Elevate Difference

The Widows' Might: Widowhood and Gender in Early British America

Honest. Scheming. Haughty. Charitable. Sinful. Virtuous. These are just some of the words used to describe American colonial widows by their contemporaries. Widows complicate the classic boundaries of the roles of “wife” or “mother,” and often have been forced out of the private sphere of their households into the public sphere of business in order to support themselves and their families. In The Widows' Might: Widowhood and Gender in Early British America, Vivian Bruce Conger examines the tension and complexity inherent in the public perception of the American colonial widow. 

The book takes its title from the Biblical story of the widow’s mite. In the parable, Jesus and his disciples are at the temple, watching as the rich cast in money for the temple treasury. A widow approaches and drops in two mites, the smallest unit of currency at the time. Jesus praises the widow, saying that while others gave away their excess wealth, the widow gave to the temple all she had, despite her poverty. The selfless charity in the Biblical story is meant to be an example for women in the colonies, who were expected to dedicate their lives—and their money—to the greater good, specifically their family and community. Bruce Conger uses this story to illustrate “the mite and the might, the economic and social power” that widows had. She illustrates this power by examining widows’ wills, as will-making indicated that women thought that they had something to give, and that they were valued contributors to their families and communities.

Bruce Conger studied women’s wills and court documents from a 120-year period starting in the 1630s in Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina, to examine the commonalities of widows’ experiences throughout the American colonies. Surprisingly, attitudes towards widows were remarkably consistent across time and place, due to the colonies’ close cultural relationship with Britain. Prescriptive literature imported from Britain—including the Bible, sermons, advice books, and plays—were read by elite women, expounded from the minister’s pulpit, and mentioned in newspapers. In this way, ideas were spread from community to community, and from woman to woman.

Over the course of five chapters, Bruce Conger explores the ideology and the reality of marriage; widows’ interpretations of the law and legal practices; widows’ identity as “fathers” as well as mothers to their children; widows as providers and recipients of charity; and widows in their roles as businesswomen. She focuses on widows who did not remarry, as they were able to define their position in society in ways that widows who remarried were not. These women were able to challenge the stories told about them in the public spheres of church and courthouse by telling stories of their own.

This book is intended for an academic audience, and is somewhat dry at times. However, I found the complexity of rules governing widows’ behavior—and the ways in which women either resisted or internalized them—utterly fascinating. This book is slender, clocking in at about 160 pages of text, followed by lengthy footnotes. Despite its being a quick read, the incongruity of the competing definitions of widow in the book stay with you long after the covers are closed, particularly the words of Cotton Mather: "Some Women have the Names of Men, a little altered, as Jaquet (from Jacoba), Joanna, Jan, Jennet (all from John), Thomasin, Philippa, Frances, Henrietta, Antenia, Julian, Dionysis, and the like; But all our Widows are put upon thus doing the works of Men, may their God help them!"

Written by: Catherine Nicotera, June 13th 2009

This sounds interesting! I'm putting it on my reading list, thanks to you. Ideas of identity and gender are fascinating.

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