Widow's succession was a political practice prominent in some countries in the early part of the 20th century, by which a politician who died in office was succeeded by his widow, either through election or direct appointment to the seat. Many of the earliest women to hold political office in the modern era attained their positions through this practice.
In earlier years, women who held office through widow's succession rarely became prominent as politicians in their own right, but were regarded merely as placeholders whose primary role was to retain a seat and a vote for the party rather than risk a protracted fight for the nomination between elections. The practice was also sometimes seen as a way to provide the woman with financial support due to the loss of her family's primary income.
The expectation was that a widow would serve only until the next election, at which time she would step down and allow her party to select a new candidate. Upon the retirement of Effiegene Wingo from the United States House of Representatives in 1932, the New York Sun wrote,
|“||Some of the women who have inherited a seat in Congress have demonstrated their individual ability, but of most of them it can be said that they submitted with dignity and good taste to a false code of chivalry, served unostentatiously and departed the Capitol quietly, wondering what the men who invented the term-by-inheritance thought they were doing.||”|
In one unusual Canadian instance, Martha Black succeeded her husband George Black in the Canadian House of Commons when he had not died, but merely stepped down temporarily for health reasons; in the next election, Martha stood down and George returned to office.
With the evolving role of women in politics, however, a number of women who first took office under widow's succession went on to build long and distinguished careers in their own right. These included Margaret Chase Smith, who became the longest-serving woman in the history of the United States Senate and the first woman ever to have her name placed in nomination for the Presidency of the United States at a major party's convention, Edith Nourse Rogers, who became the longest-serving woman in the history of the United States House of Representatives, and Mary Ellen Smith, who earned the distinction of becoming the first woman ever appointed to a cabinet position, as well as the first woman ever to become speaker of a legislature, in both Canada and the entire British Empire.
In Sri Lanka Sirimavo Bandaranaike who succeeded her assassinated husband was a long-serving Prime Minister and party leader.
While widows are occasionally still appointed or elected to political positions following their husband's death, the practice is not as common in the modern era, in which women have been able to take on increasingly prominent roles in politics based on their own talents and experience rather than as "placeholders". Additionally, some figures, such as Sonia Gandhi in India and Grace MacInnis in Canada, have happened to hold political office and to be the widow of an earlier officeholder, but are not true "widow's successions" as they were not immediately appointed to their late husband's office.
Notable widow's successions
- Millie Peacock first woman elected to the Parliament of Victoria; she said when she retired: "Parliament is no place for a woman."
- Cora Taylor Casselman
- Jennifer Cossitt
- Eloise Jones
- Margaret Mary Macdonald
- Sarah Ramsland
- Margaret Rideout
- Mary Grigg first woman MP of the National Party
- Elizabeth McCombs first woman MP, succeeded by their son
- Iriaka Ratana first woman Māori MP
- Veronica Boland
- Frances Bolton
- Sala Burton
- Katharine Byron
- Hattie Caraway
- Mary Carr, wife of Joe C. Carr
- Jean Carnahan
- Marian Clarke
- Willa Eslick
- Elizabeth Hawley Gasque
- Kathryn Granahan
- Florence Reville Gibbs
- Florence Prag Kahn
- Katherine Langley
- Rose McConnell Long
- Mary Bono Mack
- Doris Matsui
- Clara McMillan
- Mae Nolan
- Pearl Oldfield