Aging gracefully in the eighteenth century: A study of elderly women in Old Regime Toulouse

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Cissie Fairchilds


women elderly, France, European history, Womens studies, Gerontology

Subject Categories

History of Gender


This dissertation examines the social networks of elderly women in eighteenth-century France. It is based primarily on the study of two samples of elderly women from Toulouse--one living at the beginning and the other living at the end of the eighteenth century. These sources, in conjunction with memoirs and medical literature, show that the experiences of elderly women were emblematic of many of the changes occurring in eighteenth-century France.

By incorporating the life course into an understanding of the place of gender in eighteenth-century society, we see that the private and public spheres were not diverging as dramatically as has previously been thought. As they aged, women sought to expand their personal relationships beyond the nuclear family to the extended family, friends and spiritual kin. While the nuclear family was, in general, growing more private in the eighteenth century, elderly women represented a counter trend.

The position of the elderly in the family reflect changes in ideas about authority. While the family patriarch was unpopular among philosophes, elderly women benefited from a strong sense of the moral authority of the elderly and the importance of filial duty. The power of the elderly woman relied on her conforming to the ideals of feminine virtue. The ways that women wielded power in the family suggest a model of authority that was conciliatory rather than authoritarian.

A vision of the life course as expansive did not allow the female identity to be confined either to family or to religion. Religious identity was formed in youth and, although activities and roles may have expanded with age, spirituality was not a part of this growth. Religious practice, in fact, declined rather than grew as women aged. Elderly women, then, unlike their younger counterparts, were part of the "de-Christianization" of eighteenth-century France.

Rather than identifying themselves with their private family or with particular religious houses, women saw themselves as individuals in a wide net of relationships. The breadth of the net grew as the century progressed so that, by the eve of the revolution, women were prepared to see themselves as citizens as well as mothers.


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