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Queen Hatshepsut is probably the most famous female ruler of Ancient Egypt after Cleopatra.

Officially, she ruled jointly with Thutmose III, who had ascended to the throne the previous year as a child of about two years old. Hatshepsut was the chief wife of Thutmose II, Thutmose III's father.

At first glance this sounds like she was "just" the guardian of Thutmose III and representative of him until he came of age, but her actions and the way she presented herself point out that she was recognized and accepted as ruler (I'm intentionally avoiding the word "queen" here):

  • She build a new tomb worthy of a pharaoh (from Wikipedia: "Hatshepsut had begun construction of a tomb when she was the Great Royal Wife of Thutmose II, but the scale of this was not suitable for a pharaoh, so when she ascended the throne, preparation for another burial started."
  • There are several depictions of her with Thutmose III in which she has the more important role or more prominent position in front of a God, like in this example (Source: Wikipedia. Hieroglyphs showing Thutmose III on the left and Hatshepsut on the right, she having the trappings of the greater role — Red Chapel, Karnak)
  • She was depicted wearing the false beard, double crown and uraeus identifying her as king, which confused Egyptologists and led them to believe she was male for several decades.

This is called the "Hatshepsut Problem": that the queen of Egypt was depicted with male body and the male insignia of power - the false beard.

Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion wrote (source: Wikipedia again):

If I felt somewhat surprised at seeing here, as elsewhere throughout the temple, the renowned Moeris [Thutmose III], adorned with all the insignia of royalty, giving place to this Amenenthe [Hatshepsut], for whose name we may search the royal lists in vain, still more astonished was I to find upon reading the inscriptions that wherever they referred to this bearded king in the usual dress of the Pharaohs, nouns and verbs were in the feminine, as though a queen were in question. I found the same peculiarity everywhere...

I'd like to know which social classes during the reign of Hatshepsut where aware she was a woman. Any literate person in ancient Egypt would know about the biological sex of Hatshepsut if they read inscriptions using female verbs, but the number of those people was probably very small and limited to higher social classes. What about artisans and craftsmen who could read a simplyfied script? What about ordinary workers and farmers? Did those commoners who never saw her in person know she was a woman or did they assume she was a man?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. In particular I'd encourage @Boaz to compile some of the material in those moved comments into an answer.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 1 '20 at 16:04
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Thutmose I

It would be very unlikely that Hatshepsut managed to convince the people of the time that she was a man, considering she was the eldest daughter of Thutmose I, according to the Britannica.

Hatshepsut, Britannica encyclopedia

Hatshepsut, the elder daughter of the 18th-dynasty king Thutmose I

Thutmose I, by Captmondo A stone head, most likely depicting Thutmose I, at the British Museum

Thutmose II

What would make it even more unlikely that the people of the time would have been unaware, is that she was also the wife of her step brother, Thutmose II, according to Britannica.

Hatshepsut, Britannica encyclopedia

Hatshepsut, the elder daughter of the 18th-dynasty king Thutmose I and his consort Ahmose, was married to her half brother Thutmose II

Thutmose II, by G Elliot Smith The mummified head of Thutmose II

Thutmose III

She was also the regent and step mother of Thutmose III, who was still an infant when crowned pharoah, according to Britannica. So even less likely people would not know she is a woman considering she is at this point only acting as regent for the infant pharoah, and it was not until the seventh regnal year that she became crowned pharoah, and only then was she required to wear kings regalia, including fake beard. But up until this point she had been regarded as a queen, and depicted as such.

Hatshepsut, Britannica encyclopedia

But, by the end of his seventh regnal year, she had been crowned king and adopted a full royal titulary (the royal protocol adopted by Egyptian sovereigns). Hatshepsut and Thutmose III were now corulers of Egypt, with Hatshepsut very much the dominant king. Hitherto Hatshepsut had been depicted as a typical queen, with a female body and appropriately feminine garments. But now, after a brief period of experimentation that involved combining a female body with kingly (male) regalia, her formal portraits began to show Hatshepsut with a male body, wearing the traditional regalia of kilt, crown or head-cloth, and false beard. To dismiss this as a serious attempt to pass herself off as a man is to misunderstand Egyptian artistic convention, which showed things not as they were but as they should be.

Thutmose III, by Grafton Elliot Smith Mummified head of Thutmose III.

Damnatio memoriae

The confusion over whether or not Hatshepsut was a male or female would appear to have been caused by a Damnatio memoriae after her death.

Wikipedia, changing recognition

Toward the end of the reign of Thutmose III and into the reign of his son, an attempt was made to remove Hatshepsut from certain historical and pharaonic records — a damnatio memoriae. This elimination was carried out in the most literal way possible. Her cartouches and images were chiseled off some stone walls, leaving very obvious Hatshepsut-shaped gaps in the artwork.

Hatshepsut, by Keith Schengili-Roberts Large granite sphinx bearing the likeness of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, depicted with the traditional false beard, a symbol of her pharaonic power—Metropolitan Museum of Art

Britannica encyclopedia

This is of course supported by Britannica encyclopedia. She was actually removed from the king list according to Britannica, as well as statues torn down.

Hatshepsut, Britannica encyclopedia

Thutmose III ruled Egypt alone for 33 years. At the end of his reign, an attempt was made to remove all traces of Hatshepsut’s rule. Her statues were torn down, her monuments were defaced, and her name was removed from the official king list.

Did ordinary people during Hatshepsut's reign know she was a woman? They must have as she was a queen long before becoming recognised as a king. And before she became pharoah there appears to have been no effort to disguise that fact. It appears to be only after her death that confusion arose due to a Damnatio memoriae.

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  • Thank you very much for this elaborate answer. I think the puzzle piece that I was missing was "But now, after a brief period of experimentation that involved combining a female body with kingly (male) regalia, her formal portraits began to show Hatshepsut with a male body... as [she] should be"
    – Elmy
    Mar 6 at 15:28

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