We all know that a widow is a woman whose husband has passed away. But, have you ever encountered the term “grass widow” when doing your genealogical research? It came into fashion in America in the 1800s but was popular in Europe for much longer than that. It can actually be found in European records going back to the 1500s.
The term “grass widow” means any woman who is separated from her husband on what is intended to be a temporary basis. The separation doesn’t have to be because they are considering divorce, or just don’t want to live together anymore. The man may, in fact, have every intention of returning to his wife. Separations that would make a woman a grass widow can be for all kinds of reasons, such as military service, employment, or even going out west to the Gold Rush during that time in American history. Gold Rush grass widows were also sometimes referred to as California widows.
It has not been uncommon for women to live apart from their husbands throughout history. Sometimes, they even live apart for long periods, but always with the intention of the husband coming back to the wife. If a husband was in a maritime business like shipping, fishing, or whaling, the time the husband was away could be for months or even years. The same thing is true if the husband was in a war. Traveling salesmen were also sometimes gone from home for long periods of time.
Of course, sometimes men did abandon their families. If the women didn’t know it at first and were still entertaining thoughts of their man returning to them, they would sometimes refer to themselves as grass widows, and tell people their husband was away on work or visiting relatives in a faraway place, maybe even overseas. You might come across the term “grass widow” in newspaper articles and official documents. These were meant to convey the belief that the husband would eventually come home.
The term “grass widow” originated in England in the 1500s, and maybe earlier, and initially referred to a woman who had a child but no husband, and/or did not have a husband when the child was conceived. A similar term with a similar meaning called “straw bride” can be found in German records going back to the 1300s. In Germany, it meant a woman who lived with a man before marrying him, or who may be lived with one without marrying him at all. In the 1520s in England, the term “grass widow” started to be used to refer to discarded mistresses.
It is not certain why the word “grass” is used in this way. One idea is that it refers to a woman laying down in the grass to take part in an illicit activity with a man to whom she is not married. It could also mean the straw ring German women in the Middle Ages were made to wear at their weddings to remind them of their indiscretion if they had been caught in the act. If you come across it in American newspapers or records, though, it undoubtedly means a woman whose husband is temporarily away from her.