ed in the New York Times about Cleopatra, but so much more than Cleo. She examined the role that women leaders are relegated to in history, due mostly to who historically controlled how history was told and recorded. (Hint: wealthy males; history is written by the victor; blah blah blah.)

Schiff wrote:

Cleopatra died more than 2,000 years ago, at the age of 39. Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag.

From her point of view there was nothing irregular about the arrangement. Cleopatra arguably had more powerful female role models than any other woman in history. They were not so much paragons of virtue as shrewd political operators. Her antecedents were the rancorous, meddlesome Macedonian queens who routinely poisoned brothers and sent armies against sons. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother waged one civil war against her parents, another against her children. These women were raised to rule.

I don't know why I think these are some of the most beautiful paragraphs ever written about a historical figure, but I do. Every time I read those words, I get chills. That's right: women are meant to be rulers as much as men. (Plus there's the whole thing about women not being more morally pure than men and therefore overseeing eras of peace and love, which is a ridiculous stereotype that a lot of feminists like to perpetrate since it is a positive one, but I'm digressing...)

Alas, this brings me back to the bias toward the wealthy that we have in historical documents. At Stuff You Missed in History Class, Candace Keener summarizes a podcast debate on feminism in ancient Egypt:

...we discussed whether evidence such as a healthy handful of female rulers, property rights for women and Herodotus’ observations of women trading in the marketplace while men toiled away at home added up to the grand conclusion that this was the first feminist culture. And we concluded that no, it was not. Life in ancient Egypt was pretty wonderful if you were a wealthy woman. If you were a lower-class citizen, you were not afforded these same progressive rights.

While I was scrolling to get to Keener's post, I nearly jumped out of my seat in the student lounge (where I am cheerfully blogging away while all the other students cram for finals) because Jane McGrath wrote about my favorite female historical figure who has been written out of history: Pope Joan!!! I know that Pope Joan is only tangentially related to the topic, but I was so excited thatI couldn't wait to write a separate post about her - the link love had to be whipped out now, which of course means that I probably blew my load for a future post on Pope Joan, but whatever. Sometimes a girl just can't wait.

Back to Cleopatra, Sheril Kirshenbaum at the Discover blog Instersection reports:

Today Kathleen Martinez, a young archaeologist from the Dominican Republic, is passionate to learn the truth about a woman she describes as ‘way ahead of her time.’

The last queen of Ancient Egypt, she told me, “spoke nine languages, she was a philosopher, she was a poet, she was a politician, she was a goddess, and she was a warrior.”

Why the renewed media fervor? It’s reported that Martinez’s team may be close to finding the long-lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra

Of course, you know where this is going: a stupid debate over whether Cleopatra was really "hot" or not. The idea behind this inanity is that of course beauty is standard across all cultures and historical eras. This is clearly why everyone in the world is attracted to Giselle Bundchen.

What? There is more to a woman than her body or face? And not all ethnic groups have the same beauty standards? Sorry, silly me. Ah, Cleopatra. You are a weirdly appropriate metaphor for our human foibles, but I think that you are pretty cool.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, is about unusual things to see and do in New York City.

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