Grass Widow?

While reading an article in the June 2013 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, I encountered a new term: “grass widow.”

Harold Henderson authored the NGS article entitled, “Jethro Potter’s Secret,” and opened with these statements:

In past centuries married women whose husbands were absent, unmarried women with children, and divorced women might be subjects of gossip. When a census enumerator inquired, an informant could call such a woman single, married, widowed, or divorced — no category existed for abandoned or betrayed. Many of these women chose “widow,” but others called them “grass widows.”

My dictionary defines grass widow as “someone who is separated, divorced or lives apart from her husband.” Other dictionaries add “an abandoned mistress” and “the mother of a child born out of wedlock.”

In his article, Henderson provides a comprehensive footnote about grass widows. He found usage of the term in a 1677 Virginia parish register where  the mother of a baptised child is described as a “grass widow.” He cites several other examples: 1) Grass widow was spelled out in the occupation column of an 1880 U.S. Census record in Pennsylvania; 2) A 1905 Wisconsin state census used the abbreviation “G Wd”; 3)  A 1921 North Carolina death certificate showed a woman’s marital status as grass widow.

Where did the term originate? Perhaps it comes from the idiom “put out to pasture” or “put out to grass,” used to describe someone who is no longer useful. Another writer suggested the term might refer to illicit trysts outside in the field. No one knows for certain.

I enjoy genealogy for this “historical sociology of culture,” which was apparently Nietzsche’s definition of genealogy.  You get to peak into other times and other societies.

One surprise: My dictionary includes a similar, parallel entry for grass widower:  “someone who is separated, divorced or lives apart from his wife.” I doubt any census enumerator has ever used the term grass widower.

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