Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Back in Black: From the Widow to the Black Widow

Written by Jacky Ievoli
 Active Image A closeup on two blue eyes. Tears well up and a tissue enters the shot, dabbing lightly. The camera pans out to reveal a pretty, youthful woman dressed in formfitting black. This woman is young, yet she is mourning the loss of her husband. This woman is now a widow.
A closeup on two blue eyes. Tears well up and a tissue enters the shot, dabbing lightly. The camera pans out to reveal a pretty, youthful woman dressed in formfitting black. This woman is young, yet she is mourning the loss of her husband. This woman is now a widow.

The widow appears in sitcoms, dramas, soap operas, reality television, you name it. There is this image of a gold digging, young thing who marries some rich older man, hoping he will soon take that great leap to the other side and leave her his millions. The dollar signs in her eyes are not the only symbol of pop culture’s widow. The young girl, left without a husband to hold her close and share her bed, now has a voracious sexual appetite. She is sultry, seductive, and ready for s-e-x, sex.

The Golden Girls Blanche Devereaux was often called a “trollop,” a “slut puppy,” and a “human mattress.” In short, she was quite promiscuous, often seen with a different man in each episode of the show. And let’s not forget about louche and licentious Mona Robinson, mother of Angela Bower on Who's the Boss? The two could have had quite a night on the town together.

Was Blanche just out for a good time? Did Mona just really enjoy sex? Perhaps they were both trying to fill the voids left when their husbands passed and they transitioned from wife to widow.

Lawrence Stone
undertakes a mammoth task of research in his book, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, in which he gives the history of all aspects of family life in England over three centuries. In his research into the seventeenth and eighteenth-century widow, Stone boils the widow’s priorities down to two main entities: sex and money. 

Sex in the eighteenth century? You gasp or furrow your brow as you read this. But the oversexed widow is not merely modern, pop culture. Stone notes that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was assumed that young widows, “suddenly deprived of regular sexual satisfaction by the loss of a husband, were likely to be driven by lust in their search for a replacement.” The oversexed widow has been around for nearly three hundred years! It was even considered “correct” when courting a widow, to make “aggressive sexual advances.” Blanche Devereaux and Mona Robinson could be dropped in eighteenth-century England and fit in just fine!

But for the widow to pursue a new sex life, she needs to have enough money. Firstly, to live, and secondly, to attract suitors. Women were unable to join the labor force and increase their wealth, so they were dependent on the wealth left by their husbands when they departed the world. It was possible for the widow to inherit all or part, according to her husband’s will. As the eighteenth century moved along, the woman was able to keep control of more of her money up front. In the drawing up of the marriage contract, the woman was often given an allowance, pin money, and would also be returned her dowry upon the death of her husband. So a widow could make out quite well, being paid back the amount of her dowry and receiving a life interest and a portion of her husband’s estate. The reason for this economic freedom for widows was a quite practical one in the eighteenth century: more women were becoming widows than the country could support, so they had to be provided for.
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And why were more women becoming widows? It’s actually not the obvious answer that much older men were marrying much younger women. The age difference in first time marriages in the eighteenth century was only about two years, not really a drastic gap. What was actually happening in this time was the postponement of marriage.

Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux in her article, "Marriage, Widowhood, and Divorce" which appeared in the book Family Life in Early Modern Times 1500-1789 edited by David I. Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli, found that the age men and women were when they got married increased, not the difference in age between them; on average, women were twenty-six and men, twenty-eight when they got married then. Earlier in the century, the couple would have married at twenty-three and twenty-five, but the Industrial Revolution had caused marriage to be postponed. With shorter life spans than we have today, and with women still generally living longer than men, a woman married at twenty-six could likely find herself a widow between the ages of thirty-five and forty.

Postponing marriage until the late twenties. Inheriting and gaining control over the deceased husband’s fortune. An increased sexual appetite. When talking about the figure of the widow, the past and present can be spoken of almost interchangeably. The widow is sexually experienced, independent, and possibly in possession of a vast fortune. The allure of the widow is that she has, presently and historically, become this enigmatic figure: enchanting, seductive, powerful, and even dangerous.

Perhaps the embodiment of the widow’s intrigue is Marvel Comics’ Black Widow, who will appear in Iron Man 2 played by Scarlett Johansson. Created by Satan as his servant to ferry the souls of the dead, the Black Widow is more of an antihero and way ahead of her time. The Black Widow, of course clad in the skintight black appropriate to mourning, possesses psychic powers that allow her to plant suggestions in the minds of others. The power of persuasion is a nice play on the widow’s allure. The Black Widow is immortal and has the ability to kill the living with a single touch.

In the eighteenth century, the widow had powers beyond that of a married or single woman: ownership of property, personal liberty, sexual freedom. So she was, in a way, already a superhero. The Black Widow is a nice nod to her predecessors. At the time of her creation, most female comic characters were demure and lacked sexual appeal. But the Black Widow, again like the eighteenth-century widow, burst onto the scene, powerful, sexy, and dangerous.

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