Beyond Wives and Widows: Looking for the Second Acts in Women's Lives

05/25/2011 01:10 pm ET

No one has yet suggested that First Lady Michelle Obama might someday run for president, but neither would anyone dismiss her out of hand if she ever decided to campaign. She is a highly recognized public figure, known for having previously built a career of her own in a challenging profession--and she has before her the example of former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who was very seriously in contention for the White House not even a year ago.

With intense media attention currently focused on both of these women, it might make sense to celebrate Women's History Month 2009 by reflecting on those wives and mothers who have been primarily defined by their husband's identities, only to return to the public eye later as powerful figures in their own right.

It is an intriguing phenomenon, but not at all new. In fact, the richest source of examples is the medieval period in Europe. So many women came to enjoy independent public authority after their husbands' careers ended that historians have on occasion been tempted to call the Middle Ages a feminist "El Dorado."

To be sure, independent participation in the public sphere was most often a privilege of medieval widows rather than wives. It came about when a spouse came to the end of his life, not his term of office. But years of constant warfare and violent political upheaval in medieval Europe left so many women on their own that it was not uncommon for them to pick up where their husbands had left off. The War of the Roses, for example, claimed the lives of more than sixty peers--a hefty proportion of the late fifteenth-century English aristocracy--and nearly all of these men were married at the time of their deaths. Although in some cases a widow's bid for power was tainted by her identification with the husband's career or fate, the history of women such as Cecilly Neville, widow of Richard, Duke of York, show that prominent men's wives could and did play significant roles on their own in partisan politics. This possibility was not at all exclusive to England. In fourteenth-century Spain, even the mistress of a deceased king was able to enjoy sanctioned authority in the public sphere.

It would of course be an overstatement to claim that widowhood opened new opportunities for all women during the Middle Ages. It was, after all, this period that produced the sad expression "the widow's mite." But medieval Europe does appear to be exceptional in women's history when we go on to consider the records of later centuries, which saw specific limitations imposed on women's opportunities to return to power on their own. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German guild ordinances, for example, curtailed the rights of widows to carry on their husbands' shops. Elsewhere, new rules of inheritance made it increasingly difficult for widowed queens and noblewomen to act on their own, let alone gain power and prominence. The Reformation's message that marriage was the loftiest and most advantageous state for women even eliminated the special spiritual space that previously had been accorded to widows. In literature, the image of the "merry widow" was often replaced by the image of the woman who, on her own, became sadly alienated and even hidden from society. The Elizabethan poem An Olde Womans Tale in hir Solitarie Cell, for example, depicts the widow holed up in a cave, invisible to all but the chance adventurer.

In modern times, though, America's First Ladies have become counterparts in many respects of medieval Europe's queens and noblewomen. Eleanor Roosevelt, perhaps the First Lady of greatest renown during the twentieth century, returned to the public and political sphere on her own following her husband's death. Though when first widowed she responded to questions about her future plans with the comment, "The story is over," she went on to become a key decision-maker in American--and international--public and political life. Appointed by President Truman in 1945 as delegate to the newly established United Nations, she later was elected Chair of the Commission on Human Rights and was instrumental in the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--a document that she likened to the thirteenth-century Magna Carta.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis also stepped back into public life after her husband's death, even though as First Lady she had been almost wholly identified with her social and ceremonial role. In 1975, when New York City's Grand Central Terminal was on the verge of being obliterated by a 59-story skyscraper, she called the Municipal Art Society and asked, "What can I do?" Her involvement in saving Grand Central made front-page news. She even returned to Washington in 1978 to lobby the Supreme Court to uphold the building's landmark status. As Mayor Ed Koch later commented, "Grand Central would probably be a dim memory if it weren't for Jackie Onassis." The former First Lady later continued her public advocacy on behalf of New York City's landmark buildings, testifying in the State Capitol in Albany, for example, on behalf of the architectural preservation of St. Bartholomew's Church.

Clearly, times have changed. While their husbands are in office, today's First Ladies go beyond playing the role of president's wife to pursue causes of their own--sometimes controversially, and sometimes to acclaim. More radical yet, we now see that former First Ladies can and do return to the political sphere in their own right--even when their husbands are alive. Not yet as president, it's true. But this is still new