Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, was a real woman who lived in Rome during the 1st Century B.C.E. She was admired during her life, and for centuries after (right up until the Victorian era), as the perfect example of Roman motherhood. Here’s a good description of her early life, from a website devoted to famous Roman women:
Perhaps no woman better represented the paradigm of the ideal Roman matrona (wife) than Cornelia, forever known as “mother of the Gracchi.” Born in the late Republic, in her own and later times she was held up as a supreme exemplar of Roman feminine virtues by men and women. True to the low profile for which she was universally admired, no statue has survived of the mother of the Gracchi (although a famous one was set up in Rome after her death, perhaps the first statue of a non-legendary woman).
Cornelia was the daughter of legendary warrior-hero Publius Scipio Africanus (who defeated Hannibal in the second Punic War). Both the dates of her birth and death can only be inferred. She married well (to patrician cousin Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus) and bore him twelve children. Only three lived to adulthood: a daughter, Sempronia, and two sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.
The Roman Model
” In the old days, every child born to a respectable mother was brought up not in the room of a bought nurse but at his mother’s knee. It was her particular honor to care for the home and serve her children.and no one dared do or say anything improper in front of her. She supervised not only the boys’ studies but also their recreation and games with piety and modesty. Thus, tradition has it, Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, Aurelia, mother of Julius Caesar, and Atia, mother of Augustus, brought up their sons and produced princes. ”
Tacitus, Dialogue 28, quoted in Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, Lefkowitz,Fant, 191.
After her husband’s death, Cornelia devoted herself to raising her three young children in the highest patrician traditions of service to the state. Allegedly, soon after her husband left her a young widow, the Egyptian king Ptolemy VIII proposed marriage and she refused him, thus embodying the Roman ideal of the univira, a widow who survives her first husband and loyally never remarries.
At a time when Rome’s increasing overseas empire meant a flood of wealth and ostentatious display, Cornelia was said to have lived with modesty and thrift. A legend preserved by Valerius Maximus claims that, when another woman who was a guest in her house “…showed her jewelry, the finest in existence at that period, Cornelia kept her in talk until her children came home from school, and then said ‘These are my jewels.'” Valerius Maximus, IV.4. A highly educated woman, Plutarch described her care for the boys’ education and wrote,
“”These boys Cornelia brought up with such care and such ambitious hopes that, although by common consent no Romans have ever been more naturally gifted, they were considered to owe their virtues even more to their education than to their heredity.” ”
Plutarch, Life of G. Gracchus, 1.
Her influence on both her sons was considerable even after their political careers made them the lightning rods of reform in the late Republic. She would survive the tragedy of losing first her eldest, then her youngest, son to political murder.
In other words, Cornelia’s story demonstrates that, during historical times when “gently born” women were not allowed to leave the home and work at paying jobs of their choice, their default role as mother was itself elevated to a career, with honors and acclaim going to those who did well after this lifetime role was thrust upon them.
I was thinking of that because of a career bio I read while I was looking for more information about the two border guards tried down in Texas (about which I blogged here and here). That little internet journey landed me on the bio page for the U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Texas, the federal judicial district in which those guards were tried. Johnny Sutton is the U.S. Attorney there, and his is an impressive bio for a lawyer who went into public service:
Prior to becoming United States Attorney, Mr. Sutton served as an Associate Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and as a Policy Coordinator for the Bush-Cheney Transition Team assigned to the Department of Justice.
Mr. Sutton served as the Criminal Justice Policy Director for then-Governor George W. Bush from 1995-2000, advising the Governor on all criminal justice issues, with specific oversight in the areas of criminal law, prison capacity and management, parole operations and legislative initiatives.
Prior to his service in the Governor’s office, Mr. Sutton worked as a criminal trial prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (Houston, Texas) for eight years. As a prosecutor, he was lead trial counsel in over sixty felony cases, including numerous capital murder, aggravated robbery, and sexual assault cases. He is fluent in Spanish, having appeared as a television commentator for the Spanish language network Univision during the Selena homicide trial.
Mr. Sutton is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in International Business in 1983, and the University of Texas School of Law, where he earned his Juris Doctor degree in 1987. As an undergraduate, he played baseball for the Longhorns and was the starting left-fielder on the 1983 National Championship team.
It’s a pretty good resume, isn’t it? He’s got an international business degree and a law degree from a very prestigious law school; he’s bilingual; and professionally, he has extensive courtroom experience directed at taking bad guys off the street, doing government work aimed at controlling crime in Texas, and is now a U.S. Attorney. Heck, he even played a superior game of baseball. Add to that the fact that he’s a nice looking guy (his picture is on his web page), and you’ll appreciate that this is a man whose made good with his career. In other words, given the choices that Warren Farrell, described in his book Why Men Earn More : The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap — And What Women Can Do About It, which I discuss here, Sutton took the career ball and ran with it. He now has an impressive resume that should make many attorneys fairly jealous.
The thing is that, in theory, I too could have had that resume. I got a nice undergraduate degree from an impressive university, then went on to get a law degree from a prestigious law school, and entered the private sector at an equally prestigious law firm. And then I made the feminine decision to blow it all away. I decided that this was not the life I wanted, and that spending all my waking hours toiling for others on cases that didn’t hold my interest wasn’t worth even the nicely large amounts of money they were paying me. Instead, I made the feminine career choice of subordinating my educational and professional accomplishments to becoming a mother.
This is where I wrap back to Cornelia. In today’s world, where women theoretically have available to them all of the career opportunities available to men, if they decide not to take that path, the women lose something: applause. They don’t get either the applause our modern world accords to those who do well in their careers (such as a glowing web page bio), nor do they get the huzzah’s lavished on Cornelia who, scorning her husband’s wealth as the measure of her accomplishments, pointed to her children and said “These are my jewels.” Not only did she say it, she was remembered for more than 2000 years for having done so. That’s some professional award.
I don’t regret my career choice at all. I knew when I walked away that I’d broken the golden handcuffs and found a wonderful freedom. Nevertheless, sometimes, I do miss the huzzahs. That is, I miss living in a culture where motherhood is actually celebrated, rather than considered either as a retreat from a more visible paying profession or as a neutral career choice with no special value and no special honors.
UPDATE: With perfect timing, the New York Times ran yesterday an op-ed by Linda Hirshman taking to task those women who have opted to make motherhood their career. For Moms who believe, as Cornelia did, that raising successful children (by whatever yardstick you measure success), is a high accomplishment, this article is one of those anti-hurrahs that they routinely find themselves facing.
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