Widow's succession

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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 their widow, either through election or direct appointment to the seat.[1] 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.

Mary Ellen Smith was the first female cabinet minister (1921) and speaker of a legislature (1928) in Canada and the wider British Empire.

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, serving 9 years in the House after replacing her deceased husband, and then serving in the Senate for 24 more years.[1][4] 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[edit]





  • Janet Jagan, both first female prime minister and later president of Guyana


Includes politicians from the Irish Free State and Republic of Ireland.[5]

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.[6]



New Zealand[edit]


In the Philippines, a candidate that has died up until midday of election day can be substituted by someone who has the same surname as him or her, almost always the spouse.

United Kingdom[edit]

MPs who stood down from office[edit]

Historically, women would get into politics by taking the seat of her husband. Nancy Astor became the first ever British female Member of Parliament to take her seat after her husband Waldorf was appointed to the House of Lords. Astor was the MP for Plymouth Sutton in Devon.

At the 2019 general election, two Conservative MPs stood down amidst controversy and were succeeded by their wives.

United States[edit]

Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming was the first woman elected governor of a U.S. state.

The following is a list of the women in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who have succeeded their spouses in Congress.[8]

Nellie Tayloe Ross was the first female governor of a U.S. state, serving as Governor of Wyoming from 1925 to 1927. Her husband William B. Ross was governor from 1923 until his death in October 1924, at which point secretary of state Frank Lucas succeeded him. Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected to replace her late husband in a November 1924 special election.

Florence Shoemaker Thompson, of Daviess County, Kentucky, was the first female sheriff to carry out an execution. The hanging of Rainey Bethea in 1936 was the last public execution in American history.

Andrea Seastrand succeeded her husband Eric Seastrand as the member of the California State Assembly for the 29th district.

In January 2001, Jean Carnahan was appointed to the Senate to replace her late husband Mel Carnahan who was posthumously elected to the Senate in November 2000.

In 2007, Niki Tsongas was elected to a House seat that was held by her late husband Paul Tsongas decades earlier.

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.[9][10]

In 2021, Julia Letlow ran for and won a House seat in Louisiana that was vacant due to the death of her husband Luke Letlow the year prior. Unusually, Luke Letlow passed away before actually being sworn in to office, having won an election to succeed a retiring Congressman. The same year, Texas congressman Ron Wright died in office. His wife Susan Wright ran in the special election to succeed him but came in second place to Jake Ellzey.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Melville Currell, Political Woman.
  2. ^ Sarah Ramsland profile at the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan.
  3. ^ "I'm No Lady; I'm a Member of Congress".
  4. ^ Solowiej, Lisa; Brunell, Thomas L. (2003). "The Entrance of Women to the U.S. Congress: The Widow Effect". Political Research Quarterly. 56 (3): 283–292. doi:10.2307/3219789. ISSN 1065-9129. JSTOR 3219789.
  5. ^ McGing, Claire. "How the 'widow's mandate' was women's main route to Dáil". The Irish Times.
  6. ^ Oireachtas, Houses of the (1 January 1970). "Jane Dowdall – Houses of the Oireachtas". www.oireachtas.ie.
  7. ^ Mordeno, H. Marcos C. (2 May 2022). "[SPECIAL REPORT] From Totoy to Nonoy: Bukidnon's political dynasties thrive on cattle, cane". MindaNews. Retrieved 16 October 2022.
  8. ^ "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.
  9. ^ Camia, Catalina. "In her husband's footsteps: Wives succeed their spouses in Congress". USA Today. Retrieved 24 March 2021.
  10. ^ 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.