By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Widow’s Might’ is a short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), first published in Forerunner magazine in 1911. The story is about a widow who shocks her three children by announcing that she has been running her late husband’s ranch for several years and that she intends to use the money she has made to travel and see the world.
‘The Widow’s Might’ explores some of the recurring themes of Gilman’s fiction, but before we dive into an analysis of the story’s meaning, it might be worth recapping its plot.
‘The Widow’s Might’: plot summary
Following the death of their father, three siblings – a man named James and his sisters, Ellen and Adelaide – discuss which of them will take care of their widowed mother. They are in their parents’ house in Colorado, while their mother, Mrs McPherson, is upstairs. It becomes clear that James doesn’t want to have his mother come and live with him and his wife.
Mr Frankland, the lawyer in charge of executing the father’s will, shows up. The children call down their mother, but she tells them that Frankland can read from the will as she already knows what it says. Frankland reveals that the estate is to be divided into four equal parts, with two going to the son and the other two going to the daughters, one apiece.
James is shocked that the estate isn’t worth more, but Frankland assures him that the will was made ten years ago and the value of the property will have increased since then, especially as Mrs McPherson has taken such good care of the family ranch.
At that point, Mrs McPherson comes downstairs, and reveals that the will they have just been discussing is out of date: three-and-a-half years ago, her husband, fearing pressure from his creditors, had signed over the entire estate to his wife, and she has the legal paperwork to prove it. Her children are all impatient to get things concluded and get away, with one of them taking Mrs McPherson with them.
James suggests that she sign over the estate to him so he can divide it up between himself and his sisters, as stipulated in their father’s original will. But their mother refuses to agree to this. They try to persuade her to respect their father’s wishes as laid out in his will, but she tells them that she considered his wishes for thirty years and it’s now time to consider her own. She says she is tired of duty.
She tells them how, when their father fell ill, she took charge of things: since she needed a nurse to look after her husband, she turned the house into a kind of hospital and made money by keeping and looking after patients in the house. She ran the garden and kept cows and chickens to raise further money, and as a result she is stronger now than she ever was.
She tells her children that they will get the money promised them in the will, but she will not come and live with them. She is renting out the ranch to a woman doctor for two thousand dollars a year, and plans to spend that income on travelling and living her life.
She then dramatically removes the mourning veil from her face, much to the shock of her children. She tells them that she has given thirty years of her life to her husband and her children, but the next thirty years (she is fifty years old at present) are for her. She tells them she is going to New Zealand, somewhere she always wanted to visit, then on to Australia, Madagascar, and South America.
‘The Widow’s Might’: analysis
It is possible that Charlotte Perkins Gilman intends us to hear a bit of wordplay in her story’s title: whereas the story opens with the dead husband’s will dictating the terms of the situation it ends with ‘The Widow’s Might’, where ‘might’ suggests both strength and possibility (she ‘might’ go anywhere in the world on the money she has raised, and saved, through her canny financial endeavours).
An important theme in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s fiction is the struggle for women of her generation to become economically self-sufficient, a topic that she covers again and again in her short stories, such as ‘Making a Change’ and ‘Mrs Beazley’s Deeds’.
And ‘The Widow’s Might’ is another case in point, with the focus this time being on a woman who has devoted three decades of her life to other people – her husband, and the three children she had with him – and now intends to put her own wishes first. That it has taken her until the age of fifty to make this happen, and she needed her husband to predecease her first, is an indictment of how difficult achieving such financial independence really was for women of the period.
And Gilman suggests that Mrs McPherson’s plucky resourcefulness and independence benefit not only herself but also those around her. Her children, who had been arguing over who should have the responsibility (duty?) of looking after their widowed mother, suddenly discover that they will not be ‘burdened’ with her after all, because she intends to travel the world rather than settle down into her premature dotage.
And the female doctor to whom she is renting the ranch for a tidy profit – another example of Gilman’s independent woman (see Gilman’s story ‘An Elopement’) – benefits because she gets to live on the ranch.
In casting aside her mourning veil and telling her children that she does not intend to grieve for their father, Mrs McPherson also suggests that she was not especially happily married. Note that there is no talk of love between her and her late husband: only ‘duty’. Ironically, it was her duty to him as a devoted wife which showed her the path to her own independence.
When he became too unwell to manage the family’s finances himself, he realised she was better-suited to the task, and signed everything over to her. There’s a suggestion that he had even lost control of the finances: one wonders why else the creditors (to whom did he owe money?) would be exerting ‘pressure’ on him.
But Mrs McPherson turned around this potentially dire situation for herself and her children, who will now get their share of the money. Gilman appears to be suggesting that if a capable woman is given the opportunity, she can prove herself to be the equal to a man when it comes to business ventures: indeed, can prove herself more competent than many men. But society is reluctant to give women like Mrs McPherson such a chance to show their talents.
Mrs McPherson is also canny enough to see when she might be a burden on others. When James tells her, ‘hesitatingly’, that he is sure his wife would be pleased to have her around the place, Mrs McPherson cuts short his insincere cant, speaking plainly and giving us an insight into how a wife and mother became such a canny manager of her husband’s business affairs.
In the last analysis, ‘The Widow’s Might’ shows a woman who has fulfilled the roles of both a man and a woman at the time, and has excelled in both.