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Age and experience: Early Modern women’s perspectives

It’s newsworthy, apparently, when the cover of Vogue magazine features a woman over 70 years old. The New York Times recently devoted an article to the photograph of Miuccia Prada on the March 2024 cover, breathlessly noting that Prada was wearing little if any makeup, did not appear to be “posed,” and remarkably was not gazing at the camera, “looking elsewhere, thinking of something else.” Ordinarily, one would not think it surprising to see images of a powerful, wealthy, highly-educated—and attractive—woman in the public sphere. But her age….

The scrutiny of women’s age is hardly new. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century French salon culture was said to be “a woman’s paradise” of elegance, wit, and mild flirtation. However, actual women intellectuals and salonnières (salon hostesses) were frustrated by society’s emphasis on their physical appearance and the restraints on their behavior.

Old age and the activities and attitudes appropriate for the late stage of life are key topics in moralist reflections, from Cicero and Seneca to Montaigne. Nevertheless, as Anne-Thérèse de Lambert wrote in the early decades of the eighteenth century, male writers “work on behalf of men, and women are left to their own devices.” Lambert’s treatise on old age translates traditional reflections in terms that reflect women’s lives. In her more pointed “Discourse on the sentiments of a Lady who believed that love was appropriate for women who were no longer young,” her narrator juxtaposes the opprobrium attached to older women in love with the exceptional qualities of mind and heart of her friend Ismène, who holds the contrary opinion. Although the narrator ostensibly accepts the status quo (“I take the world as it is, not as it should be”), her essay ends with a scathing denunciation of a world in which men dictate the terms of women’s conduct: “everything is for them and against us.”

As I was working with these texts with retirement on my horizon, many of these women’s observations hit close to home. In one of Madeleine de Scudéry’s philosophical Conversations, the older Chrysante is universally admired for her wisdom, but her offer of mentorship to the younger Célinte is politely declined, since to be like Chrysante, Célinte would need to confront the reality of ageing.

Lambert sees the bucolic retreat from the world recommended by Cicero as a possibility for women, but she herself did no such thing: she maintained her influential salon until her death at age 86. At the end of the century, another powerful society hostess, Suzanne Necker, coolly observes, “When one is no longer young, one has nothing but religion, morals, friendship, and one’s mind: one should therefore live in retreat and often in solitude, because these benefits can only be cultivated far from other people…” Necker, however, maintained her salon until the French Revolution forced her and her husband, the former finance minister, to flee to Switzerland.

A common thread in many of these writings is relief that although old age poses its own physical and emotional hardships, it also provides a welcome relief from the expectations and constraints that weigh on young women. For Necker, “One is oneself at the end of life.” Constance de Salm mocks the “resignation of old age” as “the first stage of the declining mind,” but she saw at least one advantage: “being able to speak freely about any number of things that one could never say when one was young.” Journalist and essayist Pauline de Meulan Guizot writes a satirical piece from the perspective of a young woman who looks forward to growing old: “At sixty, one should shrug off others’ approval, so that they do not shrug at you. I can hardly wait to be sixty.” The older woman’s “gaiety can be less circumspect, her manners freer, her generosity more personal, her feelings more expressive.” If only, she concludes, one could have all that and be young and pretty too…

One of the most moving explorations of old age can be found in the late manuscripts of Geneviève Thiroux d’Arconville, written when she was in her 80s. In poor health and relatively reduced circumstances, mourning the deaths of friends and family members, she nevertheless found pleasure in writing, exploring ideas, and delighting in quirky language. Beginning an essay “On Commerce,” she digresses: “My old brain cannot seem to come up with anything to feed my pen, despite my unfortunate need, even if 82 years of existence should excuse me from the effort of splattering ink on paper. But my pen’s nature is to have a doglike appetite, so I am forced to throw it at least some bones to gnaw so that it will not die of starvation.”

Without sugar-coating the indignities of old age, these women delve into what it means to “be oneself” at last. As I discuss in Women Moralists in Early Modern France, they show similar originality in their treatments of other topics from the tradition: self-knowledge, friendship, happiness, the passions, marriage, and women’s nature. They reflect not only on their immediate social world, but also on the philosophical tradition that has excluded their voices. If their writings remind us that women’s present-day limitations and frustrations have a long history, their ability to confront their constraints provides a salutary counter-example.

Featured image by Rosalba Carriera via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

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