Posts Tagged ‘women’

JEANNE CALMENT (1875 – 1997) Oldest Living Person

In Uncategorized on April 14, 2021 at 2:37 PM

Leon Trotsky said, “Old age is the most unexpected of all things that happen to a [person].” In Arles, France, Jeanne Calment shocked the world by raising the bar on being a super centenarian, someone over 110 years old.  Like the Energizer bunny, she kept going, and going, and going, breaking the previous record of 116 years old. When she died at age 122 years, 164 days, her life had spanned four generations, and she had lived through 20 French presidencies. She was dubbed la doyenne de l’humanité (the oldest person in the world), and she holds the Guinness world record as the “Oldest person ever (female),” beating the record of the “Oldest person ever (male)” by six years.

When Calment was born in 1875, the life expectancy in France was 45 years old. There was a history of relative longevity in Calment’s family. Her parents, a boat builder and housewife, were both 37 years old when she, the youngest of four children, was born. One older brother survived. Even though the two other siblings died young, her father and brother were both in their 90s when they died.

Calment’s childhood followed societal norms. Girls went to school until age 16 and then got married. Being a strong-willed tomboy, she started bucking the system early on. Her Catholic girls’ school education included math, science, sewing, and she took private piano lessons. But that was not enough to captivate her. Calment’s love of the outdoors and being active necessitated that her father or the maid take her to school to make sure she arrived. For her, playing outside was the priority over studying.

While Calment was waiting to get married, she developed her artistic abilities by learning oil painting. Her favorite subject was flowers, especially the roses, sunflowers, tulips, and iris she saw outside. A five-paneled folding screen with Calment’s colorful floral decoration was displayed in the living room. Family parties included lots of music and dancing, which Calment participated in whole-heartedly. She dressed up and went to at least one big ball during her teenage years and danced the waltz and quadrille.

At age 21, Calment married her twice second cousin, Fernand Nicolas Calment, who was seven years older. On their fathers’ sides, their grandparents were brothers, and on their mothers’ sides, their grandmothers were sisters. Since she and her husband had known each other their whole lives and shared a last name, the transition into marriage was easy for her. 

LIVING HER BEST LIFE                             The Calments lived in an apartment over Fernand’s family’s dry goods store. They spent their first year of marriage traveling and enjoying themselves until they welcomed a baby girl, Yvonne, who was born at home with the assistance of a midwife. Calment wasn’t needed to work in the store, which suited her just fine. She eschewed the typical activities that filled the days of most women. Fernand did not impose expectations on his wife to live up to the traditional image. He allowed her much more leeway to express herself than her father had. Calment started smoking after she was married and maintained the habit of one cigarette after a meal until she stopped cold turkey at 117 years old. Even while raising a daughter, she pursued the sports she loved: walking, playing tennis, hiking, cycling, swimming, roller skating, and ice skating. She often wore culottes instead of dresses to facilitate being an athlete. She learned to hunt from her husband, and together they would take their spaniel Lucky out to shoot partridge, wild boar, and rabbits. Calment became a leader of their hunting society and was nicknamed “Madame Partridge” by the other hunters. She never hesitated to try something new, and she wasn’t afraid of anything. This became a point of contention with her husband. He criticized her for pushing her limits and not having enough fear, but he never went so far as to insist that she stop any of her activities.

Mr. and Mrs. Calment were also patrons of the arts. They attended formal dances and went to the opera in Marseilles. Calment dressed to the nines, wearing a most fashionable beaver or fox stole with the head and the tail. They gave Yvonne piano lessons, and mother and daughter frequently played duets together.

DEALING WITH GRIEF AND LOSS                    Yvonne married Colonel Joseph Billot, and they had a son, Frédéric. In 1934, tragedy struck the family when Yvonne was 36 years old. She died of complications related to tuberculosis, leaving eight-year-old Frédéric to be raised by his father. Calment stepped into the role of mother and became especially close to her grandson. Eight years later, tragedy struck again. Fernand died from eating some cherries that were laced with chemicals while visiting friends. At 67 Calment was a widow. With such devastating loss, Calment’s son-in-law and grandson remained close. When Frédéric became an otolaryngologist (a doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat medicine), he opened his office in Calment’s home. When Frédéric got married, Joseph Billot moved into Calment’s house. The companionship was good for both of them. For twenty years, life was good until tragedy stuck again in 1963. In January, Joseph succumbed to a long illness, leaving Calment with only one living relative. Then in August, while Calment was still grieving the loss of her son-in-law, Frédéric died in a car accident. Since Frédéric had no children, that was the end of the family line. Instead of passing the baton to a younger generation, Calment was the one responsible for the family legacy.

At 88 years old, Calment was still living alone in an apartment and following her daily routine. Even in her late 90s, she frequently walked or cycled to visit Frédéric’s grave. At 110 years old, her eyesight failing, Calment tried to heat the apartment by using a candle to unfreeze the boiler, which started a small fire. At that point, she consented to moving into a home, the Maison du Lac.

KEEPING ON KEEPING ON                      Instead of slowing down, Calment maintained her active lifestyle. She got up every morning at 6:45. A practicing Catholic, she started (and ended) each day with prayers, followed by stretching exercises. She even had exercises for her hands because “a distinguished woman must have beautiful hands.”1 For inspiration, she listened to classical music on her Walkman. She continued to enjoy her indulgences: vanilla ice cream, lots of chocolate, two cigarettes a day, wine in moderation, and a glass of port in the evening. Calment took pride in her looks although she didn’t wear make-up. She moisturized her skin with olive oil followed by a bit of powder, and wore Coty perfume. In an interview with Paris Match, she bragged that her breasts were still as firm as “two little apples.”2 She attended Mass regularly and Vespers on Friday. When it became too difficult for her to visit Frédéric’s grave on her own, she took a taxi.

As she aged, Calment retained her zest for life, even as her body started to fail her. She bounced back quickly after she fractured her leg in a fall at 110 years old, and was still quite mobile when she moved to Maison du Lac. However, she became increasingly deaf, and a case of conjunctivitis when she was younger developed into bilateral cataracts, leaving her almost blind. She refused to have surgery to fix the condition. She suffered from a weak heart, a chronic cough, and painful episodes of rheumatism. She was prone to falling, perhaps because of her failing eyesight, and when she was 115 years old, she suffered a broken hip and elbow. From then on Calment was confined to a wheelchair, spending much of her time looking out the window of her room.

There was a lot of curiosity about Calment’s longevity. Three men, working in conjunction with INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, set out to validate her age and understand her lifestyle through interviews and research. Dr. Victor Lèbre was the head physician at Maison du Lac, Dr. Michel Allard was a gerontologist, and Jean-Marie Robine was a researcher. When they started interviewing their subject, she was 115 years old and in good spirits. She made jokes and easily recollected details of her life. On her 118th birthday, her validators noted that Calment’s tone had changed. She had become more immobile and she admitted that life had become less interesting. She maintained her belief in God and focused her prayers on asking for help, guidance, and forgiveness. She didn’t believe in heaven, but she was not afraid of dying. On her 119th birthday, Calment acknowledged that she had had a wonderful life but there was no longer anything for her to look forward to. “I’m taking one day at a time,” she said. “I can’t think of the future, I don’t have one any more.” And, with her characteristic wit, she quipped, “I wait for death…and journalists.”1

THE CELEBRATION OF A LIFETIME                 As fate would have it, Calment would have to wait a few more years. For Calment’s 120th birthday, February 21, 1995, there was a huge celebration, and she rose to the occasion. She had become an international celebrity as the oldest living person, and journalists from TV stations all around the world broadcast the festivities. In preparation, Calment got a new dress, and she got her hair and nails done. The foyer of the Maison du Lac was set up to accommodate guests, and Calment was seated on a platform with a rope around it to keep people from crowding her. Dr. Victor Lèbre shouted questions and described the goings on into her ear. There were speeches, and local school groups, bands, and choirs entertained. A procession of local postal workers delivered the 16,000 birthday cards she received from more than 100 countries. And, of course, there was a huge cake with 120 candles on it. Late in the afternoon, the French health minister, who had flown in from Paris for the occasion, stopped by to pay homage and present her with a silver brooch. For all of the joie de vivre on display, it was a long and exhausting day for Calment.

Perhaps all of the attention gave Calment a second wind. When she was 121 years old she recorded an album called Mistress of Time. On it, a young child asks Calment questions and she answers over the peppy background of traditional Farandole dance music. “I waited 110 years to be famous,” Calment noted. “I mean to make the most of it.”3

THE INEVITABLE ENDING             Calment knew that death was imminent, and she wanted to control her legacy. She destroyed all of her personal papers and photos. Since she had no one to pass them on to, she didn’t want strangers to have access to and misrepresent her image.

The world lost many famous people in 1997, including Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. But Jeanne Calment was the only one who had been born in the previous century. On Monday morning August 4, Calment slipped from this life. For all of the attention she garnered during her life, only a few people attended the hasty burial two days later in the family plot at the Trinquetaille Cemetery in Arles.

DEBATING THE PROS AND CONS             Calment’s record as the world’s oldest person remained unchallenged until 2018 when her longevity was called into question. Nikolay Zak, a Russian mathematician, was on a mission to prove that there was a case of switched identities, and that it was Calment who died in 1934 and Yvonne who died in 1997. His belief in a great deception was based on the premise that Calment’s family claimed that Yvonne recovered from tuberculosis but had passed it to Calment. He proposed that Calment had left town and Yvonne used her mother’s signature to sign some documents. What was meant to be a temporary convenience got out of hand, and the subterfuge was perpetuated. Furthermore, Zak asserted that the Calment family insisted that it was Yvonne who had died in order to protect their personal interests and avoid paying exorbitant inheritance taxes. To support his theory, Zak relied on several assertions. He cited perceived inconsistencies in Calment’s features in photographs, omissions and errors in Calment’s recollection of her childhood, changes in Calment’s handwriting, and the improbable odds that anyone could live so long. He insisted that the reason that “Calment” burned all her personal papers was to destroy implicating evidence, and that the hasty burial was to avoid an autopsy. 

Zak published a poorly written, non-peer reviewed paper that garnered lots of attention and offered the enticement of a scandal. However, no one believed his theory, and in the end, his claims did not hold up against the due diligence of the three validators. They traced Calment’s ancestry back seven generations looking for genetic clues to her long life. They sourced the birth, baptism, marriage, and death certificates of all the members of Calment’s family, and census records. But perhaps the most supportive evidence that Jeanne Calment lived to be 122 years old in the city where she grew up is that her fellow citizens of Arles knew their friend and neighbor, and no one could convince them that the person they knew was not who she claimed to be.

QUESTION: Do you want to live to be 100 years old? Why? What do you think life will be life when you’re 100?

© 2021 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


1Allard, Michel, Lèbre, Victor, Robine, Jean-Marie, Jeanne Calment: from Van Gogh’s time to ours, 122 extraordinary years. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1998.

2Collins, Lauren, “Was Jeanne Calment The Oldest Person Who Ever Lived-Or A Fraud?” New, February 10, 2020.

“Oldest person ever (female)”

3Hoad, Phil, ” ‘People are caught up in magical thinking’: was the oldest woman in the world a fraud?” The Guardian, November 30, 2019.

Chen, Angela, “How We Know The Oldest Person Who Ever Lived Wasn’t Faking Her Age.” The Verge, January 9, 2019.

Nikolay, Zak, “Evidence that Jeanne Calment Died in 1934-Not 1997.” Pub, February 22, 2019.

Wang, Jane-Ling, UC   

Photo Credits:

Paris Match

CYNTHIA ANN PARKER (1827–1870) White Girl Raised By Comanche Indians

In American History, Biography, History, Kidnappings, Native Americans, People, People from Texas, Uncategorized, women on July 12, 2010 at 8:50 PM

Cynthia Ann Parker After Being Returned to the Parker Family

In August of 1833, Cynthia Ann Parker’s father, Silas M. Parker, took his family on a road trip.  He loaded his wife, five children and all their belongings into the wagons and headed south from Illinois to central Texas. 

The wagon train consisted of 31 families including Parker’s grandparents, uncles and aunts.  It was a long journey and not without incident.  Parker’s brother James was killed when one wagon lost a wheel, and he was hit in the chest by a piece of wood.    

The purpose of the trip was the great American Dream: to apply for a land grant.  Each head of household was awarded a “headright league” of over 4,000 acres, and the Parkers started calling Anderson County, Texas home.   

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD                      The newly arrived settlers were well aware of the potential threat of the local Indians.  In 1834, Cynthia’s uncle, Daniel Parker, led the effort to build Fort Parker in Mexia, Texas, between Dallas and Houston.  Treaties were signed by the homesteaders and many neighboring chiefs leading to a peaceful coexistence, for a while.   

In 1836, when Parker was nine years old, several hundred members of the Caddo, Comanche and Kiowa tribes attacked the fort.  One Indian approached with a white flag accompanied by enough others to indicate that this was a ruse.  Parker’s uncle, Benjamin, tried to negotiate with the attackers to buy time for the women and children to escape.  Those five minutes of diplomacy allowed most of them to flee into the wilderness.  But Uncle Benjamin, Parker’s father, grandfather and two other men were killed.  Parker, her younger brother, a baby and two women were captured by Comanche.   

Within six years, all the captives had been ransomed and returned to their families except Parker, but that was her choice.  As a new Comanche, Parker’s life was difficult.  She was abused and treated like a slave until she was given to a couple who raised her as their own child. Parker was young, so she adapted quickly to her new environment, perhaps first out of survival and then out of devotion.  She adopted the Comanche name of Naduah (“She carries herself with grace”), and became totally integrated into Comanche society, eschewing her white upbringing.  

HOME IS WHERE YOUR HEART IS                             Peta Nocona, one of the war chiefs who invaded Fort Parker, started his own Comanche branch called Noconi.  Sometime around 1840, when Parker was barely a teenager, Nocona married her.  It was customary for the chief to have multiple wives, but Nocona proved his affection by not doing so.  They had three children: sons Quanah (“Fragrant”), a future chief of the tribe, and Pecos (“Pecan”), and daughter Topsanna (“Prairie Flower”).   

Parker became totally contented with and integrated into the Indian lifestyle and refused more than one offer to return to the Parker family.  One time Colonel Leonard G. Williams saw Parker when he was camped with his trading party along the Canadian River.  He offered a ransom of 12 mules and two mule loads of goods to the tribal elders to reclaim her and take her home.  He was refused, and in subsequent sightings, Parker would run away and hide to avoid being traded back.   

On November 27, 1860, Chief Nocona led a raid through Parker County, Texas, named after his wife’s family.  Parker played a supportive role in the attack, and it’s not clear if she knew the land belonged to her relatives.  The bandits attacked three ranches, stole over 300 horses and violated several women.  When they were finished, Nocona and his band hid in a bluff near the Pease River.   

Groups of local citizens tried to hunt down the raiders, but they weren’t successful.  It took three weeks for Captain Lawrence “Sul” Ross of the Texas Rangers to organize a posse of over 140 volunteers seeking revenge.  On December 18, the vigilantes tracked the natives to their hideout, surprised them and dominated them in the ensuing fight.  There were few warriors left in the camp, and Parker’s two sons escaped unharmed.  There is debate over whether Nocona died during the encounter or later.  Even if he didn’t, Parker would never see her husband again.  

Parker was trying to escape on horseback with Topsanna.  Ross chased and finally captured her.  It was a shock to discover that the woman dressed in deerskin and moccasins had blue eyes. Back at camp there was speculation that she looked familiar. Parker tried to communicate with her captors using Comanche and some English, giving credence to theories that she could be the Silas Parker’s daughter who was kidnapped.  Ross sent for Parker’s uncle, Isaac Parker, to see if he could identify her.  When Parker overheard her name being used in the discussion, she patted herself on the chest and said, “Me Cincee Ann.”   

YOU CAN’T TO HOME AGAIN                                      That admission clinched Parker’s destiny.  She and Topsanna were taken back to live with her white family.  At first Parker and her daughter lived with Uncle Isaac’s family.  Her return was celebrated and she was treated like a hero, but that meant nothing to her.  She had to be locked in her room to prevent her from escaping.  The Texas Legislature tried to help her with a pension of $100 a year for five years and a league (about seven square miles) of land, but that did not compensate for her anguish. Nothing could appease the grief she felt leaving her husband and sons behind.  She had been kidnapped and forced to live among people not of her choosing for the second time in her life.   

Parker’s brother took responsibility for his sister and niece, moving them into his house.  They stayed there until he joined the Confederate Army when they went to live with her sister.  Parker led a productive life.  She learned to weave, spin wool and sew.  Neighbors brought over hides for her to tan, and she created home remedies from the local plants and herbs.  She learned to speak English again and was beginning to become literate.  All of the activity, however, could not erase the 24 years she spent as a Comanche, and she never assimilated emotionally to her new life.  

In 1863, Parker got the news that Pecos had died of small pox.  One year later, Topsanna died of pneumonia, and Parker fell into a deep depression.  Her despondency isolated her and she often refused to eat.  She died in 1870 never knowing that her oldest son, Quanah, had become the last Comanche Chief, and ultimately a bridge between the Comanche nation and white settlers.  

QUESTION: How do you react when you’re in a situation outside your comfort zone?  What do you do to fit in?  

© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved   


SARAH ROSETTA WAKEMAN (1843 – 1864) Female Soldier in the Civil War

In American History, Biography, Civil War, Female Soldiers, Feminists, History, People, Trivia, U.S. Army, Uncategorized, women on June 28, 2010 at 9:24 PM

Female Soldier in the Civil War

The lyrics to the Four Seasons’ song “Walk like a man. Talk like a man,” would have been good advice for Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.  Since she was a girl, she didn’t come by that naturally.  But learning how to do just that gave her a purpose and an adventure way beyond the family farm in Chenango County, New York.

By the time Wakeman was 17 years old, she had had some schooling, but  it was necessary for her to work as a domestic to help support her eight younger siblings and help her father pay off his debts.  Her future wasn’t looking too bright, so she decided that dressing like a man would increase her options.

When she was 19 she donned her disguise and worked as a coal handler on a barge on the Chenango Canal.  For four trips, she made $20.  At the end of her first trip she met some soldiers who tried to recruit her to sign up with the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers.  She had three more river trips to think about it and decided that the $152 signing bonus for enlisting was too tempting. 

 PRIVATE LIVES                                                                                                            Wakeman changed her first name to Lyons and lied about her age, instantly maturing to 21 years old.  The rest of the information on her regimental descriptive roll was true: five feet tall with a fair complexion, brown hair, blue eyes and the occupation of “boatman.”  Wakeman’s gender was probably accepted at face value because of the cursory physical examination soldiers were given at the time of enlistment, often nothing more than a firm handshake.  Since there were a lot of pre-adolescent boys that edged their way into both the Confederate and Federal forces, it wasn’t unusual to have beardless recruits with higher pitched voices.

In corresponding with her family, Wakeman initially signed her letters “Rosetta,” confident her secret would not be detected.  She described army life and inquired about life back home.  She promised her father she would send money from her $13 a month salary for him to buy food and clothes for the family.  Unfortunately, she had to explain later that she had naively lent it to the first lieutenant and sergeant and received a promissory note in return for the whole amount including interest.  She sheepishly admitted that she had been taken advantage of by these officers and that she had learned her lesson. 

About three months into her military career, Wakeman got the measles and was hospitalized for seven days.  There didn’t seem to be any lasting effects of the disease, and she often expressed how much she enjoyed being a soldier, in contrast to her life on the farm. She had good clothes, enough food and no responsibilities except to handle a gun.

 AN EASY JOB                                                                                                                          In July 1863, the 153rd Regiment moved from Alexandria, Virginia to Washington, D.C.  to help protect the capital against potential riots in connection with the newly instituted draft.  Wakeman appreciated the spacious barracks, the well water for drinking and the salty river water for bathing.  She complained that Colonel Edwin Davis was so strict that the soldiers were hoping to be sent to the front lines, away from his command.

A month later, Wakeman was assigned to guard the prison that housed Rebel prisoners and officers.  With easy duty and a comfortable environment, she felt invincible.  She didn’t believe it was possible for her to die in battle, but if that was God’s will, she would submit to it.  She reminded her parents that she was “as independent as a hog on ice.”

In October, Wakeman reported that her days were filled with drilling exercises: company drill in the morning and battalion drill in the afternoon.  She enjoyed doing them and was proud that she could drill as well as any man in her regiment, and definitely better than the soldier in Company C who fell down, got a bayonet in his leg and “bled like a stuck hog.”

Home was feeling increasingly distant, and Wakeman stopped believing she would ever see her family again.  This spurred a confession that she had sinfully given in to lots of temptations in the army.  She admitted to getting into one fight, and after Stephen Wiley hit her, she gave him three or four good punches in return, putting him in his place.  God’s spirit had since worked in her, she believed, and she prayed that she wouldn’t go astray again.

FIGHTING THE ENEMY                                                                                              With the new year came new orders, and finally the 153rd was going to see some action.  They left Washington on February 18, 1864 and marched to Alexandria, Virginia.  From Alexandria they continued on to New Orleans, finally settling at Camp Franklin in Algiers, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River. 

Wakeman’s regiment fell under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.  His mission was to establish a strong Union presence in Texas, and he planned to follow the Red River north to Shreveport, near the Texas border.  An order went out saying that no women (nurses, laundresses, officers’ wives, etc.) would be allowed to accompany the command except by written authority from Headquarters. The commanding officers still had no idea that at least one member of the rank and file was in direct defiance of that order.

Wakeman’s group marched 16 days, over 300 miles, making stops to unload supplies.  When they encountered Confederate forces lying in wait, the two-day Battle of Pleasant Hill ensued.  On the second day, Wakeman was in the front lines under fire for four hours, until the fighting was halted by darkness. She spent the entire night lying on the battle field listening to the cries of the wounded and dying. 

Wakeman’s life was spared, but the Federal troops were still in danger.  On April 21, 1864, General Banks ordered a forced march totaling over 100 miles back to Alexandria with the enemy on their tails.  Two days into the march, Wakeman’s brigade was ordered to lie along the river and wait for the opportunity to attack Confederate forces.  As the enemy came closer and surrounded them, the only way out was to fight. Wakeman’s group charged the enemy and defeated them.  The next morning, the regiment continued back to Alexandria only to get lost in the woods.  Exhausted, they finally arrived there on April 25. 

Wakeman had proven herself a worthy soldier, but her prediction about not coming home came true.  She was admitted to the hospital on May 3 with chronic diarrhea, the most deadly disease of the Civil War.  She was sent to the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans on May 7 but didn’t arrive until May 22.  Thanks to a Rebel attack which destroyed river transportation downstream of Alexandria, access on the Mississippi River was shut off for over a week.  Wakeman was 21 years old when she died one month later on June 19.  There is no record of any hospital staff discovering her real identity, and she was given a soldier’s burial in New Orleans.

QUESTION:  In today’s society, is it easier to be a man or a woman?  Why?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta (Lauren Cook Burgess, ed.).  An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864.  Pasadena, Maryland: The Minerva Center, 1994.