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Widows: Poverty, Power and Politics by Professor Maggie Andrews and Dr Janis Lomas

Our interest in widows was sparked when writing about the British women’s suffrage movement; we noticed all three leaders of the major suffrage organisations were widows. Was this, we wondered, something of a coincidence, or a more complex and common phenomenon? Certainly, women were more likely to be widowed in for example the nineteenth century. In the 1850s, the death of a husband or wife occurred within ten years of their wedding for 19 per cent of all couples, while 47 per cent of marriages ended within twenty-five years.[1]  The research we undertook for our book Widows: Poverty, Power and Politics, revealed that although many women struggled financially, a number of widows put the independence their husband’s death thrust upon them to good use. Consequently, the suffrage campaigns and the wider women’s movement owes a considerable debt to widows.

Widowhood is both a private shift in a woman’s personal relationships and a change in their status in society; many women in the past found for the first time they were in control of their finances and households.  They responded to new opportunities offered by the independence of widowhood, and acquired access to power and influence.  Women’s progress towards gaining the vote, sitting in Parliament or the United States Congress, and becoming elected heads of state would have been slower without a number of resourceful and independent widows. One of the first women to lead a national government was a widow. Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India in 1966 and in 1999 was voted Woman of the Millennium in a BBC poll, although she remains a very controversial figure.[2]

Alternatively, Maggie Wintringham, became the first English-born to become an MP when her husband, the serving member for Louth, died in the Palace of Westminster in 1921. Maggie who was already a strong presence in the constituency, due to her political and charitable work, was nominated to stand for her husband’s seat. The Illustrated London News explained on 1 October 1921: ‘Owing to her bereavement Mrs Wintringham did not speak in her own election campaign, though she is a good orator and well informed on political subjects and herself acknowledged that she was nicknamed “the silent candidate.” It seems that the party grandees correctly surmised such an arrangement would elicit public support; further support came from women of various political persuasions and from the National Society for Equal Citizenship. Maggie Wintringham was re-elected as an MP in 1922 and 1923, but served in parliament for only three years, during which she fought hard to improve the position of all women. She supported a number of causes and issues women’s organisations had on their agendas such as: seeking to improve the legal protection for young girls and campaigning for female police officers. She fought to reduce the voting age for women from 30 to 21, to obtain the right for women to sit in the House of Lords and to make state education scholarships available to girls as well as boys. Her most significant political campaign concerned the Equal Guardianship of Infants, to ensure mothers shared guardianship of their children with the children’s father.[3]

Likewise, in Ireland and in the USA the process of encouraging women to take over their husband’s seat in legislature enabled women to gain a foothold in the political sphere. Prior to 1976, 73% of women who were US Senators and 50% of women who sat in the House of Representatives were widows when they gained seats in the Congress.[4]  By 2017 eight women had entered the Senate and thirty-nine the House of Representatives on the death of their husbands. Hattie Wyatt Caraway was the first woman to be elected to the Senate in her own right in 1932, having taken over her husband’s seat in 1931. In a letter written by Hattie at the time, she described herself as fulfilling her husband’s legacy, but there is also a sense that she was also, in widowhood, becoming her own woman.[5]  Hattie both diligently attended and voted in the senate and became the  first woman to chair a Senate committee in 1933 and the first woman to preside officially over the Senate in 1943.

Widows like Maggie Wintringham and Hattie Caraway had the benefit of an independent though not necessarily large income, the respectability of having been married, whilst they were freed from domestic responsibilities and the demands that marriage often placed on women’s time and emotional energy. Many widows were not so lucky; in war and peace, class, social position and economic resources shaped the experience of widowhood. Prior to the twentieth century, marriage was predominantly understood as first and foremost a practical and economic partnership, a liaison sometimes arranged for the couple by their families, rather than the emotionally intimate relationship it is expected to be today. Consequently, the most immediate, and sometimes long-term, concern of many widows was their e position, how they, and their children, could avoid the downward slide towards poverty. Historically, they often relied on their families and relations, charity, community support and the goodwill of a multitude of organisations to survive.

For most widows, particularly from the poorer classes, it was extremely difficult to earn enough money to support themselves. The situation was improved by the introduction of pensions for war-widows during the First World War and the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act in 1925 provided incomes for many widows. Before this, in Edwardian Britain women earned less than half the wages of men, with a women’s wage averaging just 11/- (55p) a week, whilst men earned 26/- (£1.30p). This and the limited range of jobs open to widows and the seasonal nature of much employment, gave widows limited choices, particularly if they had children. One option widows had was to remarry quickly. Examples of this can be seem amongst the soldiers’ wives who travelled with their husbands to the Crimean War in 1853. These couples were totally reliant on the soldier’s pay for their subsistence. Consequently, if their husbands succumbed to disease or were killed in battle many widows speedily married another soldier. One widow is known to have married four soldiers during the Crimean campaign, the last of whom luckily survived, enabling them to live together for the rest of their lives.

Widows who did not remarry were often forced to ask for help from charities, or in desperation turned to prostitution or the workhouse, unless their family or neighbours rallied round to support them. There are numerous examples of kindness to widows shown by neighbours and friends who had little enough to support themselves. Widow Moffat was left with three children under 15 in the 1840s. She earned only a £1 a year from her spinning work, her three young children managed to earn another £4 a year between them. Three times a week in winter and twice a week in summer she received free soup from the parish, however, the family also relied on the gifts of vegetables and food from neighbours.[6]

In historical periods when the vast majority of property and power was in men’s hands, and when men’s earning capacity was so much more than women’s, widows employed a multitude of ingenious strategies to get by. They ran smallholdings and farms, begged and borrowed, sewed and baked, became governesses, nurses, nuns and teachers, forged careers and held down mundane jobs to survive in a man’s world, without a man. But some widows did more than survive: they prospered, accumulated business empires or through multiple carefully remarriages amassed fortunes, promoted their sons’ political interests and looked after their own and their families’ welfare. The most prosperous woman in Elizabethan England, apart from the Queen herself, was Bess of Hardwick. Originally the daughter of a minor landowner in Derbyshire, she had been widowed twice by the age of thirty and had six young children and two stepdaughters to care for. She was widowed twice more but diligently continued to add to her power and status. Her astuteness and determination to keep control of the money and land she inherited after the death of each of her husbands enabled her to accumulate great wealth.  When she died at the age of 81, she had not only refurbished Hardwick Hall but built a dynasty which has lasted until the present time; many of the aristocratic families in Great Britain are her descendents including the Dukes of Devonshire, Newcastle, and Portland.[7]

A modest background was not necessarily a bar to the accumulation of wealth, as the life of the Black Country industrialist Eliza Tinsley indicates. When Eliza was widowed in 1851, she had five children including three sons under the age of 8. She initially intended to keep her husband’s business going only until her sons came of age.  However, she was so successful that the small nail and chain enterprise she inherited grew in twenty years to have 4,000 employees, a branch in Melbourne and interests in property and mining. On her death she left the equivalent of 3.5 million pounds despite having given generously to a number of charitable causes. Indeed, many wealthy widows in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries engaged in philanthropic activities but widows were also campaigners. They fought injustice and promoted women’s education, the suffrage and particularly in the twentieth century humanitarian causes. Amalia Fleming campaigned against the atrocities of Greek Junta in the 1970s and Graça Machel fought for the rights of women and children who were victims of war.[8]

The women’s movement, in the last half of the twentieth century provided an extra impetus to some of the campaigns widows were fighting.  In 1971, war widows from the First and Second World wars began a fight to be paid a pension equivalent to those received by widows of men lost in the Northern Ireland troubles, and then in the 1980s the Falklands war. They also sought an end to war widows having to pay income tax on their meagre pensions. Their campaign involved familiar tactics, writing to MPs and newspapers, holding events and demonstrations but also included daubing red paint on the cenotaph and disturbing the 2 minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday. After 18 years, in 1989, their eventual success represented one of the very few climb-downs of the Thatcher government. Widows also made a significant contribution to the seventies women’s movement. The journalist and Guardian Women’s Page editor, Mary Stott, a patron of the National Association of Widows and a trustee of the Widow’s Advisory Trust, was also heavily involved in ‘Women in Media’. This action group was concerned both about women’s portrayal in the media and their working lives within the industry. It picketed and lobbied, went on marches, and in February 1973, Mary led a deputation to Downing Street, where a duty policeman received their petition.[9]

Widows in the western world particularly, have also found ways to exert and wield power over families, communities and countries, they have forged the way for all women to participate in politics, and played a significant role in improving the lives of other women.  Yet widowhood in the twenty- first century is still often marked by poverty. In 2010, it was estimated that of the 245 million widows around the world, 115 million lived in poverty and neglect.

MAGGIE ANDREWS is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Worcester, whose wide range of research and publications focus on femininity and domesticity. She is president of the Women’s History Network and lives in Chichester, West Sussex. JANIS LOMAS completed her PhD on war widows at the University of Staffordshire and later worked as a lecturer in women’s history at the University of Birmingham. She was a founding member of the Women’s History Network and founded the WHN Midlands Region.

[1] Jalland, Patricia. Death in the Victorian Family . Oxford University Press on Demand, 1996.

[2] For further details see Frank, Katherine. Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi . Vol. 17. HarperCollins, 2001.

[3] For more about Maggie Wintringham’s campaign for Equal Guardianship of Infants see Takayanagi, Mari Catherine, Parliament and Women, c.1900–1945, unpublished PhD thesis at Kings College, London. portal/

[4] Kincaid, Diane D. “Over his dead body: A positive perspective on widows in the US Congress.” Western Political Quarterly 31.1 (1978): pp 96-104.

[5] Hendricks, Nancy Senator Hattie Caraway: An Arkansas Legend. The History Press Charleston 2013 Kindle edition 19%.

[6] Winter, James. ‘Widowed mothers and mutual aid in early Victorian Britain.’ Journal of Social History 17.1 (1983): p.115.

[7] Durrant, David N. Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabeth Dynast. Peter Owen, 1999.

[8] See for example Fleming, Lady Amalia. A Piece of Truth. Jonathan Cape, 1972 and Winnie-and-Graca/1066-4369504-985g1kz/index.html

[9] Stott, Mary. Forgetting’s No Excuse . Faber & Faber, 1973.