Frances Ryan is a PhD student in the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, where she researches the role of online information in the building, maintenance, and evaluation of personal reputation. She was widowed in 2009, aged 35.
In the early twenty-first century a young woman’s choice in the West to live unmarried is widely accepted. Equally, thanks to the divorce law reforms of the early 1970s, those who have returned to a single lifestyle after a short marriage are unlikely to be stigmatised. Society now readily accommodates young women who fall into the categories of ‘never married’ (or ‘not married yet’) and ‘failed married’.
There is a third group of unmarried young women that is often overlooked. These women have unexpectedly gained the ‘unmarried’ status as young widows. Making up just an estimated 0.3% of the UK female widowed population as a whole, widows under the age of 36 are very rare. Indeed their existence is barely visible on graphics produced by the Office for National Statistics. Unlike their unmarried peers, however, members of this third group are subjected to a degree of uneasiness regarding their status.
My own personal experiences following the sudden loss my husband when I was aged just 35 reveal that young widows are sometimes considered dangerous women. This is because their position forces those with whom they come into contact to face unpalatable realities – including the proximity of death and possible desertion – much earlier in life than might be expected.
Young widows are dangerous women because they remind us of a mortality that we don’t wish to consider
Some people avoid the newly widowed, or at least attempt to avoid their emotions. In my case I was asked to: forget about my late husband; never speak of him; pretend that he never happened. This, in part, was to save the discomfort of others who could not bear the pain of watching the inevitable tears roll down my cheeks. Beyond this, however, lies another fear: that widowhood may be contagious. My new status as a young widow sparked anxiety in others who now realised just how fragile life can be. When a healthy man is struck down in his prime, this serves as an alert. Your own life—or that of a loved one—could end just as suddenly.
Young widows are dangerous women because they want to steal the partners of others
When tragedy strikes, others step in to help. Gendered roles lead to offers from women to assist with childcare or meal preparation, and men duty-bound to help tend to the garden, make repairs around the house, and undertake other chores to ease the burden of a grieving young widow. Over time, a wife may worry that her obliging husband is at risk of being stolen. This is in the belief that the young widow is either intent on finding a replacement for her own late husband, or simply out to destroy someone else’s happiness (because misery loves company). Such fears may be ‘confirmed’ if the husband’s behaviour changes in the course of supporting the young widow. While he may be looking inward, wondering how to ensure that his own family be protected should the unthinkable happen, the wife may question the fidelity within their relationship, magnifying any insecurities that she already harbours.
This fear of sexual predation echoes perceptions of widowhood from the past: of wanton widows associated with witchcraft in the seventeenth century who, without a man at to supervise them, satisfied their sexual urges with the Devil (as related in an earlier Dangerous Women Project post), or the eighteenth century fictional character of the Marquise de Merteuil, whose sexual power play dominates the plot of Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses. The reality of the period of intense mourning following her husband’s death, however, is that the young widow has absolutely no intention of stealing anything from anyone. Rather she is in survival mode, and willing to accept any help when offered simply to get through each day of painful loss.
Young widows are dangerous women because they bring the weaknesses and insecurities of others to the fore
When a young widow decides that she is ready to date again, this does not mean that she is ‘over’ her late husband. (Some would argue that you never ‘get over’ it: you just learn to cope.) Young widows may continue to wear their wedding and engagement rings (sometimes on different fingers), and display photos and mementos of their late husbands in their homes. Each may still love her late-husband in some form or another, think of him, and cry for him.
This may not be easy for new partners to understand. Online support forums are filled with stories of young widows attempting to re-enter the dating world, only to be asked to ‘choose’ between life with a new beau or the memories of their late husband. In my case, a suitor once asked whether I would choose him if my husband were still alive. He had a very difficult time understanding that if my husband were still with us, then a new suitor would not be in the picture at all. It must be said: if my late-husband were alive, of course I would choose him! If someone is so insecure that they are afraid that a prospective partner would leave him for a dead man, then it is he – and not the young widow – who is not ready to date.
Young widows are dangerous women because they play by ‘different’ rules
In divorce, it is common to break ties with an ex-spouse’s family. Social engagements with the in-laws are no longer obligatory, and are often not desired. There is a similar dissolution with an ex-spouse’s long-standing friends. Relationships are often split: his or hers, pick a side. When a bereaved young widow has a less than friendly relationship with her in-laws and/or her late husband’s friends, then contact may end in a similar way.
However, ties are more likely to remain strong between a young widow and the family members of her late husband as they lean on each other for mutual support following the death. These bonds can last the test of time, even when the widowed young woman begins a new romance.
This on-going relationship with a late spouse’s family can cause problems, especially with prospective new partners. I was once served an ultimatum by a man with whom I shared just one date: chose between your in-laws or me. Bitterly divorced, he could not fathom why I would want to spend any time at all with my ‘ex’ in-laws. He felt uneasy with my relationships because he had unhappy relationships with the family of his ex-wife. Similarly, I have been questioned about keeping the name that belongs to my ‘ex’ in-laws, i.e. my married name. Some argue that I should have reverted to my maiden name as is sometimes the practice of divorced women. That I am a childless widow makes this name change an even greater expectation.
To those who equate young widowhood with divorce young widows appear to be playing by different rules, particularly in their subversive refusal to break ties with the ‘ex’ in-laws. They fail to appreciate that a young widow is playing a completely different game from that of her other unmarried peers.
The ‘dangerousness’ of the status of young widow is, of course, context-dependent. The experiences related here are those of a contemporary middle-class, educated woman living in the West. For example:
- I am not marginalised by strangers on account of my status – to most people that I encounter this is invisible. Were I a Victorian widow I’d be expected to display my widowed status in my dress and by performing particular rituals; in certain parts of the world today widows experience a form of social death
- I am not confined in my activities – I have not been obliged to take a vow of chastity which once provided a higher position of superiority than marriage, as young widows were encouraged to do in the Middle Ages
- I am not destitute – so I have not been forced into begging (like widows in present-day India), to rely on the generosity of family members to cover my basic needs (like Austen’s fictional Mrs Dashwood in Sense and sensibility), nor to marry again in haste
Even so, when my social identity as a young widow – shared by so few others in the West – is made evident it draws attention to aspects of life (and death) that society at large might prefer to ignore. Thus those in my position may unwittingly, and for the saddest of reasons, take on the mantle of ‘Dangerous Women’.
 Calculated from Population estimates by marital status, mid-2010 available at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_244768.pdf
 See, for example, page 3 of Population estimates by marital status, mid-2010 at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_244768.pdf
Wedding photo and author photo courtesy of Frances Ryan, used with permission.