Interview with Kara Cooney

Published: November 5, 2018

Dr. Kara Cooney is recognized on UCLA’s campus as an associate professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Language and Cultures. Outside of academia, she has worked on two Discovery Channel documentary series,  Out of Egypt and The Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen, which allowed her to enter the creative realm of television. Kara describes herself as being a great communicator, and this impressive skill can been seen in the various trade books she writes for the public audience. Her first book, The Woman Who Would Be Queen, was published in 2014 and her latest book, When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt, was released on October 30, 2018.

With her love for communicating, Kara tries to make herself and her research as accessible as possible to the public and her students. She interact with various individuals through her Twitter, her new book tour When Women Ruled the World (she will be in L.A. on February 25, 2019), and her class Ancient Near East 15: Women and Power in Ancient World which can be taken as a hybrid (online) class or in-person. Even while she’s busy promoting her new book, Kara was able to sit down and tell us more about her research in academia, the success of AN N EA 15 as a hybrid class, and the importance of talking about ancient female rulers and the patriarchy – especially in today’s political climate.


When did you first decide you wanted to become an Egyptologist?

I didn’t know there was such a thing as an Egyptologist when I was a junior in college. At that time, I was a German and Humanities Honor double major with a focus on Ancient Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and I applied for a Marshall Scholarship and became a finalist. I had to decide what I was going to do with my life, so I started looking at different programs offered at the University of Oxford. While I always knew that I was interested in Ancient Studies, the idea of what I wanted to pursue hit me quite late in my college career. Back in those days, you could start a PhD without having a Masters, so I began my PhD in Egyptian Art and Archeology at Johns Hopkins University after graduation.

How did you decide to focus your research on coffin studies, gender studies of rule, and economies in the ancient world?

I grew up in a very competitive society in Houston and at a young age, I became interested in why people used certain materials and what kind of prestige they associated with those types of material. When applying this idea to the ancient world, the coffin is actually a key material object that one can study to find out how people used objects to show they were wealthier than others. In today’s society, you can compare the use of a coffin to a wedding dress. A bride displays her socioeconomic status, region, race, and who she is trying to impress based upon what her dress looks like. When we talk about coffins, it’s not about the dead, it’s all about the wealth of the living who bury their dead and the prestige of their family moving forward. Even during the Bronze Age collapse, the elite did not abandon their practices of competing to see who had the most wealth through material objects. I like to think about how we all need to stop these wasteful practices and habits  – we get stuck in this cycle of continuing to do the same things because they’ve been rewarded in past generations.

As for how I decided to focus my research on gender studies of rule, I would say that this topic keeps finding me. I did not want to be the stereotypical female who studies females from the past, but in 2006, a producer asked me to do a documentary on Hatshepsut and I felt like it was Hatshepsut herself asking me to tell her story. Some questions I like to pose are the following: Why are females so systematically barred from power? How did some women, Hatshepsut included, find ways around this? Especially in today’s political climate and the #MeToo movement, I feel that now more than ever, it is important to share these women’s stories and inspire today’s women to find ways around the patriarchy.

What did the success of Ancient Near East 15: Women and Power in the Ancient World as the first online class offered by the Department of Near Eastern Language and Cultures, mean to you?

As I move forward with my career, I realize that I am a very good communicator. While my books and social media platforms allow me to communicate with the public, and my classes allow me to communicate with college students, I always feel the need to communicate with more people. This hybrid class (half online, half in-person) allowed me to grow an extra pair of arms and teach a group of students who could more easily access the lectures through their computers on their own time. I found that a lot of women who take Ancient Near East 15 are in the STEM field and are exhausted when they arrive in the lecture hall. Now with this hybrid class, they are able to organize and prioritize their work and not have to be at the lecture hall at a specific time. Students are able to benefit from the lectures not being on campus, and I get to make more of myself by pre-recording the lectures in advance so that way I can be somewhere else as well. I’m very happy with the way the class turned out.

What was your favorite process of filming Out of Egypt?

What I loved about filming Out of Egypt is that it made me go out of Egypt – I was forced to leave my comfort zone and traditional academic stomping ground. In academia, you have to remain conservative and not go too far out of the box. On television, I was able to think more radically and creatively, and that was very liberating.

What inspired you to write the book The Woman Who Would Be King and why do you believe it is important that Hatshepsut’s story needs to be told?

This book was written against my better judgment, as I thought that I had other stories to tell. When I was talking to my literary agent, I told him/her that I couldn’t write about Hatshepsut because she ruled in the 18th dynasty and my research focuses on the 19th dynasty. Despite these hesitations, it felt like Hatshepsut was tapping me on the shoulder saying “you need to tell my story.” This book is about female power and understanding female power through Hatshepsut’s eyes and her decision-making strategies.

If you ask someone at a bus stop who Jezebel was, they would respond by saying “Oh yes, she’s a bad woman.” And if you ask another person who Cleopatra was, they would say something like “Oh yes, I associate her with lovers, Roman emperors, and suicide.” If you ask a third person about Hatshepsut, you would probably receive a quizzical look. Hatshepsut, a woman who left Egypt better than she found it and set her nephew up to become a great king, has been erased from our cultural memory and what we recall instead are the failures of female rulers before us. With this book, I wanted to demonstrate how success is transferable, and how many women in the workplace have had their achievement and success changed by the patriarchy. I am not a revisionist historian, I am very much a realist when it comes to feminism. I wanted to point out the truth and delve into the reason why she has been forgotten, and then resurrect her from the past.

What can we expect to learn more about on your “When Women Ruled the World” tour?

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt focuses on six women, six queens of Egypt, who are pawns over a patriarchy they have no control over. During this tour, I will be trying to examine human hostility: the distrust and hostility towards female in power. The 2016 and 2018 elections are two recent examples of this hostility, and especially how the suggested lies of a woman are much more powerful than the outright lies of a man. I like to push individuals to question why that is. Why do women with power still speak for the patriarchy? Why is there no sisterhood? While in today’s society I am liberated in complex L.A. with a job and power, the patriarchal system does not allow me to move forward with my power.

I believe that evolutionary biology holds the answer to this question because it holds humanity back from trusting women in power. Cognitive scientists have shown that female emotionality is more connected than males, and females commit less violent acts. To put it simply: women rule differently. This is called gender essentialism, and it shocks many people. Along gradients, women rule differently than men based upon emotionality, and we need to figure out how to work through this and not become slaves to the standard patriarchy system.

What is your favorite aspect of the ongoing research for your 21st Dynasty Coffins Project?

My favorite aspect of my ongoing research is how I am able to geek out and look into various topics like the pigments used in Egyptian blue and how fashion styles changed over time. I also think it’s fun to see how our work shocks the public. To be a paradigm shifter and turnover the ways we think about something is truly incredible.