If you have an Audible membership, you have access to free audiobooks and Audible originals such as The Great Courses series. In Powerful Women Who Ruled the Ancient World, Professor Kara Cooney delivers twelve lectures about ancient women in positions of power, power dynamics, and the misogyny within ancient cultures. These were thought-provoking courses that made me want to learn more about some of these women and had me considering power dynamics and misogyny in our modern world when it comes to women who hold political power.

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The summary, from Amazon:

What is power and who is allowed to wield it? Why is female power so rare and, often, so feared? What can the women who gained power in the ancient world teach us about the contemporary world and our modern ideas of gender, authority, and equality?

Listeners will explore these and other questions as you travel back to the ancient world and uncover the stories of remarkable women who overcame a host of barriers to wield power in a male-dominated world. From Egypt and Mesopotamia to China and Rome, you will meet women who worked strategically to gain unprecedented influence and you will see how their stories echo through the centuries, offering surprising relevance to our understanding of gender and sexual dynamics today.

In Powerful Women of the Ancient World, Professor Kara Cooney will share the stories of women who rose to power through ambition; intelligence; skill; and sheer determination. First, you will take a look at what power actually is – how it is defined, how different kinds of power operate, and why women and men are often viewed differently when power is involved. Then, meet the women of the ancient world who challenged the status quo by grasping for and holding authority. Some names listeners will likely already recognize through their “cautionary tales”, such as Cleopatra and Jezebel. Others, though less well-known, will show you the different ways it is possible to be powerful. You will meet rulers like Empress Lü of China and Hatshepsut of Egypt, rebel leaders such as Boudica of Britain, religious leaders like the Hebrew prophetess Deborah, and more.

As listeners will learn, times may have changed since antiquity, but the past has a long reach – and in many ways, our cultural ideas about women and power are surprisingly slow to change.

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Cooney delivers 12 short lectures on women in the ancient world, from specific women such as Hatshepsut to groups of women such as those found in the Bible. She also discusses to context of the society they lived in. For all of these women, we see how their power existed in the context of men. Many sought to rule as regent for their son or to put their sons in power, while Cleopatra used her sexuality to obtain power when aligning herself with figures like Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

I could tell from Cooney’s cadent delivery how passionate and knowledgeable she was on this topic. While this is just an overview course, it was clear she knew even more information than what was shared. Listening to this course made me want to learn more about Hatshepsut and some of the other women mentioned.

The course also sets out to make listeners analyze not just women in a historical context, but women who hold power today. How do they obtain this power, and do they face similar blockades? I could see how some of these ancient stories are reflected even in today’s world.

One think that really interested me was the misogyny prevalent in Ancient Greece. Because of the powerful goddesses in the ancient Greek religion, I never realized how much the Greeks despised women. But it is evident that the goddesses were held to different standards than mortal women, and only those who remained virginal never appear to be unhinged in stories. Furthermore, the Greeks believed that love between men was more pure than love between a man and a woman. Though they didn’t consider these practices to be homosexual, it was common for men to have male sexual partners, because this form of love was considered untainted by women’s impurity. Just look at the myth of Pandora to see what this culture thought about women.

This wasn’t the only culture I liked learning about, though. There was something interesting in every lecture. I was left wanting more information, but it did what Cooney set out for it to do, which was cause me to think more. I have to give it 4 stars.

Find out more about how I rate books here.

Powerful Women Who Ruled the Ancient WorldPowerful Women Who Ruled the Ancient World by Kara Cooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These 12 lectures were quick and engaging. While they left me wanting more information, that was sort of the goal – to inspire more thought on women in power and power dynamics.

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Book Club Questions

  1. Which women had you heard of before this lecture series? Why hadn’t you heard of?
  2. Who was your favorite woman included in this series?
  3. Were you inspired to research any of these women or civilizations further after listening to this audiobook?
  4. How do the women, cultures, and power dynamics from this lecture series relate to today’s world?


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