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 directly 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. It also occurred when politicians stood down from a particular office.
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 Locke 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 House of Commons of Canada 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. Another unusual circumstance occurred in the United States when Katherine G. Langley was elected to her still-living husband John W. Langley's former congressional seat after he was convicted of selling alcohol during Prohibition.
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. Margaret Chase Smith 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 became the longest-serving woman in the history of the United States House of Representatives, and Mary Ellen Smith 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 husbands' deaths, 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 their late husband's immediate successor.
Notable widow's successions
- Isabel Martínez de Perón, first female president of Argentina
- 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
- Janet Jagan, both first female prime minister and later president of Guyana
- Caitlín Brugha (succeeded Cathal Brugha in Waterford in 1923; he had been elected to Waterford–Tipperary East seat and then died in combat in the Irish Civil War)
- Joan Burke (succeeded James Burke in Roscommon, 1964)
- Honor Crowley (succeeded Frederick Crowley in Kerry South, 1945)
- Eileen Desmond (succeeded Dan Desmond in Cork Mid, 1965)
- Sheila Galvin (succeeded John Galvin in Cork Borough, 1964)
- Eileen Lemass (unsuccessfully contested her husband Noel Lemass' seat in Dublin South-West, 1976; later elected to the Dáil in Dublin Ballyfermot, 1977)
- Celia Lynch (succeeded James B. Lynch in Dublin South-Central, 1954)
- Bridget Redmond (succeeded William Redmond in Waterford, 1933)
- Mary Reynolds (succeeded Patrick Reynolds in Leitrim–Sligo when he was murdered during the 1932 election campaign)
- Bridget Rice (succeeded Eamon Rice in Monaghan, 1932)
- Mary Ryan (succeeded Martin Ryan in Tipperary, 1944)
Jane Dowdall is a marginal example; her husband James Charles Dowdall was a Senator in 1922–1936; she became involved in politics after his death in 1939, later becoming a Senator and Lord Mayor of Cork.
- Linda Tsen, elected in the 2010 Batu Sapi by-election after the seat had been vacant upon the death of the incumbent, Edmund Chong Ket Wah, who was Tsen's husband
- Mastura Mohd Yazid, elected in the 2016 Kuala Kangsar by-election after the seat had been vacant upon the death of the incumbent Wan Mohammad Khair-il Anuar, who was Mastura's husband
- Irene Mary Chang Oi Ling succeeded her husband Wong Ho Leng in the Bukit Assek state constituency in Sarawak
- Mary Grigg first woman MP of the National Party
- Elizabeth McCombs first woman MP, succeeded her husband James McCombs in 1933 following his death, and was in turn succeeded by their son Terry McCombs in 1935
- Iriaka Rātana first woman Māori MP
- Margaret Wintringham succeeded Thomas Wintringham in Louth, Lincolnshire, 1921 by-election
- Agnes Hardie succeeded George Hardie in Glasgow Springburn, 1937 by-election
- Beatrice Rathbone succeeded John Rathbone in Bodmin, 1941 by-election
- Lena Jeger succeeded Santo Jeger in Holborn and St Pancras South, 1953 by-election
- Irene Adams succeeded Allen Adams in Paisley North, 1990 by-election
- Gill Furniss succeeded Harry Harpham in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, 2016 by-election
MPs who stood down from office
- Natalie Elphicke, wife of Charlie Elphicke in Dover in Kent
- Kate Griffiths, wife of Andrew Griffiths in Burton in Staffordshire
The following is a list of the women in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who have succeeded their spouses in Congress.
- Maryon Pittman Allen (Senate)
- Elizabeth Andrews (House)
- Jean Spencer Ashbrook (House)
- Irene Baker (House)
- Lindy Boggs (House)
- Veronica Boland (House)
- Frances Bolton (House)
- Mary Bono (House)
- Vera Buchanan (House)
- Jocelyn Burdick (Senate)
- Sala Burton (House)
- Vera Bushfield (Senate)
- Beverly Byron (House)
- Katharine Byron (House)
- Lois Capps (House)
- Hattie Caraway (Senate)
- Marguerite Church (House)
- Marian Clarke (House)
- Cardiss Collins (House)
- Jo Ann Emerson (House)
- Willa McCord Blake Eslick (House)
- Elizabeth Farrington (House)
- Willa Fulmer (House)
- Elizabeth Hawley Gasque (House)
- Kathryn Granahan (House)
- Florence Reville Gibbs (House)
- Muriel Humphrey (Senate)
- Florence Prag Kahn (House)
- Elizabeth Kee (House)
- Julia Letlow (House)
- Catherine Small Long (House)
- Rose McConnell Long (Senate)
- Doris Matsui (House)
- Clara McMillan (House)
- Maurine Neuberger (Senate)
- Mae Nolan (House)
- Catherine Dorris Norrell (House)
- Pearl Peden Oldfield (House)
- Shirley Neil Pettis (House)
- Louise Goff Reece (House)
- Corinne Boyd Riley (House)
- Edith Nourse Rogers (House)
- Edna Simpson (House)
- Margaret Chase Smith (House and Senate)
- Leonor Sullivan (House)
- Lera Millard Thomas (House)
- Effiegene Locke Wingo (House)
In 2015, Deborah Dingell became the first wife to succeed her living husband in the House of Representatives after John David Dingell Jr. retired in 2014. Mr. Dingell succeeded his late-father, John Dingell Sr. in a special election for the same seat in 1955. As of 2021, the Dingell family has represented the southeastern Michigan area for 87 consecutive years.
In a March 2021 special election, Julia Letlow was elected to the House of Representatives from Louisiana's 5th congressional district. Letlow's husband, Luke Letlow, had been elected to the seat in November 2020, but died of complications from COVID-19 before he could have been sworn in as a Member of Congress.
- Melville Currell, Political Woman.
- Sarah Ramsland profile at the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan.
- "I'm No Lady; I'm a Member of Congress".
- McGing, Claire. "How the 'widow's mandate' was women's main route to Dáil". The Irish Times.
- Oireachtas, Houses of the (1 January 1970). "Jane Dowdall – Houses of the Oireachtas". www.oireachtas.ie.
- "Women Who Succeeded their Husbands in Congress" (PDF). Center for American Women and Politics. 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 July 2013. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
- Camia, Catalina. "In her husband's footsteps: Wives succeed their spouses in Congress". USA Today. Retrieved 24 March 2021.
- Dingell, John D. (4 December 2018). The dean : the best seat in the House. Bender, David, 1955–, Paffhausen, Frederick D. (First ed.). [New York, NY]. ISBN 978-0-06-257199-1. OCLC 1076485042.
- Levy, Adam; Cohen, Ethan (22 March 2021). "Julia Letlow makes history in Louisiana's 5th District special election while 2nd District goes to runoff". CNN. Retrieved 24 March 2021.