Blanche Parry

Compendium of Essays in celebration of International Women's Day 8th March 2013, produced by the International Longevity Centre UK:

Ageing and Women: Has the sisterhood forgotten older women?

The Older Woman in History

Eleanor of Aquitaine crossed the Pyrenees in winter when she was 77 years old1. She fetched her Castilian grand-daughter to marry the French king's heir. In 1200 this was a massive undertaking and she became 'fatigued with old age and the labour of the length of her journey2. Even into the 19th century such a journey required stamina for a woman in her seventies. Eleanor was indomitable. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, she married first King Louis VII of France and then Henry II of England, a change of husband with major diplomatic repercussions as her duchy belonged to her husband. Henry imprisoned her for supporting their sons against him, and she was only freed in her sixties. Apart from these ten years, Eleanor travelled their lands, being visible as overlord, duchess and queen.

Despite having independent wealth, a superb education, and enjoying good health, Eleanor had to be married for protection, and that meant being pregnant. The largest gap, of five years, was between the two daughters of her first marriage. Her second family of eight children mostly arrived each year, with two slightly longer gaps. She had no choice but to concentrate on child-bearing, but it did not stop her crossing the channel and moving residences, a necessity for large households at that time. It was after her last child's birth, when she was 44 years old, that she returned to politics.

Eleanor's determination to be in charge of her own destiny was paralleled by others. Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt was nearly 40 years old when, in 30 B.C., she committed suicide. A talented linguist, ruthlessly executing rivals, she nevertheless had to work through powerful men to try to retain the independence of Egypt. She appalled the Romans for women were not expected to behave as she did. The Romans had the same incredulous reaction to the British queen, Boudica, who, in 60-61 A.D., came very close indeed to driving the legions from Britain. Boudica, perhaps in her forties, fought to prevent the annexation of her lands. She may have been a figurehead for the revolt but there is no doubt that her part was significant.

Cornelia was educated, literate and a widow who refused remarriage. She supported her sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus who attempted popular reforms in Rome. On her death in 100 B.C., in her nineties, she was so revered that a statue was raised to her. Livia, wife of Augustus Caesar, was 87 years old when she died in 29A.D. She had two sons from her previous marriage but none with Augustus. They were married for 51 years. Livia has had a poor press but Augustus certainly valued her opinions. From 35 B.C. he allowed her to manage her own finances and in his will Augustus bequeathed her a third of his property. Roman writers disapproved, considering her influence unfeminine. It was easier to vilify Roman women whose exploits could be proved to be harmful to the state.

1. A.Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, 1999

2. Roger of Hovedon, or Howden, was the equivalent of a civil servant who wrote Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi et Gesta Ricardi I (The Deeds of the Second Henry and the Deeds of Richard I).

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