A Dowager Countess or a Poor Olde Awnte? the Intersection of Age and Gender in the Life of Lady Elizabeth Russell

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Frankie Urrutia-Smith, Utah State University
A Dowager Countess or a Poor Olde Awnte?

The Intersection of Age and Gender in the Life of Lady Elizabeth Russell

This poster analyzes the ways in which aging may have contributed to the decline of a powerful aristocratic woman's social influence in early modern England. Using Lady Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell as a case study, this project questions how Elizabeth’s family and marital status enabled her to overcome the limitations of her gender by giving her an unparalleled education and invaluable social connections. It explores her family connections in the context of Elizabethan government and the empowering status of widowhood with small children.

Lady Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell was a well-known Protestant, social activist, and scholar in the late 16th century. Her father was Anthony Cooke, who was recognized in his own day and in ours as a pioneer of female education. The high education level of the Cooke sisters made them attractive marriage partners for powerful men, including men in Queen Elizabeth's inner circle of advisers. Elizabeth herself was married and widowed twice, first to Thomas Hoby, and second to John Russell. Elizabeth is known for her extant translations of religious texts, her famous battle with Shakespeare over the location of the Globe theatre, and her influence on Lord Burghley and his son, Robert.

Although these events of Elizabeth’s life have been thoroughly studied, her elderly years have not received the same attention. Marjorie McIntosh has studied the effects of Elizabeth’s childhood education, Chris Laoutaris has written extensively about her as a young married woman and as a young widowed woman, and Gemma Allen has written about her life as a complement to those of her sisters, but her old age remains largely unstudied. Elizabeth lived to be 81 years old and her influence on the world around her palpably diminished over the course of her life-cycle. Eventually her powerful patrons died, leaving her in a world of a younger generation. Queen Elizabeth also predeceased Lady Russell, leaving the kingdom in the hands of James I and producing a new social order than that which the Queen had established. Either of these changes or a variety of others in Elizabeth’s world may have contributed to her declining power.

This investigation has important implications for the understanding of both the Early Modern era and our own, revealing the ways in which attitudes about age and gender intersected at the end of the Elizabethan period and how modern people may have retained similar attitudes towards the elderly and especially elderly widows. This type of study is useful across several disciplines including history, sociology, and literary analysis, as exemplified in James Daybell’s book, Women Letter-writers in Tudor England, a combination of literary studies and history that has heavily influenced my own work. Although the focus of this research and poster presentation is historical, the background research depends on the interdisciplinary study of aging and gender, and it will contribute to the growing trend of studying intersectionality in all three disciplines.

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