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This dissertation explores how English aristocratic and gentry women utilized their widowhoods to actively craft their personal image as well as influence and alter their communities. Free from the common law principles of coverture, English widows gained new legal autonomy. Additionally, many affluent women received substantial inheritances at the deaths of their husbands thus providing them with the financial freedom.
While widowhood offered English women new independence, it was also accompanied by a multitude of expectations. Sixteenth and seventeenth century authors and scholars developed and perpetuated specific conduct deemed appropriate for widows. The behaviors for created for widowed women contributed to their negative depiction in popular culture. Knowing the expectations and the popular representations of widows helps to better understand the opportunities and challenges these women encountered.
Although widows remained burdened by numerous societal expectations and traditions these women challenged generalizations and demonstrated personal agency and capability. Women utilized their widowhoods to fashion their own identities and legacies by the commission of art and charitable endowments. In creating their own legacies through the patronage, philanthropy, and bequests widows actively contributed to their communities.
Advisor: Carole Levin