Widowed Women Who Achieved Greatness After Loss

Widowed Women Who Achieved Greatness After Loss


When suffering from the loss of a loved one, the grief can seem so insurmountable that it feels like there’s no way around it or through it. Especially acute can be the loss of a spouse—how to go on without the person you partnered with for life?  Becky Aikman’s  Saturday Night Widows is her personal story of being newly widowed and seeking out other widows to try new ways of coping with grief. Spurred by their new friendship, these six women found even greater meaning in their work and their families than they’d known before losing their partner. These other books about notable widowed women throughout history—from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Coretta Scott King and Joan Didion—show not just how the loss of a partner can be overcome, but also how it can fuel accomplishments that enrich the lives of many.

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    1. Mary Todd Lincoln

    Mary Todd Lincoln: Conquered Stigma of Mental Illness

    Sally Field’s Oscar-nominated performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s movie has added fresh fuel to the debate about the first lady: Did she suffer from mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder from multiple deaths in her family or did she merely exhibit strong emotions? Perhaps more fascinating than her life in the White House is what she did after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated: Consumed by grief in the wake of her husband’s death, Lincoln was the first U.S. president’s widow to secure a lifelong pension, a measure of independence rare for women in her era. She maintained correspondence with friends including Queen Victoria, who had become a widow four years before Lincoln. Most notably, Lincoln argued her case and was able to gain her freedom after her son Robert had her committed to a mental asylum. In her landmark biography Mary Todd Lincoln,  Jean Harvey Baker reconstructs the first lady’s life, showing the profound strength of a woman the world wanted to dismiss.

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    2. Coretta Scott King

    Coretta Scott King: Major Strides for Civil Rights

    More than 100 years after Lincoln’s death, another champion of equality was assassinated, and his wife would carry on his legacy for decades. Coretta Scott King knew what she was getting into when she married Martin Luther King, Jr.: a life devoted to civil rights. Not just emotional partners, the Kings were professional partners, with Coretta filling in for Martin if he was unable to make a speech or lead a rally. After he was killed, she never ceased to further their cause. Just four days after his death, she led a march of 50,000 people through the streets of Memphis, and she would continue to champion civil rights in hundreds of speeches over the next 28 years. Coretta’s sister, Edythe Scott Bagley, was also a lifelong fighter for equality, and at the end of her life she published a biography of her sister, Desert Rose, tracking how Coretta took the civil rights battle around the world—opposing apartheid in South Africa—and firmly rooted it in the U.S., establishing the King Center in Atlanta and the national holiday in honor of her husband.

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    3. Personal History

    Katharine Graham: The Story That Took Down a Presidency

    Katharine Graham also continued her husband’s work after his death, but she quickly went from replacement to legend. In 1946, gender roles of the time led Graham’s father Eugene Meyer to bequeath his newspaper company, The Washington Post, to his daughter’s husband, Philip Graham. Philip Graham ran the paper for 17 years while becoming more and more mentally unstable, ultimately committing suicide in 1963. Upon his death, Katharine didn’t hesitate to take the reigns, but as the only woman publisher in such a prominent position, she had to become her own role model. Despite a direct threat from President Nixon‘s attorney general, in 1972 she published one of the most explosive series of stories in the history of journalism, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein‘s investigation uncovering the Watergate conspiracy. Capping Graham’s achievements was the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir she published in 1997, Personal History, which detailed her family, her life in publishing and her friendships with the Kennedys, the Reagans, Kissinger and other influential leaders.

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    4. The Year of Magical Thinking

    Joan Didion: Award-Winning Analysis of Grief

    Joan Didion married writer John Gregory Dunne in the mid-1960s, just as her writing career was taking off. She would become known for her clear-eyed and shockingly honest appraisals of America, California in particular, during a time of political and social exuberance, excess, and confusion. Her unflinching, deadpan portraits of high and low culture within Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album sparked a new direction in unflinching first-person nonfiction. After living and working together for 40 years, one night in 2003 after visiting their daughter in the hospital, Dunne and Didion sat down to dinner and Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died. “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant,” Didion writes in her 2006 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, describing the aftermath of her husband’s death. In it, Didion delivers the same unvarnished exploration of her own grief that she applies to the subjects of her essays. “Marriage,” she writes, “is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time.” A reckoning with a new life as a widow that, unasked-for, was now hers, Magical Thinking won the National Book Award and became a defining memoir of grief and its aftermath, paving the way for Blue Nights, in which she describes the loss of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

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    5. A Widow’s Story

    Joyce Carol Oates: Prodigious Prose, Post-Loss

    Joyce Carol Oates said of Didion, “Joan Didion is one of the very few writers of our time who approaches her terrible subject with absolute seriousness, with fear and humility and awe.” You could say the same for Oates, whose 50-year career has led to more than 50 novels, including 1969’s “Them,” which won the National Book Award for its fearless portrait of class and racial conflict in black ghetto neighborhoods of Detroit. Like Didion and Dunne, Oates and her husband, Raymond J. Smith, had a decades-long, professionally collaborative marriage. In 1974, they founded a literary magazine together, The Ontario Review, which in 1980 they expanded into a publishing house. When he passed away in 2008, the once-prolific Oates was inconsolable, losing her energy for writing. After being near suicidal with grief, the intensely private Oates took on a project she had never attempted: writing about herself. Her 2011 memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” tracks the derangement and desperation brought on by her loss and chronicles the pain of trying to recover from it. Oates has since taken up writing as vigorously as ever, these days even delivering her trademark wry wit via Twitter.

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    6. Jack’s Widow

    Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: Generosity Abroad and in the Arts

    An American icon of style and cultural refinement while her husband was alive, in 1963 Jacqueline Kennedy would become “the world’s most famous widow” upon John F. Kennedy‘s assassination by her side in Dallas. She went on to be an ambassador for her husband’s ideals, visiting Cambodia on a diplomatic mission in 1967 and overseeing the founding of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Tragedy continued to plague Jackie Kennedy and her family: In 1968, her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, and in 1975, after just seven years of marriage to tycoon Aristotle Onassis, Jackie became a widow for the second time. Faced with grief that even the strongest of us might submit to, Jackie never stopped giving back. Pursuing a lifelong love of literature, she ignited an all-new second career as an influential book editor in New York, publishing authors such as Diana Vreeland, Louis Auchincloss, George Plimpton, and even pop legend Michael Jackson, with Moonwalk. With the same eye for history and culture she brought to appointing the White House during the Camelot years, Jackie also became an advocate for historic preservation, notably saving the iconic Grand Central Terminalfrom destruction in New York. Eve Pollard‘s book, Jack’s Widow, paints a heartfelt (and dishy) portrait of a woman whose professional and personal generosity defined her.

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    7. Donna Karan

    Donna Karan: A Fashion Force for ‘Real Women’

    Fate doesn’t always deliver love in the easiest ways: Fashion designer Donna Karan met and fell in love with her second husband, Stephan Weiss, at the engagement party for her first marriage to her childhood sweetheart Mark Karan. It would be a decade, including the birth of a daughter and a divorce, before Karan and Weiss were married. In 1988, Karan secured a place atop the fashion world with the launch of DKNY, her affordable fashion line designed for professional, real-world women (as opposed to whippet-thin models). Weiss and Karan were co-CEOs of the Donna Karan Company until his death of lung cancer in 2001. Karan hasn’t stopped designing and being a force for fashion that serves professional women in the 12 years since, sharing her thoughts about her own life and the world on her blog. She wrote a tribute to her late husband called “Stephan Weiss: Connecting the Dots” soon after he passed away. In her book, The Journey of a Woman: 20 Years of Donna Karan,  Ingrid Sischytours Karan’s career in both prose and pictures.

    This piece originally ran in January 2013.


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