Elders and Hunger in America
INTERESTING STUFF – 8 September 2012

The History of Old Age – Old Women

My new project on the history of old age is moving forward slowly. Mostly, right now, I'm researching sources, deciding how deep or scholarly I want this to be and gathering materials.

It would be good for me to be more orderly than I am but as I search out books and papers and reports, I get distracted by fascinating material. I thought you might be interested in some notes I've made from the early pages of The Long History of Old Age, edited by Pat Thane.

We are all familiar with the role of wise old men in the literature of ancient Rome and Greece and, often, in their art. Images and the position of women, on the other hand, were mostly negative.

“...a great deal of ink was spent on stereotypical aged females, not uncommonly portrayed in the most virulent and obscene terms as sex-crazed witches or alcoholics.”

So the accusation of witchcraft against old women is thousands of years old.

“Old women were dangerous – a curious belief founded partly on mistaken medieval idea, partly on the guilty knowledge that they generally had a just grievance against society.”

A physician who lived in south Germany writing in the 17th century explained why old women were so often accused of witchcraft:

“'They are so unfairly despised and rejected by everyone, enjoy no one's protection, much less their affection and loyalty...so that it is no wonder that, on account of poverty and need, misery and faint-heartedness, they often...give themselves to the devil and practise witchcraft.'

“A 70-year-old woman said at her trial: 'The children call all old people witches.'

“Special knowledge possessed by older women, for example about the cure of sickness, might be valued by the community as the characteristic wisdom of the old, or vilified as further proof of witchcraft.”

It wasn't bad for women at all times in all places. Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, portrayed the post-menopausal Wife of Bath as a strong older woman who, after four failed marriages with men her own age, found happiness with a man 20 years younger than she.

The condition of women varied widely not only over time but among cultures. It is interesting to note the differences but we should be careful not to judge prior behavior by today's standards.

Recall, too, that until the 19th and 20th century, Europe was divided into many small political units and custom could be very different from nation to kingdom to city state, etc. Plus, there were not a lot of social scientists in history to report the conditions of elders so we are stuck in many cases with gleaning what we can from surviving materials.

Thane tells us that

”In medieval and early modern Europe and, perhaps, in ancient Greece and Rome, women might gain more independence after menopause, sometimes more public responsibilities, as midwives, chaperones or adjudicators in community conflicts about sexual or other delicate matters.

“Rich widows had control over their wealth which married women lacked in all societies before the 20th century and some of them wielded it formidably.”

So there you are. A taste of what I've found so far about how old women lived and were treated through the past 2500 years. This is nowhere near complete nor is it meant to be. There will be more as the project moves along.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Barbara Sloan: When is War Real?


This promises to be a fascinating project. You've sure got my interest.

Sounds really interesting -- even all those years ago they regarded old people poorly. I wonder if what few women could gain a position of power they had to exercise their strength in order to retain it?

Interesting that "cradle robbers" or "cougars," as older women with younger men are sometimes called today, existed way back then.

Having wed a man seven years older than myself, without having given any thought to life longevity patterns, and now that I'm a widow much earlier in life than I was prepared to be, in my next reincarnation maybe I'll have some prompt that will lead me to, at least, a contemporary, or maybe it should be a man seven years younger.

Attitudes toward women have likely ebbed and flowed through the years, and culture to culture.

Biology makes women, on average, smaller than men, with less muscular strength. Generally, women tend to be less aggressive and more cautious. These things contribute to young women falling under the domination of men. However, perhaps the greatest factor in women's subjugation to men (in my opinion) is childbearing. Not only are women physically vulnerable during gestation, they are forced to rely on the patronage of men for protection and support of their children. That comes at a profound cost.

Women are valued for youth, beauty, and the ability to produce heirs. Crones have none of these, but they do have wisdom, and men do not want to hear wisdom from wrinkled old women. Thus, they become witches, to be burnt.

What's striking in some historical eras is that older women (post menopausal survivors, a small number) were thought of as sexually active, aggressive even. This in contrast to our society in which old women more often become invisible and are thought of as asexual.

I am looking forward to learning from this project.

I wonder how much influence "Grimm's Fairy Tales" had on the perception of old women being witches. Or perhaps the reverse was true and the culture actually feared old women then. An egg/chicken kind of thing.

I am interested in the fact that primitive cultures revere age. Why is this so when developed cultures either fear or dislike it? And did those same cultures have the same attitude about old men vs. old women?

This should be a fascinating study.

Ronni, wrting a book is a great idea - something new, different, dual-purpose and potentially profitable. A stratagem.

In my West Virginia families, the traditions were based in the ancient Scots, Irish, English respect for the wisdom and knowledge of old women,also known as herb or yarb women.

My grandmother Annie was a true matriarch, barely 5 feet tall and the heart of my Dad's family. She gave birth to several of her 9 children while living in a tent with nothing but a kerosene lattern while living in the woods with her husband who was laying pipe for a pipeline in the early 1900s.

One family story says that she pulled a gun on a vagrant who was trying to force her to give him some of her family's food. A story I wouldn't doubt for one minute. And I'm certain she would have shot him, too, without a qualm!

I am fortunate to come from a long line of strong, independent women like Annie.

This is a great project. And no one has ever done it! Imagine that. You've got the field to yourself.

I'm lucky to have many grandkids who still desire my company, some close friends, and my two sons who always appear in a crisis. Many of my like-aged friends are not so fortunate. Still I notice my adult children while they still need my help here and there, no longer seek my advice, nor did I seek my parents advice when I was their age (38-41). I imagine as more grandkids make it to high school having my company will slide down on the must scale. I will still keep up the contact and be there to cheer them on as my grandmothers did me. I only appreciated how they were there for me when I got into my 50s though. Kids need all the loving support they can get and at this time of life, I can bring that to table whether anyone notices or not. We talk about being older. One munchkin wanted to know if I was slower because I was old or if I was lazy. I managed an answer in a normal voice and we talked about what was possible and important to me at my age. Keep talking to the younger ones, especially the very youngest.

Interesting project, and the discussion of "dangerous old women" calls to mind the work of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes on that subject. You might be interested in the CD series, "Dangerous Old Woman" which I have now listened to at least 4 times and I find new bits of wisdom each time I hear them.
Thanks for doing what you do.

I have noticed as I have been reading fiction from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Dickens, Thackeray, Austin, Trollope, that there is a mine of information as to how people lived in those times. It is not necessarily accurate as would be anthropological or sociological studies, but certainly would provide some insight as to the treatment and roles of elderly people of those times. Also, remember that people didn't always live to a "ripe old age" back then...

The Wife of Bath may be strong but she also embodies the stereotype of the obscene old woman.

Researching old age recently I read (as I did in college but forgot the details) that in ancient India, say 2000 to 1000 AD life was divided into four ages. The life expectancy was 108 (Surprising but true.) The first 27 years were for education, the second 27 for family, community, responsible social involvement including merchants and artisans, the third 27 was a time to share one's wisdom and further it and retire from active life; in the forth period (81-108) was a time to retire from all social life and attend to one's spiritual well being in preparation for a peaceful death.

Contrast that with Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man; and contrast both with today's lives. Much to think about.

Some responses to comments:
1. The Wife of Bath is an earthy, sexually active, irreverent older woman. I don't consider that "obscene." (Have you read "Women Who Run With Wolves"?)
2. Yes, tribal indigenous cultures often had a valued role for older women. I'm thinking specifically of the Algonquin Native American nation.
3. I also come from a long line of Poland-born matriarchs whose rule over their extended roosts was never questioned.

So I'm wondering if your study is focusing mainly on European-based cultures, where elder women who were not wealthy seem to have been pretty powerless.

No, this is not a book. I'm just curious and want to learn all I can. I'm pretty sure there is some amount of conventional wisdom about elders in the past that is not true. I want to find out what is and is not so, or as much as is known.

Although the history of old age is not among the hottest scholarly topics, there are a few well-done and respected works that I will be relying on for at least a good start.

Elaine and others,
As I stated in my first post on this project, phase one (which may or may not be the only phase) will concentrate on European and European-influenced cultures.

I sense a bit of testiness or disapproval from some who seem to imply that I am shortchanging women somehow in not including indigenous cultures where women may (or may not) have been more respected or powerful than elsewhere.

Hey, my research, my choice.

Although I am essentially a mongrel, it's all European. With that and being an American, I am steeped to the bone in European influence. That's where I choose to begin this work.

Ronni -
I didn't mean to suggest that you should include tribal cultures. As a matter of fact, I am very interested to see what you come up with, since I too am of European extraction. While lots is known about the "old woman as witch/healer" angle, I'm curious to know what other roles she might have played in different countries during different eras. And I wonder how much any era's attitude toward the supremacy of youth and beauty affected how older women were viewed and treated. And how that all was affected by social/economic class. I know you're not writing a book, but it sure could become one!

You are so amazing. This is fascinating stuff!

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