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The features shared by all widows are that they are women who have been married and whose husbands have died. Beyond that, there is such a great heterogeneity among widows that there is no way of predicting the lifestyle, support systems, and identity of any one woman. Many factors affect these aspects of widowhood, such as the characteristics of the society and community in which she lives, the personal resources with which she and her husband built their lives, the circumstances of his death, and the personal resources with which she modifies, removes, or adds social roles and social relations to her lifestyle and support systems. What she is and how she lives are highly influenced by her self-concept and the identities she takes on or is given by others in social interaction.

The characteristics of a widowed woman's world that influence her throughout life include the presence or absence of resources for its members and whether and how these are available to womenparticularly to women in different marital situations. The resources vary tremendously by society, and are influenced by forms and complexity of social development, by family systems, and by degrees of equality of opportunity to use or refuse resources.

Widowhood in America

In the United States there are great variations in the lives and identities of widowed women based on the geographical and social characteristics of the communities in which they reside, and the social, service, emotional, and economic support these communities provide. Some communities are active in outreach programs; others require initiative on the part of a member wishing to take advantage of them. An upper-class community provides very different opportunities to its members than a lower class or immigrant community. Ethnic and racial identities contribute their share of uniqueness to working within these support systems. Small towns offer different restrictions and opportunities than large cities for continuing and changing one's lifestyle. Personal resources include the ability to analyze a situation for what is needed or wanted and to reach these resources. Personal resources vary from woman to woman, but generally encompass economic support, personal ability to function, and approach to life, the status of the woman's health, and existing and future social and emotional support networks.

The Demographic Picture

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 199.7 million persons aged 18 and over in the United States in 1999, up from 159.5 million in 1980. In 1999, 95.9 million were men and 103.9 were women, continuing the trend of many decades. Both the number of men and that of women increased by over 20 million between 1980 and 1999. Out of these, 2.5 million men and almost four times as many women were widowed. To a great extent the difficulties of remarriage by widows can be attributed to this disparity. In 1999 only 8.9 percent of the men and 10.5 percent of the women were widowed. Although both white and black widowed women formed around 10.8 percent of the total of women, only 10.8 of the whites but 37.9 percent of the black women never married. Only 6.5 percent of Hispanic women were listed as widows that year.

Only 2 percent of children under 18 years of age were living with a widowed mother in 1998. Eighty-one percent of female-headed households were headed by widows aged 65 or older. While the percentage of widowed men aged 65 and over remained between 13 and 14 percent from 1980 to 1999, the percent of women decreased from 51.2 to 44.9 percent, mainly due to the increase in the proportion of those who were divorced, from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. Divorced men also increased in percentage, but the vast majority remained married. The older age of widowed women is reflected in their lack of educational achievement. Thirty-seven percent of all widows, compared to 16.5 percent of the total American population, never finished high school and a smaller proportion of the total never finished college or pursued postgraduate education. Many had been full-time homemakers or held only minimum-wage jobs so that their income in widowhood is dependent upon the husband's Social Security. As widowed mothers or older widows, they have the income of a new husband if they remarry, and informal exchanges of goods and services occasionally offer work for pay. However, many studies indicate that widows are not as poor as expected. Most live in metropolitan areas, while farm women move to small towns and those in retirement communities return to hometowns to be close to their children.

Traditional, Transitional, and Modern America

The situation of American widowed women can best be understood through the prism of social change in this society. Many Americans were socialized into varying degrees of the patriarchal systems, in the family and at large. In fact, as the American society became more complex and industrialized, gender segregation became extended from the home to the whole society. The social world became divided into what has been called "separate spheres," the private sphere of the home under the management of women, and the public sphere, worked in and managed by men. The latter sphere included the economic, educational, religious, and political institutions. In order to ensure the separation, a whole ideology of separate gender personalities and abilities was created and incorporated into the socialization of children, occupational, and other areas of life. Men were defined as natural leaders, logical, and able to invent complex systems. Women were defined as compassionate, emotional, and natural caregivers. It was therefore a waste to educate them with the tools needed to function in the public sphere. The two-sphere ideology carried the genders throughout life and obviously influenced marital, parental, and other social roles.

The Role of Wife

The situation of any widow is heavily influenced by her life as a wife and the circumstances by which she becomes widowed. Even in modern America, and with some of the variations noted, social class accounts for main differences in the role of wife. Lower or working class wives are often tied into family or racial and ethnic networks, affecting relations between husband and wife and affecting members of the social circle associated with that role. This statement is dependent upon a definition of "social role" as a set of mutually interdependent social relations between the person at the center of the role and the social circle of all those from whom he or she acquires rights and to whom he or she has obligations because of being the center of that role. It makes a great deal of difference if a wife's role includes active participation in her and her husband's immediate and extended families, her husband's coworkers and friends, neighbors, and the wider community. The husband's family may offer rights and demand obligations that can even exceed his mutual exchanges when he was living.

One of the changes between traditional American families and those striving for new, "modern" lifestyles has been the decrease in importance of the husband's extended family. This means that, although the family has lost much control over the woman's behavior as both a wife and a mother, it is also less available to provide support. One of the consequences has been an increase in the importance of the woman's family as a support system. In patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal families the daughter moved away from her family of orientation upon marriage, and therefore the family was unable to both demand and supply support. In modern cases in which the mother-in-law is no longer close, the mother-daughter bond often increases in importance.

There are variations in working-class perceptions of the role of wife by social race. When asked how a wife influences her husband's job, white women in the Chicago area stated that a wife should avoid nagging her husband, because that can create problems in his behavior at work, but expressed resentment over the authoritarian attitude and abuse by the husband. Conversely, African-American women felt that nagging is necessary or the man will not work consistently or take responsibility for the family.

Middle-class wives of America living before the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when women began to enter the workforce in large numbers, became highly dependent upon the husbandnot only in the role of wife, but in all other social relationships. Men freed from educational and economic control of their family of orientation acquired the right to co-select their wives and move wherever they found it necessary. They then joined the "greedy institutions" of the occupational world (Coser 1974). This meant that the wife's residence, the amount of economic resources she had available to her, and the people with whom she was likely to associate all became influenced by the husband's job and its geographical and financial situation.

There was an interesting difference in how white and African-American middle-class women responded to the question as to the influence of a wife on her husband's job. The latter were very conscious of the discrimination faced by the man in the outside world and sought to support him at home. Some of the white women stated that they themselves had no influence but that "those women on the North Shore" are influential and that companies insist on interviewing the wife before hiring the man (Lopata 1971, pp. 94104).

The wife's obligations to maintain, rather than raise, the family status is even more important in the case of the mid-century upper-class wife. Her background was often similar to her husband's but she had to make sure that the residence, the children, and her own activities ensured their status within the community. Her voluntary contributions formed a major part of her role of wife, which included making sure that the children went to proper schools and ensuring that her children's marriages did not pull down the family status. At the same time, all this activity could not interfere with the husband as a person, in his job, and in his own community action. Thus, as much as the middle-class wife, she took on the role of protecting the man from distracting family problems, assisting in status-maintaining behavior, such as the entertainment of important business associates, and sometimes even directly helping with his job in a subsidiary position.

Becoming Widowed

The extent to which the wife in the not-yet-modern times of the mid-twentieth century was dependent upon the husband for economic, locational, and social supports, the family's position in the community deeply affected what happened when the husband became ill or incapacitate and died. It was hard for a widowed woman to retain the status she gained vicariously from the husband or to continue activities that maintained her status. She was often dropped from his associations, and lost mutual friends if marriage to him had been the connecting link. Financial losses might require movement into another community, which was difficult for both her and the children. If she had been a homemaker without skills for obtaining a job, her social life may have narrowed. Although the husband's family was not likely to have been very important to her support systems, unless upper class inheritance was significant, their involvement in her network would not likely be expanded after his death. Membership in couple-companionate circles was made difficult by the asymmetry of membership, leaving her often out of the loop, or restricting contact to only wives during the daytime. All these changes affected her role as mother, as the social circle of her children decreased or changed due to all the consequences of the death of the husband/father.

Throughout the twentieth century, there was a great deal of scholarly debate whether sudden or prolonged death is more difficult for survivors. Sudden death leaves a lot of "unfinished business," in that all marriages go through periods of conflict or tension that remain unresolved, and can carry over into widowhood. On the other hand, prolonged death usually requires prolonged care by someone, usually the wife. Relatively few people die in hospitals or long-term care facilities, although most usually spend some time in these. The home caregiver experiences many problems, including heavy work, physical nursing, role conflict when there are children, having to support other relatives, or obligations to jobs. The patient can be very demanding and angry, causing tension in the emotional state of the wife. In addition, it is hard for someone to watch a significant other weaken, be in pain and deteriorate, physically and mentally. Prolonged care can also result in social isolation, as the social life becomes constricted and associates cease to visit and offer support. Estate problems or fear of family members can add conflict difficult to deal with in a time of stress.

Certain types of death and dying are especially difficult for survivors. Suicide is difficult because it is easy for the wife to blame herself for creating problems or not providing sufficient support. Others, especially the husband's family, are likely to blame her. AIDS patients provide additional strains, due to both the myths and facts of disease transmission. Some forms of dying provide danger to the caregivers or others in the household, resulting in a protective stance by the wife, antagonizing the patient and other family members. Age of both the dying person and the caregiver is allegedly an important factor, partially due to what the scholar Bernice Neugarten defined as "on" or "off" time. According to Neugarten, people live according to a culturally and privately constructed time schedule. One is supposed to be able to experience certain events at specified times. Death in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is supposed to occur when people are older, not in youth or allegedly robust middle age. Each ethnic and other socioculturally socialized group has its own interpretation of what is proper death, reason, time, and circumstance, and these notions all affect the grieving process and the widow's life role.

The situation of the actual death can also create problems for survivors and related people, often associated with the type and form of information received by the others. There are definite norms as to the transmission of such knowledge, to be followed by medical personnel, the police, and family members. Often a male member of the family, such as a son, is first informed with the obligation to pass on the news to others. Some hospitals have a special room in which the family is told of the last minutes of life and any messages from the dying. A particular problem exists when the death is not definite, as in missing in action cases during wars or if the body is not found.

Each culture has its own norms for closing off life with ceremonies of mourning in religious or public centers, cemeteries, or funeral parlors. In fact, the taking over of the ceremonies by funeral directors and staff is a relatively new phenomenon; family and religious leaders have served that function in the past. According to Geoffrey Gorer, death has become almost a pornographic subject, hidden from public view and discussion as much as possible, the ceremonies in countries such as America and England shorn down to the minimum (1967).

However, part of every ceremony surrounding death involves protection of those expected to be most affected, such as the children, parents, or spouse of the deceased. In some cultures with strong extended family ties, mothers are always honored as the ones who suffer the most, even before the spouse or the children. Funeral cultures assume that the most affected cannot attend to all the arrangements for the funeral and burial, so that someone else takes over. The "role of widow," in which duties and rights surround the woman with the assistance of circle members, has been narrowed in modern societies into a temporary one. Once it is considered finished, circle members of that role return to their own lives, leaving the widowed woman to work out her "grief work" pretty much on her own. Eric Lindemann, the first psychologist and psychiatrist who devoted himself to an analysis of what the survivors must do to adjust to death, defined this grief work as "emancipation from the bond of the deceased, readjustment to the environment in which the deceased is missing, and the formation of new relationships" (Lindenman 1944). The death researcher Helena Lopata added a fourth necessary accomplishment: the reconstruction of the self-concept and the widow's various identities in relationships with others. All of these are complicated processes, worked through in varying ways and time frames.

An initial study of older widows of the 1960s and 1970s found that the more education a woman had and the more middle class a lifestyle she and the husband built while he was well, the more disorganized her life became after his death. This is true mainly because Americans of this social stratum tend to be emotionally and socially in their various social roles mutually interdependent; so, much of the wife's life depended on the husband as the center of her various roles. Thus, not only the role of wife, but other roles such as mother, member of both sides of extended families, friend, and neighbor experienced changes that had to be worked out in new ways. On the other hand, the more the woman had these multiple roles the more personal, especially individual, resources she had to reconstruct her whole self-concept, lifestyle, and social relations.

Husband Sanctification

One 1970s study of the role changes and support systems of widows dealt with the tendency of some widows to describe their husbands in highly idealistic terms. Certain parts of the interviews would reflect a marriage that was not perfect, often problematic, with which an idealized description did not match. In order to address this discrepancy, the research team developed a "sanctification scale" of two parts. The first asked the respondent for degrees of agreement with polar terms such as warm-cold, superior-inferior, honest-dishonest, and friendly-unfriendly. The second was a relational segment asking for agreement with such statements as, "Ours was an unusually happy home" and "My husband was an unusually good man." The final statement of this scale was, "My husband had no irritating habits." There was great variation in the scores on the sanctification scale. Women who had a hard time in life, especially those people uneducated and living in poverty, tended to answer with extremes. People belonging to ethnic groups that sanctioned "speaking no evil of the dead" scored high. Those who defined life as hard scored low. Highly educated women would not agree with the final statement, nor did most married women upon whom the scale was pretested.

The process of sanctification performs several important functions for the widow. It removes the dead husband from current life into the safety of sainthood, and thus from watchfulness and the ability to criticize. Besides, if such a saintly man was married to her, then she must not be as bad as her depressive moments indicate. On the other hand, it has some negative effects. It can antagonize friends with living husbands who definitely have irritating habits. It can also discourage potential male companions who cannot possibly compete with the memory of such a saintly man.

Modern Identities and Self-Concepts

The need to reconstruct the self-concept and the identities given off or imposed by others is a complicated process that often lasts a long time. These concepts must be defined. For the purpose of this entry, identities are seen as those images of the person as she presents the self or as others see her.

According to the scholar Morris Rosenberg, a self-concept is "the totality of the individual's thoughts and feelings having reference to himself [sic] as an object" (Rosenberg 1979, pp. 78). There is obviously a strong interconnection between identities, as used in social interaction and the self-concept. When life situations change, both of these aspects of the self must be reconstructed. Some identities are carried throughout life and influence one's roles. The self and others use comparisons of how that person behaves and is treated in that role in contrast to others. The person also evaluates the self and all these evaluations and interactions influence the self-concept.

Gender identities are pervasive throughout life, sex determined by others at birth and socialization is aimed at forming and maintaining appropriate gender. The same is true of social race as defined in American society. Other identities such as religion, ethnicity, occupation, community, and organization are acquired at different stages of life, voluntarily or by others. Finally, many identities arise out of special events, such as graduation or widowhood. Some of these are transformed into social roles, when the person acquires certain characteristics and a social circle from whom rights are granted and to whom obligations are met. In American society, genderby this definitionis not a social role but a pervasive identity that enters, in more or less significant ways, into various social roles. The feminist and related movements have attempted to prevent gender identity from influencing important social roles, such as physician or astronaut. The traditional and transitional two-sphere ideology is difficult to change so the process of decreasing gender segregation is slow.

In the 1980s the scholar Lynn Lofland concluded that modern society makes the death of significant others, such as a spouse, more difficult than traditional societies, because it has narrowed down the number of persons with whom the self has multiple connecting blocks. Less than a decade later, the scholar Rose Coser argued that modern societies with multiple and complex social structures and relationships free the person, especially women, from dependence upon a small circle of associates who insist on obedience to norms and restrict opportunities to develop multidimensional life spaces. According to this perception of social change, American society is increasingly modern, in that opportunities for educational and occupational involvement have expanded, not for everyone, but definitely for many women. Although the basic responsibility for the home and children still falls on women, husbands and increasing segments of society are willing to open resources making women less dependent upon spouses for economic and social life spaces. This means that widowhood is no longer faced by women whose whole lives were limited to the home and children, but by women who have developed other abilities and broader social life spaces, enabling the reconstruction of self and life in new ways once the period of heavy grief has waned.

At the same time, if one follows Lofland's argument, individualization and the expansion of the variety of people available for interaction and social roles has been accompanied by the reduction of the number of persons with whom close, intimate building blocks and threads of connectedness of human attachment are developed. This increases the significance of each person who becomes close. Lofland concluded that grief is harder in the modern Western world when one of these few persons dies. This is particularly true if that person is a spouse. According to Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner, marriage among middle-class couples involves a complex process of self, other, and world reconstruction, carried forth through constant conversation and other forms of interaction. Relations with others must be more or less transformed with couplehood. This means that the death of the partner necessitates another reconstruction, but the process has to be taken alone, with only partial support from others. The significant partner is not there to comment and either accept or critique the changes of the self and the world the widowed woman is trying to accomplish. The self as a wife exists only in memory and the future self planned before the illness and/or death is not possible. The present may be lonely and beset with other problems, such as shortage of finances, the grief of the children, and other challenges with which the widow may not be able to cope. Friends and relations may start making demands as soon as the role of widow has withered.

The various forms and components of loneliness expressed by women in several of Lopata's studies accentuate the problems of self and world reconstruction. The widow can miss that particular person with whom a unique relationship was formed, having and being a love object, a companion in front of television, a sexual partner, an escort to public events, a partner in couple-companion friendship, someone sharing the household for whom meals and routines are planned, and even just a presence. The widowed woman must also deal with the identities imposed upon her by others. Elizabeth Bankoff's 1990 study of friendship among widows concluded that old friends could become troublesome if they insisted on the widow remaining the same. Many women thoroughly dislike the label "widow," with its traditional implication of an old, helpless woman who is perpetually in weeping grief. They also find it self-demeaning when associates do not consider them worthy of continued interaction. Thus, as the woman tries to change, often in uncertain and conflicting ways, people around her keep thrusting on her identities she may dislike and refuse to accept. The absence of the late husband may necessitate the survivor learning new skills and areas for building self-confidencefrom caring for the family automobile to managing her finances.

The process of change in the self-concept is inconsistent and, like grief, has no clear-cut ending, as new situations and roles affect what has been reconstructed and old images remain in live memory. However, many studies have found widows very resilient. They deal with the pain of caring for a dying husband, the shock of the death, the need to learn to live in a world without the deceased, and the need to change relationships and reconstruct a new self-concept and identities.

Family Roles in Widowhood

The role of mother is obviously changed by the death of the children's father, but many factors affect the form and direction of such changes, including the number, gender, and ages of the children, as well as their prior relationship to the father, and the contributions or problems in the support system from the social circle of that role. The woman may not have complete freedom in relating with her children. Even in the twenty-first century, in-laws may have definite ideas about how the children should be raised, especially if the family is prestigious and inheritance is involved. Ethnic and people of color groups may have definite ideas as to the rights of the husband's family over these children and their mother. The financial situation may influence what she can, or wants, to do with and for them. In the historical past of American society "charitable organizations" often interfered with the mother in the absence of father, sometimes even taking the children away from her, as happened to thousands of New York children sent to the Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century. It was not until 1905 that the society decided that children were best off with the mother and even passed a policy of "mother's pensions," which unfortunately were not available in many states. Amendments to the Social Security Act gave widows with minority children special funds, ending when the offspring reached adulthood. Neighbors, schools, even the police can impinge on the rights of mothers, allegedly guaranteeing safety and proper socialization.

Children can cause work for the mother, but they can also form a major source of support. As mentioned earlier, mother-daughter relationships tend to be closer in America than in some other societies and closer than the mother-son tie. This is particularly true in subcultures with strong gender-segregation norms. As the children and the mother age, role reversal can take place, with the children, and especially one child, taking over some of the household chores, contributing to the family finances, and caring for the parent. These modifications in relationships can be painful, or relatively easy, depending on the kind of bond between parent and child and the behavior and attitudes of others, especially other children. Children might cooperate by providing support, or withdraw, placing the burden on one offspring.

Lopata's studies found that widowed women received little support from their in-laws. One-fourth did not have such living relatives. Only one-third reported that they were helped by in-laws at the time of death, and only about one-third of the in-laws said that they visited the widow or invited her over. Although in-law contact with the children was more frequent, only one-half said that in-laws gave the children gifts or money. These figures may indicate difficulties in the relationship while the connecting link was still alive, or else that one side or both felt the contact need not be continued. Widows reported that the grandparents were not active in the family. Of course, most of the widows in Lopata's studies were fifty years or older and the children were not of a dependent age.

The two Lopata studies came to one conclusion concerning the contribution of siblings questioned by the scholars Anne Martin Matthews and Shirley O'Briant. Respondents in Lopata's support systems study were given three chances to report someone as contributing to 65 different economic, service, social, and emotional supports, for a total of 195 possible listings. Only 20 percent had no living sibling, but relatively few even mentioned a sister or brother. For example, the highest percent of listings, only 14 percent, was made in response to siblings as givers of food, and 10 percent to siblings who help with rent or with decision making, perform housekeeping or sickness care, function as companions in holiday celebrations, or act as the person to whom they would turn in times of crisis. Twenty percent indicated that they helped a sibling with work outdoors, the highest of service supports. If a sibling appears in one support she (it is usually a sister) appears in several. Martin Matthews studied widows in Guelph, Ontario, which has a low mobility rate and O'Briant in Columbus, Ohio, in which mainly one sibling was active. Chicago is a large city, with high mobility and family dispersal, which may account for the relative absence of siblings in those support systems.

Other relatives do not appear often, especially in the lives of older widows, mainly because of their unavailability. This varies among the studies of various populations. However, more African-American than white widowed grandmothers took care of and even mothered their grandchildren. "Black grandparents were much more likely to take on a parent-like role with their grandchildren. . . . These grandparents saw themselves as protectors of the family, bulwarks against the forces of separation, divorce, drugs, crimeall the ills low-income black youth can fall pray [sic] to" (Cherlin and Furstenberg 1986, pp. 127128). Lopata and Jessyna McDonald, who studied African-American families in Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., in 1987, found many widows living alone. One difference between white and African-American families was the fluidity of housing arrangements. African-American women may have children, grandchildren, even siblings and more distant relatives moving in and out, or she may move into their households more frequently than white women.

Women and Men Friends: Membership in the Community

Many widowed women, especially of the middle class, reported problems with married friends. Social events, whether at homes or in public places, tend to be built around friendships with couples. Respondents complained that they heard about dinner parties to which they were not invited. Some widows explained it in terms of jealousy of married friends who did not want an extra woman around their husband, or having a "fifth wheel" present (Lopata 1973, p. 151). More agreed that married friends were jealous of them than that the husbands actually propositioned. Such advances, if they happened, were met with anger. The widows often wanted male companionship, but not a sexual affair with a husband of a friend, endangering the other relationship. Also, many moved after the death of the husband and were located inconveniently to former friends. Bankoff reported that old friends were helpful only early in widowhood. New friends, on the other hand, accepted the widows as they were.

Close relations with men can become a problem for widowed women. Many simply do not want to enter into such interaction, and definitely not to remarry. They like freedom from prior constraints, do not want to take care of another sick man, and fear objections from children. Offspring often do not approve of such changes because of idealization of the father or inheritance concerns. In addition, of course, there is the ever-present knowledge of the statistical scarcity of available men the same age of most widows. Living men are either married or in poor health. Sexual relations themselves may be feared, with concern over physical appearance and experiencing emotions or difficulties of physical contact. Some widows do enter cohabitation arrangements, on either a part- or full-time basis, either in home or away. For the most part, widows who remarry desire such a relationship, lack inhibiting influences, are attracted to a specific individual, and feel that they can gain from the relationship, whether economically or from a parenting perspective. Walter McKaine's Retirement Marriage (1969) found conservative attitudes among "remarrieds," many of whom had ethnic backgrounds in which marriage rather than personal independence was very important. He notes that success in these marriages involves affection and respect.

American society has created many organizations whose membership is open to participants. Some of these are focused on providing resources, advice, companionship, or social events to the elderly, and some to the widowed. The American Association of Retired People (AARP) has developed the Widow to Widow program and many communities have variations on such themes. Other groups in which marital status is not a known characteristic attract people with special interests. In the past, widows felt like members of a minority group, with myths and prejudices against them, but active life in the twenty-first century appears to diminish these attitudes.

Becoming and being a wife, and then a widowed woman, involves complex processes of self and other reconstruction and changes in relations with different circle members. These are heavily influenced by many factors, such as the characteristics of the society and the communities in which a woman lives, and her personal resources. Becoming a wife involves relating to the husband but also to a whole social circle of the role, its composition, rights, and duties. An important aspect of American society is its patriarchal and related bases, modified by new forms of complex development, including opportunities and restrictions of resources available to all women, wives, and then widows. Personal resources include the ability to analyze and seek out resources at any stage of life. Although widows have gone through the trauma of an ill or suddenly dead husband, grief, loneliness, and the need to reconstruct the self-concept and identities, those who had a multidimensional social life space have been able to build independent, even satisfying lives. Others obtain support systems from families, friends, neighbors, and their community's organizations, with varying degrees of satisfaction. There are unknown numbers of widows in modern American society and its communities who live a very restricted life, but their frequency appears to be decreasing as societal resources become available not only in widowhood, but throughout life.

See also: Continuing Bonds; Lopata, Helena Z; Widowers; Widows in Third World Nations


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LOPATA, HELENA ZNANIECKA. "Widows." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

LOPATA, HELENA ZNANIECKA. "Widows." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. (May 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200310.html

LOPATA, HELENA ZNANIECKA. "Widows." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200310.html



Although the death of a spouse is more common for women than for men, a man's chance of becoming a widower increases as he ages. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2001, approximately 3 percent of the men capable of marriage are widowed compared to 12 percent of the women. These proportions increase dramatically, however, among those sixty-five years of age and older (14% men versus 45% women) and even more so among those aged eighty-five and older where 43 percent of the men are widowers (compared to 80% of the women).

Often the widower experience is examined in light of similarities and differences between them and their female counterparts. Although there is a natural tendency to draw comparisons between widows and widowers, some features of "widowerhood" are unique and warrant special attention. It is also true that the course of bereavement among widowers is wrought with diversity and variability. The process of adaptation to the loss of their wives is rarely linear and is more aptly described as one of oscillation between good and bad days or even moments within a single day. Some cope more successfully than others who experience greater difficulty; however, there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that many ultimately demonstrate a high degree of resilience as time passes.

Oftentimes widowers' experiences are affected by a variety of factors, including their age, the relationship with their children, how well they are able to assume new responsibilities, and how much emotional and material support is available from others. Similarly, the loss of a wife can have adverse consequences on the widower's physical health. This too can vary depending on the widower's prior health, his lifestyle, and to what extent he possesses the skills he needs to take care of himself. Finally, while many widowers have the resources and skills that enable them to eventually cope and adapt on their own, a significant few turn to more formal sources of help. Widowers' motivation to seek assistance as well as the effectiveness of that help often is a product of their beliefs and expectations about how a man is to grieve and respond to loss.

What Widowers Experience

While women who lose their husbands often speak of feeling abandoned or deserted, widowers tend to express the loss as one of "dismemberment," as if they had lost something that kept them organized and whole. The Harvard Bereavement Study, a landmark investigation of spousal loss that took place in the Boston area during the late 1960s, reported that widowers often equated the death of their wives with the loss of their primary source of protection, support, and comfort. This went to the very core of their overall sense of wellbeing. It has been described as "being lost without a compass," usually due to their profound loneliness but also because widowers often depended on their wives for many things like managing the household, caring for their children, and being their only true confidant. This sense of being lost is more profound when widowers need help but have difficulty obtaining or even asking for it. They also can experience ambiguity about the emotions they are feeling and the uncertainty of how to express them.

Emotional response. Similar to widows, bereaved husbands experience an array of emotions, such as anger, shock (especially if the death is unexpected), numbness, denial, and profound sadness. Unlike widows, however, grieving men tend to control their emotions (with the possible exception of anger), for instance, by holding back and crying less openly. Widowers, more often than not, will channel their energy into active coping and problem-solving strategies like work, physical activity, or addressing disruptions in the household. At other times they may prefer to be alone with their thoughts, whether thinking about the circumstances surrounding their wife's death or reflecting on ways to cope with their new situation.

Widowers who experience the same emotions as widows but were raised with the belief that emotional control is a sign of strength often find themselves confronting an inner conflict about how to respond to a loss. The situation may instinctively call for a response that is emotional but the widower may not be socialized to express himself in that way. Adding to this confusion on the part of the widower is an assumption that there is only one way to grieve. Men usually express their feelings of grief in solitary ways, but this should not be construed as being any less intense than a widow's grief. At the same time, to a varying degree, some widowers express their emotions more openly than others, suggesting that while some responses may be more typical, any one widower's experience can be somewhat unique as well.

Mental health issues. Although not entirely conclusive, several studies suggest that widowers can be prone to depression after the death of their wives, especially when they are compared with their nonbereaved married counterparts. On average, married men are less likely than married women to be depressed. Most epidemiological studies report that marriage tends to be protective for men in terms of depression and other mental health problems, largely because a supportive marital relationship buffers them from the negative impact of the stress and strains of everyday life. Bereavement, therefore, is more depressing for many widowers because they, quite simply, have more to lose than widows. This is based on the assumption that a man's spouse is often his primary source of social support. Consequently, although a widower may have been more apt to express his thoughts and feelings to his wife when she was alive, he may be equally unlikely to be so open to others. Widows more frequently use alternative sources of support that can protect them more effectively from potentially adverse effects of the loss and other stressors.

In some studies, many widowers are more recently bereaved than the widows are, most often due to differences in life expectancy and remarriage rates between men and women. Men usually are widowed at a later age and are more likely to die before being bereaved for a long period of time. Younger widowers usually have more opportunities to remarry, whereas widowed women will have fewer options for remarriage and remain widowed longer. Because the most difficult time usually is early in the bereavement process, the widowers who participate in these studies will have had less time than the widows to adjust to the loss and more likely will report being depressed when they are interviewed. Not all research, however, supports the conclusion that widowers suffer more depression than widows. Many of the gender differences regarding depression and other mental health outcomes are largely unexplained and consequently are inconclusive.

The degree of difficulty that widowers face can be dependent on when in their own life the loss occurs. Although not necessarily true of everyone, many widowers whose wives die around the same time that they are retiring from their occupation (or soon thereafter) can be prone to more difficulty. Married couples often have expectations about how they intend to spend their retirement years together. Those expectations can be shattered as newly bereaved widowers suddenly find themselves facing retirement alone, which could be a source of depression or hopelessness. Conversely, men who are in their preretirement years might adapt more easily. They are typically still employed, could be more socially connected due to ties in the workplace, and might still have children in the home. Of course, these also can be potential sources of difficulty, particularly if relationships with children are strained or if assuming new responsibilities around the household interferes with the widower's effectiveness at work and elsewhere. Conversely, these life circumstances could represent a sense of feeling useful, involved, and being engaged in meaningful activityall potential constructive coping mechanisms for the widower.

Health and Mortality among Widowers

Much of the research suggests that there is a greater prevalence of mortality and morbidity among the spousal bereaved compared to those who are currently married. Many of these same studies further report that the risk of becoming physically ill or dying soon after the loss of a spouse is greatest for widowers. The fact that men tend to be older when their spouses die could explain some of these findings. Although mortality is less common among younger widowers, the difference between their mortality rates and those of their married counterparts is greater than what is observed among older age groups, especially within the first six months of bereavement.

Why are some widowers at risk for illness and even death? One explanation is that married couples are exposed to the same environmental influences and often pursue similar lifestyles. If any of these have a negative impact on the health of one spouse, resulting in his or her death, a similar outcome could follow for the other. This explanation, however, fails to adequately explain the excess mortality observed among widowers compared to widows because the odds of illness and death would be similar for those whose health is similarly threatened. An alternative explanation involves the role of stress. Some believe that the degree of stress associated with spousal bereavement can suppress the immune system, rendering the bereaved more susceptible to disease and subsequent mortality unless they have adequate support to buffer the unhealthy effects of stress. Consequently, widowers who are unable to benefit from supportive relationships with others after their spouse's death can experience a potential negative impact on their health. Furthermore, some widowers respond to stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and poor nutrition practices.

The health of widowers can suffer because they lack many of the skills that are important in self-care. Many tasks of daily living that are essential to health and well-being could go unaddressed by widowers if any of them were primarily the responsibility of their deceased wife. These could include meal preparation, shopping for adequate food, housekeeping, doing laundry, among other daily chores, all of which if left unattended for a long period of time are added sources of stress that could have adverse health consequences.

The division of labor concerning these tasks and skills tends to be defined according to gender, particularly among the older generations, but younger widowers often do not fare much better. Although many women participate in the workforce, they still are largely responsible for household management, cooking, and other tasks of daily living important for the care of the entire family. Widowers unskilled in these areas not only could find their health compromised for the reasons stated earlier, but also might feel less confident to meet the daily challenges of widowed life, which detracts from their ability to cope. Alternatively, those who learn to master many of these new responsibilities often cope more effectively and are at lower risk for poor health because they become more autonomous and eventually take better care of themselves.

How Well Widowers Adapt

Although not without its common elements, the process of adaptation to spousal loss can vary from individual to individual. While the most difficult times can be within the first six months to a year, some adapt more quickly whereas a few do not manage well for an extended period of time. Some characteristics, however, are associated with more successful adaptation. These include positive self-esteem, keeping busy with meaningful activity, having adequate opportunity for support and to share one's feelings, and a sense of being in control and confident in one's ability to cope effectively.

These attributes are largely independent of gender. The Harvard Bereavement Study, however, did make a distinction between social and emotional recovery. The widowers in that study adapted emotionally to the loss at similar pace to the widows, although their strategies may have differed. Alternatively, the men tended to move more quickly toward social recoverythat aspect of adaptation that refers to the need to reorganize one's life. This often was driven by the necessity to balance their role in the workplace with those pertaining to managing a household and caring for children. This was a source of strain for some of them that adversely impacted their effectiveness on the job and they felt compelled to find a way to alleviate it.

This need to reorganize sometimes predisposes widowed men to remarry. Many use remarriage as a way to fulfill their need for companionship and to resume an active sex life. Some, especially those who are younger, also believe remarriage once again provides a partner to help them meet the multiple responsibilities of being a worker, father, and head of household. Whether or not widowers eventually remarry, however, is not necessarily an indicator of how well they coped with the death of their former spouse. It is true that some of those who remarry report lower stress levels and greater life satisfaction, but nearly half of these remarriages dissolve, especially if they occur more quickly after the prior loss. Widowers who do not remarry are equally capable of maintaining meaningful relationships and adapting successfully to their new life.

Like any life transition, becoming a widower is associated with its own set of challenges and tasks that need to be successfully met in order to adapt effectively. At first, this can be highly disruptive, but as widowers have opportunities to learn the skills to meet these new challenges (whether managing a household, tending to their children's needs, assuming new self-care responsibilities, or becoming more comfortable with how they express their emotions), they develop a greater sense of coping ability and feel more confident to meet future challenges. Many bereaved men over time demonstrate a high degree of resilience and some grow personally from the experience. While most manage to accomplish this on their own, however, others require some assistance along the way.

Support Systems

Most bereaved rely on their own personal resources as well as the support of others in their lives for the means to adapt and do not require more formal assistance. For those experiencing greater difficulty, however, interventions like support groups and one-on-one programs can be effective, especially if accessed early in bereavement. While a small proportion of bereaved spouses in general participate in these programs, widowers as a rule are typically less receptive to them and often shy away from helping situations, at least at first. Consistent with their need to appear in control, especially regarding the display of their emotions, most widowers try to make it on their own even when they can benefit from outside help.

This is not to say that all widowers avoid participating in traditional bereavement interventions like self-help groups. Many, however, are not drawn to what they believe to be counseling interventions because they often perceive them as services designed primarily for women. Widowers are typically uncomfortable with environments where the open expression of emotion is encouraged because it is not consistent with their preferred way to grieve. Instead, researchers and practitioners suggest that bereaved men are more suited to active coping mechanisms that may include being engaged in meaningful activities. Programs that primarily feature such activities could have more appeal to widowers. Group walks and outings, for example, can be just as beneficial as traditional support groups because men who participate are able to interact and support one another in these situations and can do so more comfortably. Because the focus is on activity, however, as opposed to support or counseling itself, it is more consistent with many widowers' coping styles and is consequently less threatening. Because widowers use strategies that tend to be more cognitive than emotional in nature, they do well with books and other educational resources that help them help themselves.

Because of the unique problems widowers have assuming new responsibilities, they can benefit from programs that focus on skill-building and self-care education to help them successfully manage those tasks of daily living important to health, functioning, and independence. Issues of greater concern for widowers might include meal planning and preparation, housekeeping, and doing laundry. These programs can focus as well on more general health promotion topics like stress management, health screenings, immunizations, medication management, and physical activity, to name a few, that are equally relevant to widows and widowers but often go ignored or neglected by them given their new situation.

Although most bereavement programs have differential appeal to widowers, the benefits of participating vary from widower to widower. Success rate usually depends on the level of difficulty they are experiencing, what resources they already have in place, their needs, and their own unique situation. Interventions are not a panacea and most eventually cope without them. Although the strategies they choose at times might differ, widowers are as likely as widows to cope and eventually adapt to their new lives.

See also: Gender and Death; Grief: Anticipatory, Traumatic; Widows


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Campbell, Scott, and Phyllis R. Silverman. Widower: When Men Are Left Alone. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 1996.

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Hayslip, Bert, Susan E. Allen, and Laura McCoy-Roberts. "The Role of Gender in a Three-Year Longitudinal Study of Bereavement: A Test of the Experienced Competence Model." In Dale A. Lund ed., Men Coping with Grief. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 2001.

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Lieberman, Morton A. Doors Close, Doors Open: Widows Grieving and Growing. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996.

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Internet Resources

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CASERTA, MICHAEL S.. "Widowers." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

CASERTA, MICHAEL S.. "Widowers." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. (May 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200309.html

CASERTA, MICHAEL S.. "Widowers." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200309.html

Widows in Third World Nations

Widows in Third World Nations

In many traditional communities of developing countries (especially on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa), widowhood represents a "social death" for women. It is not merely that they have lost their husbands, the main breadwinner and supporter of their children, but widowhood robs them of their status and consigns them to the very margins of society where they suffer the most extreme forms of discrimination and stigma.

Widows in these regions are generally the poorest of the poor and least protected by the law because their lives are likely to be determined by local, patriarchal interpretations of tradition, custom, and religion. Unmarried women are the property and under the control of their fathers; married women belong to their husbands. Widows are in limbo and no longer have any protector.

Across cultures they become outcasts and are often vulnerable to physical, sexual, and mental abuse. It as if they are in some way responsible for their husband's death and must be made to suffer for this calamity for the remainder of their lives. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a widowespecially in the context of the AIDS pandemicto be accused of having murdered her husband, for example, by using witchcraft.

The grief that many third world widows experience is not just the sadness of bereavement but the realization of the loss of their position in the family that, in many cases, results in their utter abandonment, destitution, and dishonor.

In some African cultures, death does not end a marriage, and a widow is expected to move into a "levirate" arrangement with her brother-in-law ("the levir") or other male relative or heir nominated by his family. The children conceived are conceived in the name of the dead man. In other ethnic groups she may be "inherited" by the heir. Many widows resist these practices, which are especially repugnant and also life threatening in the context of AIDS and polygamy. Refusal to comply may be answered with physical and sexual violence. While in earlier times such traditional practices effectively guaranteed the widow and her children protection, in recent decades, because of increasing poverty and the breakup of the extended family, widows discover that there is no protection or support, and, pregnant by the male relative, they find themselves deserted and thrown out of the family homestead for good.

Widowhood has a brutal and irrevocable impact on a widow's children, especially the girl child. Poverty may force widows to withdraw children from school, exposing them to exploitation in child labor, prostitution, early forced child marriage, trafficking, and sale. Often illiterate, ill-equipped for gainful employment, without access to land for food security or adequate shelter, widows and their children suffer ill health and malnutrition, lacking the means to obtain appropriate health care or other forms of support.

However, there is an astonishing ignorance about and lack of public concern for the suffering of widows and their families on the part of governments, the international community, and civil society, and even women's organizations. In spite of four UN World Women's Conferences (Mexico 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985, and Beijing 1995) and the ratification by many countries of the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), widows are barely mentioned in the literature of gender and development, except in the context of aging. Yet the issues of widowhood cut across every one of the twelve critical areas of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, covering poverty, violence to women, the girl child, health, education, employment, women and armed conflict, institutional mechanisms, and human rights.

One explanation for the neglect of this vast category of abused women is the assumption that widows are mainly elderly women who are cared for and respected by their extended or joint families. In fact, of course, far from caring for and protecting widows, male relatives are likely to be the perpetrators of the worst forms of widow abuse. If they are young widows, it is imagined that they will be quickly remarried. In fact, millions of widows are very young when their husbands die but may be prevented by custom from remarrying, even if they wish to do so.

But in spite of the numbers involved, little research on widows' status exists (the Indian Census of 1991 revealed 35 million widows, but very little statistical data has been collected for other developing countries). Despite a mass of anecdotal and narrative information, public policies have not developed to protect widows' rights. Despite the poverty that widows and their children experience, organizations such as the World Bank have not yet focused on this hidden section in populations.

Laws, Customs, Tradition, and Religion

Across cultures, religions, regions, class, and caste, the treatment of widows in many developing countries, but especially in the South Asian subcontinent and in Africa, is harshly discriminatory.

Patriarchal kinship systems, patrilocal marriage (where the bride goes to the husband's location), and patrilineal inheritance (where succession devolves through the male line) shore up the concept that women are "chattels" who cannot inherit and may even be regarded as part of the husband's estate to be inherited themselves (widow inheritance). Where matrilineal kinship systems pertain, inheritance still devolves onto the males, through the widow's brother and his sons.

Disputes over inheritance and access to land for food security are common across the continents of South Asia and Africa. Widows across the spectrum of ethnic groups, faiths, regions, and educational and income position share the traumatic experience of eviction from the family home and the seizing not merely of household property but even intellectual assets such as pension and share certificates, wills, and accident insurance.

"Chasing-off" and "property-grabbing" from widows is the rule rather than the exception in many developing countries. These descriptive terms have been incorporated into the vernacular languages in many countries, and even (e.g., Malawi) used in the official language in new laws making such actions a crime.

The CEDAW or "Women's Convention" and the Beijing Global Platform for Action require governments to enact and enforce new equality inheritance laws. Some governments have indeed legislated to give widows their inheritance rights. But even where new laws exist, little has changed for the majority of widows living in the South Asian subcontinent and in Africa. A raft of cultural, fiscal, and geographical factors obstructs any real access to the justice system. Widows from many different regions are beginning to recount their experiences of beatings, burnings, rape, and torture by members of their husbands' families, but governments have been slow to respond, their silence and indifference, in a sense, condoning this abuse.

In India, many laws to protect women have been passed since independence. But it is the personal laws of each religious community that govern property rights and widowhood practices. The world knows of the practice of widow-burning (sati ), but little of the horrors widows suffer within the confines of their relatives' homes, how they are treated by their communities, or their fate when abandoned to the temple towns to survive by begging and chanting prayers. There are approximately 20,000 widows in Vrindavan, the holy city; Varanasi; Mathura; and Haridwar.

Common to both regions are interpretations of religious laws, customs, and traditions at the local level that take precedence over any modern state or international law. Widows in any case, especially the millions of illiterate widows living in rural areas, are mostly ignorant of the legal rights they have.

Mourning and Burial Rites

All human societies have sought ways to make death acceptable and to provide opportunities for expressing grief and showing respect to the dead person. In societies where the status of women is low, the mourning and burial rituals are inherently gendered. Rituals are used to exalt the position of the dead man, and his widow is expected to grieve openly and demonstrate the intensity of her feelings in formalized ways. These rituals, prevalent in India as well as among many ethnic groups in Africa, aim at exalting the status of the deceased husband, and they often incorporate the most humiliating, degrading, and life-threatening practices, which effectively punish her for her husband's death.

For example, in Nigeria specifically (but similar customs exist in other parts of Africa), a widow may be forced to have sex with her husband's brothers, "the first stranger she meets on the road," or some other designated male. This "ritual cleansing by sex" is thought to exorcise the evil spirits associated with death, and if the widow resists this ordeal, it is believed that her children will suffer harm. In the context of AIDS and polygamy, this "ritual cleansing" is not merely repugnant but also dangerous. The widow may be forced to drink the water that the corpse has been washed in; be confined indoors for up to a year; be prohibited from washing, even if she is menstruating, for several months; be forced to sit naked on a mat and to ritually cry and scream at specific times of the day and night. Many customs causes serious health hazards. The lack of hygiene results in scabies and other skin diseases; those who are not allowed to wash their hands and who are made to eat from dirty, cracked plates may fall victim to gastroenteritis and typhoid. Widows who have to wait to be fed by others become malnourished because the food is poorly prepared.

In both India and Africa, there is much emphasis on dress and lifestyles. Higher-caste Hindu widows must not oil their hair, eat spicy food, or wear bangles, flowers, or the "kumkum" (the red disc on the forehead that is the badge of marriage). Across the cultures, widows are made to look unattractive and unkempt. The ban on spicy foods has its origins in the belief that hot flavors make a widow more lustful. Yet it is widows who are often victims of rape, and many of the vernacular words for "widow" in India and Bangladesh are pejorative and mean "prostitute," "witch," or "sorceress." The terrible stigma and shame of widowhood produces severe depression in millions of women, and sometimes suicide.

Widowhood in the Context of AIDS

AIDS has resulted in a huge increase in widows, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. For sociological and biological reasons, women are twice as likely to contract HIV through vaginal intercourse as men. In southern Africa, the rates of infection for young women between ten and twenty-four years old are up to five times higher than for young men. This is significant for widows for a number of reasons. In addition to the normal social practice of older men marrying far younger women that prevails in some communities, there is a belief, held by many men, that having sex with a young girl or virgin will cure men of their HIV infection or protect them from future exposure. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this myth has significantly increased the incidence of child marriage and child rape. Such early marriage does not bring security but serious risk and vulnerability to infection. Married thirteen- to nineteen-year-old women in Uganda are twice as likely to be HIV-positive as their single contemporaries. These child brides quickly become child widows bearing all the stigma of widowhood, the problems compounded by their youth and helplessness.

Widows whose husbands have died of AIDS are frequently blamed for their deaths because of promiscuity, whereas, in the majority of cases, it is the men who have enjoyed multiple sex partners but return home to be nursed when they fall ill. These widows may or may not be aware of their sero-positive (infected with the HIV/AIDS virus) status and may reject being tested, fearing the consequences of a positive result, which, with no access to modern drugs, can amount to a death sentence. Besides, the dying husband's health care will, in most cases, have used up all available financial resources so that the widow is unable to buy even the basic medicines or nutritious food needed to relieve her condition.

AIDS widows, accused of murder and witchcraft, may be hounded from their homes and subject to the most extreme forms of violence. A Help Age International Report from Tanzania revealed that some 500 older women, mostly widowed in the context of AIDS, were stoned to death or deliberately killed in 2000.

The poverty of AIDS widows, their isolation and marginalization, impels them to adopt high-risk coping strategies for survival, including prostitution, which spreads HIV. In the struggle against poverty, the abandonment of female children to early marriage, child sex work, or sale for domestic service is common because the girl, destined to marry "away" at some point in her life, has no economic value to her mother.

But widows are not exclusively victims millions of surviving AIDS widows, especially the grandmothers, make exceptional but unacknowledged contributions to society through child care, care of orphans, agricultural work, and sustaining the community.

The international community, and especially the UN agencies such as WHO and UNAIDS, need to address the impact of AIDS on widowhood. So far, epidemiological studies have ignored them, and one can only rely on a few small localized studies, mainly from Africa, to understand the consequences and options for millions of women and their children.

Widowhood through Armed Conflict and Ethnic Cleansing

Sudden, cruel bereavement through war, armed conflict, and ethnic cleansing is the shared trauma of hundreds of thousands of women across the globe. Widowhood is always an ordeal for women, but for war widows the situation is infinitely worse. Widows from Afghanistan, Mozambique, Angola, Somalia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Guatemalaold women and young mothers provide testimonies of brutalities, rapes, homelessness, terror, and severe psychological damage.

There are a few actual statistics for individual countries on numbers of widows, but it is estimated that, for example, in Rwanda, following the genocide of 1994, over 70 percent of adult women were widowed. In Mozambique, following the civil war, over 70 percent of children were thought to be dependent on widowed mothers. Widows of war are often uncounted and invisible. Many widows, survivors of ethnic cleansing, have been victims of gang rapes or witnessed the death of husbands, sons, parents, and siblings. They eke out a bleak existence as traumatized, internally displaced persons or languish in sordid refugee camps, having lost not just their bread winner and male protector but also their worldly possessions. In the postconflict period, they remain in danger. To add to their problems, widows who have survived terrible hardships are often abandoned or ostracized by their relatives who refuse to support them. The shame of rape, the competition for scarce resources such as the family land or the shared house, places conflict widows in intense need. They are unable to prove their title to property and typically have no documentation and little expert knowledge about their rights. They bear all the burden of caring for children, orphans, and other surviving elderly and frail relatives without any education or training to find paid work. Widows in third world nations have the potential to play a crucial role in the future of their societies and the development of peace, democracy, and justice, yet their basic needs and their valuable contributions are mostly ignored. Where progress has been made, it is due to widows working together in an association.

Widows' Coping Strategies

What do widows do in countries where there is no social security and no pensions, and where the traditional family networks have broken down? If they do not surrender to the demands of male relatives (e.g., "levirate," widow inheritance, remarriage, household slavery, and often degrading and harmful traditional burial rites) and they are illiterate and untrained and without land, their options are few. Often there is no alternative to begging except entering the most exploitative and unregulated areas of informal sector labor, such as domestic service and sex work. Withdrawing children from school, sending them to work as domestic servants or sacrificing them to other areas of exploitative child labor, selling female children to early marriages or abandoning them to the streets, are common survival strategies and will continue to be used until widows can access education and income-generating training for themselves and their dependents.

Looking to the Future: Progress and Change

When widows "band together," organize themselves, make their voices heard, and are represented on decision-making bodies locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally, change will occur. Progress will not be made until widows themselves are the agents of change. Widows' associations must be encouraged and "empowered" to undertake studies profiling their situation and needs. They must be involved in the design of projects and programs and instrumental in monitoring the implementation and effectiveness of new reform legislation to give them property, land, and inheritance rights; protect them from violence; and give them opportunities for training and employment.

Widows at last have an international advocacy organization. In 1996, following a workshop at the Beijing Fourth World Women's Conference, Empowering Widows in Development (EWD) was established. This nongovernmental international organization has ECOSOC consultative status with the United Nations and is a charity registered in the United Kingdom and the United States. It is an umbrella group for more than fifty grass-roots organizations of widows in South Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and East Asia and its membership is constantly growing. EWD is focusing on the plight of millions of widows in AfghanistanAfghan widows in refugee camps. An offshoot of EWD, Widows For Peace and Reconstruction, was set up in August, 2001 to represent the special needs of war widows and to ensure that their voices are heard in post-conflict peace building.

In February 2001 EWD held its first international conference, "Widows Without Rights," in London; participants, widows' groups, and their lawyers came from some fifteen different countries. EWD represents widows at UN meetings, such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and is a consultant to various UN agencies on issues of widowhood. At last, widows are becoming visible, and their groups, both grass roots and national, are beginning to have some influence within their countries.

However, much more work is needed to build up the capacity of widows' groups and to educate the United Nations, civil society, governments, and institutions, including the judiciary and the legal profession, on the importance of protecting the human rights of widows and their children in all countries, whether they are at peace or in conflict.

See also: Gender and Death; Widowers; Widows


Chen, Marthy, and Jean Dreze. Widows and Well-Being in Rural North India. London: London School of Economics, 1992.

Dreze, Jean. Widows in Rural India. London: London School of Economics, 1990.

Owen, Margaret. "Human Rights of Widows in Developing Countries." In Kelly D. Askin and Dorean M. Koenig, eds., Women and International Human Rights Law New York: Transnational Publishers, 2001.

Owen, Margaret. AWorld of Widows. London: ZED Books, 1996.

Potash, Betty, ed. Widows in African Societies: Choices and Constraints. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Internet Resources

Division for the Advancement for Women. "Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action." In the United Nations [web site]. Available from www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/index.html.


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OWEN, MARGARET. "Widows in Third World Nations." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

OWEN, MARGARET. "Widows in Third World Nations." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. (May 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200311.html

OWEN, MARGARET. "Widows in Third World Nations." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200311.html

Widows and Widowhood


WIDOWS AND WIDOWHOOD. Vedova, viuda, veuve, Witwe, widow: all are words derived from the Indo-European base meaning 'to separate', and early modern Europeans were very familiar with the grief of a separation by the death of one's spouse. But these words also represent something else about widowhood. They are female forms, for widowhood affected women far more than it did men. Male words for widowhoodfor example the English widower derived from the female form and were infrequently used in the early modern period. Widows always outnumbered widowers: in Castile by up to 12 to 1, in Tuscany by more than 5 to 1, in England by 2 to 1. Wives, generally younger than their husbands, usually outlived them, and the dangers of childbirth were more than balanced by violence and occupational hazards experienced by men. Widowers were also at least twice as likely to remarry, and remarry quickly, driven by the domestic problems consequent on the absence of a wife. Their marital status was rarely remarked in literature and legal records, their occupational, financial, and public roles little altered by bereavement.

On the other hand, great cultural and economic change usually marked a woman's transition to widowhood. Widows were a large, identifiable, and problematic social group. In fifteenth-century Florence, for example, a quarter of females over age twelve were widows. Even in England, where age differences between husbands and wives were usually relatively small, widows constituted almost a tenth of the female population.


For a few of these women, widowhood conveyed wealth and independence; for most, it meant increased poverty. But whether rich or poor, widows challenged the fundamental premise of patriarchal order. Not only did every widow remind each man of his own mortality, a widow heading her own household also represented a lapse of the universal idea that women should be controlled by men. There were alternatives to this dangerous independence. Where Roman law was influential, widows sometimes, at least in theory, continued under male guardianship of father or brother or brother-in-law. Traditional Christian admiration for celibacy extended to chaste widowhood, and some Catholic widows took the opportunity of bereavement to enter (and in the case of some wealthy widows, to found) religious houses to secure an honorable home. Remarriage was another solution, but it suggested disloyalty to the dead husband, threatened his property and his children, and was generally criticized except for young childless women. The remarrying widow was a standard subject for jokes, satire, and gossip. But widows who did not marry were equally subject to criticism: as sexually rapacious, as subversive advisors to potentially rebellious wives, as aggressive and irritating borrowers and beggars, or, at best, as pathetic objects of charity. In the eighteenth century this last idea developed into the sentimentalized image of the permanently grieving and helpless widow, replacing the disorderly crone. Works of advice for widows prescribed a private life of chaste loyalty to the dead husband as the only defense against these negative images.


Of course, most widows did not and could not retire into helpless passivity. How did they live? Across Europe, most widows had some rights by law or custom, but variations were complex. One factor was the nature of conjugal estate in the area. Where tradition emphasized the separated unit of husband, wife, and children, the widow was more likely to succeed to headship of an independent household, with all the opportunities and problems that implied; where integration of the conjugal unit into a lineage was stronger, the widow would more likely make her home with her dead husband's successors, or return to her own male kin. Widows' rights to the couple's property also varied. At one extreme, a wife's estate (that is, the wealth she brought to the marriage as dowry, the parallel gift from her husband's family to her, and what she earned) remained all or partly under her own control during and after the marriage. Wives who traded in their own right in London, women in the Netherlands who chose to manage their own wealth (like many Jewish and Muslim women), and noble wives in Russia who gained the right to acquire their own lands during the eighteenth century probably experienced very little economic change in the transition to widowhood. In other systems, for example in Valencia, the property that a bride brought to her marriage remained hers but under her husband's control, until his death allowed the wife/widow to reclaim her contribution. In Florence a widow could, if she chose, take her wealth back and return to her own kin. But her children, part of her husband's lineage, stayed with his family, and by retrieving her wealth, she was potentially depriving them of both herself and her wealth. Even where, as in England, the wife's contribution in cash or goods belonged, notoriously, to her husband, some latent tradition remained by legitime of a guaranteed customary widow's share of the husband's goods. A widow could also claim a share of his real property (one-third by common-law dower, sometimes more, according to local custom). It was hers for life, but she could not sell it or bequeath it by will. An English husband had a corresponding right to his dead wife's real property, provided a child had been born to the couple. Similar rules of life estate have been studied in Paris, in parts of the Netherlands, and in Poland and elsewhere. For many wives the crucial document was the husband's will. A large, but declining, proportion of husbands conveyed substantial control by making their wives executors; but a will could also be used to reduce customary rights. Indeed, during the early modern period, widows' traditional rights tended almost everywhere to become more attenuated, sometimes replaced by negotiated contractual protections. Historians have been surprised by the energy with which widows used the courts, often successfully, to defend their customary or individual rights.

Rural widows thus sometimes had access to land and continued to farm. In some localities, up to a quarter of the land might be under widows' control. In towns and cities, wives of craftsmen and merchants also commonly carried on their husbands' businesses. Glikl bas Judah Leib of Hameln, whose memoirs have made her one of the best known of early modern widows, continued her Jewish family's trade in jewels during her first widowhood. Tax records and family letters reveal the lives of many other economically active widows. Even where there was no custom of wives' separate trading, most women had their own occupations that they continued in widowhood. Access to work encouraged widows to migrate and perhaps discouraged make-do remarriage; thus, the proportions of widows in lace-making communities, for example, tended to be higher than in other parts of rural France. But like rights of succession to land, widows' rights to practice their husbands' trades became more circumscribed through the period, and women's opportunities to be trained for a profitable separate occupation were also reduced.


The presence or absence of children made a huge difference. The desire to protect children's inheritances sometimes discouraged widowers from remarrying, despite the problems of single parenthood. Although patriarchal ideals theoretically favored a dying husband's right to control the guardianship of his children, in practice, respect for mothers' capabilities and high male mortality meant that widows often found themselves responsible for at least some young children, for educating them and arranging good marriages. It might be presumed that adult children would ease a widow's problems, but widows competed with children for resources, residence in a child's home was not necessarily attractive, and in the mobile early modern world adult children were often far away.

Widow-headed households were common (almost 14 percent in fifteenth-century Florence, 12 percent in sixteenth-century Paris, 13 percent in England) and although very few widows acquired any public authority by their headship (royal widows such as Catherine de Médicis and Anne of Austria were uniquely famous exceptions), having her own home could give a widow a novel opportunity for informal power in her family and community. But most widows succeeded to little property. If they headed their own households, they would inevitably be poor, and widow-headed households are overrepresented among the poorest groups in most communities for which we have records.


However much widows were vilified in popular literature, in practice, early modern societies generally also regarded poor widows as deserving objects of charity and relief. Asylums and almshouses were endowed to care for them; giving charity to one's widowed neighbor was a duty. Where state-funded poor relief was established, widows were among those deemed, almost by definition, eligible recipients, and they dominated the relief lists. While wills, deeds, tax lists, and the records of law courts record the lives of propertied widows, the lives of the poorest are documented in the records of the asylums that gave them shelter or in the tiny sums doled out week after week to support a few widowed men, and a vast group of widows. These records evoke the generosity of early modern communities and, at the same time, mark the consequences of patriarchal structures that subordinated women and made most widows poor and vulnerable.

See also Family ; Inheritance and Wills ; Marriage ; Patriarchy and Paternalism ; Poverty ; Women .


Primary Source

Glikl bas Judah Leib. Memoirs of Glükel of Hameln. Translated by Marvin Lowenthal. New York, 1977.

Secondary Sources

Bremmer, Jan, and Lourens van den Bosch, eds. Between Poverty and the Pyre: Moments in the History of Widowhood. London, 1995. Provides useful extra-European perspective.

Cavallo, Sandra, and Lyndan Warner, eds. Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. London, 1998. This fine collection is the best place to start; it also includes an excellent bibliography.

Diefendorf, Barbara. "Widowhood and Remarriage in Sixteenth-Century Paris." Journal of Family History 7 (1982): 379395.

Hardwick, Julia. "Widowhood and Patriarchy in Seventeenth-Century France" Journal of Social History 26 (1992): 133148.

Hufton, Olwen. "Widowhood." Chap. 6 in her The Prospect Before Her: History of Women in Western Europe. Vol. I, 15001800. London, 1995. Excellent overview.

Klapisch-Zuper, Christiane. "The Cruel Mother." In Women, Family and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, pp. 117131. Chicago, 1985. A classic essay.

Maresse, Michelle. A Woman's Kingdom: Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia, 17001861. Ithaca, N.Y., 2002.

Vassberg, David E. "The Status of Widows in Sixteenth-Century Castile." In Poor Women and Children in the European Past, edited by John Henderson and Richard Wall, pp. 180195. London, 1994.

Wall, Richard, ed. "Widows in European Society." Special edition of History of the Family 7, no. 1 (2002).

Barbara J. Todd

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TODD, BARBARA J.. "Widows and Widowhood." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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wid·ow·er / ˈwidō-ər/ • n. a man who has lost his wife by death and has not remarried.

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widoweranoa, Balboa, blower, boa, foregoer, goer, grower, hoer, jerboa, knower, Krakatoa, Lebowa, lower, moa, mower, Mururoa, Noah, o'er, proa, protozoa, rower, Samoa, sewer, Shenandoah, shower, sower, spermatozoa, Stour, thrower, tower •shadower • widower • racegoer •theatregoer (US theatergoer) •churchgoer • echoer •follower, swallower •snowblower • lawnmower • genoa •winnower • harrower • winegrower •borrower • burrower • vetoer

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