Who is the Elizabethan widow now?

A2c8tf Jonathan Bate offers this interesting portrait of the social standing of the widow in Elizabethan England.

…before marriage she was expected to be chaste and during [marriage] she was supposed to be submissive; once widowed she had more freedom.  A widow even had a degree of financial autonomy that set her apart from daughters and wives, who in law were chattels belonging to their fathers and husbands.  Widows, by contrast, could carry on their husband’s business.  The legal fiction was that they were just minding the shop until they remarried, but the reality was that they often controlled their own affairs fo trhe rest of their lives…  The widow, then was the joker in the pack, the wild card who was not obliged to play by the sexual and social rules.  [In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, this character] is a free agent.  She acts instead of being acted on; she delights in setting a plot.  She has the same kind of boldness as Iago and the Edmund of King Lear has.

I wondered whether the widow has a contemporary equivalent. Which group, if any group, has this structural freedom?  Who plays the wild card?  (And this is a pressing question for anthropological purposes because it looks as if a lot of cultural change is driven by specific groups, and these groups are often defined by age. )

The precedents are well known.  Each successive generations puts its mark on contemporary culture.  Boomers helped usher in a counter-culture.  Gen X helped install an alternative culture.

Strauss and Howe, the students of Gen Y, insist that "millennials" are quiescent.  The impulses "counter" and "alternative" do not beat within their breasts.  And it looks as if they may be right.  No one from Gen Y appears to have risen to protest the Strauss and Howe designation.  (On the other hand, we mighttreat civicmindedness, to use the old-fashioned term, as their generational difference.)

But the questions stands.  Are there no "widows" now?  Is there a group of people who by their structural location and/or generational identity who is prepared to play the wild card, the free agent?  (Yes, I could be that we just have to wait for Generation Z.  I leave this question to the likes of Jane Buckingham or Anastasia Goodstein.)  But if you forced me to bet, I would say the group most likely to assume this role will be boomers in retirement.  I believe some contingent of boomers will refuse all the stereotypes associated with age, and keep on going to defy the social stereotypes of every kind.  In the process, they will be a new motor, much resented, for cultural change. 


Bate, Jonathan. 2008.  Dampit and Moll.  Times Literary Supplement.  April 25, 2008, pp. 3, 5, 6.

6 thoughts on “Who is the Elizabethan widow now?

  1. Cheryl

    Bates has misinterpreted the legal status of single and married women. The young adult woman (femme sole) owns her own property legally although she may be inclined to follow the intentions of her father or guardian out of social submissiveness. The wife was not a chattle of her husband, but her legal interests were merged with her husband’s. Socially, the husband may have called the shots even concerning her property.

    The widow, in law, was once again single with ownership of her (and now his) property.
    Any other limitations on her were imposed by the specific terms of her father or husband’s will’s concerning any property. And social pressures may have been of less concern to the mature woman.

  2. niti bhan

    Imho, I wouldn’t be surprised if the widow and nowadays, the divorcee, still holds a similar wild card status among the conservative patriarchal societies, particularly if financially independent. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I recall strong professional financially independent women who were outside the ‘norm’ of indian society, rarely though were they still married.

  3. peter spear

    The first thing that comes to my mind is gay culture. i happen to live in an upstate NY town that found itself saved from economic ruin by the (largely gay) interior design and architectural romanticists that found value in historical purity.

    The most interesting notions of masculinity and even of domesticity and the American home seem to have been significantly impacted by gay culture.

  4. tim dawes

    Another group that comes to mind is the burgeoning roster of millionaires, not a generation but a vein that runs through them. They have the economic wherewhithal and the freedom to do as they please. Richard Tait makes a fortune helping Microsoft become dominant in the 90s, then brings a new research paradigm to the board game industry and creates, Cranium, the fastest growing game company in history. Then sells to Hasbro for another fortune only to move on to…whatever he wants to do next.

    Jeff Goldsmith gives credence to your view in his upcoming “The Long Baby Boom: An Optimistic Vision for a Graying Generation”.

    Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
    “The vision of the baby boomers as a gigantic societal albatross is a myth in the making. Not only are the catastropharians wrong about the next twenty years. Their social prescriptions are also the wrong medicine for American society. They offer a static, zero-sum vision for what is, in fact, a dynamic, growing and creative economy and society. The crisis they envision is eminently avoidable, not by the politically untenable solutions they offer, but rather by listening to the generation itself and helping its members do what they say they intend to do.”

  5. irene

    I think Peter Spear is right. About a year ago, when New York magazine interviewed Bravo’s president Lauren Zalaznick, she said that the success of the Queer Eye series really was an epiphany for her network:“’We had to define what pop culture meant on Bravo,’ says Zalaznick. ‘And what pop culture, as defined by us, has come to mean is five affinity groups: fashion, food, beauty, design, and pop. It’s not coincidental that the five guys in Queer Eye each represented one of those things.’”

    It seems like all this has happened just in the last 10 years or so — after AIDS, after Michael Ovitz complained to Vanity Fair about the Velvet Mafia, after Madonna built a career largely on glorifying/co-opting so many aspects of gay culture. It’s as if these things finally made it possible for gay men to transition from the background (stylists to celebrities, for instance) to the spotlight (celebrity stylists).

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