Widows and Virgins: The Curse of Being a Single Woman

Featured image: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Mourning-Dress ; Bonnets.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-02dc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

While waiting for my two new death books to arrive by mail, I thought I would do some browsing on mourning customs (because what else does one browse about?) and came across a fascinating review of an article that makes a connection between chastity and widowhood. What this really cements is the idea that throughout history, women without a man were required to keep themselves “clean.”

Widows as Liminal Beings

F. Stuart Chapin, from a 1914 edition of American Journal of Sociology reviews Elsie Clews Parsons’ 1913 article/study on Religious Chastity, from which findings about different women from all different societies were gathered from a “a great mass” of “diverse primary sources.” The review begins by examining the study’s exploration of widows’ relationships with their dead husbands. Contrary to many death rituals I’ve read about previously, the widow bore the burden of “exaggerated observance of mourning customs” not out of respect for her deceased husband, but so that she did not become “infected” by the dead and his ghost, for it was the widow who was “especially liable to death infections.” One of these mourning customs, as you might have guessed, was taking a vow of chastity. The widow was essentially back to square one (i.e. unmarried and vulnerable) when her husband died.

The widow as a vulnerable being, as a woman who occupies a liminal space, is consistent with other beliefs about women throughout history. For example, pregnant women, because they carry new babes who are not yet of this world, were thought (and still are, in some cultures) to be liminal creatures, and had to take care to avoid certain transgressions that could cause harm to them or their child by way of inviting in a demonic presence (source “Proboscis Tongues and Demonic Queefing” via Death & the Maiden).

A Widow’s Duty to Her Dead Husband

For the widow, there was also a more realistic purpose of her forced outward display of bereavement (presumably through ostenacious black dress), her meticulous caring of the corpse, and her temporary vow of chastity: it was to ensure her next marriage would be a success. In other words, if the widow failed to satisfy her dead husband with his “daily need of food and drink,” did not properly clean and care for his corpse, and did not remain faithful to her vow to be chaste, her remarriage would be cursed – not only for her, but for her new husband.

But maybe a hexed remarriage was one of the best things that could happen to a widow who had failed to keep herself “clean” by performing these mourning rituals. In some societies and cultures (the reviewer does not specify which), the widow had to be buried with her deceased husband, just like “his other belongings.”

[W]ives may be clubbed to death with great ceremony, buried alive, or set adrift bound to a boat.

Thankfully, however, this practice seems to have been sort of rare, and usually it was *enough* for the widow to serve her dead and take on a vow of chastity.

The Historical Importance of Chastity

A certain power was ascribed to chastity by many ancient (and modern) cultures, i.e. there is a reason why human sacrifices often involved virgins. Chastity was viewed as something magical, as something that directly connected a woman to the gods. A woman who had taken a vow of chastity was, essentially, put on a pedestal. She was almost holy.

There was a practical reason for this as well (by a historical man’s standards, that is). Chastity was viewed as a necessary quality of women at certain times in their lives, particularly before they wed and when they became a widow, because it allowed them to focus on their domestic and/or mourning duties (instead of traipsing around with potential sexual partners).  This also ensured that they were a “clean” prospect for marriage or remarriage.

Chastity Today

Throughout history, the majority of the onus for purity and chastity has been placed on women because women have been the ones able to bear children and bring about new life – and death – into the world. And that is a powerful thing that, of course, must be micro-managed.

Today, some women (and men) choose to take vows of chastity for personal reasons. Others are more or less forced to remain chaste if they are unmarried, out of fear of violating strict religious and cultural constructs. As a whole, our world still views women who engage in extramarital sex as unclean and unpure – it’s an easy way to continue to suppress women. For the most part, there just isn’t the same responsibility placed on men who engage in the same behaviors. These views, supported by years of traditional beliefs, will take time to change.



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