The First Female Pharaoh

In honor of women's history month, I'll publish a series of posts about the five female pharaohs of Egypt: Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti [1], Twosret, and Cleopatra.

The first known female pharaoh is a woman named Sobekneferu. She was the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty, a time period spanning approximately 1985-1773 BC [2]. Sobekneferu inherited the throne from her predecessor, Amenemhat IV. The Ptolemaic Egyptian historian Manetho says that she was Amenemhat's brother, although Manetho is often unreliable, so we cannot say for sure. It is also possible that she was his wife or daughter. She probably became pharaoh because there was no male heir.

Fragment of a statue of Sobekneferu
Sobekneferu only ruled for four years, but she still accomplished a number of things. She added to Amenemhat III's mortuary temple at Hawara and built at Herakleopolis Magna [3].

We don't know how, or even if, Sobekneferu died at the end of her four-year reign. Only a few images of her survive. One is the fragment to the right. What is interesting about this statue is that it combines male and female dress: Sobekneferu wears the nemes headdress of a king but the gown of an Egyptian lady.

How did the female pharaoh's subjects view her? Were they scandalized by the thought of a woman as king, or did they accept it as a necessary and even beneficial arrangement? Was she well liked? Unfortunately, we don't know. The Egyptians were practical people, so it seems likely that, in the absence of a male heir, they didn't object to a female pharaoh.

[1] Some Egyptologists question the theory that Nefertiti ruled as pharaoh, but as more evidence comes to light the theory is becoming more acceptable.

[2]  Ian Shaw, ed., "Chronology," The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, 483.

[3] Gae Callender, "The Middle Kingdom Renaissance (c. 2055-1650 BC)," 159, in Shaw.


  1. I am intrigued that this female pharaoh wore a combination of the male and female clothing. I have loved ancient Eqypt since I was a child and used to pour over an old book my mother gave me: a picture history of archaeology - which has a great section on Egypt. I am looking forward to reading more!

  2. It is interesting, isn't it? The most famous female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, was occasionally depicted with a combination of male and female regalia early in her reign, if I remember correctly. Or maybe she just depicted herself with a female body and male clothing. I have a whole book about her, so I'll be able to write a lot more about her next week.