Julia Butler Newberry and Mary Todd Lincoln: Two "Merry" Widows

Article excerpt

Images of widows in song and story, like Franz Lehar's Merry Widow and Chaucer's Wife of Bath, would lead us to believe that widowhood frees women to develop their own individuality and enter upon a new and exciting way of life. Behind these optimistic images, however, lurks the dismal reality of the lives of widows in all classes of society, even those whom we might, by birth, wealth, and education, place among America's aristocracy.

The reality of a widow's life becomes clear when we examine the lives of two such "aristocratic" women who lived during the mid-nineteenth century and were married to men who had achieved political prominence, in one case, and financial success in the other. The social structure, supported by the law, required that women assume a subordinate and supporting role in marriage, suppressing their own individuality and directing their talents to the furthering of their husbands' careers. When they were widowed, these women realized the consequences of their secondary status, and were forced to secure their futures by bold actions going beyond the limits of behavior society considered proper to women. The anxiety generated by being forced to act outside their proper social role and risk society's hostility was reinforced by feelings of financial insecurity and a sense of outrage at the necessity of having to fight for what they thought rightfully theirs. That this was the case with two women of comparable situations suggests that more women of like condition faced the same necessity and reacted in the same way.

Two spouses whose lives as women, wives, and widows show a similar history are Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) and Julia Butler Newberry (1818-1885). Not only were they almost exact contemporaries, but their lives parallel each other in striking ways. Neither was born in Chicago or even Illinois, but Chicago became a part of their life stories and was ultimately abandoned by both as a place of residence.

Julia Newberry was born in Oxford, New York, famed at the time as the seat of much wealth, refinement, and learning. On both sides of her family she could trace her ancestry back to Puritan settlers and landed gentry. Mary Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky, originally built as a frontier town by her grandfathers Todd and Parker and in Mary's day a thriving commercial and cultural center. Like Julia's family, Mary's enjoyed wealth and social prestige. Her mother died when Mary was seven, and between her and her stepmother there was mutual dislike. Julia's mother died when Julia was fourteen, but she was fortunate to find in her wealthy aunt, Mary Dolbeare Butler Devereux, a surrogate mother. Her uncle Nicholas Devereux was a land developer on a large scale, and it may be that through him Julia met her future husband. Aunt Devereux's home in Utica, New York, some fifty miles north of Oxford, enlarged Julia's social and cultural opportunities and became a haven to which she returned time and again for help and consolation, even after her marriage and move to Chicago. In the same way, Mary turned often to her sister, the socially prominent Elizabeth Todd Edwards of Springfield, for support.

Mary's father Robert Todd was a businessman, banker, and politician, as well as land and slave owner. He was preoccupied with his business affairs and his ever-enlarging family, and Mary was not central to either. Julia's father James Clapp was a widely respected lawyer and a man of broad culture and short temper. When he died in 1854 at his own hand, his three sons inherited the bulk of their father's estate, and Julia received only the household furniture and one-fourth of the family residence and law office. This meant, of course, that Julia had no important financial resources of her own and was dependent on those of her husband.

Both women received an academic education unusual for the time. The result of her stepmother's preoccupation with her own children was that Mary was sent to school early and stayed for ten years. …