Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Elizabeth I of England: Spiritual Ancestor to the Child-Free-By-Choice Woman

I recently installed a large framed portrait of Elizabeth I, who was queen of England from 1558 to 1603, in a prominent place in my apartment. I felt a bit guilty, as I live with a man born and raised in Ireland, and Elizabeth Tudor, as with most English people of her time, did not see the Irish as much more than a barbaric and ignorant race of troublemakers -- people whose main purpose was to offer a sort of human testing ground for those nobles looking to gain favor with her majesty by taking an administrative post in the lawless land.

But Elizabeth was a creature of her time, and with all of her flaws, she is to me one of the most fascinating and admirable women to have ever lived. I've been reading several biographies about her, most recently Alison Weir's excellent "The Life of Elizabeth I," and there are just so many amazing things I keep learning about this woman. She was brilliant; quite possibly a linguistics and music prodigy, super neurotic (she suffered from panic attacks and migraines for the duration of her life), loved having a court-filled with handsome, strapping men (to the dismay of their wives, who she generally frowned upon having at court), and as politically astute as any man of the age. She was an excellent ruler and saw it as her duty to keep England financially and politically stable.

One aspect of Elizabeth's life that never fails to generate interest and conjecture revolves around her status as "The Virgin Queen." Historians have continually debated why she chose not to marry and have children. There are all kinds of theories: She had an abnormally thick hymen that would have made intercourse incredibly painful, her hips were too small to allow a child to pass through without severe danger to it and her health, she had an excess of male hormones (this theory seems promulgated mostly by sexist historians unable to accept she may have just not embraced domesticity and childrearing).

I tend to believe the theory that she was scared off from marriage and childbearing because she connected it with the fate of her mother (Anne Boleyn) and stepmothers Catherine Howard (who was beheaded by Elizabeth's father Henry VIII, as was Anne Boleyn), Jane Seymour (who died shortly after giving birth) and Katherine Parr (who died during labor). She also knew marriage would leave her powerless as a ruler and forced into a life of domesticity, which meant giving birth to about one child a year for years and then eventually dying of exhaustion -- the fate of many women in those times.

Elizabeth was smart, and I'd like to think she was also a pioneer of the childfree-by-choice movement. She knew children and husbands would limit not only her power, but her intellectual growth and self-realization as well. Obviously, I don't think she thought of self-realization and intellectual growth as we do today, but she certainly seemed eager to continually seek the development of her mind and outlook. She was blessed to have this ability by virtue of her wealth and exhaulted social status, but she also seemed to know that with all the riches in the world and royal blood, she could not have done this in her society had she chosen to have a husband and children. She would have been severely limited.

These days, having children and a husband does not necessarily stunt the intellectual growth and self-development of a woman (though I've seen more cases than not of it doing so). Women like myself who choose not to have children are absolutely free to become whoever they want to be -- as long as they don't listen to the social messaging that tells them that to be a mother is the only way to be a "whole woman" (that concept seems not to have changed since Tudor times). Whenever I get confronted with such messages -- another television show or movie depicting a ballsy career lady in her 40s 'desperate' to have babies before her eggs dry up (why is Tina Fey, so-called feminist icon of our age -- making movies like this, by the way?), magazine articles devoting pages and pages to celebrity parents, my mother telling me I'm selfish for not wanting kids because I'm an only child and the family name will die with me -- I remind myself of Elizabeth Tudor. She made this choice, and with it, put an end to the Tudor dynasty. But her legacy was worth much more than any children she could have borne. And she was the driving force behind that legacy. Parents -- you can have Michelle Duggar. I'm fine having Elizabeth I as my personal heroine.