Interview with Elizabeth Wilson, Author of “The Queen Who Would Be King”

Wilson discusses what drew her to study the pharaoh, and Hatshepsut’s enduring allure

Hilda Rodriguez/Metropolitan Museum of Art

How did you become interested in Hatshepsut?

I live right near the Metropolitan Museum in New York—it's only two blocks away—and they have long owned an enormous collection of materials from Hatshepsut's reign. They have a Hatshepsut gallery, and I was familiar with this gallery and vaguely familiar with her because of that. But like so many people, my view of her was still the popular one: that she was this incredible shrew, she was just a power-mad virago who also had this torrid affair with her minister. So when I heard there was this big exhibition about her, I thought, well that'll make a good story—sex and lies in the Valley of the Kings. And then when I actually started to do some research into the more modern sources on her, I found out that this whole view of her that developed, mainly in the early 20th century and probably into the 1950s and '60s, was probably so erroneous. That was really what I thought would make an interesting article, that here is that woman from history who has been done so wrong, and now we realize that she may have been acting for really noble reasons. It's yet another instance in which we are reminded that history is a matter of opinion.

Can you think of similar instances of powerful women unfairly maligned by history?

Lucrezia Borgia—for so long she was this horrible Renaissance creature who was poisoning her husband and all that, and now we realize that she was really a rather sweet child, quite an innocent actually. Marie Antoinette, who apparently never said "let them eat cake."

Why do you think they get defamed like that? Is it misogyny, or just that people want intrigue and sex?

I asked the scholars about this, and to some extent it was men from a pre-feminist generation who were writing about these women, and any woman who stepped out of the subordinate role was a little scary and potentially suspicious. So I think that was part of it. But one of the other scholars said, also, those earlier historians wanted to tell a good story, and there was maybe a bit of Hollywood in them. So much of the early histories really are a lot more fun to read—how accurate they are is another thing. We all love a good story, that is certainly human nature. That was also the case with Cleopatra—she didn't look a thing like Elizabeth Taylor, she was really rather plain, but I can hardly see the word "Cleopatra" without thinking of Elizabeth Taylor and her iridescent eye shadow. And also the fact that Hatshepsut adopted this male appearance, that made a bad situation worse in a lot of people's eyes, because it seemed that she was denying her femininity, and these were conservative or conventional men who were writing her history, and they found that distasteful.

They had had women rulers though—Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria. Some historians have said that Elizabeth I was thought of as a king in a woman's body rather than just a queen.

There's a quote in which Queen Elizabeth talks about that—"I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king." And there was the example of Queen Victoria. Not every one of the early scholars thought Hatshepsut was out of line, because they had had Queen Victoria, so the idea of a female ruler was all right. Although Queen Victoria didn't dress up like a man.

Has Hatshepsut's image been rehabilitated among Egyptologists?

Yes. But what the scholars are trying to do now—and you know scholars—is to try and make us very aware of what we don't know. They say, "Well, we think maybe this, but please, please understand that so many of the things we did assume were wrong." It's that very cautious, careful process that modern scholars now use.

Sort of the opposite of the early Egyptologists?

In some ways. It's backed up, of course, by more precise methods of dating and scholarship. Trying to piece together Hatshepsut's reign is so difficult not only because it's ancient Egypt but also because of all the destruction that took place. So every time I interviewed a curator, the qualifiers and "we think" or "it probably seems" were just always there, and I respected that and tried to keep that in my article. To one of them, I said, "You know, I think it's an act of bravery to produce this catalog in which you are making statements, because there's so much that we don't know." And she said yes, it's actually really terrifying when you try and write something about this period, because you could be proven wrong so quickly.

You said that you had gone to the Hatshepsut room at the museum often—is there a particular piece that struck your fancy?

They have one of the heads of her as Osiris mounted up on a wall, and there's this sort of slight smile to her face. When I had the idea for this article, I went back to the Hatshepsut gallery and I looked around and there was a guard there, and he said, "You know, everything in this room is the same woman, is the same ruler…Hatshepsut." He went on and on about her, telling me her story—the more accurate version, by the way—and he was pointing out his favorite objects, and one of them was that big Osiris head. He said, "That's my favorite—she's got that Mona Lisa smile." And I realized that this guard, who spent a great deal of time in this room, had really developed a kind of a crush on her. And I thought, how lovely, that after all this time and all the things that have been said about her, there's this guard who now stands watch over her objects with a great deal of admiration and affection for her.

She still has her allure after all these years.

She really does. And maybe Senenmut did privately pine for her, I don't know. I think the guard is still there, and I think he'll look forward to having all of her objects come back so that he can stand watch over them again.