The Widow’s Might


Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Siblings James, Ellen, and Adelaide are reluctantly gathered in Denver, Colorado for their father, Mr. McPherson’s, funeral. Their spouses have stayed behind on the East Coast, where they now have homes and families of their own. The story begins after the funeral has ended. The siblings discuss the fate of their now widowed mother, Mrs. McPherson, while they wait for the lawyer, Mr. Frankland, to arrive and help settle their father’s will. They assume their mother is too old, weak, and devastated by her husband’s death to continue living on her own, so the three debate back and forth about who should take their mother in, and, importantly, how much it will cost them.

Each of the siblings make repeated offers to welcome her into their homes, although it’s clear to all three that these offers are empty. They speculate about how much they’ll inherit from their father, and how much his ranch and properties will be worth, comparing what they expect to earn from what they expect to spend on their mother’s upkeep. Eventually, Ellen and Adelaide say what none of them wants to admit: all three siblings have offered to take their mother not because they love her, but because they feel trapped by a sense of familial obligation. In reality, they view their widowed mother as a burden, just as they view their father’s funeral as an inconvenience. They also reflect that they all hated growing up on the ranch in Denver and that their family was never very affectionate or loving. Meanwhile, Mrs. McPherson is upstairs where she has asked to be left alone.

The siblings become impatient. All have train tickets to get out of town that evening and want to settle the will as quickly as possible. Finally, Mr. Frankland arrives, and Mrs. McPherson emerges to announce that the will is null and void because Mr. McPherson signed his property over to her—and she has no intentions of selling it. The siblings and Mr. Frankland are all shocked. She explains that for the past three years she has run the ranch as her husband grew sicker, even establishing a miniature hospital on the property. She has been very successful and has made enough money to pay her children the money they would have received from the will and still have enough remaining for herself to live on and, eventually, pay for her own funeral. The siblings question her sanity, but Mr. Frankland defends her.

Until this point, the siblings haven’t seen their mother’s face, which has been covered by a black veil. With a sense of drama and urgency, Mrs. McPherson opens the windows, filling the dark room with bright sunlight, and removes the veil as well as her black mourning cloak. Underneath, she wears a traveling suit. She explains that now that her husband is dead and her children are grown, she is done with familial duty and obligation. Instead, she intends to do what she has never done before: live her life in pursuit of her own passions and desires. The siblings, who now seem genuinely concerned for her, all make one final offer each to take her in, all of which she respectfully and firmly declines. She wants them to understand that she is a “Real Person” with her own interests and half a lifetime left to live out her new freedom and independence. She tells them she is going to travel the world and explore places as far as New Zealand and Madagascar. They all depart that night, the siblings traveling east while their mother heads west.