Private Women, Public Needs: Middle-Class Widows in Victorian England

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1993


Arts and Humanities | European History | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History | History of Gender | Women's Studies


“Family historian Michael Anderson has argued that the great majority of middle-class widows were provided for by their husbands through investments or insurance benefits, and in those cases where financial instability existed, remarriage supplied a ready refuge for a needy widow. The conviction that middle-class widows had no need to fend for themselves has ensured that the ability of these women to earn their own living, securing both suitable employment and adequate remuneration, has not been fully studied. The focus of historical attention has been on spinsters in part because sources are more readily available, and in part because the role of the single woman is thought to be more important for understanding the structure of Victorian society. It will be argued here, however, that not only are many of the assumptions regarding the financial security of middle-class widows unfounded, but also that widows, not spinsters or wives, can more clearly illuminate the workings of gender, class, and power in Victorian society. Widows were forced into impecunious, or even indigent, lives by the limitations on employment brought by age, status, and gender. The personal limitations were defined also by the separate spheres assumptions of Victorian society. The struggle for survival by these women, long ignored, eventually challenged the organizing concepts of nineteenth-century society: separate spheres for the sexes and a thrift ethic that implied that every Victorian was capable of living within his income and that poverty was the fault of the individual.”