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An Alphabet of Feminism #23: W is for Widow

2011 March 28


I’ll say one thing: the war makes the most peculiar widows.

Rhett Butler, Gone With The Wind (1939)


Widow is another Old English word, widewe (= widow…), which connects via the Indo-European vidhava, with the Latin viduus, meaning ‘bereft’ or (its other lexical descendent) ‘void’. This ‘vacancy’ at the etymological heart of the word seems perfect, if rather sad, since (as we all know) a widow is ‘a woman who has lost her husband by death and has not married again’.

A grumpy-looking Queen Victoria, wearing black, sits on a horse with a man in a kilt holding the reins.

'The Widow at Windsor' - Queen Victoria in 1863, after Albert's death in 1861

Anyway, the emptiness immanent in the word widow is materially rather ironic, since, in European history at least, a lucky woman whose family had thrashed out a good dower-deal at her marriage was, in theory, entitled to most of the death-booty – as long as she didn’t marry Shakespeare and end up with the ‘second best bed‘, or fall foul of anti-female legalities (as in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility).

But if we assume all has gone right and your wealthy husband has obligingly shuffled off this mortal coil and done nothing unexpected with his will, widowhood comes with a golden handshake. Even a little bit of money leaves you with a degree of important independence, and historical widows have frequently exploited this, becoming, in some instances, iconic political figures. Notable widows of history have included: Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao and leader of the Gang of Four; the dowager Catherine de Medici, who machinated throughout the French Wars of Religion; Agrippina the Younger, super-Freudian mother of Nero; late-period Queen Victoria (dubbed ‘The Widow at Windsor’); Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife (and the most married queen in English history), whose main distinction is that she ‘survived’ … and even Jackie Kennedy Onassis, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Scottish Widows

On a more casual note, the independent widow was a culturally significant figure throughout European history, often dubbed the Merry Widow, as was the eponymous heroine of Franz Lehár’s operetta (1905). Not only does Lehár’s widow have her own theme tune, she also sparked a self-titled hat-craze, and attentive readers will note that this ‘ornate or wide-brimmed hat’ is worn at a rakish angle that rather suits Merry Widow‘s dictionary definition as a bereaved woman who is ‘amorous or designing’.

This idea goes back to the medieval age: the Scottish William Dunbar’s brilliantly phonetic poem ‘The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’ features a widow who sits in a field telling two married women she’s found from somewhere about the comparative excellence of her own state:

With him died all my dole and my dreary thoughts;
Now done is my duly night, my day is upsprungen,
Adieu dolour, adieu! My dainty now begins:
Now am I a widow, i-wis, and well am at ease…

William Dunbar, The Two Married Women and the Widow c.1490s

Anyone familiar with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath may recognise something of Alysoun’s archness here – unlike the other Older Woman, the old maid, the widow is a legitimately sexually experienced woman, often with a bit of money, who has, in consequence, less to lose than the young maiden. With this licence, the medieval widow is frequently presented as a bawdy sexual facilitator, and she is also free herself to run riot, cause scandals, wander around unchaperoned and facilitate other people’s sexual encounters with relative impunity.

William Blake's drawing of the wife of bath - rather decollete and drinking from a glass of wine.

The Wife of Bath, as imagined by William Blake

Staring at the Sea

Of course, it’s not all sitting in fields and enjoying your inheritance: the widow‘s independent fortune certainly makes her a target for gold-diggers – as is the case with every Margaret Dumont character in every Marx Brothers film ever. There are also lots of interesting cases in literature where you know the absent husband’s in trouble because the vultures are circling round his wife – Odysseus’ Penelope is for a time a widow in the word’s second sense: ‘a wife separated from (or deserted by) her husband’. In addition to this, she also has to contend with house full of Suitors drinking her out of house and home on the (misguided) assumption that Odysseus is dead, rather than simply shagging Calypso on an island far, far away.

Penelope’s widowhood also lurks at the back of the North American term Widow’s Walk, ‘a railed or balustraded platform built on the roof, originally in early New England, for providing an unimpeded view of the sea’, and a highly evocative phrase suggestive of young Scarlett O’Hara-style sea-widows, whose British equivalents would probably have been provided for by the financial services company Scottish Widows, first set up in 1815 as a way to provide for (sexy) widows, sisters and daughters whose husbands were lost in the Napoleonic Wars.

The Penelopean widow doesn’t really exist any more, but widow‘s second meaning has a more modern significance first spotted in Late Middle English – ‘a wife whose husband devotes most of his time to a specified activity and is rarely at home’. Some readers may have heard the term ‘World Cup Widow‘ bandied about last year – other examples the dictionary gives include ‘golf widow‘ (sweet jeebus, get out of that one sistah…) and ‘business widow‘. There’s also the more niche example of the ‘Secret Society Widow’ – the Museum of Freemasonry in Covent Garden has a rather nice clock on display that was presented to the wife of a member ‘in gratitude for her allowing her husband his Lodge nights’. Here there is a sense of these women as being passive blocks on enjoyment for someone else – the World Cup Widow is basically me moaning about having a sudden dip in loving attentions because there are men in ridiculous shorts running around on a screen in a noisy pub… Ahem. I digress.

Kiss me in the shadow of a doubt

Anyway, here we reach the flip-side of the Merry Widow, best exemplified in Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favourite of his own films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). This features Joseph Cotton as the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’ with a venomous attitude towards these ‘horrible, faded, fat, greedy women’ that may be extreme, but nonetheless exemplifies the idea that a widow‘s financial independence actually renders her ‘useless’ and a hindrance to earthly happiness (read: money) for everyone else. On this, there’s an interesting little typographic significance of widow first recorded in the mid-twentieth century – she is ‘a short last line of a page or column considered undesirable’. That is, the widow represents a kind of hangover, something that is surplus to requirement, and no longer neatly slotted into a clear, neat unit.

A Black Widow Spider

A Black Widow spider.

As well as being targets for Hitchcockian serial killers, widows can also adopt this role themselves of course – the black widow is a criminal female whose widowhood is assumed to have been – shall we say – voluntary. This phrase originates from the black widow spider, a venomous North American spider, especially Latrodectus mactons, ‘the female of which usually devours its mate’. A fear of female power and often source of grim fascination, this term works rather interestingly with notable Rock Widows – Courtney Love, whom many genuinely accuse of having murdered Kurt Cobain; Yoko Ono, who was never really a popular fave to begin with; Priscilla Presley and even Faith Evans, widow of The Notorious B.I.G. and the brains behind a dodgy reworking of The Police.

These inevitably take on an important role as mediator of their husbands’ glory, and living blocks on libel, speculation and marketing opportunities. Courtney Love famously ‘released’ her husband’s suicide note to Nirvana fans and Yoko Ono wasted no time in putting together a posthumous Lennon album after his murder (reportedly showing up in the studio the very next day). The vitriol these women have variously attracted presumably relates to a sense of the widow as a figure standing between fan and artist, with a hefty inheritance and a team of lawyers. It also compares curiously with the hatred or suspicion directed at many of the Political Widows with which this post began.

But ultimately there are as many different types of widow as there are widows. This post has attempted not so much to categorise them as to suggest a few ways people have regarded them: Jackie O (tragically graceful); political dowager (devious and suspect); the rich survivor draped in Chanel and gullibility – and a middle-aged Scottish woman sitting in a field, really quite content with her lot.

A victorian woman dressed in black with a black bonnet, wearing a shawl made out of black net, surrounded by bags of money.

Next week: X is for X

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    March 28, 2011

    I really liked this one as it seemed pretty comprehensive. Naturally, I also love the idea of “X is for X” though I expect it won’t cover quite the ground I’m hoping for. :-P

    One thing, can someone explain to me what the word “dowager” is/means? I’ve never quite managed to grasp it.

    • Hodge permalink
      March 28, 2011

      It means a widow who has significant property ( deriving, I suppose, from ‘dower’. But it usually appears in monarchical contexts, as in ‘the Dowager Queen’ = the queen whose husband was king, who is no longer queen. Like Catherine de Medici, or the Queen Mother.

      (But in the case of our Queen Mother, she eschewed the title (one of many she was entitled to after the death of George V) because she preferred one which forced people to say ‘Queen’ twice. Thus she is ‘Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’ instead.)

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 29, 2011

    A typographic widow is a single (last) line of a paragraph at the top of a column or page. There is also a typographic orphan — a single first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a column or page. Microsoft Word automatically eliminates widows and orphans. One of the differences between Word documents (.doc) and rich text format (.rtf) is that the latter permits these bereft lines.

    I was struck by this:
    A common mnemonic is “An orphan has no past; a widow has no future”.

    Hodge’s remarks throw doubt on whether a widow has no future.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 29, 2011

    Having thought about “widow” overnight, it occurs to me that the word is interesting in that it’s feminine, but can take a masculine suffix (widower).

    There many feminine words created by adding -ess to a masculine word, amongst them: goddess, lioness, princess and shepherdess.

    There are also sexually neutral verbs that give rise to a female or male agent by adding either a feminine (-ess/-trix) or a masculine (-or) suffix. “Act” gives us actress and actor, “aviate” gives us aviatrix or aviator. A neutral verb plus -or is more likely to be used of a woman (these days) than is a masculine word without its -ess. Women are sometimes called “actors”, but the most recent case (of which I can think) of a woman referring to herself as a “prince” is Elizabeth I. (I stand to be corrected on that.)

    But, if there is a feminine word other than “widow” that takes a masculine suffix, I’m unable to think of it.

    • Hodge permalink
      March 30, 2011

      Yes, that’s an interesting point. The dictionary cites ‘widow-man’ as an alternative to ‘widower’, which backs it up somewhat.

      I suppose it’s because men don’t need wives in the way women are seen to need husbands. What you get from a (dead) husband demonstrates that pretty well…

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        March 31, 2011

        Men don’t need wives…? Perhaps bicycles don’t need fish any more than fish need bicycles. :)

        • Russell permalink
          March 31, 2011

          You know, that quote was actually a parody of someone else’s comments about religion (and fish, and bicycles, and the relative utility of these things).

          • Pet Jeffery permalink
            April 1, 2011

            This source:


            traces “any more than a cow needs a bicycle” back to 1898.

            According to this source:


            “A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle” was a:

            Men’s-room graffito in a Berkeley, California bar during the late 1960s, quoted by Robert Anton Wilson in Cosmic Trigger. This was later bastardized by feminists to read: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” or something along those lines.

            Even were we to accept this at face value, neither “bastardised” nor “parody” seem to me the right words.

            What is more, the first of the three “Cosmic Trigger” novels dates to 1977, at least according to Wikipedia:


            By 1977, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” had certainly already been coined. So, unless someone can find an earlier citation, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” seems to antedate “A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle”. It certainly does not, however, antedate “[a place] didn’t need an American consul any more than a cow needs a bicycle”.

            At least, I’m not prepared to accept an alleged piece of graffiti as dating to the late 1960s — unless someone can cite an earlier published source. Neither, I’m sure, would the OED.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 4, 2011

    On the fate of widows, I’ve been dwelling a bit on suttee:

    and wondering, on a global basis, how widows have fared.

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